Since I am no longer in Washington, with legislative initiatives and emails nipping at my heels. hemming me in and commanding my attention, I have the time to look at a longer poem, one which checks in at a bit over three pages.  (You might want to save this message to read in the evening, or on the weekend?)  While this email may look very long, a good part of its length is that it repeats the three page poem twice – once at the beginning, and then stanza-by-stanza in the discussion.

 

            A. R. Ammons’ “Corson’s Inlet” is a variety of things: a lyric, a very modest narrative of a walk along the beach, an ars poetica (the poet’s assessment of ‘the art of poetry’), a philosophical meditation. 

 

      In my view, it is one of the most wonderful and wise poems of the second half of the twentieth century.

 

      As you move into reading the poem, here are two things to orient you.  First, this is a peripatetic poem, which is a fancy way of saying the poem is of someone walking, in this case, walking over the dunes, along the ocean shore, and  particularly along the shore of an inlet.  Second, it is in the t tradition of America’s greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In his important essay “Nature,” Emerson contended “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.”  In this poem, what Ammons sees on his walk is revealed as a series of emblems of what the universe is, and examining what he sees becomes the key to understanding what human thought is and can – or cannot – be.

 

 

Corsons Inlet

A. R.  Ammons

 

 

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning

to the sea,

then turned right along

   the surf

                         rounded a naked headland

                         and returned

 

   along the inlet shore:

 

it was muggy sunny, the wind from the sea steady and high,   

crisp in the running sand,

       some breakthroughs of sun

   but after a bit

 

continuous overcast:

 

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,   

from the perpendiculars,

      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds

of thought

into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends   

               of sight:

 

                         I allow myself eddies of meaning:   

yield to a direction of significance

running

like a stream through the geography of my work:   

   you can find

in my sayings

                         swerves of action

                         like the inlet’s cutting edge:

               there are dunes of motion,

organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance   

in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:

but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events

I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting

beyond the account:

 

in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of   

primrose

       more or less dispersed;

disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows

of dunes,

irregular swamps of reeds,

though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all ...

predominantly reeds:

 

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,   

shutting out and shutting in, separating inside

          from outside: I have

          drawn no lines:

          as

 

manifold events of sand

change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape   

tomorrow,

 

so I am willing to go along, to accept   

the becoming

thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish   

         no walls:

 

by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek   

to undercreek: but there are no lines, though

       change in that transition is clear

       as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,   

allowed to occur over a wider range

than mental lines can keep:

 

the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:   

black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk

of air

and, earlier, of sun,

waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact,   

caught always in the event of change:   

       a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals

       and ate

to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab,   

picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy

turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits:

 

risk is full: every living thing in

siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small

white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears

               the shallows, darts to shore

                            to stab—what? I couldn’t

       see against the black mudflats—a frightened

       fiddler crab?

 

               the news to my left over the dunes and

reeds and bayberry clumps was

               fall: thousands of tree swallows

               gathering for flight:

               an order held

               in constant change: a congregation

rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable

          as one event,

                      not chaos: preparations for

flight from winter,

cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,

beaks

at the bayberries

    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,

    sound:

    the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:

the “field” of action

with moving, incalculable center:

 

in the smaller view, order tight with shape:

blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:

snail shell:

            pulsations of order

            in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,   

broken down, transferred through membranes

to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no

lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together   

            and against, of millions of events: this,

                         so that I make

                         no form of

                         formlessness:

 

orders as summaries, as outcomes of actions override   

or in some way result, not predictably (seeing me gain   

the top of a dune,

the swallows

could take flight—some other fields of bayberry   

            could enter fall

            berryless) and there is serenity:

 

            no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,

or thought:

no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept:

 

terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities   

of escape open: no route shut, except in   

   the sudden loss of all routes:

 

            I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will   

not run to that easy victory:

            still around the looser, wider forces work:

            I will try

       to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening   

scope, but enjoying the freedom that

Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,   

that I have perceived nothing completely,

that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

 

 

 

            As I remarked in my  introduction, this is a peripatetic poem.  The speaker is describing a walk he has taken this morning: he went over the dunes, along the shore of the ocean, and along the inlet.  (No surprise here: the poem is titled, after all, “Corson’s Inlet.”)  The first stanza describes the journey I have just re-described. 

 

 

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning

to the sea,

then turned right along

   the surf

                         rounded a naked headland

                         and returned

along the inlet shore.


      What we can learn from these first few lines is that the poem is in free verse: it has no pre-ordained rhythm, no prescribed pattern of sounds.  The rhythms of the poem do not derive from a set meter (patterns of accentual stresses, as in Old English; or of syllabic counts, as in French poetry; or of accentual-syllabic units, as is most frequent in English poetry until the twentieth century.  Accentual-syllabic?  Think  iambic pentameter, that term familiar from high school, since that is what Shakespeare used for his plays. Iambic: made from iambs, units which consist of an unstressed syllable and an accented syllable.  Pentameter: five of them to a line.   So:  five beats and ten syllables to a line.)  The patterns, the music of the words, come from the language itself, from the rhythms which inhere in spoken English.

