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In Retrospect: Stephen Burt on A.R. Ammons’s “A Coast of Trees”

By Stephen Burt

The following essay by NBCC board member Stephen Burt on A.R. Ammons, whose A Coast of Trees won the 1981 NBCC award in poetry, is part of the NBCC's “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years. This appreciation of Ammons first appeared on Poetry magazine's website in June 2008.

The German poet, playwright, and critic Friedrich Schiller thought there were two kinds of poets: “sentimental” and “naive” (and neither term, for Schiller, was an insult). Sentimental poets, he said, are self-conscious and retrospective; hey “look for lost nature” in the people and things they write about. Their characteristic works, Schiller believed, sound carefully wrought, conclusive, even if written at high speed. Naive poets, on the other hand, seem to “be nature”—poetry seems to come out of them as wind from the sky, or leaves from the trees, as if it were their native speech. Naive poets often sound as if they never revise, even when we know they’ve worked hard on many drafts; their poetry seems to flow and does not want to end.

A. R. Ammons (1926–2001) was in Schiller’s sense the most “naive” of America’s very good poets. His poems, written over nearly 50 years, include almost every kind of speech-act a person can say, from shrugs to prophecies, and they sound spontaneous even when it’s clear they reflect decades of thought. Ammons wrote book-length poems (his first and strangest, the 1965 volume Tape for the Turn of the Year, on a roll of adding-machine tape) and poems just a few lines long (enough of them to make a book, the aptly titled The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons. His 1981 National Book Critics Circle award winner A Coast of Trees, a collection finished soon after two big book-length works, returned to the scale—one to three pages per poem—that we usually expect from modern lyric. The book shows this most “naive” of poets taking on topics and problems we associate with “sentimental” writers; it is a book of elegies and backward glances, endings and deaths, memory and old age. A Coast of Trees also works to reconcile what Ammons learned from another “naive” American poet, William Carlos Williams—whose work provides the only precedent for Ammons’ propulsively irregular rhythms—with what he learned from the decidedly “sentimental” Robert Frost, whose New England hills, woods, and graveyards haunt the icy streams and gorges of Ammons’ Ithaca, New York. Trained as a chemist, Ammons liked to consider nonhuman nature on every scale, from atoms to pebbles to mountains to galaxies; A Coast of Trees shows him thinking as well about people, about individual human beings’ legacies, about how we mourn, how we die, and how we go on.

Perhaps half the poems in the volume lament a death, take place in graveyards, or anticipate the poet’s own demise. “Where&rrdquo; picks up the centuries-old theme called, in Latin, ubi sunt (where are), asking, “Where are the shifts / of the tide kept, so many: / (where are they put away)”? Nowhere, of course, and after we, too, pass away, we will disappear as completely as each wave on the sea. “In Memoriam Mae Noblitt,” a poem read at Ammons’ own memorial service, is the first of the elegies and the first poem of old age in the book. It takes up a device Williams likely invented, repeating the same sentence four times at irregular intervals within one poem. Where Williams played around with its line breaks, though, Ammons repeats the sentence as a unit: “This is just a place.” Noblitt’s death should remind us, the poet implies, that the Earth is one place among many in the cosmos; that the material world is only one place, and not the best, for our souls; that the cemetery is only one of the places we sometimes go, mourning just one of the moods we can harbor, even though (while we mourn) it feels like the only one.

The most famous poem in A Coast of Trees, “Easter Morning,” is also its longest elegy: Ammons’ tribute to a brother who died young. “I have a life that did not become,” he writes. “I hold it in me like a pregnancy or / as on my lap a child / not to grow or grow old but dwell on.” The brother who died becomes the brother and sister all of us contain; the child we once were, still alive in our memories, whose full potential we will never realize. Children look out from themselves and see their futures: Whitman wrote, “There was a child went forth every day, / And the first object he looked upon, that object he became.” Adults must also live in their own pasts:

the child in me that could not become
was not ready for others to go,
to go on into change, blessings and
horrors, but stands there by the road
where the mishap occurred, crying out for
help, come and fix this or we
can’t get by, but the great ones who
were to return, they could not or did
not hear and went on in a flurry and
now, I say in the graveyard, here
lies the flurry . . .

Here (most likely in a family graveyard) stands the “sentimental” Ammons at his odd, colloquial, and only apparently spontaneous best: no matter how far we extend ourselves into each moment, into each scene, into each new day, if we are adults, some part of us looks backward instead. And yet the adult Ammons lives in the present too: he asks himself in “Easter Morning” to do justice both to nostalgic, “sentimental,” backward-looking regret and to the ongoing unbroken perception that his “naive” style usually involves. Even on the site of an accident, even in a graveyard, he goes forth, at least a bit like Whitman, and a bit like Christ resurrected (thus the title). Ammons says as much in lines that seem at first grotesque, on second reading credible:

I stand on the stump
of a child, whether myself
or my little brother who died, and
yell as far as I can, I cannot leave this place, for
for me it is the dearest and the worst,
it is life nearest to life which is
life lost: it is my place where
I must stand and fail

Every place in nature is a gravesite, each place on Earth includes some sort of loss—if not human death, then predation, decay, fire, flood. Conversely, even the worst place, or the hardest place to leave, contains renewal and change. “Easter Morning” itself contains what Ammons so often avoids—religious symbols, confessional modes, family history—but ends where Ammons likes to end, with news from the inhuman world: “Something I had / never seen before, two great birds, / maybe eagles,” pass over him. From here on, the poem includes no other people and only one personal pronoun. “Having / patterns and routes, breaking / from them to explore other patterns or / better ways to routes, and then the / return,” the eagles show him how to look both ways, how to go on.

