Interviews

A. R. Ammons, The Art of Poetry No. 73

Interviewed by David Lehman

One day in the winter of 1987 Archie Ammons was driving north on the I-95 in Florida when a gigantic hill of rubble came into view. The sight sparked an epiphany: “I thought maybe that was the sacred image of our time,” the poet said. Upon his return to Ithaca, New York, where he is the Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry at Cornell University, Ammons tried to write a long poem entitled Garbage. Nothing came of the first attempt. Two years later, however, the image returned and wouldn’t let him off so easily. He wrote the poem quickly, finished it in a season, then put it aside. A major medical predicament—a massive coronary in August 1989 and triple bypass surgery a year later—intervened. When Ammons returned to the poem, he was no longer sure of it, and when it was accepted by his publisher, he was surprised. Nobody else was when this extraordinary work went on to win the 1993 National Book Award in poetry, the second time Ammons has been so honored. Ammons received the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in April 1994. Later that year, he and his wife, Phyllis, drove to Washington (the Ammonses do not believe in flying) to collect the Bobbitt Prize, which sounds like something a Court TV reporter made up but is actually an accolade bestowed by the Library of Congress.

Born in Whiteville, North Carolina, in 1926—“big, jaundiced and ugly,” in his words—Archie Randolph Ammons grew up on a family tobacco farm during the meanest years of the Great Depression. He had two sisters; one brother died as an infant, a loss mourned in his powerful poem “Easter Morning.” The hymns Archie heard every Sunday in church had their mostly unconscious influence on his poetry, which he began writing in the navy during World War II. Some of his first efforts were comic poems about shipmates aboard the destroyer escort on which he served in the South Pacific. Ammons recently wrote the poem “Ping Jockeys” when he found out that two pillars of the New York School of poets, James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, had also been trained as sonar men on Key West, where Ammons learned “how to lay down depth-charge patterns on enemy bulks.”

Ammons got out of the navy in 1946. He was able to attend college thanks to that piece of enlightened social legislation, the G.I. Bill, which paid his way at Wake Forest College, where he began as a premed student. In a writing class taught by E. E. Folk, he learned his method of “the transforming idea”—how to organize materials gathered from disparate sources—which he has continued to use in his poems. Another course with a decisive impact on Ammons’s life was intermediate Spanish, which was taught by Phyllis Plumbo, a recent graduate of Douglass College, then the women’s division of Rutgers University. Archie walked her home one day, and the couple will soon celebrate their forty-seventh wedding anniversary.

Ammons did not enter the academic life until he was close to forty. In 1949, he became the principal of the tiny elementary school in the island village of Cape Hatteras. For most of the next decade he worked as a sales executive in his father-in-law’s biological glass company on the southern New Jersey shore. Ammons published Ommateum, his first book of poems, with Dorrance, a vanity press, in 1955; a mere sixteen copies were sold in the next five years. (A copy today would fetch two thousand dollars.) He joined the Cornell University faculty in 1964 and has taught there ever since.

Expressions of Sea Level, Ammons’s second collection, came out in 1964 from Ohio State University Press and triggered the most prolific period in his career. He went rapidly from total obscurity to wide acclaim. His prematurely entitled Collected Poems 1951–1971 won the National Book Award in 1973. He won the coveted Bollingen Prize for his long poem Sphere (1974), in which the governing image was the earth as photographed from outer space. Ammons’s method for writing a long poem is, in a nutshell, finding “a single image that can sustain multiplicity.”

For a poet who believes in inspiration and spontaneity, Ammons is a creature of fixed habit. He begins his days having coffee in the Temple of Zeus, a coffee bar on the Cornell campus, with a handful of chums such as the Nobel Prize–winning chemist and poet Roald Hoffmann. (Hoffmann, who has written three books of poems, unabashedly calls Ammons his guru.) Archie professes to despise the poetry-writing industry and has a skeptical attitude on the whole question of whether poetry can be taught. Yet his own reputation among students past and present is high. A casual exchange of poems with Archie can turn into a memorable experience. “I have coffee sometimes in the morning for years with people,” Ammons says. “And then it may be five or ten years afterwards they will show me something they’ve written and I will suddenly feel that I know them better in that minute than I have known them through all the conversations that had taken place before.”

