â€œHow a thing will / unfoldâ€:
Fractal Rhythms in A. R. Ammonsâ€™s Briefings
published in Complexities of Motion: A.R. Ammonsâ€™s Longer Poems, ed. Steven P. Schnedier (Fairleigh Dickinson press, 1998), pp. 68-82.
Briefings: Poems Small and Easy (Norton 1971), singled out by Harold Bloom as Ammonsâ€™s â€œfinest book,â€ is also, I think, his most enigmatic.Â To begin with, its eighty-eight poems do not really constitute a â€œnewâ€ book; they were written over a period of twenty years, as their arrangement in the Collected Poems 1951-71 testifies.Â In that volume (Norton 1972), the Briefings poems are included in four chronological groupings: 1951-55; 1955-60; 1961-65; 1966-71.Â And although the majority (sixty of the eighty-eight) Briefings poems come from the fourth of these periods, twenty-two (exactly one quarter) come from â€˜61-â€™65, and there are four poems from the early fifties, two from the later.Â More confusing: why does Ammons include these and not other of the earlier poems, given that the ones chosen are neither, as every critic has remarked, â€œeasy,â€ nor are they especially â€œsmall.â€Â â€œReturnâ€ (B, 19-21) for example, has 45 lines;Â Collected Poems 1951-1971 has any number of poems much shorter than this one that are omitted from Briefings. Why?
But there is a further mystery.Â The eighty-eight poems, not so small and not so easy, that constitute Briefings are arranged alphabetically by first lines.Â I have not seen a single reference to this decidedly odd phenomenon, but surely the poet knew what he was about when he began with â€œA bird fills up the,â€ followed by â€œA clover blossomâ€™s a province;â€ â€œA clown kite, my,â€Â â€œAfter yesterday,â€ and â€œA leaf fallen isâ€ and concluded with â€œYes but,â€ â€œYouâ€™re sick,â€ and â€œYou would think Iâ€™d be a specialist in contemporary.â€ Interestingly, the final poem, the famous â€œThe City Limitsâ€ stands outside this alphabetical scheme (It begins with â€œWhenâ€), just as, I shall argue later, it stands outside the particular paradigms that characterize Briefings.
Between pages 33 and 56 of this 105-page book, the â€œIâ€s have it:Â from the â€œI canâ€™t decide whetherâ€ of â€œCirclesâ€ to the â€œI wonder what I should do nowâ€ of â€œLooking Over the Acreage,â€ nineteen poems begin with â€œI,â€ as in â€œI hope,â€ â€œI hold,â€ â€œ I look,â€ â€œI make.â€Â This emphasis on the subject may seem peculiar, given Ammonsâ€™s fabled reticence and modesty. But we should note further that the â€œIâ€ is actually placed slightly off-center so far as the countdown of poems goes.Â Then, too, the titles offset these intimate opening lines: â€œI hold you responsible forâ€ is the first line of â€œHymn IV,â€Â â€œI hope Iâ€™m / not right,â€ the first line of â€œThe Mark.â€Â The abstract, impersonal titles frame those delicate personal observations, as if to say, watch out, you can express emotion but in the larger scheme of things, private feeling may not matter much.
â€œThe flight from form,â€ says Stephen B. Cushman in a consideration of verse form and metrics in Ammonsâ€™s poetry, â€œis constant and the refuge in form temporary.â€Â And again, â€œAmmonsâ€™s stanzas have little or no logical integrityâ€; they â€œappear to challenge the Romantic myth of organicism.â€ Etymologically, he suggests, a stanza is a stopping place,Â but for Ammons, there are no full stops, only sites for speeding and slowing down. At the same time, as Cushman notes, the â€œneed for form remains acuteâ€; hence the ubiquitousness of the â€œleft-justified stychic columnâ€ of verse, a form whose stability overcomes its many variations.
