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About about: Ammons's Garbage.

In 1993, the year A. R. Ammons's Garbage was published, it was not unprecedented for an ambitious American poet to go round in circles. John Ashbery's long 1970 poem "The Skaters" had set out to do just that, encountering along the way every obstacle that linguistic obduracy could interpose. What Ashbery's skaters seemed to promise for poetry as they sped about their rink was a synesthetic compages, a balling up of sensuous data into one exhilarating linguistic sphere. Instead they experienced multiple pratfalls, with splayed limbs, brilliant flashes, and the whipping noise of skates poking into a world receiving them as failed communications, whether enigmatic phrases, undelivered letters, shipwrecks, or chaotic noise. Simultaneously within their rink the skaters began to describe figures-of-eight, the sign of the infinite. Ashbery delights in making these communicative and metaphysical tendencies look absurd. Earlier the presentational ambitions of Imagist poetry had been incised in visible shapeliness, while Pound's ideogrammatic method was designed to extend immediate gesture into historical time as self-evidence. To collage documents in energy-charged configurations could achieve a world-historical fusion of signified with signifier, scaled up from the fusion (according to Pound) achieved in Chinese characters. Subsequently, Objectivism imagined the poem as obdurate integrity, a perfected object among the objects of the world. Ashbery's gleeful rampage then scribbled over images, ideograms, and holograms alike; but what "The Skaters" shared with such precedents was a disdain for aboutness as opposed to presentation. To intimate through title or concluding flourish that a poem was to be or had been about something, other than ironically or misleadingly, had long since become a mark of the middlebrow, the poetic gem or slight adversion. Such a gesture was held to demote poetic performance to a supporting act preparing the way for a wry or sentimental takeaway message. For the reader to demand from the stalls what a poem was about would betray a lack of sophistication.

The principle that poetry should stand forth as something in itself rather than be about something--an Image or "emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time"--was hard for even the author of this precept to obey. Pound's disdain for aboutness did however respond to a weakening tendency, emergent in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century usage, of "about" when modifying verbs; as the OED parses such usage, it suggests movement "at large, freely; in an aimless, idle, or frivolous manner; without any definite purpose." The indicative phrases would be "faffing about" or "farting about." In Garbage Ammons toys with this demeaning sense of "about" while making extensive claims about "about." In its circlings about, Garbage is as much about aboutness as about what it's about, although many of the things it's about are of compelling wit, vividness, and philosophical precision--and you can't say that about many poems. Ammons revels in breaking Pound's strictures, voluminously. But also, Garbage is poetry that makes great show of redundancy in trying to get at something without trying too hard, as though redundancy were an important resource, which may well be true if garbage is the poem's stuff. As in his other "tape poems" written on continuous paper rolls fed through a typewriter, in Garbage Ammons is given to self-correction, modification, and refinement on the fly. Like James Schuyler, he thought of revision involving cancellation or replacement as a little ridiculous and self-important, even if he could not resist minor revisions. Instead he embraced approximation as a creative strategy, and it is difficult to conceive any attitude to the relation between language and reality more inimical than this to Modernist aesthetics. It is an attitude that inevitably swells the text of Garbage. Urgent although superficially casual, the poem chunters through eighteen parts and 108 pages, extruding in couplets of three pulses with some loose rhythmic variation, with only seven full-stop punctuation marks. The stuff it is made from seems much of a muchness throughout--there is never any question that Archie Ammons is doing the chuntering and this poem is about his habitual preoccupations (which are capacious for sure).

This consistent stuff is sometimes beaten thin and sometimes it is quite weighty, in keeping with the poem's self-description in part 2: it is "about the pre-socratic idea of the // dispositional axis from stone to wind, wind / to stone (with my elaborations, if any)." Or, more precisely, it is about the doctrine of material monism expounded by Anaximenes "in a plain and unadorned Ionic diction," according to the report of Diogenes Laertius. Aristotle notes that Anaximenes used "breath" interchangeably with "air." Given the Romantic association of breath with wind and poesy, Ammons's substitution of garbage for air represents an extreme variant of bathos--a figure later defined in the poem as "the very asshole of comedown." This therefore would be bathos as what stuff always comes down to, rather than bathos through procedural peristalsis. Garbage and dead language produce more energy than the nicer alternatives. Garbage and its gaseous emissions are more vernacular than air's windy discursiveness, although garbage may include exotic, even learned, bits and pieces. For the most part Ammons uses a plain and unadorned American diction for his excursuses, with discarded and outmoded turns of phrase offering treasures to the trash picker. As he writes in part 2, garbage is "dead language" that through the trash-collector poet's mind "is hauled / off to and burned down on the energy held and // shaped into new turns and clusters."

