I came across the work of A.R. Ammons in my early twenties or so—this would have been the early nineties, and I was transfixed on his voice, especially in terms of his laser precision in describing flora, fauna, elemental forces, and viscera in nature. I was reading a lot of Stephen Jay Gould at the time, and these two voices, combined, wormed their way into mine. I discovered I was able to use the language of the scientist, humanist, and naturalist in my own work, and the vocabulary this opened up to my sense of rhythm and voice could not be underestimated.
One particular poem by Ammons which shook me then, and continues to shake and shape me now, was “Corson’s Inlet”, which he published in his Selected Poems in 1988. From the first line, “I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning”, I expected an epiphany of sorts in the poem and wondered if the speaker had occasional or frequent revelations in these walks.
Of course these dunes were literal and figurative—but the shifting of sands is what I immediately imagined, and how he could never walk on the same beach more than once. Following this line, Ammons writes, in lines 14-18
I was released from forms,
from the perpendiculars,
straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends
In these lines, I recognized the transcendentalism I had encountered in Emerson and Whitman, but there was something so utterly different to me about the voice, and it was a painful thing as well. What he wrote seemed so easy to pull off, yet, I couldn’t do it. I started, with Ammons, to get a sense of how many years I would have to write in order to say things with the best economy, with the laser and the lathe and the scalpel.
The geometry and the captivity of the perpendiculars that Ammons was seeking release from were, from what I perceived at the time, what would give me writer’s block or hesitance in my writing. I realized later, of course, that these perpendiculars could be interpreted as more of an intentional shedding of the over-rational mind, of the Western male perhaps, in order to blend or bend with nature. This brings me to the most important lines of this poem (lines 19-25), for me, anyway:
I allow myself eddies of meaning:
yield to a direction of significance
like a stream through the geography of my work:
you can find
in my sayings
swerves of action
In my first real experiences and experiments with writing, I was influenced by the rivers and oceans of Whitman (effluvial flow), the sewers and urinals of Bukowski (flow of human waste and squalor), and the riffs and under-currents of Ginsberg (sound as river…cadence…flow as anti-linear abstract expression with lyric friction, chants and repetition)—yet, Ammons gave me another type of liquid space in my (then) vocabulary and voice: an eddy in the flow of a larger body of fluid motion. A spiral of a solar system in the continuum.
A swerving of action. Could I produce a body of work, one day, to have bodies of fluid language vibrant and pulsating in that geography of a life and accumulated work as a writer? Still, thinking of being an “eddy of meaning” within a greater body of language and tradition, of philosophy, of sound is an idea that has stuck with me for the more than two decades since I first read Ammons.
Sherwin Bitsui, a Navajo poet, tried to explain to me how the Navajo language “works”—that it is more, and I am sure that I will transcribe this imperfectly, a shifting of being which represents the world more as verb than noun, and that, in the Navajo sense of being, forms are never constant or permanent. That is a type of flowing that my mind, as conditioned as it is, can’t quite grasp, unless, perhaps, I am in the throes of a writing event where the language is more of an ego or entity than I am at the time.
To eddy within the continuum—that’s the thing, I think. To spiral within a pulsation or vibrancy of violence or creation—to be individual in your centrifugal force while still a part of the gravity of the universal Logos. To find balance with that erosion, whirlpool, and kinesis. I think that’s a good goal for a poet. It is, at least, for me.