Exceptional for its retrospects and elegies, A Coast of Trees also shows the sort of thing Ammons did well throughout his work: for instance, his striking diction. If you look at any poem of a page or more (“Swells,” say), you can see how Ammons used three levels of diction almost never found together outside his poems:

  • A “normal” range of language for poetry, including the standard English of educated conversation and the slightly rarer words we expect to see in literature (“vast,” “summon,” “universal”).
  • A demotic register, including the folk-speech of eastern North Carolina, where he grew up (“dibbles”) and broader American chatter unexpected in serious poems (“blip”).

The Greek- and Latin-derived phraseology of the natural sciences (“millimeter,” “information of actions / summarized”), especially geology, physics, and cybernetics. Changes of diction are also changes of mood, as in the opening lines of “Traveling Shows.” I have put asterisks (*) at each of the shifts in diction:

I found vision and it
was terrific, the sight
enabling and abiding, * but
I couldn’t get these
old bones there * and light’s
a byproduct of
rapid decomposition:

Such disorienting shifts from one register to another, like his shifts from atoms to people to nebulae, from seconds to years to epochs, remind us that the middle range of social speech, human goals, and human life spans is just one among many ways to measure the world. Many other poets mix high and low, Latinate and Anglo-Saxon, diction, but few have done so as insistently, and none made recourse of the vocabulary of natural sciences as frequently. The inhuman perspectives of ecological processes, which can make other poets sound bitter or bored, can make Ammons exciting to read, because he explains and emulates the processes he understands, and because his vocabulary—so intimate with the sciences, so unbuttoned and un-”literary” in some respects—works as science education, too. For Ammons, as for Williams, we, too, are part—though just one part—of nature. “The end of / a corrugated pipe / undercrossing the road” joins the rest of a site’s hydrology; rebuilding “our own ruins,” which always fall again, we are no better, but no worse, than ferns’ annual shoots or burrowing moles. “Dry Spell Spiel,” which begins with a squirrel on Ammons’ “garage roof,” becomes another piece of science education: Ammons himself (drinking in and then pissing out water) and Ammons’ household faucet illustrate the evapotranspiration cycle. To say that people are examples of biology, and biology a special case of the general, homeostatic order that is nature’s law, is not for Ammons (as it is for Frost) to deprecate people, but to extend a bemused reverence to all nature’s examples. Of “butterflies” and of “clear-eyed / babies gumming French fries,” Ammons says in “Sunday at McDonald’s,” “nature / is holding them, somehow.” Both exemplify metabolism; both seem fleeting, viewed in cosmic time. You can find such attitudes, such pleasures, in almost all of Ammons’ books. You can go to A Coast of Trees, in particular, for this frequently solitary poet’s dealings with other people, with their mortality, with the looks backward occasioned by their lives and by his own. When he is not viewing people in cosmic time, not imagining himself alone amid nonhuman nature, Ammons uses all the facets of his style—its enjambed, ongoing focus on action, its tendency to favor present tense—to write poems about death or human decline. “Sweetened Change” might be the most consoling good poem ever written about geriatric frailty, a page-long look at how a “white-headed man” undertakes the “ten-minute / procedure” of extracting his wheelchair-bound, helpless wife from their car. Another graveyard poem, “Night Finding” (emulating the Robert Frost of “In a Disused Graveyard” and “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”), redescribes its cemetery as a place of continuing nonhuman life, “honeysucklebush brush,” “weed clumps,” “pheasant in the earliest pearl / of dusk.”

To imagine death, we must imagine closure, considering (as “naive” poets can have trouble doing) how poems and lives handle their ends. Ammons’ long poems (especially Tape for the Turn of the Year) try to seem endless, which lyric poetry cannot do; the best it can do is to emulate perfect circles, which have limits but no termini—Ammons’ poem “Fourth Dimension” thus tells us that “poetry can / come complete, take on / shape, end into / winding up itself.” This book of cemeteries and “Persistences,” of things and people contemplating their ends, offers as its penultimate poem “An Improvisation for Jerald Bullis” (emphasis added). In that poem Ammons watches a forest (pine needles, “rose or rat,” a “big garden spider”) and sees not endings, not even a seasonal cycle, but homeostatic semipermanence: even a bad year is simply part of one era in the life of the Earth. Each day, each year, from a nonhuman perspective, includes a multitude of deaths, and each unit of time implies its own renewals: there are, in each year, “so many falls all summer and / even earlier in earliest spring and / later falls than fall.” On each scale—a season, a moment, a life span—Ammons has found symbols for persistence: ways to imagine conclusions, and then to go on.