Poetry Sunday: This Is Just A Place

For today’s Poetry Sunday, I’m featuring the American poet A.R. Ammons, who was first showcased last year for his poem “Gravelly Run“.

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, which was read at Ammons’ own memorial service. It speaks of mortality and transience, reminding us that the Earth is just one place of many in a vast and unfathomable cosmos, and that our lives are small threads in a far more immense pattern of ebb and flow. It was first published in A Coast of Trees (1981).

In Memoriam Mae Noblitt

This is just a place:
we go around, distanced,
yearly in a star’s

atmosphere, turning
daily into and out of
direct light and

slanting through the
quadrant seasons: deep
space begins at our

heels, nearly rousing
us loose: we look up
or out so high, sight’s

silk almost draws us away:
this is just a place:
currents worry themselves

coiled and free in airs
and oceans: water picks
up mineral shadow and

plasm into billions of
designs, frames: trees,
grains, bacteria: but

is love a reality we
made here ourselves—
and grief—did we design

that—or do these,
like currents, whine
in and out among us merely

as we arrive and go:
this is just a place:
the reality we agree with,

that agrees with us,
outbounding this, arrives
to touch, joining with

us from far away:
our home which defines
us is elsewhere but not

so far away we have
forgotten it:
this is just a place.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: March 28
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
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://liquidthinker.wordpress.com LiquidThinker

    Very nice. I think I may have a new favorite poem. Thanks for posting it in the series.

  • http://millennialthoughts.wordpress.com/ ChristineS

    I really enjoy your poetry series. Always nice to be introduced to new writers and thinkers. This particular piece is really beautiful.

    Ah, I hate reviewing poems and paintings that I like. Words never seem to be enough.

  • AnonaMiss

    I really like that poem, but I’m a little confused by the last two stanzas/the second to last “sentence,” given the background you gave. It sounds really religious, actually – the home we come from isn’t earth, and is a place very far away but we haven’t quite forgotten it? Or is that just me overreacting in the light of memories of “the knowledge of god is in us all even if you deny it” fundie conversations past?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Christine and LiquidThinker: Thank you both! I concur that it’s difficult to say something original about a poem you agree with – but I’m always happy to hear when I’ve introduced someone to something new they may like. Even a few words are more than sufficient.

    AnonaMiss: I don’t know exactly what Ammons was getting at with those lines, but considering his undeniable freethought background, we can be confident it’s not the standard religious meaning.

  • http://theonetrueblog.blogspot.com/ The Vile Scribbler

    Echoing the above – I don’t have anything interesting of my own to add, but thanks for posting it.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/skepticalpoetry/ Ian Mason

    Lovely! Great idea and feelings summed up in a few lines. Love, awe, humility, wonder, the natural human feelings when considering the greatness of the universe.