The Phraseology of Old Bones

Throughout his career, poet A.R. Ammons’s diction ranged from slangy to elegant.

by Stephen Burt
Poetry Foundation Media Services

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; they “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; 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 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. “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.

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 standard English and slightly rarer words (“vast,” “summon,” “universal”); a demotic register, including folk-speech (“dibbles,” “blips”); and phraseology of the natural sciences (“millimeter,” “information of actions / summarized”).

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.

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. “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. 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.” 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.

Stephen Burt teaches at Harvard University. His books include Popular Music, Parallel Play, and The Forms of Youth. His book of essays on contemporary poets and poetry, Close Calls with Nonsense, will appear in 2009. This article originally appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about A. R. Ammons, and his poetry, at

© 2008 by Stephen Burt. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on August 26, 2008.

One Response to “The Phraseology of Old Bones”

  1. Thanks for posting this.


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