      

       In considering what to write of free verse, I was about to say ‘No rhymes’ but I figured I had better check and . . . hmmm . . . there were slant rhymes throughout:  morning/along; sea/surf; headland/returned.  Was this accidental?  In good poems, nothing is accidental. If I ask myself, did Ammons intend these slant rhymes, I cannot answer.  But if I ask, did he, as he set these words down on paper, ‘feel’ a coherence and a music among the sounds, I would have to answer, yes, I imagine he did.   Not all order is pre-ordained: some is happened upon as the mind moves through the world of its imaginings.  [It turns out that this small meditation on rhyme and sound patterns anticipates the major subject of Ammons’ poem!] A pattern of slant rhymes at the ends of lines– not always, but far more frequent than occasionally – runs through the poem. 

      

      As we look at the first seven lines, consider too the odd lengths of the lines, the odd indentations.  In the first line, the poet walks over the dunes; in the second, which is not only short but surprising since it consists of only a brief prepositional phrase, the shaping of the line suggests the magnitude of the sea, as if its vastness necessitates the short line and the short line is justified by the vastness of the ocean spread before the poet as he climbs over the dunes and suddenly sees it lying before him.  There is something wonderful for me – though it is possible for an unsympathetic reader to see it as gimmicky – as the lines follow the poet’s route, taking a literal right turn (an enlarged left margin) as he turns to walk by the seashore and then rounds “a naked headland” and returns, a right hand turn again, now moving to what was the original left “along the inlet shore.”

     

      There is a triple, perhaps even a quadruple, convergence at work in the shape of these lines: the display of the lines mirror directions of the walk, and the walk out and back mirrors how the poem moves toward the outward – what the poet sees – as a reflection of the structure of the universe, or what Emerson called the macrocosm, and back towards the structure of the mind, or what Emerson called the microcosm.  Thus there are four parallel structures: the lineation of the  poem/the observed world/the universe/the mind.

     

      Before we move on, let me mention the significant grounding in space and place that the opening stanza establishes.  The poem begins with a brief description of his walk: not what he saw, which will come later, but what directions he walked in, and beside what (dunes, ocean, inlet).  It always astonishes me when I listen to what I think is the greatest artistic production of the human mind, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro.  After the overture, the first words we here are a precise arithmetic measurement.  Figaro, in the opening lines of the opera, is measuring where the bridal bed will go: “Cinque, dieci, venti, trenti, trentasei” – five, ten, twenty, thirty, thirty-six.  Whew.  Start with specifics like this, and you can move forward into anything. 

      

      Ammons has large ambitions in this poem, but he begins with directions, and then describes the weather of the world in which he is walking:

     

it was muggy sunny, the wind from the sea steady and high,   

crisp in the running sand,

       some breakthroughs of sun

   but after a bit

 

continuous overcast:

 

      We may listen to weather forecasts on the radio every day (I do) but never are they as lovely as this.  Not ‘poetic’ in the sense of overblown rhetoric, but ‘poetic’ in the sense that meteorological conditions are so accurately described, so attentive to what it is being described.  I revel in the description – pure description, with little ‘larger significance.’ I love the lines, maybe in the same way we come to love the opening of The Marriage of Figaro.   

[An aside you may find useful.  If you want to listen to Mozart’s opera, or two hours of Bob Dylan’s songs, or Public Enemy, there is a program called Spotify that will deliver them all to you through your computer.  It’s free, although if you want to listen to the music without occasional ads, it will cost you five dollars a month.  I listen for free.  It does, I need to warn you, ask for your Facebook address, tell your friends what you are listening to, and collect data on you.  In an age when information collection is everywhere, it is important to acknowledge what is going on.  Maybe the price – collecting information in return for a huge library of free music – is too high.  Your choice.]

 

      The setting established, the subject of this meditative poem is approached.  The walk, as walks so often are, is a walk, and involves in going in a direction but without purposive activity: he is liberated  and so “released.” 

 

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,   

from the perpendiculars,

      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds

of thought

into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends   

               of sight

 

Note well what he is released from.  Not merely forms (an abstract term, and about abstractions) but from “perpendiculars” and “straight lines” which in their geometric precision reveal (you’ll notice in the run of five nouns) how geometry produces limitations in the realm of thought, “blocks, boxes, binds/ of thought”).  If we think in intellectual categories (“forms,” “lines”) we end up boxed in, blocked from what we need to be liberated from: bound and not free. 

