A. R. Ammons's comic strip Glare: lit(t)erary musings about nothing.
It is as if Men turning into things, as comedy, Stood, dressed in antic symbols, to display The truth about themselves, having lost, as things, That power to conceal they had as men.
--Wallace Stevens, "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven"
READERS HAVE TAKEN AND CONTINUE TO TAKE A. R. AMMONS SERIOUSLY as a major twentieth-century poet, approaching his work from a wide range of critical and theoretical perspectives, such as the psychoanalytical, postmodern, scientific, theological, philosophical, cybernetic, and ecological. His name has been identified with the likes of Lao-Tsu, Emerson, Coleridge, Yeats, Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger, Whitman, Frost, Williams, and Stevens. (1) Ammons has done his own share of name-dropping, acknowledging or alluding to the influence on his work of Confucius, Plotinus, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Emerson, and Eliot, for instance. When queried, Ammons typically confirmed that his deepest affinities lay with Eastern as opposed to Western traditions, but when one reads his late 1990s long poem, Glare, one thinks not so much of Lao-Tsu's spiritual philosophy as of that popular 1990s American sitcom, Seinfeld, the self-proclaimed "show about nothing."
Glare, even more so than Garbage, his other book-length poem from the same decade, really is about nothing at all. Entangled yet again in rolls of adding machine tape, the aging and now ill poet finds that his focus has gone out with (the) Garbage (Glare 27) and that his "endless yapping" (64) about nothing and, well, everything has left him ultimately cramped up in the prison house of his own mind, not unlike the New York foursome in the final episode of the long-running television series. Having lost his attention, Ammons is ironically freed up to ask "so what is it to be while we are here / in this splendid (American) place:" (8). Stripped down in Lear-like fashion to his own being, he finds himself writing a darkly humorous comic "Strip" (as he names part one of Glare), (2) his version of Seinfeldian comedy. In this lit(t)erary comic strip, which takes us from symbolic "garbage" to mere "litter," Ammons's detritus is a "tale of us" (246). The poet may hanker for some high-falutin Eastern spirituality, but he ends up mired in humour, American-style.
Ammons made it apparent on several occasions that he wanted to disengage himself from Western traditions. In 1994, he told David Lehman in "The Paris Review Interview" that he "tried to get rid of the Western tradition as much as possible" (105) in his work because "I feel more nearly myself aligned with Oriental culture" (106). In Glare, East meets West, intimately:
:put Laotse in bed with Confucius, that gives you interior impetus with external shaping: a lovely combination, which boredom could explode: a combination that would not play in Colorado, say: two boys abed: no taxpayer could come of that:[.] (256-57)
Read from a comic perspective, the long poem betrays Ammons to be a Westerner through and through. If Seinfeld and Ammons had something to say about nothing to Americans late in the twentieth century, it was that, when glaring at nothingness, despite one's deepest anxieties and fears, like those aroused by the thought of "two boys abed" ("not that there's anything wrong with it" in the Seinfeldian universe),one may as well have a good chuckle.
Like his fellow Americans, Ammons was no stranger to prime-time television programs. He admits, in "Hibernaculum," to watching the popular comedy-variety show Hee Haw in the early eighties (CP 385) and, in Glare, to watching the NBC blockbuster Seinfeldin the nineties (237). (3) In what would be his last long poem, Ammons writes that, as he "relished / sitcoms" (16) one night, he noticed a mouse in the corner. Toward the end of Glare, he records an uncanny repetition of the same scenario: "we were watching Seinfeld when / abruptly another mouse, like, darted across / the floor" (237), realized it was in a deathly precarious spot and, comically, hightailed it back out "the way he came" (237). This single, direct reference to the sitcom is significant, not because Ammons is conceding to having been influenced by the series, which he may have been, but because the show had so infiltrated 1990s American culture that it seemed somehow to define it. As the media was fond of reporting, Seinfeld dominated the airwaves on Thursday nights and the offices across America on Friday mornings, and it continues to run in syndication to this day. The humour of nothingness had struck a chord in the American imagination at the close of the millennium, and this same chord is played over and over in Glare with remarkable tenacity for an old man at the "butt end" (206) of his life. (4)
It is not that Archie aspired to be Jerry but that, deliberately or otherwise, the long poetic form he practised in Glare is similar to Seinfeldian sitcom specifically and to American-style stand-up comedy generally in that it focuses on nothingness and even treats it similarly. It is worth noting just how close Ammons's style is to the improvisational style practised by American comedians, such as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Andy Dick, and Chris Farley. In the so-called bible for improvisational comedy, entitled Truth in Comedy." The Manual of Improvisation, the authors reveal how Del Close's famous "Harold," a long-form improvisational method, worked: "start with nothing" and have no idea where you are going (Halpern 57), make it a rule to renounce all rules (18) and "preconceived ideas" (64), stay in the moment so as to be "constantly making discoveries" (71), be "sincere and honest" (23) since the truth is funny (15), avoid all explanation (31) and let connections happen on their own (35), accept that there are no bad ideas and no mistakes (43), rely on "sense memory" of smells and sights (101), know that the best laughs come from "[t]errific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally" (25), and "[w]elcome the silences" because "[t]here is action in thought" (90). These ideas closely correspond with Ammons's own comedic strategy in Glare.