This interview was conducted by a variety of means. We began with two long sessions with a tape recorder in Ammons’s house in Ithaca. Briefer exchanges in person, on the phone, and by mail followed at regular intervals. It was as if we were continuing a conversation that had begun in 1976, when we met, and of which this interview is a sample and a distillation. We shelved it for a while while we worked together on The Best American Poetry 1994, for which Archie made the selections, and then we picked up where we had left off.

Ammons’s twenty-third book of poems, Brink Road, was published by Norton in the spring of 1996. Set in Motion, a gathering of his prose, will appear in the Poets on Poetry Series of the University of Michigan Press.

 

A. R. AMMONS

Aren’t you going to start with the typical Paris Review interview question, such as, “What do you write with or on?”

INTERVIEWER

All right. [Pause.] What do you write with or on?

AMMONS

My poems begin on the typewriter. If I’m home—and I rarely write anything elsewhere—I write on an Underwood standard upright, manual, not electric, which I bought used in Berkeley in 1951 or 1952. It had been broken and was rewelded. It’s worked without almost any attention for forty-four years. When I was away a few times, for a year or a summer, I wrote on similar typewriters. It’s hard now to find regular typewriter paper (as opposed to Xerox paper) and ribbons.

I sometimes scribble words or phrases or poems with a pen and pencil if I’m traveling or at work. But I like the typewriter because it allows me to set up the shapes and control the space. Though I don’t care for much formality (in fact, I hate ceremony), I need to lend a formal cast, at least, to the motions I so much love.

INTERVIEWER

When you begin a poem, do you have a specific source of inspiration, or do you start with words and push them around the page until they begin to take shape?

AMMONS

John Ashbery says that he would never begin to write a poem under the force of inspiration or with an idea already given. He prefers to wait until he has absolutely nothing to say, and then begins to find words and to sort them out and to associate with them. He likes to have the poem occur on the occasion of its occurrence rather than to be the result of some inspiration or imposition from the outside. Now I think that’s a brilliant point of view. That’s not the way I work. I’ve always been highly energized and have written poems in spurts. From the god-given first line right through the poem. And I don’t write two or three lines and then come back the next day and write two or three more; I write the whole poem at one sitting and then come back to it from time to time over the months or years and rework it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write, say, “The City Limits” in one sitting?

AMMONS

Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER

The eighteen lines of that poem do seem to be a single outcry. Were there changes after you wrote it?

AMMONS

Hardly a one. I sent the poem to Harold Bloom, something I almost never had done, and he admired it and sent a note to me not to change a word.

INTERVIEWER

Bloom has been a longtime champion of your work. How long have you known him?

AMMONS

He was here for the year in 1968, and his children were the same age as my son John, and they became playmates. Harold and I became friends. I didn’t regularly send him my poems, and he never suggested how they be written. But I wrote “The City Limits” and I wanted to share it with him. It was not literary business. It was friendship business. That was in 1971.

INTERVIEWER

Does inspiration originate in nature, in external reality, or in the self?

AMMONS

I think it comes from anxiety. That is to say, either the mind or the body is already rather highly charged and in need of some kind of expression, some way to crystallize and relieve the pressure. And it seems to me that if you’re in that condition and an idea, an insight, an association occurs to you, then that energy is released through the expression of that insight or idea, and after the poem is written, you feel a certain resolution and calmness. Well, I won’t say a “momentary stay against confusion” (Robert Frost’s phrase) but that’s what I mean. I think it comes from that. You know, Bloom says somewhere that poetry is anxiety.

INTERVIEWER

Bloom talks about the anxiety of influence, but you talk about the influence of anxiety.

AMMONS

Absolutely. The invention of a poem frequently is how to find a way to resolve the complications that you’ve gotten yourself into. I have a little poem about this that says that the poem begins as life does, takes on complications as novels do, and at some point stops. Something has to be invented before you can work your way out of it, and that’s what happens at the very center of a poem.

INTERVIEWER

What poem are you referring to?

AMMONS

It’s called “The Swan Ritual.” It’s in the Collected Poems.

INTERVIEWER

I have this picture of you taking long walks along places mentioned in your poems, such as Cascadilla Falls here in Ithaca or Corsons Inlet on the New Jersey shore, and writing as you were walking, writing out something longhand.

AMMONS

Or memorizing it in your head.