Cushman is on to something important here.Â But he does not look closely at the prosodic particulars of Ammonsâ€™s poems, nor at the larger structures into which those left-justified stychic columns are organized.Â In this essay I propose to look at those relationships in Briefings, reading this volume as one long poem rather than as a miscellany of occasional lyrics or of anthology pieces like â€œCirclesâ€ and â€œThe City Limits.â€Â Â Ammonsâ€™s curious particularism, I want to suggest, goes hand in hand with a quasi-Oulippean concern for mathematical structure–a structure by no means characteristic of the Emersonian tradition in which Ammons is regularly placed.
Consider the opening poem â€œCenter,â€ whose verse form sets the stage for what is to come, as the following scansion may help to show:
xÂ Â /Â Â Â /Â Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â >
A bird fills up the
/Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â /
xÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /
with wasteful song,
/Â Â / xÂ Â /Â xÂ Â /
/Â Â Â /Â Â |Â xÂ Â >
mill run, and
/Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â /
xÂ Â >
/Â Â Â Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /Â xÂ xÂ Â Â >
/Â Â x
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â >
lost in the green
/Â Â Â |Â Â /Â Â Â Â >
/Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /
/Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â x
xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â /Â Â Â /Â Â Â >
the noon sun casts
/Â Â |Â Â Â xÂ Â /Â Â x
xÂ Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â x >
on the streamâ€™s amber
/Â Â x
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â xÂ Â /Â Â Â /
and nothing at all gets,
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â >
/Â Â Â Â xÂ Â /
caught at all.
â€œThe given,â€Â Harold Bloom comments on this poem, â€œis mesh that cannot catch because the particulars have been capsized, and so are unavailable for capture.Â The center is improvident because it stands at the midmost point of mind, not of nature.â€ And Linda Orr adds, â€œThe final sentence has a spare beauty.Â Clearly at the end no more general correspondence will emerge beside that of bush to bush.â€ My own reading would be more literal:Â like â€œOde to a Nightingale,â€ Ammonsâ€™s poem tracks the movement of a bird as it gradually flies out of sight.Â From the initial vantage point of a â€œstreamside bush,â€ the birdâ€™s song, like the Solitary Reaperâ€™s, generously, indeed â€œwastefully,â€ dominates and â€œcentersâ€ the scene of waterfall, mill run, and superhighway below, and the green bushes seem to echo its music.Â But then â€œwind varies,â€ the bird vanishes, and only the â€œmesh refractionsâ€ of the â€œnoon sunâ€ are reflected â€œon the streamâ€™s amber / bottom.â€Â The reflection, of course, changes minute by minute, so that, to the observer looking at the stream and listening for the lost bird song, it appears that â€œnothing gets / caught at all.â€
If this is a familiar Romantic topos, Ammons succeeds in making it quite new.Â Â It is the sound structure rather than any novelty of image or even voicing that makes the poem so distinctive.Â For here is a twenty-line free verse lyric called â€œCenter,â€ in which the â€œcenterâ€ is decentered by being cited in line 9 and, more important, is deconstructed by the poemâ€™s refusal of sound repetition.Â As my scansion shows (and the same holds true even if some of my secondary stresses could be considered primary), there are, within the poemâ€™s twenty-line compass, only two lines with the same prosodic structure– â€œcenterâ€ (line 9) and â€œbottomâ€ (line 17).Â Everything else is amorphous and jagged:Â there are no repeated rhythmic groupings, no consistency of enjambment or of caesurae.Â The logical conclusion would be that the poem is â€œprosaicâ€–prose cut up into line lengths– but that would not be accurate either for the discourse is hardly that of prose.Â For one thing, antecedents are often unclear as in the case of line 10, â€œlost in the green,â€ where â€œlostâ€ may modify â€œcenterâ€ or â€œsong.â€Â In lines 10-12, the lineation creates an echo structure where the bird song creates the illusion of green bush answering green bush.Â And line 18, â€œand nothing at all gets,â€ seems transitive (i.e., â€œthe noon sun . . . nothing at all getsâ€) until, in its second appearance, â€œgetsâ€ is completed by â€œcaught.â€
Lineation, as is generally the case in Ammonsâ€™s poetry, works to defamiliarize the most ordinary processes.Â â€œA bird fills up the,â€ â€œmill run, andâ€ :Â here article and conjunction are left hanging.Â But Ammonsâ€™s is not the suspension system of a William Carlos Williams, despite the many references to Williams in his lyric, of which more below.Â Â A Williams poem like â€œAs the catâ€ moves swiftly and surely, tracking the catâ€™s deliberate movements as it finally steps â€œinto the pit / of the empty / flowerpot.â€ Ammonsâ€™s bird poem, in contrast, doesnâ€™t â€œgoâ€ anywhere; on the contrary, it shifts back and forth somewhat uneasily between the concrete (â€œstreamside bushâ€) and the abstract (â€œsongâ€™s improvident / centerâ€), as if the phenomenology of vision were not to be trusted.Â The stumbling utterance â€œand nothing at all gets, / nothing gets / caught at allâ€ that concludes the poem testifies to an inability to â€œmake it cohereâ€ that is a kind of Ammons trademark.Â Â Â A poet who longs for the center, who wants to get to the â€œbottomâ€ of things, to find a cohesion between bird and bush, sun and stream, this â€œspent seerâ€ is always â€œcaughtâ€ short.