The appeal of nothingness recurs throughout his career in his long and short poems, but the subject finds its proper medium in his longer works. As he writes in "Summer Session," "the most perfect nothingness affords / the widest play, / the most perfect meaninglessness" (CP 249-50). The prolixity of the long poetic form, particularly the book-length poem, enabled him to test his courage to look into and his stamina to sustain what he calls in "Hibernaculum," quite simply, "hell," which he defined as "the meaninglessness of stringing out / events in unrelated, undirected sequences:" (CP 361). In this earlier poem, Ammons associates hell specifically with living in the present moment and with youthfulness. Young people, he claims, "don't believe in time as future" and "don't believe / in the thread, the plot" (360); consequently, their "hell" is to be tethered to surface reality, moment by moment, "without retrospect / or prospect" (361). On later occasions, however, this hell of the timeless present becomes his sought-after haven. In a 1996 interview with Steven P. Schneider, Ammons, speaking of his book-length poem Tape for the Turn of the Year published the year earlier, stated that he originally intended to call it Today, "because it was going to be the surface of things as they occur--from day to day" (335), and that he was chiefly inspired by Emerson, who
said something that has affected me more deeply than anything he ever said. That was some casual remark, I think in the "Nature" essay: "Let me record from day to day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect.... I have no doubt it will be found to have been symmetrical." (Schneider 335-36)
Out of the act of recording, "something may emerge" (336), and this belief fueled his commitment to ongoingness. (5) By 1977, Ammons was ready to push meaninglessness, nothingness, and hell to the next level. The linkage between them and the long poetic form lay at the heart of his original intention for The Snow Poems, which he dreamed of making interminably long:
It starts with the first snows in the fall and goes through to the end in the spring. The whole purpose there again was to write about nothing. I had originally meant to write a thousand pages in which I was going to show you could go on inexhaustibly about nothing. I thought that by the time I got to page 300 and something that I had more than proved that, so I didn't do the thousand pages. I regret it now and wish I had gone ahead and just made a colossally unreadable book about nothing. (Schneider 340)
As he explained to Schneider, by "just kind of wandering around in the peripheries of nothingness and not engaged in the big social business of the world" (347), he would, in the long poem, be brought "closer and closer to where we are" (349). This type of anti-quest preoccupied Ammons in the 1990s, during which time he produced two more book-length poems. To appreciate where he is headed in Glare, we first need to try to understand what he relinquished in Garbage.
As similar as Garbage and Glare appear given that both are long meditations typed on adding machine paper and composed in unrhymed couplets divided into cantos, their differences are noteworthy. Glare is Ammons's attempt to go beyond g/ Garbage. Why and how he planned to do so is telling. As to why, Ammons confesses in G]are a need to "get a picture of what's / going on:" (53), a goal that he felt he had, to date, failed to accomplish. To that end, he felt compelled to re-conceptualize his "controlling symbol" of the garbage dump (Schneider 325). The mountainous garbage dump itself had now to be trashed because it had become burdened with a symbolic significance that no longer rang true for him. Ammons had put his faith in garbage, the dumping ground of "our / sins" (29), because he believed that garbage, like any "global crises" (232), had the power to "draw nations together" (Garbage 24). He believed that, standing before the "ziggurat" of our waste (18), we would witness the dead, the obsolescent, "hauled / off to and burned down on, the energy held and // shaped into new turns and clusters" (20). Garbage was, he proclaimed, ultimately "spiritual" (18) and "served a sacred function" (115), bringing us to an ecological awareness of and "love" for the other (Garbage 96). (6) Ammons saw Garbage as a surprisingly optimistic poem that would "turn us around" (21), offering us "ease" in place of our all too common experience of "anxiety" (119-20). That said, it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that in the later poem he turned his back on his belief that "garbage has to be the poem of our time" (Garbage 18), for Glare is very much a garbage-centered poem. But the times had changed, and the poet seemingly came to the realization that the very idea he praised in the earlier poem of garbage as a "socialized form" (53) that involved the efforts of a community (7) was exactly what he must now haul out to the curb. How he planned to go beyond g/ Garbage is apparent in his abandonment of this idealized symbol for a unified human community because it simply failed to reproduce for the poet an accurate picture of "what's / going on" in his own life and in contemporary America as he now saw things.