Aristotle pointed out that material monism makes little sense philosophically, since changes of state require an efficient cause--for instance, the poet's mind, which can act as trash compactor or muck spreader or incinerator. One might call this revised philosophy "excrementalism," and the metrics of Garbage are suitably peristaltic, regardless of whether the stuff is firm or runny. (Ammons invites this admittedly disgusting metaphor often and openly) Therefore, enjambment is the wrong term to use for Garbage's line endings; there are regular bends in the piping, but there is no question of severance, as the punctuation makes abundantly clear. Paper tape is intestinal, both exercising a squeeze on line length and keeping things moving. It is impossible to be pitched into negation because there is nowhere further down to go beyond the paper under the asshole. As well as the tape used for Garbage, Ammons was wont to write poetry on toilet paper: no accident, as they say Like Beckett, Ammons is often funny about this. Stuff moves through the poem at variable speed, and the frequent colons where full stops might usually be found continue to throw the semantic load forward, making caesurae--which ought to feel especially strong across a colon--inconsequential in their effect.

So if everything pushes along, what about aboutness? In Garbage, Ammons's dramatic performance of eschewing revision maintains a forward propulsion, as here in the poem's final part:
 prosodically speaking, anxiety is none too keen
 on entanglements, as with the bitchy requirements
 of form or rhyme: being trapped into a failing
 consideration, or simply being trapped, races
 anxiety up a rev too high: anxiety wants to
 now through: a clean sweep, forget the legislation
 and, often, truly, it can be so nice to watch
 the classical move through the complication, as
 with Larry Bird en route for a lay-up, and
 anxiety often itself has such heights of stalled
 cumuli it can perform miracles, it can in seeking
 ease deal with more substance than a clanking bore
 can: it can, oh yes, and that is the best
 kind of poetry, the kind that seeking resolution
 and an easing out of tension still out-tenses the
 intensifiers: understatement rides swells
 of easing away: everything else is sunk barges,
 no gouging good, and practically everything
 else is like that: 

"Prosodically speaking," these lines deserve some "consideration." Although they represent their own procedure as that of a champion basketball player seeing his opening and dribbling through a chaotic defense before effortlessly ("a clean sweep") depositing ball into basket, strangely this grace is attributed to anxiety. Larry Bird's run is an instance of "the classical move," breaking through the "entanglements" parsed as "bitchy requirements / of form or rhyme" threatening to obstruct the easy delivery. This is an odd construal of classicism: Larry Bird's moves were "classic," not "classical." The short-"a" run of "anxiety," "entanglements," "trapped," and then a repeated "anxiety' approaches the turnabout and perfect shot of "classical" and "Larry"--watched in the poem but not prosodically enacted, since the verse form is far from classical. "Anxiety" is reiterated, and the short "a" bounces to a stressed "can" before landing on a final, sorry "clanking," all these fretful "a"s being crossed by the new propositional and sonic field of "seeking/ease." The poetry cannot resolve the semantic act as would be expected of classical verse. Instead, it evades the "bitchy requirements" for a classicism that consists merely of admiring Larry Bird. The "easing out of tension" occurs not through the "clean sweep," but at the height of anxiety about being trapped in legislation ("form or rhyme," for example). Anxiety provokes "the classical move through the complication" via its easing, its cancellation--the player rides across the crowded court on the release of tension and his move is a subtly beautiful one. It is not difficult to hear an account of constipation relieved behind this metaphorical unfolding.

Immediately, then, a more elaborate analogy of tension and release is presented--or airy condensation and rarefaction, in Anaximenes's cosmology. "Heights of stalled/cumuli" accumulated through anxiety "deal with more substance" because they bypass or disregard the substance "a clanking bore" might drill down to. The claim on classicism is revealed to be a feint: the term to which all this elaborate swerving and dodging tends turns out to be "understatement." "Understatement" itself emerges out of entanglement via entanglement's cancellation, followed by entanglement's return in the "seeking resolution" performed by Larry Bird. The contrast between such obliquity and the steadiness of a "clanking bore" might feel provocative on arriving at the 107th page of a poem marked by indefatigable continuity. But Ammons's poem is far from "a clanking bore." While it pushes on, it does so in a way this passage exemplifies: it does not so much ride swells as constitute swells, thickening and thinning. Ammons's monism is a constant in every metaphorical register, inviting the bathos of translation into excrementalism as well as the exaltation of garbage as radiant and the substantiation of air as lyric.