In one of his rare statements on verse form, the 1963 â€œNote on Prosody,â€ Ammons remarks that his aim is to shift emphasis â€œfrom the ends of the lines . . . toward the left-hand margin.â€Â Â In the case of a couplet like
and the mountain
for example,Â â€œ mountain is played down,â€ because it is followed by the heavy stress that falls on â€œpleasedâ€: â€œpleased, being one sound, has no beginning or end.â€Â Accordingly â€œa slightly stronger than usual emphasis is given to and.â€Â By shifting from right to left, the poet contends, â€œThe center of gravity is an imaginary point existing between the two points of beginning and end, so that a downward pull is created that gives a certain downward rush to the movement, something like a waterfall glancing in turn off opposite sides of the canyon, something like the right and left turns of a river.â€ And this â€œdownward swing,â€ Ammons concludes, suggests â€œthat a nonlinear movement is possible,â€ the vertical movement from top to bottom replacing the â€œnormalâ€ left-to- right pull of the individual line.
The emphasis on line beginnings rather than endings accords perfectly with the quirky alphabetizing of first lines in Briefings.Â But the â€œdownward rushâ€ of the verbal â€œwaterfallâ€ is countered, more than Ammons would like us to think, by the broken textures I have described in â€œCenter.â€Â â€œA poem,â€ Ammons declares, â€œis a linguistic correction of disorderâ€; â€œmultiplicity is accumulated into symmetry.â€ And Harold Bloom seems to accept this notion when he writes, with reference to the line â€œthe overall enduresâ€ in Saliences,Â â€œOverall remains beyond Ammons, but is replaced by â€œâ€˜a round / quiet turning / beyond loss or gain, / beyond concern for the separate reachâ€™,â€ the â€œassertion of the mindâ€™s power over the particulars of being, the universe of death.â€
But this is not quite what happens, at least not in â€œCenter.â€Â The â€œmindâ€™s power over particularsâ€ is asserted by what we might call the alpha game: as the first poem in Briefings, â€œCenterâ€ not only begins with â€œAâ€ but even with â€œAâ€ plus â€œbâ€ for â€œbird,â€ and it ends with two more â€œaâ€ words: â€œat all.â€Â Alliteration–â€birdâ€/ â€œbushâ€; â€œwithâ€/ â€œwastefulâ€ / â€œwaterfallâ€–is at first reassuring, but by the time we reach that last â€œall,â€ with its rhyme on â€œwaterfallâ€ sixteen lines earlier, the center has simply not held.Â Who would have thought, for example, that seemingly identical lines–say, three-syllable lines like â€œstreamside bushâ€ (2) and â€œmill run, andâ€ (5) could be so distinct?Â Â Substitute a conjunction for a monosyllabic noun and you necessarily create a pause with a slight caesura.Â â€œWind variesâ€ (line 13), everything varies, and â€œnothing gets / caught at all.â€Â So much for the poem as â€œlinguistic correction of disorder.â€
Indeed, Ammonsâ€™s overt poetics are curiously at odds with his actual poems.Â He is given to generalizations about the Coleridgean â€œbalance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities,â€ the â€œaccumulationâ€ of â€œmultiplicity . . . â€œinto symmetry,â€Â and his theory of language is resolutely classical:Â there is a â€œrealityâ€ out thereÂ and â€œour language [is a] reflection of it.â€ But reflection theory is belied by what we might call Ammonsâ€™s metrics of difference.Â The stychic column is a pseudo-column, each line differing from its predecessor, as in
