May 1st, 2011 / 5:09 pm

“Tape for the Turn of the Year” by A.R. Ammons

I’m not really sure where A.R. Ammons stands or will stand in “the canon.”  Despite receiving numerous major awards and grants during his lifetime, he remains (I think) more of a footnote than a figure in 20th century American poetry, a sort of weird bastard of Whitman’s transcendentalism, Stevens’s imaginative powers, and Williams’s colloquial rhetoric.  In fact, the most precise criticism I’ve read concerning Ammons is in comparison to Stevens, when M.L. Rosenthal writes, “There is a great deal of feeling in Ammons; but in the interest of ironic self-control he seems afraid of letting the feeling have its way [as Stevens does].”

This is definitely true of Ammons.  He often writes very “poetic” passages about existence or nature or humanity’s place in nature, only to undercut them with a moment or realization that points to the arbitrary nature of nature, or, frequently, the absurd immateriality and uselessness of poetry itself.  For example, on one page of his book-length work, “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” he writes:

our existence is
of more
than we can imagine: much
we can’t see
is working right:
let’s celebrate
that part of our

and on the next page:

and when
you can
get laid
get laid

In this way, Rosenthal is right to say that Ammons’s “self-control” (not sure if “ironic” is the right adj. though) gets in the way of his more poetic moments, but that’s exactly what draws me to Ammons.  He brings an awareness and skepticism to his poetry that is not common in most poets.  He is not merely concerned with man and his experience, but also the entire history of existence, man’s place within it, and poetry’s role in that… and he does it all with a sense of humor.  Here are more illustrative passages from “Tape for the Turn of the Year”:

a man fell
in a fit
in the bus station: three
men held him till
he jerked still:
a crowd circled &

(we’re monkeys, scratching
our heads
& asses &
dumb with joy & tragedy)


fact is, I’m having
this conversation with a
piece of paper!
and “you” are a figment
of imagination and “you”
have no mask
& if you did
no face
wd be behind it:
all this is just coming
out of my head:
the factory of fantasies:
some beautiful, some
some this, some that — but
all, paper & thin air!
a hundred dragons
and furies, satyrs &
centaurs — and one
get food:
get water:
get sex:

The book itself (I should probably mention this) was written on a single, continuous piece of adding machine tape from December 6th, 1963 to January 10th, 1964 with minimal editing.  Like other of Ammons’s book-length works — such as “Garbage,” inspired by a trash heap in Florida, or “Sphere,” inspired by an image of Earth of space — the very conception of “Tape” suggests an emphatic de-emphasis of ceremony and perceived literary importance.

What’s most enjoyable about Ammons, though, through all his skepticism and existential questioning of poetry’s worth in a world dominated by primal behavior (eating, shitting, procreating, and surviving), he remained always a poet.  Almost in spite of himself.  He recognized the uselessness of words on a page, but kept writing.  I don’t really mean for this to turn into a pep talk, but the Ammons that is most enjoyable and refreshing, to me, is in the slyly complex passages like:

the reason I write so much
that I can’t do anything

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