As is, perhaps, the fate of all temples in the modern era, (8) this temple of refuse had to be dismantled, and Glare is its dismantling. The deconstruction of the garbage mound both wearies and reinvigorates him for, although "the / summit of my aspiration has worn // down into a talus of incidentals:" (59-60), those very "incidentals" are the small things that can again lead to big things (280). In garbage's radically deconstructed form only litter remains, the casually tossed refuse one finds scattered about in public places everywhere. Unlike garbage, litter is "without centrality: / it is not budgeted, it flies in the // face of organization" (Glare 54); consequently, unlike Garbage that brought us to worship the iconographic mound of waste on I-95, Glare adopts a paradoxically decentralized centralizing image. As Ammons states, "the central // image of this poem is that it has no / mound gathering stuff up but strews // itself across a random plain randomly:" (54). Even if, as the scientist in the poet is aware, litter itself is likely "governed by certain dynamics of flow / so that it is not truly free," still "with litter perhaps the // central image is harder to find, made / of subtler tendencies, harder to see" (54). Looking at life, his and the nation's, from the periphery of nothingness, Ammons now finds the sky-high, sun-drenched garbage heap an inadequate symbol for the very reason he once adopted it: it is too quickly linked to "sacred images--Mayan temples, ziggurats of Sumeria, and pyramids of Egypt, as being centralizing images for whole cultures" (Schneider 326). "[A]narchic and anti-agglutinate" (55) litter is the new non-form required by the poet who wishes to capture a "snapshot" (53) of the disturbingly heterogeneous reality of late twentieth-century America.
Various meanings of litter resonate throughout the text. First, the notion of litter as waste materials carelessly dropped appealed greatly to Ammons at this late date in his life. Given that his "attention, torn down / and thrown out, has been picked up by the // trash truck:" (27), he can no longer focus (28). His problem is exacerbated by the drugs he is taking: "lofty or zolofty, red or blue, down or double / downdown: do you, in this condition, have any // right to speak" (282-83). His loss of attention, focus, and memory frees him up to wander. Thoughts, ideas, beliefs are, necessarily, randomly strewn (54) as he engages in a "pointless war" to capture "insignificance" (42). Because Glare is not a road poem, unlike Garbage in which he recounts driving down I-95, we can at most hope that
the poet's wandering finds another way, but just the thread of another way, not a path, road, or superhighway; not an airstrip or launching pad--[.] (98)
In the end, we are left with the chaotic mess of "item unrelated // to item" (54), a mess that defines the poem and our world. To capture the mess we humans have made of things, he draws on the nasty metaphor of animals who have fouled their own nest (248). Left in our incompetent hands,
the planet's riddled, stink flows down the mighty rivers; dirty water climbs sores up the children's legs: the orb, the dulled shiner: we cast it aside, sucked dry: [.] (248)
With Hemingway-esque brevity, Ammons writes simply "that the world is so bad / off (for us, I mean) is tragic" (214). Ammons also plays with the meaning of litter as a stretcher for carrying the sick, and sickness pervades the poem on a local, national, and global level, as well as on a more personally physical, spiritual, and aesthetic level. The poet's conveyance for carrying the sick is his skinny adding machine tape (135), which leaves him, one of the sickly, uncomfortably cramped up: "I just feel so//broken down: there isn't a bit of/room on this tape for a little / expansion or elaboration:" (167-68). Finally, as his "sad song" draws to a close, he seeks comfort in the notion of a litter as multiple offspring at one birth, for the thrusting of his phallic stave will "bring relief" and more importantly, "future singers" (294) who will continue what he began yet failed to complete. (9) Ammons once stated that "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" (Lehman 101), and litter became that image. After plodding through that stinking "heap of used-up language" in Garbage (102), the poet discovers that unfettered litter enables him to do what a poet must do with dead language, which is "to make or revamp a language that will fly again" (Lehman 102). Litter satisfies because it "flies in the / face of organization" (Glare 54).
The act of tossing out everything and anything as so much litter takes on a dark comedic quality as a result of the situation of the speaker in the poem. Not only is he an "old person in his / dotage" (252), who is at liberty to say whatever he wishes, but also he is precariously standing on the periphery of the black hole of the ultimate nothingness from which there is no return:
oh, we go, we go, we go, so long--forever: though, when we go, it is only for an instant and then we are gone, and staying gone, we are gone timelessly and once and for an:[.] (7-8)
A certain amount of gallows humor is peppered throughout the poem in part because any "tale of us" cannot ignore the unifying role that death plays. Just as we all die, we all wish we could have some say in when and how. We "could wish to slip away in//the cool of a late evening, a daiquiri in one / hand, the other up somebody's thigh," rather than when the doctors arrive with their "devices" (242), but it would not matter since we are not in control of such metaphysical matters. On a more mundane level, we are also united by general dissatisfaction, such as with our bodies, for instance. Whether it be the size or shape of our ears, the condition or colour of our skin, the "ratio of hip to shoulder" (264), we are unhappy. Lack of control, frustrated desire, and dissatisfaction are just part of our all too-human condition, and no one should be so naive as to think that anyone is exempt from this "short, meaningless, jailed life" (138), although it would be nice to think "the world spared someone" (154). Pain is ruthlessly democratic: "only stars / give point fit high enough for us to//see the widespread evenness of / disaster:" (154). Given that "we live in / pain" and that "we / are not in charge" (14), we may as well "learn to love misery" (170). Standing on the edge of"O Blivion" (170), the poet delivers a perversely funny poem because "life is just irrepressible// even in death," so "why give//a millennial hoot:" (125-26).
