Cards of Identity

High Island

by Richard Murphy
Harper and Row, 118 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Poems 4

by Alan Dugan
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 58 pp., $2.95 (paper)

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:

…at
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…


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