Consider the contention that "understatement rides swells // of easing away." The word "swells" is perfect here, accepting sonic and substantial and semantic navigation from the swells before orgasmic easing, while remaining true to monist cosmology in performing air's condensation from sheer flow into massed, chartable tension--"stalled/cumuli" and the buildup of commas. Is "easing away" a characteristic of swells, or does the act of riding them ease them away? As for the swells and eddies of the passage:
 such heights of stalled
 cumuli it can perform miracles, it can in seeking ease deal with
 more substance than a clanking bore
 can: it can. 

--these defy an exposition that could claim a reader's patience; enough now to point to the sonic back-formation of "miracles" out of "cumuli" and the alveolar momentum delivering "ease deal" out of "stalled" by way of "miracles." The "bitchy requirements" of rhyme work under the surface like "sunk barges" to produce these effects of rhyming which are not rhymes. Their sonic swells are about rhymes.

What produces such swells? The answer has been given: "entanglements," formal constraints, and "sunk barges." "Formal constraints" translates "the bitchy requirements/of form" to acknowledge the obvious, that this is verse, where words move through embankments, and on the way their flow resolves into complex eddies as they encounter the obstacles of line breaks and caesurae--and indeed the physical limit of the tape. A notable example in this passage is "anxiety wants to/now through: a clean sweep, forget the legislation." These snags and breaks are what the swells are about; here a line break and then an unexpected colon intervene like valves that finally open out into a clear and unobstructed airstream--or rather, the unrealized anticipation of an unobstructed airstream, since the prosody immediately afterward bumps over an active rifting of commas. Garbage is not verse primarily about verse, although it can become agitated in separating its procedures from other sorts of poetry. Rather, it is about quotidian things, banal experiences, and fanciful ideas, or, if you like, accurate observation and acute points. Its prosody is formed by this character of being about the Whatever. The Larry Bird episode purports to be about a certain kind of performance, but what it performs itself is a different activity. If Garbage were to emulate classical verse, it would become an anachronistic exercise in the mock-heroic. But the poem does not deliver on its claim to classical fluency. Nor is it exemplary of understatement as usually defined. "No gouging good" is a notable instance of the euphemism as intensifier, for the preceding word ("sunk" foreshadows the suppressed ordinary phrase "no fucking good"--another "sunk barge" producing this surface distortion. Here then is an unusual passive-aggressive variant of bathos whereby euphemism deliberately lowers the tone.

"Clanking" and "gouging" may add up to a swift sketch of a mine's activity, but this seems like a kind of close reading insensitive to this verse's low-minded and gastric carrying on. Ammons's poetry neither goes in for mining nor invites it, but dodges about on the court as Ashbery's skaters about their rink. Contrasts could be drawn from this passage in several directions: with a rhetorical machinery mining the depths such as John Berryman's (who might be one of the poetic "intensifiers" this writing boasts it "out-tenses"); with poems presuming to stand forth as objects in themselves, such as George Oppen's Discrete Series; and with the open plain, ocean, and the unceasing exstimulation of text that together comprise the "artful dare" of Barbara Guest's surfing. Through these contrasts, "understatement" can be identified as a form of approximation, drawing closer to things and people but cautious of exercising claims over what it's about. This is where Ammons joins the company of Ashbery, Schuyler, and Frank O'Hara: he is an anti-objectifying poet who never hesitates to choose the body over the monument. His characteristic bathos is symptomatic of a rueful Romanticism recognizing decay and excrement as sources of energy, the debased kin to Promethean fire.

"Approximation" in Ammons's writing designates an aboutness that draws close, rather than missing the point or remaining at a distance. Such linguistic aboutness may signify discourse rather than presentation or disinterment, but discourse implies the presence of others. "Roundabout gives us a place to go," Ammons declares, but where is that place, approximately? In fact, the first section of Garbage gets close to saying where, in a most circuitous manner. After a considerable amount of peristaltic business leading up to "the oil that smoothes/stools" (surely a poetic debut), Ammons asks, "why should I/be trying to write my flattest poem, now, for/whom, not for myself, for others?, posh, as I // have never said:"--then drifts through a welter of this-and-thatness, adding "celestial guidance systems" to the manifest of dismissed poetic and philosophical attitudes, before a sleepless night of indigestion and family anxieties fetches his chief ethical claim for aboutness:
 our chests burn with anxiety and a river of
 anguish defines rapids and straits in the pit of
 our stomachs: how can we intercede and not
 interfere: how can our love move more surroundingly,
 convincingly than our premonitory advice 

--which is where this first part tails off.