Like the sitcom Seinfeld, Glare shines the spotlight on life in the nineties as a kind of hell, a hell of aloneness, as opposed to a paradisal communal love. Each time the poet tries to escape his isolation, he becomes only too conscious of the other whom he can never seemingly reach: "let's not talk / about me anymore: what about your / tears: and fears:" (88). But his ruminations snake indulgently back to himself, and after a mere eight lines, he makes another attempt: "let's / not talk about me: how are you doin'" (89). Almost one hundred pages later, he concludes "Strip" with the admission that, try as he might, he cannot escape the self." "enough about me: I sure wish I could / think about something else" (178). Ammons capitulates to his self-absorption before he gets halfway through "Scat Scan": "I am so much alone, / you are not here" (238). Ours is, indeed, a "jailed life" (138), but the trope of the prison, specifically the prison house of the mind, while not new, in this historical context brings to mind the famous finale of Seinfeld, in which the New York foursome are incarcerated together in a prison cell for failing to act as good Samaritans. Their stunning indifference to their fate was painfully humourous, for they apparently continue to carry on in the same callous, self-absorbed manner for which they became endeared to the American public in the first place. It was a shocking and unflattering image of the contemporary age. The stubborn survival of the foursome depended, it appeared, upon their casual acceptance of the mental prison, and they simply go on unscathed and untouched by their personal history of deplorable, amoral behaviour as catalogued in the final episode.
Ammons's persona in Glare bears some marked resemblances to the sitcom characters. Although Ammons knows he is "an old fool in a gilded cage" (275), he, not unlike the emotionally-arrested Seinfeld cast, still sees himself as someone who has not yet "worked through" his adolescence (22). Also, like the Seinfeld cast, Ammons fully intends to "go on" (275) for as long as possible in spite of his own mental and physical imprisonment. He is anything but cowed by his own hollowness, even daring to have "the gall to ask to be known for nothing" (113). Unlike the Seinfeldian quartet, however, he found it hard to master cool indifference and joy, harder still: "release us from mental prisons into the actual / fact, the mere occurrence" (Tape 99). To complicate matters for Ammons, even "actual fact" could be cramping and unsustaining without occasional release into the "assimilations of higher, restful suasions where arc-like / staying has beginning and ending and smooth curvature / reliable:" (CP361). In Glare, more than in any of his other long poems, Ammons complains, and complains a lot, about feeling cramped: cramped by the narrowness of the tape, (10) cramped in his self-absorbed mind, and cramped in his degenerating body.
Ammons prepares the reader from the very outset that the only release that can be expected from the literary, mental, and physical prison is laughter, which is really no release at all. Given that "we are an absurd / irrelevance on this slice of curvature" and that "nothing: meaninglessness / our only meaning:" (3), Ammons cannot help but open his final long poem with the obvious one-liner: "wdn't it be silly to be serious now:" (3). Regardless of"our deepest concerns / such as death or love or child-pain," he claims he is "already starting to feel funny: I / think I may laugh:" (3). Tragic moments such as funerals were the stuff of comedy in Seinfeld, and Ammons similarly exploits the comedic potential of the ritual: "I mean, how far can//you go with a funeral before you die laughing:" (214). In the glare of imminent death, there are no sacred cows, and nothing is permitted escape from "a belly laugh or a witty / dismissal:" (3). Just as Seinfeld dared to make a comedic sketch out of the Holocaust film Schindler's List, Ammons will make one out of his own death. Early in the poem, Ammons gets his affairs in order, and like Sylvia Plath's voyeuristic "peanut-crunching crowd" in "Lady Lazarus," he gets out the peanut butter and soda crackers, plans to buy the right soles for his shoes, considers leaving something for his son, bequeaths his poems to his readers if they will have them, and then sits back to enjoy his final ride: "come, let's / celebrate: it will all be over" (6). As he sees it, even though "God's in His//heaven,...not all is right with the world:" (248); in fact so little is right that "it is hilarious how sad the world is:" (214). In the face of nothingness, poverty, and diminishment, Ammons, more so than Frost, Williams, or Stevens, recommends laughter, pure and simple: "better laugh a little at yourself, so you join / the universal chorus: get with it:" (275).
