One of my life’s great opportunities was to study with the poet A.R. Ammons as an MFA student at Cornell University between 1971 and 1973. We students knew him as Archie. He received the first of two National Book Awards for his Collected Poems: 1951-1971 while I was there listening to everything he said, and the Yale University critic Harold Bloom was busy making him immortal by writing that “No contemporary poet in America is likelier to become a classic than A.R. Ammons.” His second National Book Award was for Garbage in 1993, after which he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Fellowship.”
There were two pronouncements I remember as though Ammons had uttered them today: the first was what he said to me in his office: “If a poem isn’t going to add-up to anything, it must be interesting at every point.” While he seemed to be saying that my poems didn’t add-up, he was also describing an aesthetic method that I’ve used hundreds of times since. Later that semester he read aloud to the workshop this poem I had submitted for discussion:
The Storm has come again today,
it rages shrill pins.
I hear a pale child moaning alone
near the bottom rocks
of the field.
I feel the blowing wet
bruise her face.
When finished he observed: “I don’t see any way this poem by Mr. Bertolino could be better than it already is.” I felt pretty cocky after that, and rather enjoyed being glared at by the other MFA students. But I had to wonder why Ammons would make that remark in front of my classmates. I then spent much more time reading his poetry, and soon discovered his work effortlessly accomplished some of the elements I was striving for in my own poetry. Here’s a passage from one of Archie’s poems about poetry:
not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
from the self not mine but ours.
He always had a marvelous way of putting things, and often found very simple shapes to embody dazzling ideas. Those shapes were often found close at hand, and mostly from the natural world. It’s hard to imagine a poem by any poet that could more effectively portray a metaphysical concept than this one:
I found a
that had a
mirror in it
looked in at
weed in it.
In Ammons’ poem “Small Song,” wind plays a key role: as a phenomenon that acts on, then is revealed by reeds. The reeds first are subject to the wind, then have a kind of power over the wind.
The reeds give
way to the
wind and give
the wind away
In this last poem, the wind enables the daisies to more fully experience their own loss as the yellow petals leave their stems and are gone.
When the sun
falls behind the sumac
in diffuse evening shade
half-wild with loss
any way the wind does
and lift their
off their stems
How could any attentive reader fail to feel how sad, but beautiful, it is when something as attentive as these wild things lose their focus and dissipate. Haven’t we all given ourselves over to a power not our own? Haven’t we experienced loss?
A.R. Ammons’ sample poems can be found in
Collected Poems: 1951-1971.