The distinctions between interceding, interfering, and giving advice are crucial. By definition, intercession is undertaken on another's behalf, whereas advice is detached, and interference breaks into someone else's integrity. As Ammons's writing-about does approximate and move closer, it wants to surround; and for all this poet's crankiness (John Ashbery describes him as a "major crank") it turns out that approximation performs the very movement of human love. Love for Ammons cannot entail perfection of form, but is dynamic, entangled in messy and encompassing responsiveness. Whereas inevitably "we tie into the/lives of those we love," to love "surroundingly" relies on an easing off. Strangely, the way out runs through circumlocution, pauses, repetitions, and the detourning of stereotyped phrases. It is this approximating struggle, rather than tackling obstructions or negotiating directly, that allows intercession. Thought must always remain in progress: that is axiomatic for the tape poems, since the ultimate entrapment driving Ammons to ceaseless circumlocution is death.

"What are we to think of the waste, though:" asks the opening of part 15. As with the first part's worries about "those we love" and "their choices, often harming to themselves," waste here is described poignantly in familial terms--"one who finds alcohol at eleven, drugs at seventeen." Grief is evident in the description of the detached inhumanity that "sails tanks through a young crowd." The poem then "turns here and // there helplessly for help," looking for a way of writing about Ammons's dying father entangled in his straps and catheter tube and reservoir, while "surrounded on three sides with windows' light." The waste in this human dying is of an unbearable sort that cannot be converted into language; an attempt at equanimity stutters foolishly outside the geriatric ward over the word "bottoms": scoured by the bottoms of ... / bottoms?" Later, in part 17, language will drivel out of "my old history teacher ... sitting in ward so and so," another waste nothing can be done with because it meets no resistance and cannot amount to anything. Where entanglements threaten to entrap, the poet dreams always of the Larry Bird run:
 I want a curvature like the
 arising of a spherical section, a sweep that
 doesn't break down from arc into word, image,
 definition, story, thesis, but all these
 assimilated to an arch of silence, an interrelation
 permitting motion in stillness: I want to see
 furrows of definition, both the centerings of
 furrow and the clumpy outcastings beyond: I do
 not want to be caught inside for clarity: I
 want clarity to be a smooth long bend
 disallowing no complexity in coming clean: 

But the entire text of Garbage contradicts the dream run, and gradually it becomes clear that cleanliness is itself deathly. Complexities and contingent entanglements offer the only stay against being "caught inside for clarity" like Ammons's father, abandoned by time and disentangled from contemporaries. He is at once trapped inside the hospital ward and trapped inside himself. He is mercilessly lit--not by the familial and natural circumference of love, but by the glare of scientific care. This world exemplifies an impasse of objectification, with the body broken down into materials for inspection (even excrement is on display) and language disassembled grammatically. The dying father entrapped, the history teacher whose fate teaches that death comes to all--these must be written about, must be written about, before moving on and easing off. There are limits. For an eleven-year-old and a seventeen-year-old, premonitions of mortality obtrude a clarity beyond bearing. Shit is better--not the smooth motion facilitated by soya oil, but the enormous and final motion that drops clean, the brilliantly lit body's deposition. Meanwhile the usual shit is seen in "outcastings," an archaic term for refuse and offal--"clumpy outcastings" like horse dung, describing those huge blocks of earth between a ploughed field's folds. As for linguistic clarity, why invite the accomplished thought, the illuminated, the end of thinking? In life there are no clean cuts without spoils, and to "come clean" means spilling the dirt.

