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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

Ammons worked most significantly in the crucial early years of the 1960s was Denise Levertov, who appears in “Summer Place” in 1975 as “Denise,” who “is off there by herself, now: // . . . how I wish I / would hear from her!” A native of Britain who emigrated after the war, Levertov began publishing again in the Black Mountain Review in the mid-1950s, and her third book of poetry, Overland to the Islands, was published in 1958 by the important North Carolina writer and literary entrepreneur Jonathan Williams, whom Ammons would soon meet. There is already a useful preliminary study of Ammons, Levertov, and Williams by Kevin McGuirk in the Chicago Review in 2012, and Gilbert’s biography will supply authoritative information on these connections.6 My point in passing is simply this: the study of Ammons and North Carolina literary culture is far from limited to the rich primary topics rooted in Columbus County. As a major figure, Ammons already belongs to the handbooks and guides. Capsule accounts typically point to Emerson and Whitman as the key nineteenth-century antecedents and often foreground William Carlos Williams as an immediate forerunner. There is good evidence on this front that also includes the biographical, such as a journal account of a day in June 1960 when Ammons took an ill and aging Williams on a car ride around his beloved Paterson, NJ, precincts.7 But the full landscape of The Complete Poems now enables the best criticism 6

Kevin McGuirk, “Ammons in Correspondence,” Chicago Review 57.1–2 (2012): 167–72.

7

A.R. Ammons, “A Visit with WCW,” Chicago Review 57.1–2 (2012): 140–41.

to tend more complexly to the boxes and labels of partial truths that Ammons himself wrestled with throughout his career, such as “nature poet” or – wonder of wonders – a scientifically literate poet. In the late Glare, the poet who is clearly most on his mind is not Williams or Ashbery or Rich but Wallace Stevens, in multiple passages scattered throughout that last long poem (and where the insurance executive is often invoked, with complicated Southern charm, as “Mr. Stevens”). One example may suffice: “someday / I’m going to write on how Stevens / makes his be buzz: I am: scram.” With signature style, Ammons here salutes one of the supreme poets of mind by nailing Stevens’s signature syntax with a (serious) insect pun that discharges in tribute its own final rhyming buzz of a form of the verb “to be.” The Complete Poems includes an extensive new introductory essay by Helen Vendler (printed in full in both volumes), who was with Harold Bloom one of the two foremost champions of Ammons’s poetry during his career. We can forgive Vendler for misplacing the collegiate Ammons at Wake Forest University instead of a hundred miles east at Wake Forest College, especially since Ammons’s collaborator, friend, and editor David Lehman fumbles the same fact in his important Paris Review interview with Ammons. The Pulitzer-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler is fond of zeroing in on the “white-hot center” that motivates writers at their best.8 In her introduction, Vendler singles 8

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out an epiphany during Ammons’s Navy months in the Pacific, when, perched on the bow of a ship, he gazed on the ever-shifting boundary of sea and land, like Stephen Dedalus on Dublin Bay in Joyce’s Portrait: “But it was the line inscribed across the variable land mass . . . that hypnotized me. The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination” (Set 95). I tend to gravitate to what Ammons singled out as “the most powerful image of my emotional life”: “It was when my little brother, who was two and half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That’s the most powerful image I’ve ever known” (Set 71). The poetry of Archie Ammons takes me to many places, but especially to Bladen County, just up the road from Whiteville, where my mother was born a decade before Ammons on a hot July day in the downstairs dining room, the coolest room in the house. The story I grew up with is that my grandfather, dead long before me, clomped around Clarkton in a wagon, handing out cantaloupes in celebration. As Ammons excavates such roots and their memories in “Easter Morning,” the magnificent lyric about his dead brother, such soil “is life nearest to life which is / life lost.” For Archie Randolph Ammons, what survives is the glorious fruit of The Complete Poems, a rich field carefully and devotedly tended now by Robert West. n

Zofia Burr Ammons, ed. Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues, (U of Michigan P, 1996) 86, subsequently cited parenthetically; Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove, 2005) 12.

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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