In Memoriam: Poet A.R. Ammons
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ROBERT PINSKY: On Sunday, the wonderful poet A.R. Ammons died. Ammons won many prizes for his poetry, including two National Book Awards: One for his collected poems in 1973, and 20 years later in 1993 for his book-length poem, “Garbage.” In his work and personally, Ammons never had the airs of the pretentious literary figure, or of the academic. In the course of his life, he had been a high school principal and a businessman before becoming, through his poems, a professor at Cornell, where he became a beloved teacher.
The mischievous title, “Garbage,” is in part quite literal as well as philosophical, including the stuff that society piles up, that stinks and turns the brooks foul, and the question of what to do with it. Recycling and regeneration also become attributes of poetry, which Ammons saw as omnivorous and linked to bio-reclamation. He dedicated “Garbage” to, “the bacteria, tumblebugs, scavengers, wordsmiths, the transfigurers, restorers.”
Here is a passage from the poem.
What are we to think of the waste, though? The sugarmaple seeds on the blacktop are so dense; the seed heads crushed by tires, the wings stuck wet. They hold the rains, so there’s no walkway. Dry: So many seeds, and not one will make a tree, excuse the expression. What of so much possibility, all impossibility? How about the one who finds alcohol at 11, drugs at 17, death at 32? How about the little boy on the street who with puffy-smooth face and slit eyes reaches up to you for a handshake? Supposing politics swings back like a breeze and sails tanks through a young crowd? What about the hopes withered up in screams like crops in sandy winds? How about the letting out of streams of blood where rain might have sprinkled into road pools? Are we to identify with the fortunate who see the energy of possibility as its necessary brush with impossibility, who define meaning only in the blasted landfalls of no meaning, who can in safety call evil essential to the differentiations of good? Or should we wail that the lost are not lost, that nothing can be right until they no longer lose themselves until we’ve found charms to call them back. Are we to take no comfort when so much discomfort turns here and there helplessly for help? Is there, in other words, after the balances are toted up, is there a streak of light defining the cutting edge as celebration? Clematis, which looks as dead and drained in winter as baling wire, transports in spring such leaves and plush blooms.
A.R. Ammons was 75 years old.