INTERVIEWER

Did you do that?

AMMONS

Yes, oh yes. Not something as long as “Corsons Inlet,” but shorter poems. I’ve done that here in Ithaca and down there many times.

INTERVIEWER

“Corsons Inlet” is a hundred and twenty-eight lines long. Did you write it at the end of the long walk described in the poem?

AMMONS

Yes, and at one sitting.

INTERVIEWER

A poet of inspiration, a poet who depends on inspiration, isn’t likely to write on schedule, and I don’t suppose you do.

AMMONS

No, I never sit down or stand up to try to write. It’s like trying to go to the bathroom when you feel no urge. Unless I have something already moving through the mind, I don’t go to the typewriter at all. The world has so many poems in it, it has never seemed to me very smart to force one more upon the world. If there isn’t one there to write, you just leave it alone.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write?

AMMONS

I write for love, respect, money, fame, honor, redemption. I write to be included in a world I feel rejected by. But I don’t want to be included by surrendering myself to expectations. I want to buy my admission to others by engaging their interests and feelings, doing the least possible damage to my feelings and interests but changing theirs a bit. I think I was not aware early on of those things. I wrote early on because it was there to do and because if anything good happened in the poem I felt good. Poems are experiences as well as whatever else they are, and for me now, nothing, not respect, honor, money, seems as supportive as just having produced a body of work, which I hope is, all considered, good.

INTERVIEWER

It took you a long time to get respect, honor, money, and fame for your work. You had the support of Josephine Miles when you were a graduate student at Berkeley, and you had poems accepted by Poetry magazine in the 1950s. But you had very few readers, and you weren’t winning a lot of prizes and grants.

AMMONS

That’s right. I spent twenty years writing on my own without any recognition. You know, I started writing in 1945. In 1955 I published a book of my own with a vanity publisher, my first book, Ommateum. It wasn’t until 1964 that I had a book accepted by Ohio State University Press, Expressions of Sea Level.

INTERVIEWER

And the quality of that work, when looked at now?

AMMONS

Well, it’s the best I have. It still sustains my reputation.

INTERVIEWER

So you found it possible to be a poet, and to thrive as a poet, without the material trappings of celebration and success.

AMMONS

I couldn’t avoid being a poet. I was really having a pretty rough time of things, and I had a lot of energy, and poems were practically the only recourse I had to alleviate that energy and that anxiety. I take no credit for all the poems I’ve written. They were a way of releasing anxiety.

INTERVIEWER

When you say you were having a rough time, do you mean financially?

AMMONS

I had really no clear-cut direction to my life for those years. I was working in business, not necessarily getting anywhere. It was just a lack of definition and direction. Financially, I didn’t have a great deal of money, but I wasn’t impoverished at that time.

INTERVIEWER

You grew up impoverished in North Carolina.

AMMONS

We grew up rather poor, yes. But we didn’t think of ourselves as poor. You’ve heard this said many times, I’m sure, about people in the depression. We had a farm. It had been created as a sustenance farm, that is, you grew as many things as you might possibly need. My two sisters and I—I had two brothers but they died young—were never hungry. We always had clothes to wear. There was no money, however, in the South. I mean, during the Depression, there were actually no coins. People bartered. We had no money, so we were poor in that sense, but my family, in Southern terms, was fairly distinguished. My uncle was sheriff of the county for eight consecutive terms, longer than anyone had been. It was a highly prestigious job in those days, and he was a splendid working man who was always erect and never carried a gun. He had a reputation for going into the most dangerous places unarmed and telling murderers or suspected murderers to come with him, and they would do it. He was also a considerable landowner in the county and owned what later became a whole beach down at the ocean, which was about forty miles from us. So he was a wealthy man and a highly prestigious man. I honored him greatly as a child. He sometimes helped us in the winters when we were broke.

So I was caught in the contradiction of feeling that I came from a good line and yet being inhibited as far as resources went. Since I was the only surviving Ammons of an enormous family, I was frequently told I was going to inherit forests and farms and things like that. But I didn’t. By the time my uncle passed away I had left that region and never went back.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes it seems that the economic circumstances of one’s childhood do play a determining role in one’s psychological makeup later on. You can never really transcend those early insecurities.

AMMONS

I agree. Though there were other insecurities in my youth—the death of the two brothers, for example.

