“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. Read More