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â /Â Â >
the noon sun casts
/Â Â |Â xÂ Â /Â Â Â x
where one four-syllable line is followed by another that couldnâ€™t sound more different.Â Â The same process occurs in the fifth â€œAâ€ poem, which bears the colorless title â€œEventâ€:
xÂ Â /Â Â Â /Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â >
A leaf fallen is
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â xÂ Â /Â xÂ /
throughout the universe
xÂ Â Â Â Â xÂ Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â xÂ Â Â >
from the instant of
xÂ Â Â /Â |Â Â /Â Â >
its fall, for
/Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â /
all time gone
xÂ Â Â xÂ Â Â /
and to come:
/Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â xÂ /Â Â >
worlds jiggle in
/Â Â Â |Â Â Â /Â >
xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â /
in leaf lakes,
/Â Â xÂ /Â Â >
/Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â / x
drops of ditchwater:
/Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â >
size and place
/Â xÂ Â /
/Â Â Â Â xÂ Â xÂ /
time is allowed
x /Â /Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â /
in eventâ€™s instant:
xÂ /Â Â xÂ Â Â >
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â |Â / xÂ Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â >
at home, universe and
/Â Â Â /Â Â Â >
xÂ Â /Â Â || xÂ /
to fall:Â occur.
Again,Â the poem is notable for its variability of linear structure,Â made manifest especially in its â€œcontainmentâ€ by a seemingly larger order, in this case the stanzaic division into 8-5-8 line units.Â The â€œeventâ€ in these pseudo-stanzas often takes place at the level of phoneme and morpheme: as I was typing the lines, I wrote line 9 as â€œwordsâ€ rather than â€œworlds jiggle,â€ line 11 as â€œin leaf flakes,â€ and line  as â€œdrops of dishwater,â€ inadvertently naturalizing the words so as to fit into their normal syntactic slots.Â Paragram is the operative poetic principle:Â â€œfallâ€ as in â€œleaf fallen,â€ repeated three times in the short first stanza and once in the third, contains â€œall,â€ the â€œinâ€ in â€œjiggle inâ€ reappears two lines later in â€œin leaf lakes,â€ then in the rhyming â€œsquiggle in,â€Â and finally twice â€œin eventâ€™s instant.â€
The poemâ€™s vocabulary is rigorously restricted, indeed almost aphasic: â€œis,â€ â€œandâ€ â€œits,â€ â€œfor,â€ â€œto,â€ â€œis,â€ â€œor.â€Â At first the witness of the â€œeventâ€ seems frozen, tongue-tied: â€œA leaf fallen isÂ / fallen.â€Â A not very interesting tautology.Â â€œFallen / throughout the universeâ€ doesnâ€™t help; it sounds at first merely pretentious, a kind of reductive update of Gerard Manley Hopkinsâ€™s â€œSpring and Fallâ€ (â€œMargaret, are you grieving / Over Golden Grove unleavingâ€).Â But the last two lines of the stanza, â€œall time gone / and to come,â€Â with their Biblical echo, introduce the cycle we thought could not be there:Â what is â€œgoneâ€ will come back, as we surmise from the sound itself: the substitution of one nasal for another, one voiceless stop (/k/) for another (/g/) produces the desired turn.