To sustain his defiant glare into the nothingness that is quotidian existence and his own impending death, as well as to keep the laughter genuine, Ammons records nothing more than life's minutiae because that is all there is. Staying on the surface of things and observing life's odd little moments was equally a trade-mark of Seinfeld's stand-up comic routine and later his show, both of which articulated for a generation the absurd realities that we often unconsciously experience on a daily basis but which, when isolated and articulated, strike us as strangely funny. For nine seasons, viewers sat riveted to their televisions to watch Jerry and Elaine trying to get a table at a Chinese restaurant, while George struggles to get on a pay phone; Elaine attempting to get soup from the temperamental Soup Nazi; or Kramer struggling to put Kenny Rogers Roasters out of business. As Larry David, one of the writers and producers, reportedly said, the show must have "no hugging, no learning" (Morreale), principles he remained loyal to in his later show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which features himself as himself. The entertainment value came from witnessing the litter of thoughts that filled up and spilled out of their vacuous minds: platforms for pharmacists, driving and nose picking, cold water and penile shrinkage, close talkers, "spongeworthy" men, and big-handed women. The topics were seemingly endless and always endlessly banal.
In Glare, which is more than double the length of Garbage, Ammons resolutely commits himself to skimming the surface of life's irrelevancies in a rather absurd search for the tediously ordinary. Not unlike the anti-hero, Seinfeld, the poet does not venture much further than his home, his car, or his local coffee shop. On this cramped "strip: / I dabble the surface" (26), because, now sounding like a petulant adolescent, "I don't / have to follow lofty urgings" (29). His reflections are so severely curtailed that we find the poet mulling over the most elemental subjects, like "the smell of pricks" (226), "rolled snot" (124), shoe buying (288), "ass kissers" (138), constipation (279), and even smegma (116). These "hollow meanderings" are the "trail of nothingness" (199) he bequeaths to his audience: "my trade for my / harm in the world" (6). As Ammons states, "stripping is / what I do" (113), and down-home honesty is his goal even though, unlike "outrageousness," honesty "has no flash or gimmick" (12). What he discovers in the process of "keeling to this band of/paper" is that "if//you say what you have to say then you / have nothing to say" (113). And, honestly, Ammons often has nothing to say: "all this dithery dawdling, I can't get going" (183). Then there are those equally embarrassing moments when he has something to say but cannot remember what it was: "I'm trying to remember a memory" (175). Making literature out of the litter of his thoughts on nothing is no easy task because he wishes to create "not something out of/something-fairly easy--but something//out of nothing:" (113-14), ex nihilo. His obsession with nothingness reveals itself with the constant reappearance of the word itself used in a myriad of contexts on page after page: "when everything runs, nothing runs / through your mind" (168), "the still / pond of nothingness" (134), "I'm miserable / over nothing" (108), the next life is "no place, nothing / at all, an end to this place" (169), "I// know some things well: but they are / about nothing:" (51)," (there really was nothing for me to amount to//except the nothing I am:" (204), "I can give nothing back" (209), "I am / just as lowdown good for nothing as//you are, maybe lower" (145), "nothing is really quite / easy in the world" (107). 11 The challenge of having nothing to say is, of course, "can you make nothing interesting[?]" (116).
Why Seinfeld's show about nothing had such a long and healthy run on television has become the subject of studies by scholars from a wide range of academic disciplines. In "Seinfeld's Humor Noir: A Look at Our Dark Side," psychologists Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch argue that the show, despite its blatantly Jewish nature, reached a "diverse American and even international audience" because viewers identified with the characters' "immaturity, narcissism, and venality," shared human traits that the show "flaunted with cynical humor." Faced with our inhumanity, they argued that audiences learned "to develop a sense of humor and acceptance about this darkness." Joanne Morreale, a Communications Studies specialist, argues in "Sitcoms Say Goodbye: The Cultural Spectacle of Seinfeld's Last Episode" that the final episode, which was "emblematic of the series as a whole," became a "unifying national moment, as manufactured by the media." Relying on postmodern literary devices, such as "self-referentiality, intertextuality, parody, and play with the sitcom form," the show blurred the boundary between fiction and reality, foregrounded its own discourse, and "in doing so, it illustrated the way that hypermediated relationships serve as the locus of community in contemporary culture." The final episode "parodied the superficiality and self-absorption of its audience," for whom there would be "no future, no fulfilment, and no redemption." The stand-up comedian is left, she argued, "performing his act, stripped of all of the artifice of the sitcom form." In a review of Thomas S. Hibbs's Shows About Nothing." Nihilism and Popular Culture from "The Exorcist" to "Seinfeld, " Paul A. Cantor, a professor of English, argues that, despite the author's thesis that moral decline in America is everywhere apparent in its pop cultural art forms, Seinfeld practised pitch-perfect comedy, which he defines as "the puncturing of pieties," by making us laugh at our "liberal sanctimoniousness on such issues as ethnic pride, gay identity, and disability rights." Given that "[n]ihilism has indeed become an endemic problem in modern society" and that we may be "living at the end of history," Cantor states that "we can at least have a few last laughs as the shadows fall." Despite the range of studies, the consensus seems to be that Seinfeld embodied the nineties, revealing humanity in an most horrific light that never failed to bring us to laughter instead of tears, and apparently, we could not get enough of it.