 

      The line ending (technically, a caesura or pause in what should be a unified phrase: “binds/of thought”) signifies in two dimensions.  Our thought is bound by perpendiculars and straight lines, and at the same time it is the imperatives of “thought” – as opposed to the physical, “sight,” which he is about to turn to  – that binds us, and from which a walk can liberate us.  

 

            Which world would you want to live in?  One of straight lines and blocks, boxes and binds – or one of “hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and bends”?  This is a real question, and not merely rhetorical, for lawyers, accountants, corporate executives, car mechanics, and all of us as we face filing our income tax forms would prefer the former.  Additionally, the world can be so damn messy and uncertain that clarity is comforting.  But Ammons’ lines don’t really give us a choice, they predetermine (for the course of this poem) the answer. Who wouldn’t prefer rising to being boxed in, hues to the starkness of straight lines?  (Even the great straight line painter, Piet Mondrian, needed color to make his straight lines work.) 

 

            Just as the poet has swerved from walking along the ocean’s shore to walking along the inlet, so the poem swerves in this stanza from its description of setting and weather to its subject: the “shadings” and “flowing[s]” of the world and of the human mind that is open to the world.  “I allow myself eddies of meaning,” the next stanza begins:

 

                         I allow myself eddies of meaning:   

yield to a direction of significance

running

like a stream through the geography of my work:   

   you can find

in my sayings

                         swerves of action

                         like the inlet’s cutting edge:

               there are dunes of motion,

organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance   

in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:

but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events

I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting

beyond the account:

 

      The poem mirrors the world, just as the form and content of the poem will mirror the walk the narrator has taken.  “In the overall wandering of mirroring mind:/ … Overall is beyond me: is the sum or these events/ I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting/ beyond the account:”   The poem quickly swerves from its beginning (as the poet swerves  from walking beside the all-encompassing ocean to walking along the inlet) toward a consideration of the impossibility of finding overall order.  For Ammons, the significance he can discover comes in “eddies of meaning.”  There is no overall significance, but only a direction, like that of a stream (which though it flows downhill, can most certainly swerve, and sometimes swerve severely) or an eddy or a walk.  All is “motion”: the dunes with the shifting of sand, the literal stream, the stream of his observations, the  stream of his poem, “the eddies of meaning,” the walk itself.  We are encountering a Heraclitean world.

 

       The pre-Socratic philosophers all were in search of the “Overall,” of the basic principle of the existent: earth, air, fire, water.  Heraclitus, to my mind one of the great philosophers of all time even though what we have of his work is only series of brief fragments, was the philosopher of fire, which is not so much a thing as it is a process of transformation.  Everything in Heraclitus is transformed.  What transforms, for him, is time.  “In the same river we both step and cannot step.”  “We cannot step in the same river twice.”  Everything changes: in this poem what the poet sees and will see changes as he moves through the world in the brief time of his walk.

     

      The walk, in which the poet’s steps are not prescribed or precisely planned, is a metaphor for the mind which wanders, which itself responds to a world that is in constant transformation in time.  Even and what seems organized is happenstance, and at the mercy of change.  “Organizations of grass” refers to the irregular upthrusts of vegetation along the dunes: those patches of grass are there before and around him, coherent as patches but not subject to a larger principle save the accident that they are where they are and not five feet further in a different place, and that they are patches and not continuous.  There is no organizing principle, which is why the mind “overall” must wander, as the walker wanders, without coming up with an “Overall” or a “sum” or a “ledger” or an “accounting.”

 

      He explains.  (This seems a good point to note what we have observed up to this point and what will be true of the entire poem, that the predominant form of punctuation is the colon [:], a way of putting into language the discrete moments of thought in its wandering that are connected but only temporally, that do not make up either a pre-planned narrative or an accounting.  The colons document shifts from one moment of thinking to another – rather like those small “organizations of grass” that he has seen.)  “In nature there are few sharp lines:”

 

in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of   

primrose

       more or less dispersed;

disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows

of dunes,

irregular swamps of reeds,

though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all ...

predominantly reeds:

 

      What a wonderful stanza!  Order is really beyond us in these verses, yet all is not totally disordered.  “There are areas of primrose” but the areas are dispersed, not in a predictable or clearly patterned dispersal: in actuality they are “more or less dispersed.”  The bayberry appears in “disorderly orders.”  (In that contradictory phrase lies the recognition the poem will cone upon, again and again. Ordered but not ordered, a disorderly order.  There are things – areas of primrose, orders of bayberry, rows of dunes, swamps of reeds – but they are all “more or less...disorderly…irregular.”  To instance what he is going after, he qualifies the reeds: they are “not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow all . . .”  But still, it is not disorder either, for the “swamps of reeds” are “predominately reeds.”

 

      What the narrator sees on his walk demands a particular response from him.  If there are no clear orders, but only things “more or less dispersed,”  reaching a conclusion would be unwarranted. 