But turn to what?Â The nursery rhyme effect of the â€œjiggle inâ€ / â€˜squiggle inâ€ is offset by line 10, with its two harsh stressed syllables, broken by a caesura: â€œwebs, / drub.â€Â Â What Hopkins referred to as â€œworlds of wanwood leafmealâ€ here becomes a kind of compost pile made up of wet leaves (â€œleaf lakesâ€), ditchwater, and cobwebs or spiderwebs; a dirt mound that seems to contain a living being, drubbing about inside it.Â But Ammons does not dwell on the sensuous; the specificity of â€œwebs, drubâ€ quickly gives way to the bleakest of abstractions: â€œsize and place / begin, endâ€–again, like â€œA leaf fallen is / fallenâ€ a peculiar truism.Â â€œTime,â€ we read, â€œis allowed / in eventâ€™s instant,â€Â Thereâ€™s a special providence, it seems, in the fall of a leaf,â€ the poet recognizing that â€œeventâ€™s instantâ€ is actually a form of motion, that there is no stasis in nature.Â When the â€œinstantâ€ occurs, the â€œeventâ€ is over; indeed, there is no â€œevent,â€ just a lot of ongoing small changes.Â In the end we learn that â€œuniverse and / leaf try / to fall.â€Â Is the leafâ€™s fall then volitional, and if so, how?Â The poet catches himself up and realizes all that he can say is â€œto fall:Â occurâ€:Â Â the two iambs on either side of the mid-line caesura match, suggesting that these things do occur, that nothing remains the same, that the â€œeventâ€™s instantâ€ destroys the event, the defining moment.Â And the colon throws the meaning forward:Â â€œfor / all time gone / and to comeâ€Â is now understood to be too stagy, too grandiose for a meaningful recognition of the way things are, the ways they â€œoccur.â€
The concern of â€œeventâ€™s instant,â€ exhibited here and elsewhere in Ammonsâ€™s poetry has, I think, a particular analogue in contemporary chaos theory.Â â€œWhy,â€ asks Benoit Mandelbrot in the opening of his Fractal Geometry of Nature, â€œis geometry often described as â€˜coldâ€™ and â€˜dry?â€™Â One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree.Â Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line. . . . Nature exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity. . . . .The existence of these patterns challenges us to study those forms that Euclid leaves aside as being â€˜formless,â€™ to investigate the morphology of the â€˜amorphous.â€™â€13 Thus the length of a curve–say, the length of the coastline of Britain, to take Mandelbrotâ€™s famous example, will vary according to what principle of measurement we apply to it.Â Far from being the total of individual segments of coast line, length varies according to the scale of units to be included: the greater the detail, which is to say, the smaller the measurable sub-bays and sub-peninsulas, the greater the difficulty in assigning anything like a â€œtrue lengthâ€ to the coast lineâ€™s curve.
Ammonsâ€™s poetry does not contain overt references to fractals; his â€œtelescopic and microscopic vision,â€ as Steven P. Schneider calls it in his fine study of the poet as scientist, focuses more immediately on astronomy and biology, especially on the equilibrium of the ecosystem. But whether directly or indirectly, his poetry testifies to the fractal geometerâ€™s concern for the â€œmorphology of the amorphousâ€–the tiny and oddly shaped bay that transforms a coastline, the minute triangular crystals that make up a snowflake–a flake that appears from a distance to be merely a round blob.Â And the special fascination of Briefings is the way external â€œformâ€–the â€œalphabetical Ithacaâ€ of the arrangement of the sequence, the abstraction and universality of the volumeâ€™s representative titlesÂ (â€œEvent,â€Â â€œMechanics,â€ â€œIncrement,â€ â€œTwo Possibilities,â€Â â€œAttention,â€ â€œReturn,â€ â€œCivics,â€ â€œCircles,â€ â€œLocusâ€),Â the visual shapeliness of the stanzas, and the reassuring repetition of key words like â€œcenter,â€ â€œcircle,â€ â€œlight,â€ â€œradiance,â€ â€œwind,â€ â€œleaf,â€ and â€œgreenâ€– is consistently undercut by the observation of â€œfractalsâ€ that throw the â€œnormalâ€ view of what is seen and perceived off balance.Â Â Ammonsâ€™s is thus a Romantic nature vision with a difference.Â He is not so much the â€œspent seer,â€ as the post-World War II poet-scientist who takes nothing for granted.