INTERVIEWER

Were they younger brothers?

AMMONS

Yes. I was four when the brother eighteen months old died. I still carry images of that whole thing. And then the last member of our family was born dead. So I was the only son left.

INTERVIEWER

Did you like working on the farm?

AMMONS

I hated it. You had to work in all kinds of weather. In the winter, you were in the swamp cutting trees for the fuel you needed in the summer for curing the tobacco. I mean it was just a constant round of hard work without reward because we remained in debt year after year after year.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read books at home?

AMMONS

That came later. The only book I can remember having in the house apart from textbooks was the first eleven pages of Robinson Crusoe. I read that so many times I practically had it by memory. I don’t know where the eleven pages came from, but there they were. Otherwise we read the Bible in Sunday school and we sang hymns. That was my exposure to words. And, by the way, I think that hymns have had an enormous influence on what I’ve written because they’re the words I first heard and memorized.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

AMMONS

When I went to high school (which in those times included the eighth grade) I wrote an essay, and the teacher praised it highly and told all our classes, even the senior classes, about it. So I began to get some encouragement pretty early on about writing.

INTERVIEWER

What was the essay about?

AMMONS

We were asked to read articles in Reader’s Digest and then to write our own version of the substance. I wrote about a cow they were trying to breed that would be only about thirty inches high but would give vast amounts of milk. I must have done this in an excellent style because as you can see the subject matter is not all that thrilling.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned Sunday school hymns as an important influence. I can see that in your very first poems, your “I am Ezra” poems. Certainly the religious impulse—the resolve to render the sacred in terms of the secular, to wed the lowly and the divine—is in much of your work. In a poem as recent as “The Damned” a mountaineer surrounded by silent peaks looks down from the summit and supposes that “these damned came of being / near the sanctified, wherever one finds / one one finds the other.” Were you brought up to be serious about religion?

AMMONS

My mother was Methodist, but there was no Methodist church in our rural community, so I never went to a Methodist service. My father was Baptist. The New Hope Baptist Church was two miles away next to the elementary school. Nearer to us, less than a mile away, was the Spring Branch Fire-Baptized Pentecostal Church. I went to Sunday school there and the family sometimes attended preaching on Sundays, prayer meetings on Wednesday nights, or occasional weekly revivals. Once a two-week course in reading music was offered there—the do-re-me-so method—and I attended that when I was about eleven or twelve. As for the Baptist church, I went there for the Christmas Eve celebrations. For some reason, a paper bag containing an orange and apple, raisins and a few English walnuts or pecans was always under the tree for me. The funerals in my family took place at the Baptist church. My little brothers, my grandmother, my aunts, and uncles, and my father and mother were buried there. The Baptist Church represented a higher social and intellectual class than did the Pentecostal. I identify coldly with the family religion. I take my religious spirit, whatever that is, from the Fire-Baptized Pentecostal.

INTERVIEWER

Reading your poems I sometimes feel that they employ scientific means to reach a kind of religious end. I suppose I’ve always taken it for granted that you stopped going to church and that at some point—perhaps in your days as a sonar man in the navy during World War II—poetry became the means by which you expressed your religious convictions.

AMMONS

One day, when I was nineteen, I was sitting on the bow of the ship anchored in a bay in the South Pacific. As I looked at the land, heard the roosters crowing, saw the thatched huts, etcetera, I thought down to the water level and then to the immediately changed and strange world below the waterline. But it was the line inscribed across the variable landmass, determining where people would or would not live, where palm trees would or could not grow, that hypnotized me. The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination—the water level was not what it was because of a single command by a higher power but because of an average result of a host of actions—runoff, wind currents, melting glaciers. I began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves—motions and bodies—the full account of how we came to be a mystery with still plenty of room for religion, though, in my case, a religion of what we don’t yet know rather than what we are certain of. I was de-denominated.

INTERVIEWER

When did you join the navy?

AMMONS

I think it was 1944. I came out in 1946. I was in for nineteen months, about twelve of them in the South Pacific on a destroyer escort. It was on board this ship that I found an anthology of poetry in paperback. And I began to imitate those poems then, and I wrote from then on.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write about home and America and North Carolina or about what was happening in the South Pacific?