In much the same way and for comparable reasons, Ammons performs his act one more time in Glare. His comedic schtick, partly determined by the fact that he chose not to stay home on the family farm, is to play the
smart boy: this shaken isolate, this drained discard, this dust bit, too disconnected to settle, this comical comer touching down here and there on a surface too hot to stick with:[.] (188-89)
The venue of the long poetic form allows this comic monologuist the range to carry on at whim. Until the "fat lady" completes her "primping in the dressing room" (223) and steps on stage, he is the opening act, whose job it is to make us laugh at him and with him since his story is our story, if because only "in time all the stories become the same story:" (243). In Whitmanic fashion, Ammons morphs into the "OVERSIZE Average" American (71). His comic strip, which is so narrowly personal and so broadly public, will
unwind a tale of us, even if of a few, so strikingly revelatory that all of us known and unknown will become largely re-known--our makeup, our meanings so similar that to tell of one of us will do for all: [.] (246-7)
In this comic portrait of an old poet-professor, who is retired, on mind-muddling medication, cranky and silly by turns, insightful at times and confused at others, we see ourselves, and the picture is not pretty as is painfully apparent when we compare two of his 1990s Farmers Market scenes.
In Garbage, Ammons tempers his vision of human affliction by discovering in the mundane "an//element of the remarkable" (81). In the earlier of the two poems, the market scene is transformed into a miniature America, the iconic land of plenty, and for the moment, the poet sees mankind not for the "toothless, big bellied, bald, broadrumped, / deaf" (69) people we are, but as dignified humanity: "this is// we at our best, not killing, scheming, abusing, / running over, tearing down, burning up:" (70). Ammons is spiritually revived by finding the gold, "the essential" (55), in the garbage. This spirit of generosity toward mankind is noticeably missing from the market scene depicted in poem #97 of Glare, which he opens with the disclaimer that "when I'm interviewed I tell the wide-open / truth" (252). Mid-poem, prior to relating what he sees at the market, he refers to how cold he is standing around the fruits and vegetables in his summer shirt with no undershirt to shield him from the wind. Repeating the word "cold" three times in four lines of verse, his physical coldness prepares us for his ruthless emotional coldness. He ends the poem by fixing his focus squarely on the grotesqueness of humanity:
but I noticed the people, mostly short and stocky, and not pretty, so I concluded that it is not the aim of humanity (or DNA) to make b people or they or it would hit the mark more often: ugly, I mean, in the faces, and ugly bodies-one woman, I remember so squdged down and fat, I thought her buttocks and cunt could never come unglued [.] (252-53)
The figure of this particularly physically repulsive woman fills him with anything but love. Not unlike the cynical Seinfeld characters, he expresses not even a modicum of tolerance or empathy. (12) Looking upon the monstrous female body, he is instead caught up in a fantasy of his masculine, animal power: "yet I thought one could be//overtaken by a brutal need to get in there and / see what it was like:" (253). Ammons concludes the poem by flatly admitting that "I am / faithful to the changes in me" (253), as though servitude to his nature exonerates him from the violence of his rape fantasy. Like a Mobius strip (128), his "tale of us" is infinitely twisted.
Life lived in the face of death, not unlike the narrow tape itself, forces the poet "back in on [him]self" (120) to confront the emptiness of his own mental litter. Spinning out his inner nothingness, canto by canto, Ammons creates a long poem that is akin to a weekly comic strip that unfolds without plot or predetermined meaning. Theoretically, Glare could go on indefinitely, wandering from one idea to another no matter how inane. For one thing, the poet does not want to die, stating "I still like it / here" (170), and, for another, he still has not learned the meaning of life or "what was// it all about:" (223). Although purely arbitrary, the ending comes about in part because he has fulfilled his twofold mandate to "bring relief and the future singers in" (294). With respect to the much-needed relief from the anxiety that he shares with his generation, (13) the poet-comedian's relentless monologue relieves him and his audience by providing a distraction from an otherwise paralysing angst: fear of death, modern alienation, social disintegration, urban decay, genocide, ecological disaster, over-population, and so on. His means of relief, however, is not to be misinterpreted as escape. Anxiety, for Ammons, is an absolute given that the best poets manipulate skillfully manipulate:
there is the poet who is himself in such an anxious state that he turns to the poem not to create an even more intense verbal environment, but to do just the contrary; to ease that pressure. And this poet is I think potentially the greatest poet. But, he must in the very dissolution or effort to ease that pressure, he must not lose it; the reader must know that it's there, that that pressure is there. (Stahl 45)
As to his mandate to usher in the next generation of poets, Ammons can, at best, sustain his "sad song" (294) as long as possible until the new poets say "yes yes to the new//days darkened howsomever:" (294) and pick up the beat where he left off. Although he must die, the show must go on, and Ammons appears confident that, like life and laughter, poetry is irrepressible. On a final note of"FLAWS AND DRAWBACKS" (294), the poem terminates with the blank white page. Just as Ammons once said "I really do want to begin with a bare space" (Lehman 105), that, too, is where he ends.
