Richard Grey

Richard Grey: On "Corsons Inlet"

A. R. Ammons exposes a further, crucial way in which much of recent American verse has removed itself from formalism: by dispensing, not only with conventional metres and 'signatory' language, but with the 'symbolic forms' of narrative closure. Revitalising the earlier American interest in 'organic form', Ammons is one among many current writers who want the radiant energy they perceive at the heart of the natural world to become the energy of the poem, 'spiralling from the centre' to inform every line. A poem like 'Corsons's Inlet' dramatises the details of this commitment. It opens in a characteristic way: 'I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning to the sea'. Few human beings appear in Ammons's work, apart from the omnipresent 'I': who is there, however, not to impress but to observe. Ammons is preoccupied with what he calls 'amness', the intrinsic identity of things -- which includes himself, of course, but also 'stairs and paperclips' -- and, in order to know this 'amness', he has to pay attention, 'losing the self' when necessary 'to the victory / of stones and trees'. In this instance, he tells us, the walk on which he embarks liberates him -- from himself, as usual -- and 'from the perpendiculars, / straight lines / of thought / into the hues, . . . flowing bends and blends of sight'. In particular, it releases him into knowledge of the inlet mentioned in the title. Watching its fluid, changing shape and the microscopic lives that animate it, Ammons perceives in it, not a symbol, but an example of what an appropriate form should be. 'In nature there are few sharp lines', the poet comments, and what he sees here is:

       

an order held

        in constant change: a congregation

rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable

        as one event,

                not chaos

The inlet opens up to him 'the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness': a form of knowing in which there is 'no forcing of ... thought / no propaganda', and a form of expression, an aesthetic shape that is vital and kinetic, a ‘’field' of action / with moving incalculable centre'.

The notion of the 'field' was one that Williams cherished ('The poem is made of things -- on a field') and that, as we shall see, Charles Olson developed. What such a notion resists, at all costs, is what Ammons calls 'lines' and 'boundaries': demarcations that exclude, hierarchies that prioritise, definitions that impose the illusion of fixity on the flux of experience. There are, Ammons suggests, 'no / ... changeless shapes': the poet-seer must invent structures that imitate the metamorphic character of things. The organisms he creates must respond to life as particularity and process; they must be dynamic, unique to each occasion; above all, they must be open. 'There is no finality of vision', Ammons concludes (with deliberate inconclusiveness), '. . . I have perceived nothing completely, / ... tomorrow a new walk is a new walk'. Echoing a whole series of great American texts, Ammons also speaks here for a new generation of poets: who respond to 'The wonderful workings of the world' with their own persistent workings and re-workings of the imagination. 'ecology is my word', Ammons affirms in another, longer poem. 'Tape for the Turn of the Year', '. . . come / in there: / you will find yourself / in a firmless country: / centres and peripheries / in motion’. ‘My other word is provisional,’ he continues, ‘. . . you may guess / the meanings from ecology / ... / the centre-arising / form / adapts, tests the / peripheries, draws in / ... / responds to inner and outer / change.’ Those lines could act as an epigraph to many volumes of American verse published over the past few decades: in which the poet tries to insert himself in the processes of life, and, in turn, the reader is asked to insert himself in the processes of the work.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.

Richard Grey: On "Tulips"

A poem like 'Tulips' is a good illustration of Plath’s passion and her craft. Its origins lie in personal experience: a time when the poet was taken into hospital and was sent flowers as a gift. The opening four stanzas recover her feelings of peace and release on entering the hospital ward. 'Look how white everything is', she exclaims:

            how quiet, how snowed-in,

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly

As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands, 

I am nobody . . .

The verse is nominally free but has a subtle iambic base; the lines, seven to each stanza, move quietly and mellifluously; and a sense of hidden melody ('learning' / 'lying', 'lying by myself quietly', 'light lies', 'white walls') transforms apparently casual remarks into memorable speech. What is more to the point, the almost sacramental terms in which Plath describes herself turn this experience into a mysterious initiation, a dying away from the world. 'I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses', Plath says, 'And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to the surgeons'. Everything that gives her identity, that imprisons her in existence, has been surrendered; and she sinks into a condition of utter emptiness, openness that is associated at certain times here with immersion in water -- a return to the foetal state and the matrix of being. The only initial resistance to this movement comes from a photograph of her husband and children she has by her bedside: reminding her, evidently, of the hell of other people, who cast 'little smiling hooks' to fish her up out of the sea.

In the next four stanzas, the tulips -- mentioned briefly in the first line and then forgotten -- enter the scene with a vengeance:

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.

Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe

Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.

Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.

The flowers arc all that is the opposite of the white, silent world of the hospital, carrying associations of noise and pressure, 'sudden tongues and . . . colour'. They draw Plath back to life, the conditioning forces that constitute existence. She feels herself 'watched', identified by 'the eyes of the tulips': their gaze commits her to a particular status or role. What is more, this contrary impulse drawing her back into the world and identification 'corresponds' to something in herself. It comes from within her, just as the earlier impulse towards liberation did. This probably explains why the conflict of the poem remains unresolved: the ninth and final stanza of the poem simply and beautifully juxtaposes images of imprisonment and escape, the blood of life and the salt sea of death. 'And I am aware of my heart', Plath concludes:

                    it opens and closes

ts bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me,

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,

And comes from a country far away as health.

The alternatives here are familiar ones in American writing: either to live in the world and accept the identity it prescribes, or to flee into a state of absolute freedom. What is less familiar is that, here as elsewhere, Plath associates these two alternatives, traditionally figured in the clearing and the wilderness, with the absolute conditions of being and not-being. Fixity, in these terms, is life; flight is immolation; freedom is the immediate metaphor of the hospital and the ultimate metamorphosis of death.

From American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 1990 by the Longman Group UK Limited.