I am way behind, getting to A.R. Ammons only now. And I know why; everything I ever heard about him said that he wasn’t my cup of tea. (The Britishness of that idiom is much to the point.) He was, I gathered, a poet who said “Ooh” and “Ah” to the universe, who had oceanic feelings about the multiplicity of things in nature, and the ubiquity of nature’s changes; a poet enamoured of flux, therefore; and so, necessarily, a practitioner of “open form”—which last comes uncomfortably close for my taste to being a contradiction in terms. In short, he was one whom Harold Bloom had applauded as “a major visionary poet”; and if that doesn’t raise my hackles exactly, it certainly gives me goose-pimples.
And everything that I heard is true. Imagine! A poem 1,860 lines long, with only one full stop in it, at the end of the last line; and put before me, who like to think of myself as Doctor Syntax, all for demarcations, a devotee of the sentence! Whatever the opposite of an ideal reader is, I ought to have been that thing so far as this poem is concerned. How could I be anything but exasperated by it, profoundly distrustful, sure I was being bamboozled, sure I was being threatened? And how is it, then, that I was on the contrary enraptured? Have I gone soft in the head? Have I suffered a quasi-religious conversion? Shall I drag myself on penitent knees to the feet of the saintly Bloom? No. I am as suspicious as ever I was of Ammons’s initial assumptions and governing pre-occupations. I still hunger for sentences and full stops, and for a colon that has precise grammatical and rhythmical work to do, instead of being the maid-of-all-work that Ammons makes it into. The cast of his temperament is as alien to me as I thought it would be. And yet I can’t refuse the evidence of my senses and my feelings—there wasn’t one page of his poem that didn’t delight me.
To start with, this visionary is a comedian:
clarity of zooming, I’m unpassed in Cayuga Heights, unparalleled
(nobody hanging on that wing, baby) possibly: at easing
into orbit grease, nuzzling right in there with not a touch
till the whole seal smacks: at that I’m unusually salient,
gritless in curvature with withal enthralling control,
perfection of adjustment, inno- cence of improvisation beginners
and old strumpets of the spirit know: I don’t want shape:
I’ll have water muscles bending streams (recurrences of
curvature): wind sheets erect, trav- eling: lips accommodating
muscle glides: identity in me’s a black, clear bead: I’ve
strongboxed and sunk it, musseled and barnacled with locks….
This is Ammons characterizing himself, as a poet of the sublime, a rhapsode; and whatever one’s suspicions of that poetic posture, how can they not be disarmed when the smiling rhapsode himself admits the windy self-aggrandizement it lets him in for—or would, if he didn’t keep his comic wits about him? Supply the rest of the first line, and we have here, complete, one of the 155 sections of this poem. And they are absolutely uniform: each of them, like this one, consists of twelve lines, arranged in threes, in a measure that is not free verse but normally accentual hexameter. “I don’t want shape,” he says; and sure enough, these sections are not “shapes” but insistently only units, repetitions of one rigid module, uniform therefore, and essentially, deliberately arbitrary. Ammons for instance gives as much care to getting each section syntactically open at both ends as most poets would give to getting a satisfying entry to each, and to each a satisfying closure. And this is entirely logical: there is only one “entry” to this poem, its first line, and only one “closure,” its last.
We tend to think that a poetry which celebrates Becoming will find itself in organic or expressive forms; but it is more logical for it to use, as it does here, a form that is inorganic, rigid, mechanical, and arbitrary. Of course this makes for difficulties; the poem is too long, also too dense and exuberant, to be read at a sitting, and yet these open-ended sections provide no resting places, where we can break off and later resume. If, like me, you roughly and provisionally mark places where one stage of the argument is completed and another starts, what is startling and—given the scheme of the whole—very impressive is that these breathing spaces virtually never coincide with the spaces between sections. As for “argument,” does it have one? Didn’t poems stop having such things, quite some time ago? Apparently not: this poem has an argument; in fact it addresses itself to that hoariest of all arguments, the problem of the Many and the One, no less!