We can see this especially clearly when we compare one of Ammonsâ€™s homage-poems to William Carlos Williams (â€œWCWâ€) to a precursor like Williamsâ€™s own â€œSpring Stormâ€:
xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /Â xÂ /Â xÂ Â >
The sky has given over
/Â Â Â /Â xÂ Â Â /
/Â Â Â xÂ Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /
Out of the dark change
/Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â /
all day long
/Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /
rain falls and falls
xÂ Â /Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â /
as if it would never end.
/Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â >
Still the snow keeps
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â /Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /
its hold on the ground.
/Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â x
But water, water
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /Â xÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â x
from a thousand runnels!
xÂ Â /Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â x
It collects swiftly,
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â /
dappled with black
/Â Â Â xÂ Â /Â Â xÂ Â Â xÂ Â /
cuts a way for itself
xÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â xÂ Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â x
through green ice in the gutters.
/Â xÂ Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â xÂ Â /
Drop after drop it falls
xÂ Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /
from the withered grass-stems
xÂ Â Â xÂ Â /Â xÂ /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â x
of the overhanging embankment.
Williamsâ€™s â€œfree verseâ€ poem (1920) is actually written in three-stress lines.Â Syllables range from three to nine, but the basic three-stress rhythm, the forward thrust from line to line propels us forward to the conclusion of that extra-long cacophonous line, â€œof the overhanging embankment.â€Â Each line in Williamsâ€™s suspension system is at once independent and anticipatory. The lines are only rarely fully enjambed (as in lines 1-2), but the structure of fulfillment operates throughout.Â Â Question: what is it that happens â€œall day longâ€?Â Answer: â€œrain falls and falls.â€Â How does it fall?Â Answer: â€œas if it would never end.â€Â â€œBut water, waterâ€ . . . from where?Â Answer:Â â€œfrom a thousand runnels!â€Â Â This is a â€œfree verseâ€ still highly structured and characterized by its continuity.
Now compare Ammonsâ€™s â€œWCWâ€:
xÂ /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â >
I turned in
xÂ Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â /
by the bayshore
xÂ Â Â Â /
xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â >
/Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â /Â Â Â >
hitting me hard
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /
side the head,
xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â x
the bay scrappy
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â x
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â >
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â >
way to read
/Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â ||Â Â /Â Â Â >
xÂ Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /
a woman came
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â >
xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â /Â Â Â /
her red dog looÂ se
xÂ Â Â Â /
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â >
xÂ Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â /
the dead horseshoe
The variability of stress is much greater here, even similar units like â€œand turned,â€ â€œ(and piss,â€ being differentiated by punctuationÂ and syntax: the opening parenthesis and enjambment of â€œ(and piss / onâ€ changing the tempo ever so slightly.Â More important: whereas Williams uses a good bit of repetition (â€œrain falls and falls,â€ â€œBut water, water,â€Â â€œDrop after drop it fallsâ€), Ammons repeats almost nothing, deforms syntax (â€œhitting me hard / side the headâ€),Â and prefers consonance to assonance, as in those guttural final â€œdâ€™sâ€ in â€œturnedâ€ (the only word used twice), â€œparked,â€Â â€œcrosswind,â€ â€œhard,â€ â€œside the head,â€ â€œread,â€ â€œred,â€ and â€œdead.â€Â Â Ten of the poemâ€™s forty-six words (one quarter) end with â€œd,â€ culminating in the â€œdeadâ€ horseshoe / crabsâ€ of the last two lines.Â So death has been anticipated from the first â€œturned.â€Â And the discordant final line, â€œcrabsâ€ stands out in bold relief against the internal chiming of â€œWilliams ! tillâ€ and â€œsniff / (and piss.â€