AMMONS

Mostly about what was happening in the South Pacific, including some humorous poems about the other members of the crew.

INTERVIEWER

What has happened to these poems?

AMMONS

Oh, they’re around.

INTERVIEWER

Did you continue writing poems in civilian life?

AMMONS

I had never stopped writing but after having gotten a degree, the B.S. in general science at Wake Forest, I borrowed the money to go back for a summer of education courses and then taught the first year as the principal of a three-teacher school in Cape Hatteras. That was 1949–1950. That same fall, 1949, I got married. My wife, Phyllis, had been to Berkeley and liked it. So after a year of teaching, we went to Berkeley for two years. And there I did a good many English courses, completing the undergraduate degree. I had minored in English at Wake Forest so I completed that degree and did almost all the work toward a master’s. And then we left and came back to south Jersey. I lived there for twelve years before coming here to Ithaca.

INTERVIEWER

I know that you worked in your father-in-law’s biological glass factory as a vice president in charge of sales. Were you interested in the work or was it dull?

AMMONS

It wasn’t dull. I have a poem somewhere explaining how running a business is like writing a poem. In business, for example, you bring in the raw materials and then subject them to a certain kind of human change. You introduce the raw materials into a system of order, like the making of a poem, and once the matter is shaped it’s ready to be shipped. I mean, the incoming and outgoing energies have achieved a kind of balance. Believe it or not, I felt completely confident in the work I was doing. And did it, I think, well.

INTERVIEWER

That raises an interesting question. Most American poets work in universities and many if not most were trained in creative-writing programs. It’s the rare exception who makes his or her living outside the academy, as you did. I’m not entirely convinced that this academic dependence is a healthy state of affairs.

AMMONS

Me neither. In my own case, working in industry wasn’t exhausting—I mean poetically exhausting. I could write all the time. It’s been true for me that, in the thirty years I’ve been teaching, my writing is done before the semester starts. The time I do any writing is Christmas vacation. That’s when I wrote “Hibernaculum” and Tape and the “Essay on Poetics.” Most of the things have been done between semesters or during the summers.

INTERVIEWER

When were you invited to teach at Cornell?

AMMONS

I received an invitation from David Ray to give a reading here. He’d seen poems of mine in The Hudson Review. Also, I had that same year relieved Denise Levertov for six months as poetry editor of The Nation. And I had, without knowing the man, accepted a poem by David Ray and published it. I suppose as a kind of return gesture, he invited me to come give a reading for fifty dollars at Cornell, and then he saw my poems in The Hudson Review and raised the fee to a hundred and fifty dollars. So I came in July of 1963 and gave the reading and afterwards James McConkey and Baxter Hathaway and others asked me if I would be interested in teaching. And though I was not a teacher and had not taught, I said yes, because my wife and I were ready to make a move, and so we came to Cornell.

INTERVIEWER

And you’ve been here ever since.

AMMONS

They were very good to me. At first I was the only non-Ph.D. in the English department, and they welcomed me and kept me. They gave me tenure. I thought it was quite remarkable.

INTERVIEWER

Your standing-room-only poetry reading in Ithaca last December was memorable. I never thought I’d see you in a tuxedo. Did the event change your feelings about poetry readings, or confirm them? Why do you suppose people go to readings anyway?

AMMONS

It’s a great mystery. When you consider how boring and painful nearly all poetry readings are, it’s a wonder anyone shows up. And, wisely, few people do. I think it’s not a love of poetry readings that attracts those who do come but theater—to see what the beast, possibly already heard of, looks like in person; to make a poetry-business connection that could prove useful; to see who else comes to poetry readings; to endure pain and purgation; to pass one’s books or pamphlets on to the reader; to see the reader mess up, suffer, lose control, and to enjoy the remarkable refreshment of finding him no less human, vulnerable, or fallible, than oneself.

INTERVIEWER

It may be time for another official Paris Review interview question. What advice do you give to young writers?

