Poetry Sunday: Gravelly Run

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”.

Gravelly Run

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
    stone-held algal
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:

Constitutional Crisis in Alabama?
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    And once again I must thank you for a poetry Monday morning. It’s a little crazy to see things I’ve glimpsed on the edge of my thoughts conveyed and arranged so perfectly. I think one of the nicer things in this poem is the way it peacefully acknowledges that the feeling of oneness with the universe doesn’t fit exactly and leaves so much unexplained. It’s a kind of acceptance of ignorance without ceasing to be mindful of the shape of the problem.

  • MAZZQuestions

    “no use to make any philosophies here: I see no god in the holly, hear no song from the snowbroken weeds”

    I havent seen a refutation of intelligent design put so beautifully before. Its sad that some people cant see beauty and just accept it as beautiful. How bleak the world must look through their eyes.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet.html J

    I got to meet A.R. Ammons about 2 years before he died. I was about 17 years old at the time and very deep into poetry. I got him to sign my notebook after he gave a reading from the last collection he published before he died (called, amusingly enough, “Garbage”).

  • dutch


    “Its sad that some people cant see beauty and just accept it as beautiful. How bleak the world must look through their eyes.”

    Funny Mazz, I am a strong Christian, albeit like none you have ever met, my knowledge(as opposed to belief) of God, the creator of this universe, is much more beautifull, than the most beautifull part of our earth. What I have been shown is beyond my understanding at this time. The world does not look bleak at all, but for many people, it is pure hell.

    Wishing you only the best, Dutch

  • terrence

    Dutch, I’m just curious — google a disease called “progeria” if you’re not already familiar with it. And if you do google, bu sure to hit some “images” to see photos of kids who have this. If I, human, was a mad scientist dedicated to unleashing horrific conditions upon humanity, I could not do this one. So Who did? And what do you think His character is like Who could, and did, do it? Beautiful?

  • Steve Bowen

    I’m always slightly uncomfortable when christians that comment here get “pounced on” by us atheists, especially since the thread tends to go off topic but..Dutch, re-branding “Belief” as “Knowledge” is just spin and nothing more. You do not know God. You have I’m sure a sincerely held faith in his existance, but it is not knowledge in any meaninful sense that can be empirically demonstrated to any other person.

  • DamienSansBlog

    Ebon, when you say “scientific background”, do you mean he had a degree in something, or that his poems consistently use science as a theme? (Or both?)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Both. He got a bachelor’s degree in biology from Wake Forest University after the war, and he taught for a short time before taking up poetry. Many of his poems contain scientific themes.

  • dutch

    I don’t mind getting “pounced” on. I have been in and out of this atheist blog, and I have been treated with more dignity here than in Christian bloggs. I don’t go to Christian bloggs anymore. I am afraid they have yet to sell all they have and follow Him. I have no doubt as to the existence of God. I used to, in fact I doubted His existence for many years; not quite an atheist, but very close. I initially came to atheist bloggs out of curiosity and I have remained because I find atheists interesting. Atheists have also helped me in various ways.
    To Terrence,
    You are, I think, asking, if God exists, why all the suffering? Well for one thing, I know we are in Hell, which through Biblical interpretation is grave, pit, hades, sheol. Why would a loving God create Hell? He really had no choice for how could you possibly know love and pleasure without knowing hate and suffering. If all you ever had in life was the attendance of a loving God, no pain, no hunger, allways physically comfortable, how could you understand. Suppose God mentioned the word pain to Adam(Adam is not who/what you think he is, he is us). “What is pain’” asks Adam? How would God be able to explain that? We will, all of us, experience God’s powerful love, but only after we have lived in the grave for awhile. We need to know what is is like to know evil. We will all know what it is to have “progeria,” cancer, blindess, your head cut off, torture, add nauseum. We will share those bad experiences as if it happened to us. Then, and only then, will we appreciate and know what love is. Love gives everything, everthing He/it has, including Himself. Ultimately we will be in God – how awesome is that?
    I don’t want religion to be forced down peoples’ throats. It wouldn’t work anyway. I am all for you guys, the government should never establish a religion.