Again, then, a poem without center that tries to capture the particular mood of loneliness, ugliness, the instinctive anticipation of death.Â Â Briefings contains many such, with enigmatic titles like â€œMaking,â€ â€œCountering,â€ and â€œSquare,â€ the latter eleven-line lyric as â€œunsquareâ€ as possible (see B, 80).Â But what about the poem that concludes Briefings,
â€œThe City Limitsâ€ (B, 105)?Â As I remarked earlier, this is the only of the eighty-eight poems outside the alphabet system, its first line, beginning with a â€œWâ€ (â€œWhen you consider the radianceâ€), whereas the three preceding poems are â€œYâ€ lyrics.Â And not only is â€œThe City Limitsâ€ thus a kind of epilogue rather than a part of the sequence; it is much more orderly than Ammonsâ€™s other poems â€œsmall and easy,â€ consisting of one long sentence broken into six open tercets, with a great deal of repetition (especially of â€œwhen you considerâ€), and a slow stately rhythm (six or seven stresses per line), culminating in the final iambic heptameter:
xÂ Â /Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â xÂ Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â xÂ Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â xÂ Â Â Â /
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
Most of Ammonsâ€™s critics concur that this â€œmajesticâ€ poem, as Bloom calls it (CHE 31), is one of Ammonsâ€™s finest.Â Richard Howard typically calls it â€œthe greatest poem in this latest bookâ€ [Briefings], and comments that it â€œends with the acknowledgement that each thing is merely what it is, and all that can be transcended is our desire for each thing to be more than what it is, so that for such a consideration of the losses of being, the very being of loss, â€˜fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praiseâ€™.â€ And David Kalstone praises the poemâ€™s â€œwonderfully sustained rhetorical structure almost like that of the most controlled and contemplative of Shakespeareâ€™s sonnets.â€
This is an odd sort of compliment, for Ammonsâ€™sÂ poetics, after all, are wholly at odds with the â€œsustained rhetorical structureâ€ of a Shakespeare sonnet.Â Â â€œIf fear ever turns â€˜calmlyâ€™ to anything,â€ remarks Robert Pinsky in one of the few dissenting views of â€œThe City Limits,â€ â€œbeing â€˜of a tune with May bushesâ€™ is a lamely rhetorical motive for such turning, especially given the sinister cancerous implications of â€˜the dark work of the deepest cellsâ€™.â€ And one might add that the very rhythm and neat tercet structure, along with the five-fold repetition of â€œWhen you consider,â€ gives â€œThe City Limitsâ€ a willed air, as if to say, yes, I am an Emersonian poet and should therefore talk of the mysterious â€œradiance, that . . . does not withhold itself,â€ although it cannot penetrate the â€œoverhung or hidden.â€Â Â I should present the epiphany that makes â€œthe heart move roomier,â€ and â€œfearâ€ somehowÂ (I agree with Pinsky that itâ€™s not at all clear how) â€œcalmly turn to praise.â€
What role, then, does â€œThe City Limitsâ€ play in Briefings?Â My own hunch is that Ammons feared his poems â€œsmall and easyâ€ might be perceived as too slight, too trivial.Â After all, poems like â€œCenterâ€ and â€œEventâ€ donâ€™t have â€œgreat themes,â€ they donâ€™t challenge the reader to â€œConsiderâ€Â the truths of the natural and transcendent world.Â I would guess that the poet had already arranged all the other lyrics in order, culminating in the two â€œYouâ€ poems,Â â€œThe Run-Throughâ€ and â€œThe Put Down Come on.â€Â The latter poem has the long lines and stanzaic structure of â€œCity Limitsâ€ but takes a gingerly approach to transcendence, recognizing that â€œOnly a little of that kind of thinking flashes throughâ€ (B, 104).Â At this point, evidently, Ammons lost his nerve and wanted a wrap-up poem, replete with pun (as in the title), symbol, and metaphor.Â And so enthusiastic was the response of the poetâ€™s leading critics and supporters, that as time went on, Roethke-esque poems like â€œHibernaculumâ€ sometimes crowd out their more modest but more satisfying neighbors.Â Â Â Consider the twenty-line â€œLocus,â€Â which begins:
the middle of April
(and a day or so more)Â Â Â (B, 32)
The seasonal cycle is measured by arithmetic progression:Â 1, 2, 4, 6 (the word count) combines multiples of 2 with Fibbonaci numbers ( 2 + 4 = 6).Â These multipliers matter because the poet is terrified by the time gap, as represented by the â€œsmall oak / down in / the / hollow,â€ which â€œis / lit up (winter-burned, ice-gold / leaves on) / at sundown, / ruin transfigured to / stillest shining.â€
But those moments of â€œstillest shiningâ€ (the â€œradianceâ€ of â€œCity Limitsâ€) have to be given up.Â â€œLocusâ€ concludes:
I let it as center
â€œPeripheral speedâ€ must be accepted.Â Â And when one stops â€œconsider[ing] the radianceâ€ of what is pointed to, words become themselves radiant.