AMMONS

First of all, I omit praising them too much if I think that will be the catalyst that causes them to move into a seizure with a poetic way of life. Because I know how difficult that can be, and I tend to agree with Rilke that if it’s possible for you to live some other life, by all means do so. If it seems to me that the person can’t live otherwise than as a writer of poetry, then I encourage them to go ahead and do it. However, the advice splits, depending on how I feel about the person. If I think he’s really a genuine poet, I’d like to encourage him to get out into the so-called real world. If he seems like a poet who’s going to get by through a kind of pressure of having to turn in so many poems per week in order to get a good grade or having to publish a book of poems in order to get promoted, then I encourage him to go to an M.F.A program somewhere and become a so-called professional poet. You get to know people who know how to publish books, you begin to advance your career. I don’t think that has very much to do with real poetry. It sometimes happens that these professional M.F.A. people are also poets, but it rarely happens.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that trying to make a living from poetry is like putting chains on butterfly wings.

AMMONS

Right. I’d stand by that.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about government support of the arts?

AMMONS

I detest it. I detest it on many grounds, but three first. And the first is that the government gouges money from people who may need it for other purposes. Second, the money forced from needy average citizens is then filtered through the sieve of a bureaucracy, which absorbs much of the money into itself and distributes the rest incompetently—since how could you expect the level of knowledge and judgment among such a cluster to be much in advance of the times? At the same time the government attaches strings to the money, not theirs in the first place, to those who gave it in the first place. And third, I detest the averaging down of expectation and dedication that occurs when thousands of poets are given money in what is really waste and welfare, not art at all. Artists should be left alone to paint or not to paint, write or not to write. As it is, the world is full of trash. The genuine is lost, and the whole field wallops with political and social distortions.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel the same way about private support of the arts?

AMMONS

Not at all. Everybody who loves the arts should have the liberty to sustain the particular arts he loves, whenever, wherever. If the love and money go to the popular arts, that’s the way it should be. If there is an outcry for symphonic performances of the great Bs, then that is what should be addressed. High arts that hang on almost vestigial in a culture should be addressed in their own scope, and I think they would not perish but that genius and energy would burst out whenever it’s not already stifled by some blank, some holding grant, some template that just keeps blocking itself out.

INTERVIEWER

Working with you on The Best American Poetry 1994, I noticed that you’re not exactly overjoyed at the sight of poems that have a political agenda.

AMMONS

It’s not because I don’t take political and large cultural matters very seriously. There are wrongs to be addressed. There are balances to be restored. The pragmatic merely supports my theoretical position. That is, what good does it do to write a poem about a matter of urgent interest that almost no one reads? In a thousand years, if it is a magnificent, not half-baked poem, enough people will have read the poem to make a difference, but by then, where are the people, what is the issue? A letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine could be read by twenty-five thousand or twenty-five million people. It would seem patently a waste of time not to try the letter.

A more general position has to do with autonomy. One does not want a poem to serve anything; the liberating god of poetry does not endorse servitude. What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.

INTERVIEWER

Your short poems are lyric outbursts, and you’ve said that they come forth all at once. I know that you write your long poems in increments or passages. These seem in some ways deliberately imperfect—casual, expansive, all-inclusive, loose—in contrast to the shorter lyrics, which are all intensity and compression. Do your long poems entail a different process of writing?

AMMONS

Very different. In the long poem, if there is a single governing image at the center, then anything can fit around it, meanwhile allowing for a lot of fragmentation and discontinuity on the periphery. Short poems, for me, are coherences, single instances on the periphery of a nonspecified center. I revise short poems sometimes for years, whereas, since there is no getting lost in the long poem, I engage whatever comes up in the moment and link it with its moment.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your favorite among your long poems, if you have a favorite?

AMMONS

The poem that I like best, parts of it, is The Snow Poems. It seems to me in that poem I had a more ready availability to the names of things and to images of them than in any of the other long poems.

INTERVIEWER

Tape for the Turn of the Year has everything to do with the physical circumstances of its composition. You typed it on an adding-machine tape, and this determined that you would have a poem of some length consisting of short lines and wide margins. I remember your telling me that the finished parts of the tape fell in coils in a wastepaper basket—kind of a forerunner of Garbage. Was this a way of reminding yourself not to take yourself too seriously?

AMMONS

Yes. That’s great. That’s a good connection.

INTERVIEWER

What started you going? How do you decide when to write a long poem like Tape or Garbage?

