Monday, May 26, 2003

John Erhardt wrote me with his defense of Ammons, which Jonathan Mayhew's interested in as well:

I can only provide you with a subjective defense of why I like Ammons:

1. His enjambed lines aren't simply governed by a pause
2. He introduced (or helped to introduce) the vocabulary of science to poetry
3. He was never part of a community, a complete outsider
4. He wrote really short poems and really long poems -- some sense of range
5. His adding machine tape poems are no more or less arbitrary than the Bernadette Mayer experiments
6. While I'm not a member of the Pacific Northwest Fly-Fishing Aesthetic, I do like being outdoors, and am still moved by poets who aren't afraid to write about what William Matthews described as "I went to the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious."
7. He had little to no formal training in poetry, and so discoveries were his own
8. He wasn't really dragging a century of poetic baggage along with him

As for whether he's dull or not (or a great poet, for that matter), well, I don't know. There are plenty of poets who I think are dullards that nobody else does. I think a lot of the arguments that indict Ammons for being dull have to be used to indict other poets as well, such as Levertov or some Schuyler. Blackburn, too, or Dorn or Oppenheimer.

I'm curious, though, what you mean by "metrical," if you mean it in the traditional sense of the word. Ammons ISN'T metrical in the "poetic foot" sense -- so you're right. His lines are breath-based, more like how Creeley or Olson weren't basing their metrics on the foot, but something else. As for self-deflating metaphysics, you might be right though, again, I don't think that's enough to dismiss him outright, or even to knock him back a couple of pegs -- even Jorie Graham's "dream" of a unified field theory is self-deflating, in a way, since it's not really real. Yet.

I guess what I meant by "metrical" included the breath-based line, something more like what Williams called a "feel for the measure." This has always been a problem for me: how do you judge a poet's skill in using a breath-based line? You can't know how long or precise that person's breath is, right? A breath line only seems convincing to me (and it's not as if I don't love Olson, Creeley, Ginsberg, Levertov et al) if it develops its own integrity, its own self-sustaining rhythm, but ultimately that's something that has to happen in the ear of the listener, and so is much more subjective, I suppose. Bottom line is I feel it in Creeley, but not so much in Ammons. But I frequently don't feel it in Levertov either.

It's quite possible I'm speaking from ignorance, not being familiar with the bulk of Ammons's work. I guess I just keep going into bookstores and picking up "Garbage" and reading a page or two and then putting it back down. What strikes me as strange is, as you've pointed out, Ammons has a lot of things in common with poets I do like, and even looks and sounds like some of them. Maybe this goes back to the metaphysics thing: the abstractions, the reaching for a quasi-religious high seriousness--it often seems to me as if it might be better served by a long discursive line rather than a short compressed one, which strikes me as working better with the radically reduced and concrete vocabulary you might find in Williams, Creeley, Levertov. The mode of thinking in a short line seems different than the mode of thinking in a long one.

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