    What I have said above will not be belived by you, and I can accept that.

    Wishing you oly the best, Dutch

  • terrence

    I suggest you read carefully “All Possible Worlds” on the main page (www.ebonmusings.org). Now I think I’ll go inflict some cancer, blindness, and torture ad nausem on my children. After all, how are they gonna know how much I love them unless I slap them around every now and then?

    And I assume, if one of your loved ones got beheaded, you’d give the same pass to the swordsman that you give God?

  • goyo

    Dutch, I’ve read your other comments on different posts, and you really don’t make much sense. What exactly do you mean that “we’ll all share those bad experiences as if it happened to us”?
    Your theology seems to have come from a combination of jehovah’s witnesses and seventh day adventists.
    I know you think that you have a unique way of interpreting the bible, but until you let us in on it, it’s hard to have a conversation.

  • Dutch

    I am sorry, but you missed the point, it is my fault due to my lack of writing skills.

    It is a new form of Christianity, as far as I can tell anyway. George Fox, a writer and theologian that lived about 300 years ago, wrote about Christ’s second coming as being in man as opposed to external. So he was/is right about that, and William Penn was a devoted student of his. One of my brothers called me one day while I was driving. He excitedly said to turn on the TV and watch msnbc(I think it was MSNBC). It appears a pastor of a rather large southern church was being interviewed, and he was claiming that our earth is in fact hell. My brother, who wouldn’t believe what I have been telling him for almost ten years, now he found out this preacher was saying the same thing. My brother still wants to believe Jesus was born in earthly Jerusalem, lying in a manger – the truth seems to hurt his little Christmas story; this is the reason our church pastors have been called names, and once even shoved by other pastors.
    Anyway, it is very hard to explain in such a short space. First of all, The Bible is spritual, the events depicted in the Bible are spiritual(unseen). Adam’s story is spiritual, The Garden of Eden, and it’s “trees” are spiritual and located in heaven. If Adam was created in heaven, then the birth of Christ was/is in heaven. When Christ died, he was laid in a grave(hell, pit, etc.) Christ’s body is us, his body is us which occupy the grave. Yes, everything that has happened to every living thing, past, present and future will be known by everybody once we are in Christ for as jesus said, “I and my father are one.” How can it be otherwise. How can we truly and thoroughly know what evil is, unless we all experience every bad thing that has and will happen? This is so difficult to explain, especially for me. Terrence, God bless him, doesn’t seem to understand it. In his defense, how God could have created the conditions for all of the suffering, has been asked by others and myself in the past.
    My intention is not to try and convert atheists; this would probably prove futile anyway. The one thing it does do, and this is construed by many atheists as being a bit too convenient, it takes away atheists ridiculing the seeming inconsistencies of The Bible. I have the feeling that some atheists who are not quite sure, and who want answers and a deeper understanding of why we are here in the first place, will be more willing to probe the deeper mysteries of the Bible – virgin ground so to speak. It has been my experience that mainstream Christianity abhors our little group(s) In order to get verification(reward) of our knowledge, you need to be a freethinker, pure in motive, and a dilligent student of the Bible, but never use another opinion(interpretation) of the Bible – this work must be done by you, and better you and another or more. Ultimately, everyone must build his own house.

    I am rambling too much – I have to back-off. Ebonmuse has been most gracious.

    Take care everybody

  • terrence

    How do you know all this? That is to say, HOW do you know all this? You also seem to be unaware that “Jesus” and “Christ” are two completely different entities.

  • Steve Bowen

    Told you we’d get off topic:)

    I’m not sure that transposing biblical events to “heaven”, Changes anything. If your collective body corporeal (us in your theology?)is experiencing the world as it appears to be, with the logical and critical faculties we appear to have, the inconsistancies remain. The argument from evil obtains whether we are in heaven, hell or Kansas as we have no objective way of experiencing the world otherwise.
    My original response to your post incidentally was not about suffering, merely questioning your claim to “know” God and suggesting that in this context you were actually substituting “Knowledge” for “Faith” to bolster your position.