AMMONS

In 1963, when I did Tape, I had been thinking of having the primary motion of the poem down the page rather than across. The adding-machine tape, less than two inches wide, seemed just right for a kind of breaking and spilling. Variations of emphasis and meaning that make the long horizontal line beautifully jagged and jerky became on the tape the left and right margins. Soon after I started the tape, I noticed resemblances between it and a novel. The point, like and unlike a novel, was to get to the other end; an arbitrary end would also be an “organic” end. The tape itself became the hero, beginning somewhere, taking on aspects and complications, coming to a kind of impasse, then finding some way to conclude. The material itself seemed secondary; it fulfilled its function whether it was good or bad material just by occupying space. In many ways the arbitrary was indistinguishable from the functional.

So with the other long poems, I wrote them when I had a new form to consider, some idea that would play through. Garbage came from the sight in passing of a great mound of garbage off the highway in Florida. When I found a single image that could sustain multiplicity, I usually could begin to write.

INTERVIEWER

Were you surprised by the success enjoyed by Garbage? The title is a pretty audacious gesture.

AMMONS

I’d paid little attention to Garbage after writing it. But there was a real spurt of interest in the first five sections after they appeared in American Poetry Review, so I engaged a student to type up the rest of it presentably, and I sent it off to Norton, where my editor surprisingly took it. My hope was to see the resemblances between the high and low of the secular and the sacred. The garbage heap of used-up language is thrown at the feet of poets, and it is their job to make or revamp a language that will fly again. We are brought low through sin and death, and hope that religion can make us new. I used garbage as the material submitted to such possible transformations, and I wanted to play out the interrelationships of the high and the low. Mostly, I wanted something to do at the end of a semester.

INTERVIEWER

How about Sphere: The Form of a Motion? You once told me that the subtitle of that poem occurred to you at a Cornell faculty meeting when somebody talked about putting something in “the form of a motion,” and you liberated this phrase from its parliamentary context.

AMMONS

That’s right. My application of the phrase had nothing to do with such meetings, but that was an interesting place for it to arise from. Sphere had the image of the whole earth, then for the first time seen on television, at its center. I guess it was about 1972. There was the orb. And it seemed to me the perfect image to put at the center of a reconciliation of One-Many forces. While I had had sort of philosophical formulations for the One-Many problem before, the earth seemed to be the actual body around which these forces could best be represented. So when I began Sphere, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to kind of complete that process, that marriage of the One-Many problem with the material earth.

INTERVIEWER

The One-Many problem in philosophy has to do with the nature of reality, whether reality inheres in various things of which there is an infinite supply or whether there is one organizing, unifying principle that unites all the disparate phenomena. Is that a fair summation?

AMMONS

Yes. Another way that I think of it is the difference between focus and comprehensiveness. For example, if you wish to focus on a single point, or statement, to the extent you’ve purified the location or content of that statement, to that extent you would eliminate the comprehensiveness of things. You would have to leave out a great many things in order to focus on one thing. On the other hand, if you tried to include everything comprehensively, you would lose the focus. You see what I mean? So you have a polarity, a tension between bringing things into a sort of simplified clarity and going back to the wilderness of comprehensiveness, including everything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel this as a tug of war inside yourself?

AMMONS

An ambivalence, I suppose. Or ambiguity. But somewhere along the line, I don’t know just when, it seems to me I was able to manage the multifariousness of things and the unity of things so much more easily than I ever had before. I saw a continuous movement between the highest aspects of unity and the multiplicity of things, and it seemed to function so beautifully that I felt I could turn to any subject matter and know how to deal with it. I would know that there would be isolated facts and perceptions, that it would be possible to arrange them into propositions, and that these propositions could be included under a higher category of things—so that at some point there might be an almost contentless unity at the top of that sort of hierarchy. I feel that you don’t have to know everything to be a master of knowing, but you learn these procedures and then you can turn them toward any subject matter and they come out about the same. I don’t know when I saw for myself the mechanism of how it worked for me. Perhaps it was when I stopped using the word salient so much and began to use the word suasion.

INTERVIEWER

In a few weeks I’m going to be on a panel, a symposium on the question of what is American about American poetry. It seems like a good question although not an easy one. How should I answer?

AMMONS

Well, I think that question addresses itself to the past and not to the present or the future.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think poetry has any future?

AMMONS

It has as much future as past—very little.

INTERVIEWER

Could you elaborate on that?

AMMONS

Poetry is everlasting. It is not going away. But it has never occupied a sizable portion of the world’s business and probably never will.