Ideally for Ammons, anxiety tries "to get rid of everything thick and material--to arrive at a spiritual emptiness, the emptiness that is spiritual" (Lehman 120), but that type of Eastern spiritual peace with the universe is not, finally, what drives a poem like Glare. Ammons's "bare space," which filled up two tapes and close to three hundred pages of poetry, is littered with a whole lot of nothing. In his distinctly American way, Ammons performs a comical strip tease that we cannot stop watching because his story, which is equally ours, is so banal, ridiculous, and pathetic, that we laugh in spite of ourselves. In this lit(t)erary comic strip, "the virtues of oddity:" (185) rule, and our self-absorption is so insatiable that "we drown in ourselves" (221). Our vacuity proves mesmerizing and laughable. In Glare, which is "writ large hilarity &// happenstance out of control" (155), it seems that Ammons finally got the "snapshot" of America that he was seeking.
Ammons, A. R. The Collected Poems 1951-71. New York: Norton, 1972.
--. Garbage. New York: Norton, 1993.
--. Glare. New York: Norton, 1997.
--. "From the Wind to the Earth: An Interview with A. R. Ammons." With Steven P. Schneider. Schneider 325-49.
--. Tape for the Turn of the Year. New York: Norton, 1965.
-- "The Paris Review Interview." With David Lehman. Burr 85-108.
--. "The Unassimilable Fact Leads Us On..." Interview with Jim Stahl. Burr 41-55.
Bloom, Harold. "A. R. Ammons: When You Consider the Radiance." Ringers in the Tower: Studies in the Romantic Tradition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971. 257-89.
Burr, Zofia, ed. Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues / A. R. Ammons. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.
Cantor, Paul A. "The Owl of Minerva and the NBC Peacock." Rev. of Thomas S. Hibbs's Shows About Nothing: Nihilism and Popular Culture from "The Exorcist" to "Seinfeld."The American Enterprise" 11.6 (Sep. 2000): 57, 2 pp. 1 Sep. 2002 <http://proquest.umi.com>.
DiCicco, Lorraine C. "Garbage: A. R. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Century." Papers on Language and Literature 32.2 (Spring 1996): 166-88.
Fogel, Daniel M. "Response/I." Diacritics 4.1 (Spring 1974): 49-53.
Gablik, Suzi. "The Ecological Imperative: Making Art as if the World Mattered." The Michigan Quarterly Review 32 (1993): 231-47.
Gilbert, Roger. "Mobius Meets Satchmo: Mixed Metaphors, Form, and Vision in Glare." Schneider 183-213.
Grabher, Gundrun M. "Epistemological Empathy: A. R. Ammons and Jorie Graham." Strategies of Difference in Modern Poetry: Case Studies in Poetic Composition. Ed. Pierre Lagayette. London: Associated Presses, 1998.43-58.
Halpern, Charna, Del Close, and Kim "Howard" Johnson. Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Meriwether, 1994.
Hirsch, Irwin, and Cara Hirsch. "Seinfeld's Humor Noir: A Look at Our Dark Side. Journal of Popular Film & Television 28.3 (Fall 2000): 116, 8 pp. 22 Sep. 2002 <http://proquest.umi.com>.
Hixson, David. "Hee Haw." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Vol. 2. Ed. Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast. Detroit: St. James P, 2000. 381-83.
Irwin, William, ed. Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing. Chicago: Open Court, 2000.
Kirschten, Robert. Approaching Prayer: Ritual and the Shape of Myth in A. R. Ammons and fames Dickey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998.
Mazzaro, Jerome. "Reconstruction in Art." Diacritics 3 (Winter 1973): 39-44.
Morreale, Joanne. "Sitcoms Say Goodbye: The Cultural Spectacle of Seinfeld's Last Episode." Journal of Popular Film & Television 28.3 (Fall 2000):108, 8 pp. 22 Sep. 2002 <http://proquest.umi.com>.