  • Dutch

    Hi Steve,
    The apparent Biblical inconsistencies are just that, apparent. You, nor anybody here is going to pursue a knowledge of God, and I know that. I believe it is a lot easier to be an atheist…when you die, that’s it, finido, no heaven, no hell. As an atheist, you can indulge yourself in whatever you want, any morality is relevant only to what you believe. How easy is that? I was a near atheist, and those thoughts were on my mind. I know you need “empirical” evidence of God’s existence, and I understand that. The paradox is without a willing, searching, and believing mind and a very strong desire you will not get your “evidence.” If today’s mainstream Christians would truly seek Him, and all of them would come into a most sure knowedge of Him, then all of them would give any excess material possesions and excess time to help the rest of humanity – ultimately this will happen, but we are a very long way from that. I keep wondering what will make that happen? Are we going to have some worldwide global disaster, for it seems after a major disastor people seek God and family – I wonder.
    Anyway, apparent inconsistencies are actually good ways to study the precepts of wisdom and understanding. I do not need to “bolster” my position, it is what I know. The Bible says faith = evidence and substance of the unseen realm.

    take care, Dutch

  • terrence

    God used to be quite forthcoming in biblical times – flooding the earth, turning staffs into snakes, dropping food from heaven, parting seas, talking out of burning bushes, turning wives into salt, becoming human, getting killed then coming to life again, walking on water, etc — you’d have to be pretty dense to be an atheist. So how come I gotta have a willing, searching, believing mind and a very strong desire? 2-6,000 years ago people caught a break, but for me, He’s gotta play hard to get?

  • Dutch

    All parable Terrence – never happened on our plane. I haven’t studied averyone of your mentioned parables(dark sayings, allegory etc.), but I hope to. Water, for example, is a very BIG parabolic word. I have studied cloud(s) to some extent, and it has been very rewarding.

    How about this quote from “Judges.” You could really use this to poke fun at The Bible.

    Jdg 9:10 And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us.
    Jdg 9:11 But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?
    Jdg 9:12 Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us.
    Jdg 9:13 And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
    Jdg 9:14 Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.

    Talking trees? Maybe the writer of these verses saw either The Wizard of Oz or Lord of The Rings? Then again, the parable is somewhat answered by in the following verse – Jesus had jst healed a blind man.(being blind means you have no understanding)

    Mar 8:24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.

    Good day, Dutch

  • Mrnaglfar


    So the bible’s all parable then? Makes me wonder why anyone would need the bible, instead of oh I don’t know, let’s say the three little pigs; I’m sure they teach comperable morals, at least no one gets stoned in the three little pigs.

  • Dutch

    Mrnaglfar, maybe there is some Biblical truth to the fable

    Eph 2:20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

    but then again, foxes appear to be stronger than wolves.

    Neh 4:3 Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.

    Ahah, that’s why the original changed from fox to wolf! The author saw his error.

    “Makes me wonder why anyone would need the bible.” Oh! The Bible is a start, sort of a map. The Living Word is in you, waiting to be revealed. It is so much more than The Bible.

    But for you,
    1Pe 2:8 a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.

    But hey, don’t despair, we’ll remember this conversation, indeed we’ll remember a whole lot more when we are all in God.
    1Co 15:28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.

    Good day, Dutch

  • Mrnaglfar


    I think if you really took the heart of the word of the three little pigs into your life, you would understand that the parable points towards hard work being done in reality to help people, rather then building your house (i.e. intellectual foundation) cheaply and assuming everything will be alright, since evil people (i.e. the big bad wolf), will come and blow down your house (i.e. take control of your life and tell you what to do), if it’s not build out of bricks (which stand for science and reason). Also, you’d be able to shelther those who have been deceived (the two pigs who got their house blown down), from the evils of group-think and dogma.

    But don’t worry, there will always be room in the brick house for you when the big bad wolf comes.

  • Dutch

    Thanks Mrnaglfar, I’ll bring dessert, you know, for after the pig roast:)