The exuberance, the inventiveness (though always within a rigid frame, and serving a rigid conception) are what is winning. When the exuberance is comical, as it blessedly often is, it recalls nothing so much as late Auden—an Auden, one might dare to say, beaten at his own lexicographer’s games, and ultimately much more serious, because convinced of a much more exalted role for the imagination than late and chastened Christian Auden could believe in. But the exuberance comes in other modes than the comic. For instance:
when the grackle’s flight shadows a streak of lawn, constellations
of possibility break out, for example, the multitude of
grassblade shadows subsumed in a sweep:…
or (of the identity of the man extinguished in death, as distinct from the identity of the man-as-poet):
…then the small
self will taste the ruin that has been my only food:…
(This one can’t be registered out of context; restored to it, in section 79, it can move to tears.) And in the end, for “exuberance” one has to read “elation” or “vitality” or, most simple, just “hope”:
the safety engineers complain that the people are numb
along the fault line and will not survive if they do not
respond to warning signals: may be so: but how
have we survived at all but by numb nonchalance: to know
and care is to take victory out of the moment when a
moment’s victory is what every-
thing is for, apparently:…
I’m not sure that I’m persuaded by this, when I’m away from Ammons’s poem; so long as I’m with the poem I’m persuaded, and exhilarated and grateful. Put this poem beside John Hollander’s “Reflections on Espionage” (so much more melancholy, yet like this in its controlled fluidity, and the inventive ease of its diction), and I begin to think that the genius of American poetry persisted undeterred under all the revolutions and counter-revolutions and personality cults of the tedious Sixties. And how long has Ammons been writing as well as this? I’ve a lot of homework to catch up on.
I remember twenty years ago walking across a Wicklow hillside with Richard Murphy, and his Old English sheepdog bounding to meet us. It would be a cruel quip, and yet near the mark, to say that this has been Murphy’s trouble all along—an English dog (or an English manner, certainly an English accent) in an Irish setting. There was never anything he could have done about it; this was his fate and his inheritance. For he is the only accomplished verse writer we have whose poems spell out the agonized impasse at the present day of that brilliant stock which we call the Anglo-Irish. Outside of Ireland, if we have any grasp of this at all, it is thanks to Yeats. And Murphy is not quite Yeats’s sort of Anglo-Irishman, but rather of the sort that Yeats celebrated and venerated in the persons of Augusta Gregory and her son Robert; the landed gentry, English by race, usually by religion and often enough by education, who left Ireland characteristically to serve as proconsuls of the British Empire, who nevertheless thought of themselves in most situations as Irish first and British second.
The poet’s father, the subject of a long and touching poem, “The God Who Eats Corn,” represents the pattern in its purity, except that on retiring from a distinguished career in the British Colonial Service, instead of returning to his native Ireland, he settled in 1950 on virgin land in what was then Southern Rhodesia. It was left to his son to return to what we must call, in justice and yet with bitter irony, “his roots”; and to try to make historical sense out of being, in 1960, the highly specialized sort of Irishman that the history of several centuries had made him. Most of us think from time to time that we have been dealt a poor hand by biology and history, involving us in too many cross-cultural dilemmas of divided allegiance; we can all be chastened by the example of a hand of cards that in the 1970s is, I would say, unplayable—unplayable, that is, if the object of the game is for the player to put himself together so that he can act, with integrity and effectiveness, inside some one society.
Among the cards dealt into Richard Murphy’s hand, which High Island fans out before us (consisting as it does of twenty-five new poems supplementing earlier collections reprinted), we find: a childhood in the tropics, the privileged but also disoriented scion of the colonial overlords, left mostly in the charge of servants from among the colonized; memories, through long-lived grandparents, of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy in its last traditionally secure though mostly unglamorous years before 1920; and a doubtless sincere attempt to become just another loyal citizen of the Irish Republic, indistinguishable from his mostly peasant or fisherman neighbors in the West of Ireland where he lives.
One has to have lived in Ireland to recognize how impossible that last endeavor is, and so how the hand was ultimately unplayable. The evidence is all there in the poems: in a country where the historical memories are (for reasons we all know about) as long, as tenacious, and as embittered as among the Irish, in a landscape moreover where neither industrialization nor population growth has been such as to erase the sheerly physical and material vestiges of earlier centuries (Murphy has a good poem about a slate that he took from a hedge bottom to pave his garden path, and the uses it could have been put to ever since St. Colman used it)—it is impossible for his neighbors, whatever the good will on both sides, to accept him as one of themselves. By and large, Murphy’s poems are good when he acknowledges this impossibility; less good, though all the more touching as human documents, when he tries to deny it.