INTERVIEWER

It seems that few of your contemporaries strike you as indispensable, with the exception of Ashbery.

AMMONS

Wouldn’t that be true of almost any period? Of the great many who write at any time, history has kept track of few.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the few that you hold dearest?

AMMONS

Do I have to answer that? As a peripheral figure myself, I hesitate to comment on the devices of my contemporaries.

INTERVIEWER

I meant from earlier generations.

AMMONS

I would say Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton. I’m not that crazy about Dryden and Pope and the eighteenth century, but I like the romantics and I like Whitman and Dickinson. That’s all. That’s enough. Isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said many times that Ashbery is our greatest poet.

AMMONS

Ashbery has changed things for poetry in interesting ways above any other of my contemporaries. I admire almost everyone else equally.

INTERVIEWER

You are often identified as a distinctively American poet.

AMMONS

Do you find that to be true?

INTERVIEWER

Certainly your idiom is American, your conception of the poem, and I would say your relation to poetic tradition seems to me American.

AMMONS

I have tried to get rid of the Western tradition as much as possible. You notice I don’t mention anything in my poetry having to do with Europe or where we come from. I never allude to persons or places or events in history. I really do want to begin with a bare space with streams and rocks and trees. I have a little, a tiny poem that says something about the only way you can do anything at all about all of Western culture is to fail to refer to it. And that’s what I do. This makes my poetry seem, and maybe it actually is, too extremely noncultural. And perhaps so. I grew up as a farmer and I had at one time a great love for the land because my life and my family and the people around me depended on weather and seasons and farming and seeds and things like that. So my love for this country was and is unlimited. But that’s different from a governmental assessment of things, which I believe is basically urban. And it seems to me a poet such as Ashbery who locates himself in the city, which is the dominant culture now, is more representative of the American poet than perhaps I am.

INTERVIEWER

You said you wanted to eliminate Western culture from your poetry. Why?

AMMONS

Well, I sort of disagree with it.

INTERVIEWER

With the Cartesian mind, or with what? The philosophical tradition of the West? The Roman sense of justice?

AMMONS

If I get back to the pre-Socratics, I feel that I’m in the kind of world that I would enjoy being in, but nothing since then. Especially in the last two thousand years, dominated by Christianity and the Catholic church and other religious organizations. I feel more nearly myself aligned with Oriental culture.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve always been curious about why you’ve traveled so little. I think you spent a year in Italy.

AMMONS

Three months. We had the traveling fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which was for a year, but we came back after three months. I lost twenty pounds and I couldn’t wait to get home.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t care for the experience of being an expatriate?

AMMONS

I hated it. I’m not interested in all that cultural crap. It was just a waste of time for me.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe this is part of what you were talking about before when you spoke of your rejection of Western culture, by which I take it you mean more specifically a rejection of Europe or of European cultural domination.

AMMONS

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

But it occurred to me that one reason you have traveled very little is . . .

AMMONS

There’s no place to go.

INTERVIEWER

There’s no place to go?

AMMONS

Yeah, that’s a good reason not to travel. Well, I’m interested in the Orient, but I’m really not interested in going there. I’m not interested in Europe. I have no interest whatsoever in going there. Every now and then I go to Owego and sometimes I go to Syracuse, sometimes to Geneva, Binghamton—all over the place.

INTERVIEWER

Geneva, New York, rather than Geneva, Switzerland.

AMMONS

Geneva, New York, right.

INTERVIEWER

It occurred to me that another reason might be that you’d already done a considerable journey in going from your origins on the coastal plain of North Carolina to the hills and lakes of central New York state. A critic could spin a parable about the northward progression of your life—from a state that was part of the Confederacy to a university town in . . .

AMMONS

In the Emersonian tradition. In fact there is an essay about how I came to the north and took over the Emersonian tradition.

INTERVIEWER

I thought you had decided to become influenced by Emerson only after Bloom told you that you’d been.

AMMONS

That’s basically correct, except that I did have a course on Emerson and Thoreau at Wake Forest. The professor was basically a preacher, however, who treated the hour as an occasion for sermonizing. But yes—it’s a marriage of the South to the North.

INTERVIEWER

What is?

AMMONS

The movement of my life.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spent more time in the North.

AMMONS

Much more. I lived my 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.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.