Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 1969
photograph by Jonathan Williams

The Mind's Music


When the sun
falls behind the sumac
thicket the
yellow daisies
in diffuse evening shade
lose their
rigorous attention
half-wild with loss
any way the wind does
and lift their
petals up
to float
off their stems
and go

– From "Corsons Inlet"

YEAR by A. R. Ammons., 205 pp.
Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University
Press. $4.99.

CORSONS INLET by A. R. Ammons.,
64 pp. Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University
Press. $3.95.

What a source of wonder and evidence of the abiding fecundity of the American biota to discover a fine poet from Whiteville, seat of Columbus County, in North Carolina’s tidal backwaters. Encountering these two books by A. R. Ammons seems not too different a pleasure from that experienced by the botanist Charles Sprague Sargent when he tracked Shortia galactifolia, the most legendary of America’s plants, to the headwaters of the Keowee below the Balsam Mountains.

“Tape for the Turn of the Year” is a journal of a mind’s music. Ammons bought himself a roll of adding-machine tape and let its width and length determine the course of the poem through his typewriter. The result is a kind of Orphic encephalogram, attached to a poet who is a composing process 24 hours a day. Thus, we have a long, thin poem, begun on Dec. 6 1963. and ended on Jan. 10. 1964. as the red end of the tape rose from the floor and fed tot. the machine:

because I’ve decided, the
Muse willing,
to do this foolish
poem, I
especially, beg
help me!
a fool who
plays with fool things:
so fools and play
can rise in the regard of
the people,
provide serious rest
and sweet engagement
to willing minds:

and the Muse be manifest.

I suppose some will say this is just a stunt, but it is evident that the sayings found in the poem, are written with a lucidity that William Blake would have envied and are the products of an extraordinary talent for assimilation and grace in the making of language. On the level of musical organization (meaning, the primary level), “Tape for the Turn of the Year” seems to me the most coherent and impressive instance thus far of applications that two previous generations of American poets have been screaming.

His lines, as in the case of any “new” lines, follow the promptings of the angelic voices (those that ring true when the racket of the modern world occasionally shuts up and lets the poet sing), and would govern the world to its benefit if we would let them. Ammons’s great achievement is that his text holds, it adheres to the mind, is, in fact, like the lichen whose image is central to the poem—a symbiotic relation of thallopyte and green alga.

What is particularly interesting is that Ammons commands many “scientific” disciplines beside the “literary”; that his adult vocations have had to do, until very recently, with chemistry (he has been an executive in a firm manufacturing biological glassware); that his ground is a naturalist’s, in that he writes in solitude in the Jersey pine barrens and draws on a countryman’s childhood.

“Tape for the Turn of the Year” is thoroughly unified in its diversity, to paraphrase Coleridge. It is supple, immensely witty, and even readable. What else do you want?

“Corsons Inlet,” a book of short poems by Ammons also now issued, is a reaffirmation of the qualities apparent in “Expressions of Sea Level,” published in 1964 and met with the silence of too many people, including myself. This new volume is to be bought for such unique poems as the title poem, “Four Motions for the Pea Vines,” “Configurations,” and “Coon Song”; and it sits as a useful corollary to “Tape for the Turn of the Year”: “short rich hard lyrics: lines that can incubate slowly then fall into symmetrical tangles: lines that can be gone over (and over) till they sing with pre-established rightness.”

Jonathan Williams
The New York Times Book Review
May 15, 1965