His most ambitious attempt to deny it is a sort of fragmented and acrid epic, “The Battle of Aughrim,” about the Irish Jacobite war which in 1691 finally riveted the Protestant Ascendancy on the whole island. Heroically he here tries to celebrate the losing side, particularly in the famous person of Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan; but if I read the case aright, all Murphy’s forebears would have been on the other, the winning side, and the way of life which they then built up for themselves, a way of life which conditioned Murphy himself, was made possible only by that victory. It was that historical contradiction in the very subject matter which, I suspect, made too much of this poem (it has its good moments) prosy, strained, and wooden. To the American reader, it is just this prosiness and flatness, what Tom Kinsella has called “verse of the lowest possible intensity,” that will seem to be the English sheep dog in this Irish garden. The Englishman Larkin, they may feel, handles these muted instruments with more finesse.
Murphy however began as a much more colorful poet, and has adopted this subdued and chastened language as the only means for fulfilling the task that history has landed him with. And at least once, in the long poem “The Last Galway Hooker” (“hooker” meaning, it should be said, a kind of seagoing boat), it served him admirably. Only the bare style of the later Murphy could have risen to the splendid and marmoreal lines which give to this poem a conclusion among the most memorable, for dignity and poignancy combined, of any in modern English:
Old men my instructors, and with all new gear
May I handle her well down tomorrow’s sea-road.
Myself, I detect something else from the current idioms of British verse (it’s to be found with a difference in Larkin) in the abrupt atrocious violation of the nerves, when gratuitous enormities—for instance, the homosexual rape of an Irish boy-soldier by his English captors—are suddenly conveyed deadpan in the same stunned language. And this symptom—it constitutes the entire substance of a recent poem, “The Glass Dump Road”—I take to be dangerously sick, the product of a numbed incapacity for feeling. But however that may be, the fact remains: Richard Murphy’s poems, alike the good and the less good, are in any case irreplaceable, as a human witness to a historical predicament more excruciating than most English-speakers will ever have to face.
I find myself thinking of Ed Dorn’s remarkable Recollections of Gran Apacheria (Turtle Island Foundation, San Francisco) as a heroic sequence comparable with Murphy’s “Battle of Aughrim.” Dorn’s invading Yanqui = Murphy’s conquering English; Apache = Irish Gael. And Dorn’s poem strikes me as by any standards better written than Murphy’s; yet Murphy’s poem has the greater impact because the snarl of competing rights and wrongs which it explores is more painfully complicated. It is as if the Apache had by force of numbers and persistence ultimately repossessed the land they were violently dispossessed of; and then as if a poet from a Yanqui minority living among them had tried to get straight for the imagination the narrative of the original expropriation.
After Ammons and Murphy, Alan Dugan can only seem—well, ungenerous. Not for him any concerns so abstruse as the One and the Many, or Cromwellian planter versus dispossessed Gael; what he’s concerned with is himself—how scared he is of death, of having to do without liquor and sex, and without the job that he dislikes as he always knew he would, and of finding himself in a situation where he can’t practice the compromises and small deceptions that he’s sourly learned to practice so as to get by. The anti-hero in fact, very much à la mode of yesteryear which required for the anti-hero an anti-rhetoric, an ugly muscularity alike in diction and cadence.
As the anti-hero is the hero inverted, so this punchy style is a perfect fit at every point with the mellifluous sonority that it constantly evokes in order to deny. Let no one think for instance that Dugan’s unscannable versification is incompetent or lazy; it is very exactly contrived. In other words, it is all done with mirrors. And one does mean “all”; so that when for instance A. Alvarez (some poets do get ideal readers!) describes Dugan as “utterly—and mercifully—without charm,” we need to recognize that charm too can wear its clothes inside out. Dugan means to charm and he does charm, as witness the many readers like Alvarez who have warmed to him.
If it’s impossible to be fair to Dugan when he comes along with Ammons and Murphy, it’s because, in order to charm us, he can’t avoid seeming to imply that when you come right down to it booze and sex and money are the only things that any of us care about in all seriousness. And where does that leave Ammons and Murphy, who come before us offering to concern themselves with things so different from those? How can they seem anything but pretentious and affected? And yet pretense and affectation have their mirror-images too…. But enough; I desist.
March 6, 1975