Plath, Sylvia. Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1981. New York: HarperPerennial-HarperCollins, 1992.
Schneider, Steven P., ed. Complexities of Motion: New Essays on A. R. Ammons's Long Poems. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999.
Slonim, Jeffrey. "To The Angst Antenna, Jerry Seinfeld." Interview 25.4 (Apr 1995):28. <http://proquest.umi.com>
King's University College
(1) For discussion of Ammons's relation to the following thinkers, see Kirschten on Lao-Tsu (23); Bloom on Emerson; Fogel on Coleridge (49); Gilbert on Yeats and Nietzsche (186); Mazzaro on Dewey (39); and Grabher on Heidegger (46). Critics too numerous to list discuss his relationship to Whitman, Frost, Williams, and Stevens.
(2) Roger Gilbert analyses the "strip" trope in great detail, recognizing "comic strip" as one of its "latent" connotations (189).
(3) According to David Hixson, HeeHaw hit the American airwaves in 1969 becoming an instant success. It was cancelled by CBS in 1971, at which time it went into first-run syndication until 1992 (381-83). Reruns aired until 1997. Seinfeld ran on NBC from July 5, 1989 to May 14, 1998 (for a complete listing of episode times and air dates, see Irwin, 193-97). These are the only two television programs that Ammons identifies in his long poems, and they could not be more different. While Hee Haw was based on "down-home" country music and "cornpone humor" (382) designed to draw rural Southerners to network programming (381), Seinfeld, in spite of its blatantly "Jewish bias" and Manhattan specific setting, was broadly aimed at a sophisticated, middle- to upper middle-class, urban American-wide audience (Hirsch).
(4) One is reminded of the minimalism of Wallace Stevens's first long poem, "The Comedian as the Letter C," to which Ammons pays homage in the opening and closing of poem #74 of "Scat Scan," when he himseff plays with the letter "c": "clamp the c[c]-clamp?) Of clog on log, it's a / dog:" (203) and "press the c (as in//c-clamp) in clamp up against lamp and you / have damp: cool" (205).
(5) Ammons speaks to Schneider of his obsession with daily experience as inspired first by the Western influence of Emerson and Nature before swerving to the Eastern influence of Lao-Tsu and the Tao Te Ching,which he acknowledges as "the center for me--Lao-Tsu" (336).
(6) Joanna Macy speaks of a shift from our "ego-self" to an "eco-self' to denote a paradigm shift from the modem age to the next ecological age, a shift that will reveal us to be "profoundly interconnected and interdependent" (see Gablik 232).
(7) As Roger Gilbert rightly attests, when Ammons adopts litter in lieu of garbage, he is "renounc[ing] even so modest a degree of shaping control over his materials" so as to embrace the "random plain" (186). However, Ammons's rejection of garbage is, more importantly, also a rejection of the communal ideal that it symbolizes. In "A. R. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Century," I attempted to show that garbage is and has been a social form historically and that Ammons treats refuse as central to the development of a communal consciousness.
(8) Recall the palimpsest of mined temples that figure prominently in "The Walls Do Not Fall" segment of H. D.'s long poem Trilogy.
(9) Ammons discusses with Schneider how the long poems of the twentieth century paradoxically succeed because they, of necessity, fail: "Would a flawlessly put together beautiful thing do for us? A century of such vast torment, warfare, misery, genocide as this century. We've lived in perhaps the most barbaric one that was ever invented" (335).
(10) Much of his complaint about cramping is the result of the extreme narrowness of the tape he uses in part I, "Strip," eventually giving it up for a wider tape in part II, "Scat Scan." Two thirds of the way into "Strip," he is so frustrated with the narrowness of the tape that he just keeps thinking about the word "cramped": "I was thinking of the word cramp and//I was thinking how this tape cramps / my style: it breaks down my extended/gestures" (174-75). Ammons tells Schneider that confinement "is the only subject of the poem [Glare], how hellish it is to be writing these lines" (328).
(11) Ammons uses the word "nothing" and "nothingness" a total of 67 times in the 65 poems that constitute "Strip." Poem #42, his most sustained meditation on nothingness, contains the most repetitions, a total of 14 times in 110 lines of verse. The same words are used only 21 times in the 52 poems that form "Scat Scan."
(12) Ammons incorporates two other Farmers Market scenes, in #11 and #63. Early in Glare, he exudes a genuine human warmth both for those who are at the market and those who are missing, perhaps deceased. As an elderly man himself, the poet knows that "those who miss the missing will soon / be missing" (35). Later, in poem 63, he describes a scene virtually devoid of humanity as a cold fall rain keeps the people away (172-73).
(13) See Jeffrey Slonim's interview with the Seinfeldcast, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus describes the sitcom as "a show about anxiety. It takes place with anxious people in an anxious land."
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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