On A.R. Ammons: “A Poem Is A Walk”

“Poetry is a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.” – A.R. Ammons

For a stretch of a few years I forgot how much I enjoyed the poetry and artistic stance of A.R. Ammons, until recently when I came across an interview with him in the Paris Review. In 1967 Ammons wrote a remarkable essay, “A Poem Is A Walk,” that explores the phenomenology of poetry. The piece takes a formalist approach, claiming that poetry isn’t “about” anything but its own working out of form through space and time. In fact, there is nothing we can say about poetry that it can’t say better itself. As Ammons notes, “Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.”

Ammons illustrates his argument by comparing a poem to a walk. How, he asks, would one teach a class about walks? What is there to teach? You could ask what they’re good for, or what they mean (to various walkers, to history), but that would miss the point of their essential four experiential qualities–qualities that they share with poems. First, they make use of the whole body. Second, they are unreproducible. Third, they turn, one or more times, then return home. Finally, they have their own kind of internal and external motion that can only be experienced by entering into them.

What I find intriguing about “A Poem Is A Walk” is how deeply it speaks to the experience of music. Both music and poetry are constantly studied and analyzed, but never to their deaths. Both are modalities of knowing that seem to elude full explanation. They don’t argue, they’re just themselves. Even as we try to explain them, they keep going about their expressive work, unfettered. There’s something wonderful about this fact.

You can read the essay here.

***

Now back to that Paris Review interview. Ammons elaborates on some of the themes he expressed in “A Poem Is A Walk.” He speaks of the impetus for writing and the creative process:

“The invention of a poem frequently is how to find a way to resolve the complications that you’ve gotten yourself into.”

He speaks of the need for a poem to be autonomous and self-directed:

“What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.”

And intriguingly for those of us thinking through music as we read Ammons thinking through poetry, he speaks of ignoring the Western tradition, trying to make poems that inhabit their own “bare space”:

“I have tried to get rid of the Western tradition as much as possible. You notice I don’t mention anything in my poetry having to do with Europe or where we come from. I never allude to persons or places or events in history. I really do want to begin with a bare space with streams and rocks and trees. I have a little, a tiny poem that says something about the only way you can do anything at all about all of Western culture is to fail to refer to it. And that’s what I do.”

You can read the interview here.

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