When in the first part of Garbage Ammons declares an intention to' write "my flattest poem," he is consistent with Anaximenes, as reported by Pseudo-Plutarch: "When air was felted he says the earth was formed first, being completely flat. Therefore it makes sense that it should float on air." Poetry "felts" air, and keeping the poem flat is one way of ensuring that it "rides swells / of easing away." But the poem never can simply float on air and present its own being as the felted earth does in Anaximenes. The fantasy of self-presentation is abjured for entanglement, understatement, swerving, and dodging. Self-presentation belongs to a metaphysical realm or results from disembodied "forces" that doubtfully earn the honorific "materialist"; it relies on an inexhaustible reserve fund miraculously restoring the earth. Ammons's bathetic reduction. of life to garbage and entanglements effects a poetic reversal whereby light, clarity, and cleanliness bring death. Death is the layup at the end of the classical run. Such a vision is susceptible to interpretation ecologically, as in Heidegger's condemnation of a scientistic standing-reserve view of nature in "The Question Concerning Technology" (1954). In such a world, how do you find your way about? Picking through the garbage means more than responsible recycling. It entails acknowledgment that the universe is human. Human beings are not so much "part of nature" as the natural world is thoroughly human and worked over, and must be accepted as such. There is nothing other than us, neither garbage nor wilderness. We are garbage, garbage is us. This is Ammons's monism, his revision of pre-Socratic thought, but it is emphatically not nihilistic. Through approximation Ammons aims to make bearable surroundings out of any old trash, dodging and feinting around a linguistic sphere that exhibits none of the protrusions into the circumambient world of shouts and skaters' scarves in Ashbery's poem. Rather, Ammons's approximations constitute a medium filled with odd snags, chirruping, garbage fires, thoughts, and flowers: such stuff intercedes with the earth's residents as they go about their messy business, but does not interfere. The refusal to interfere is what makes it possible for Garbage to take "the nature tradition past the pastoral and into a thoroughly penetrated, post-modern world," as Frederick Buell writes. (1) Nature is not out there to be gestured towards, nor can human beings be "re-connected" with nature by any amount of "premonitory advice." Pastoral is a shopworn compromise between these attitudes in the form of a moralized landscape. Not only is nature already "thoroughly penetrated" in Garbage, but everything is thoroughly used, and no amount of sentimentalizing can reverse that process. If nature is all already garbage, then there is only the question of what further use, what to do about it.

Poets make furrows in cultivated earth; that is the nature of verse, to cut across a page, to turn about at the end of a line, to keep going. In Ammons's verse, keeping going can be effortful and messy, furrowing a page neither white nor prepared for writ but strewn with dead and discarded language. The poet's furrow, however shallow it maybe, leaves its tailings alongside. Ammons's furrows are remarkably inelegant. They are the work of a hand plow, not a tractor, and they are interrupted unpredictably, they stop short, they bump up against rocks, they are distracted by birdsong, they turn on an intuitive conjunction of thought and formal urging that rarely quite coincide. Indeed, coincidence can occasion alarm and incredulity, as in the italicized enjambment "ditches? I ditches?" toward the beginning of part 7. This disturbing fussing at the "ditch bottom" of two lines earlier in turn throws doubt forward into the querulous succession of "rain?, a self?, a self?, being // here?, where?, here?" Insistently preoccupied with what they're about, Ammons's lines seem stopped in their tracks at the prospect of straying through to the last ditch, the final full stop. That final full stop follows the terrible and almost inadvertent arrival at "pure design lifeless in apainted hold," despite Ammons's last-gasp determination to "reap the peripheries," and despite his resistance of a host of poetic temptations (almost a typology of contemporary poetic idioms). Characteristically, the peripheries supply "roughage": that is, "roughage / like teasel and cattail and brush above snow in / winter." More shit, more entanglement, against clarity, against light, against cold, against death.

A contradiction between furrowing and circling, encapsulated in the very phrase "writing about," is what keeps Ammons chuntering. That contradiction is why the outcastings and the peripheries are of such importance; they prevent driving to the point, they obstruct the layup. "Writing about" is about death and its avoidance, and in its process the entanglements start to become kin as kin become entanglements: you have to let them have their way within the love that moves surroundingly. And even when sounds and motions are inhuman, Ammons can proclaim "all / motions cousins" during the great celebratory ode that part 13 turns into after it has acknowledged what aboutness is all about:
 I looked into the pit of death and it was there,
 the pit was, and the death: I circled it saying
 this looks like safety's surcease next to which
 risks' splits and roars, the sparrow's lone note
 in the gray tree, are radiances: 

It carries on singingly from there, and, as Ammons writes earlier, "If this is not the best poem of the // century, can it be about the worst poem of the / century: it comes, at least, toward the end, // so a long tracing of bad stuff can swell / under its measure." It may be that Garbage is a poem about the worst poem of the last century, the century's detritus, and that a tracing of bad stuff--not bad stuff itself but writing approximating bad stuff--is needed for its radiances to become visible and audible on the choppy surface.

(1.) / Frederick Buell, "Ammons's Peripheral Vision: Tape for the Turn of the Year and Garbage," in Complexities of Motion: New Essays on A. R. Ammons's Long Poems, ed. Steven P. Schneider (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999). See also Buelrs "The Solitary Man: The Poetry of A. R. Ammons" (1986), in Considering the Radiance: Essays on the Poetry of A. R. Ammons, ed. David Burak and Roger Gilbert (New York: Norton, 2005).
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Title Annotation:ESSAYS
Author:Wilkinson, John (British poet)
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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