â€œLetâ€–â€centerâ€–â€canâ€™tâ€ form a triad; â€œandâ€–â€canâ€™tâ€ a column of near-rhymes.Â So small are the words that â€œperipheral,â€ with its four syllables stands out.Â But what is most striking in this little stanza is that isolated word â€œgoâ€ after â€œcenter,â€Â suggesting that the â€œform of a motionâ€ never comes to rest.Â Â Go:Â it is the â€œlocusâ€ (again, a rhyme) of what Ammons called his â€œnonlinear movement,â€ the recognition that, as the poet puts it in â€œTwo Possibilitiesâ€:
Coming out of the earth and going
into the earth compose
an interval or arc where
what to doâ€™s
difficult to fixÂ Â Â Â (B, 11)
Harold Bloom,â€ When You Consider the Radiance,â€ The Ringers in the Tower (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 286.Â Â This essay is reprinted as the Introduction to A. R. Ammons: Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House,Â 1986), pp. 1-31.
 Stephen B. Cushman, â€œStanzas, Organic Myth, and the Metaformalism of A. R. Ammons,â€ American Literature 59, no. 4 (December 1987): 514-15.
 Cushman, â€œStanzas, Organic Myth, and the Metaformalism of A. R. Ammons,â€ 521.
 Cushman, â€œStanzas, Organic Myth, and the Metaformalism of A. R. Ammons, 513.
 In what follows, I use the following scansion marks, adapted from George Trager and Henry Le Smith Jr. inÂ An Outline of English Structure (Washington, D.C.: American Council of Learned Societies, 1957):/Â Â syllable with primary stress
/Â Â syllable with secondary stress, as in a compound noun like â€œblackbirdâ€
xÂ Â unstressed syllable
|Â Â pause
||Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â caesura or heavy pause
>Â Â enjambed line
 Bloom, â€œWhen You Consider the Radiance,â€ p. 29.
 Linda Orr, â€œThe Cosmic Backyard of A. R. Ammons,â€ Diacritics 3 (Winter 1973); rpt. CHE, 135.
 A. R. Ammons, â€œA Note on Prosody,â€ Poetry, 203, no. 3 (June 1963): 202-3; rpt. in Ammons, Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues, ed. Zofia BurrÂ (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp. 6-7.Â Subsequently cited in the text as SIM.
 Ammons, â€œA Note of Prosody,â€ p. 7.
 Ammons, â€œA Note on Incongruence,â€ Epoch 15 (Winter 1966): 192; rpt. in SIM, 8-9.
 Bloom, â€œWhen You Consider the Radiance,â€ p. 20.
 See Ammons, Set in Motion, pp. 13, 8-9.
 Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (New York: W. H. Freeman & Co, 1983), p. 1.
 Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, pp. 25-26.
 Steven P. Schneider, A. R. Ammons and the Poetics of Widening Scope (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994); see esp. Chapter 4.
 William Carlos Williams, â€œSpring Storm,â€ The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. Volume I, 1909-1939, ed. A. Walton Litz & Christopher MacGowanÂ (New York: New Directions, 1986), pp 154-55.
 Richard Howard, â€œâ€˜The Spent Seer Consigns Order to the Vehicle of Change,â€™â€Â Alone with America (New York: Atheneum, 1980), rpt.in Bloom, A. R. Ammons, pp. 33-56; see p. 53.
 David Kalstone, â€œAmmonsâ€™ Radiant Toys,â€ Diacritics 3 (Winter 1973); rpt. in Bloom, A. R. Ammons, pp. 99-116; see p. 116.
 Robert Pinsky, â€œAmmons,â€ The Situation of Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); rpt. in Bloom, A. R. Ammons, pp. 185-194, see p. 191.