Today’s edition of Poetry Sunday introduces another freethinking poet, the American A.R. Ammons. Born in North Carolina in 1926, Ammons grew up on his family’s farm during the Great Depression and attended a Pentecostal church, whose hellfire sermons terrified the young man. He first began to write poems while serving on a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he pursued a postgraduate education and served in a variety of jobs before beginning to publish in earnest. His first collection, Ommateum, sold poorly, but his later books were critically praised and soon vaulted him from obscurity to fame. His work won him a position on the English faculty at Cornell University, where he was a much-beloved campus figure until his retirement in 1998 and death in 2001 from cancer. Over the course of his career he won countless awards, including the National Book Award, the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Robert Frost Medal, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
As a poet, Ammons stands out for his scientific background, which is clearly visible in many of his poems. His book-length poem Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974) was inspired by a photo of the Earth from space. His verse is free, fluid, often lacking capitals and punctuation. He abhorred rigidity and dogma in all its forms, and in his transcendent view of nature’s complexity, he bears a resemblance to Emerson, Whitman and other naturalist poets.
Ammons’ religious views are best described as Spinozan, identifying “God” as the sum total of nature and the laws of physics, rather than as a supernatural being with a separate existence. One of his poems is titled “God Is the Sense the World Makes Without God”. His freethought sympathies can also be seen in today’s poem, a personal favorite of mine. I never fail to feel shivers of awe around the phrase “green religion in winter bones”.
I don’t know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:
for it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:
the swamp’s slow water comes
down Gravelly Run fanning the long
hair and narrowing roils between
the shoulders of the highway bridge:
holly grows on the banks in the woods there,
and the cedars’ gothic-clustered
spires could make
green religion in winter bones:
so I look and reflect, but the air’s glass
jail seals each thing in its entity:
no use to make any philosophies here:
I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never
heard of trees: surrendered self among
unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.
Other posts in this series: