David Orr: Lost in the Archives, Summer 1996
August 8, 2011 | by David Orr
“Locality,” said Frost, “gives art.” It’s an aphorism that directs us toward, well, directions. But when we’re talking about space, we’re also usually talking about time—which means it’s important to think about when, not just where, an artist finds the locality that’s going to be doing the giving.
These questions have particular relevance to the Summer 1996 issue of The Paris Review because the subject of “The Art of Poetry” interview is A. R. Ammons. Ammons has been slightly out of fashion since his death in 2001—fame, as Emily Dickinson observed, is fickle food—but he was a bracingly intelligent writer, and his relationship to the idea of place is intriguing. In part, it’s intriguing because he can’t seem to determine whether he is actually Southern after having lived for three decades in the north. Consider:
INTERVIEWER: You’ve spent more time in the north [at Cornell].
AMMONS: Much more. I lived the first twenty-four years in the South. I’ve been in Ithaca more than thirty years.
INTERVIEWER: Are you conscious of being a Southerner here?
AMMONS: I don’t hear my own voice, but of course everyone else does, and I’m sure they’re all conscious of the fact that I’m Southern, but I am mostly not conscious of it. In the first years, I was tremendously nostalgic, constantly longing for the South: for one’s life, for one’s origin, for one’s kindred. Now I feel more at home here than I would in the South. But I don’t feel at home—I’ll never feel at home—anywhere.
On one hand, this is the kind of thing poets like to say because it recalls the expatriate glamour of the early twentieth century (“I have beaten out my exile,” announced Pound, in the most self-satisfied formulation of this maneuver). On the other hand, Ammons wasn’t just a poet. He was a Southerner, and every Southerner understands the difficulty of holding on to an identity that is not, shall we say, always desirable. As C. Vann Woodward put it more than fifty years ago, “when [a Southerner] ventures among strangers, particularly up North, how often does he yield to the impulse to suppress the identifying idiom, to avoid the awkward subject, and to blend inconspicuously into the national pattern—to act the role of the standard American?” For a figure like Ammons, the temptation is to act not simply as a standard American, but as a standard American poet—which is to say, a citizen of Nowhere.
This approach is especially attractive if you happen to come from the backwoods, as Ammons did. (The population of his boyhood home, Whiteville, North Carolina, is about five thousand.) But even if you’re from a slightly more cosmopolitan area of the South, as I am, you can understand the appeal. Many times I’ve wondered whether my regional identification remains entirely genuine, especially since I’ve largely lost my native accent. I haven’t been a resident of my home state of South Carolina since August 1996—thus the date of the issue under discussion—and I now live in Ithaca, which makes Ammons’s unsettled position almost literally my own. This is underlined every time I run across traces of his lingering presence, as I often do. In those moments, I have an odd double response: I feel both the prickly respect younger poets reserve for older writers and the rush of warmth that comes from encountering, as Ammons puts it, “one’s origin, one’s kindred” in a place far from home.
Because Ammons remains, for all his hesitations, utterly Southern. That’s obvious, of course, in conspicuously regional pieces like “First Carolina Said-Song,” which makes use of a rich country dialect (“dead-level best,” “awfulest rainstorm,” “growed over with soapbushes”). But for me, Ammons’ Southerness is strongest and subtlest in a poem like “Dunes:”
Taking root in windy sand
is not an easy
to go about
finding a place to stay.
A ditchbank or wood’s-edge
has firmer ground.
In a loose world though
something can be started —
a root touch water,
a tip break sand —
Mounds from that can rise
on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
Firm ground is not available ground.
For Ammons, and for so many Southern poets, the act of writing involves destabilizing one’s own past in order to destabilize the monolithic bulk of the South itself. But, as Shelley knew, the wind that erodes the soil carries the seed—and as Ammons would add, the seed that grips the soil prevents another plant from growing. By her dispersed children, the South is preserved and destroyed, however delayed the reckoning.
David Orr is the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review and the author of Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. He will be blogging from time to time about poetry from The Paris Review’s back issues.