 

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,   

shutting out and shutting in, separating inside

          from outside: I have

          drawn no lines:

          as

 

manifold events of sand

change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape   

tomorrow,

 

so I am willing to go along, to accept   

the becoming

thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish   

         no walls:

 

            No boundaries, since things are in change.  As the dune changes: the minute shifting of grains of sand, taken as a whole, means that tomorrow’s dune is not the same as today’s.  Even on ‘solid’ land we are in Heraclitus’ ever-changing river. 

 

            There can be, if the speaker of the poem can trust to what he sees of disorderly orders and change, no boundaries, no (straight) lines.  Having seen along with him the “areas of primrose/more or less dispersed,”  the lack of overall order, we know why he doesn’t reach conclusions, doesn’t erect boundaries, doesn’t rule in or rule out. We understand better now what he proclaimed only at the outset, for we have come to understand why he said what he said heretofore. 

 

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,   

from the perpendiculars,

      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds

of thought

into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends   

               of sight:

                        I allow myself

 

(It is important to remember that the poem began in the past tense, as a recounting of his morning walk; it is only in the sixth stanza, which I have just cited a second time, that he is ‘liberated’ into re-taking the walk and so recounts what he sees and thinks in the present tense, beginning in the seventh stanza and continuing to the end of the poem.) 

 

      He will go with what the world shows him, not what he might impose on the world, in an acceptance which seems like the attitude of an explorer and not just an aimless wanderer,

 

so I am willing to go along, to accept   

the becoming

thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish   

         no walls:

 

     An aside, to give you courage as you keep going.

     

      As I re-read what I had written, it occurred to me that you, my reader, could get as immersed in the details of this analysis as Ammons is immersed in what he sees on his walk when his thoughts about what his ‘seeing’  reveal to him the limitations of the mind.  I can even imagine that some of you might decide, ‘too much thinking, this is just a walk, it has little to do with daily life.’  (Franz Kafka, on parables, of which he was a master: “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.”  No one ever put this argument against literary texts better.)

 

      So let me break into this voyage through this poem to stress that this poem, for all its interesting observations and its thinking about things has, I am convinced, the capacity to profoundly change us as we go about the business of living our lives.    It tells us things we need to hear.  In one of the most resonant phrases from my reading, one which rises into my consciousness all the time, William Wordsworth wrote of his youth, “--the earth/ And common face of Nature spake to me/ Rememberable things.”  The poem we are looking at, “Corson’s Inlet,” I believe tells us a greatly rememberable thing in the process of considering what the earth speaks to Ammons on his walk. 

 

I know in referring back to a bunch of poets – Emerson and Wordsworth and Kafka, with Tennyson and Milton to come – I run the risk of seeming too ‘literary,’  But our language is always a tissue of prior texts: we know words because we have heard them spoken, or encountered them in what we read.  Language always refers back, and over.  Poetry in particular, as I have written before, forces us to concentrate harder on words than we usually do in the course of everyday life: that concentration is, as the critic Viktor Shklovsky pointed out, what makes certain language ‘poetic.’

 

      As I was about to say before I lapsed into talking about the language we use and its filiations to prior language, in this poem both nature and A.R. Ammons speak to us “rememberable things.”  The poem is one of a small handful I have read that actually says to me, “You must change your life.”  (That sentence is the end of a sonnet by Rainer Maria Rilke, and since his poem about the life-changing possibility of an artistic experience is so resonant, I think I will make it the subject of my next mailing.  So expect a consideration of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” in a forthcoming email.  Happily, as a sonnet it is only fourteen lines long, so the next mailing will be a lot shorter than this one.)

 

      What I am trying to say, here, in this extended aside, is that the poem before us is important, and worth paying attention to.  Not because it is ‘artistic’ or ‘a masterpiece’ or’a classic.’  But because it can change your life. 

 

      If you pay great attention to Ammons, he can and will make you a larger person, more open to both the world and to your own life.  This poem is a corrective to all we become because of the demands of work, because of our schooling, because of advertising, because of the need to fit ourselves into the smooth functioning of society.  It can change your life.  By changing what you strive for, what you think is realistically achievable.  In a wonderful paradox, by accepting a human limitation, you and I can become larger.  

 

      I say this with modest confidence because this is what “Corson’s Inlet” does for me.

 

      It even undercuts the enterprise I am currently engaged in, writing about poems.  If .in writing about a poem I intend to ‘explain’ the poem, I will do nothing but fail.  But then, Ammons can be a guide to reading poems (and writing about them).  We can and should walk through poems, not explain them away.  [Nietzsche said, in a phrase I always hear whenever I am in danger or wanting to ‘explain’ a poem, “Interpretation is the will to power over a text.”  We should not want to dominate a text, but give ourselves over to it.  Otherwise we encounter a soliloquy – our own – instead of a conversation, where another human being reveals through words something we might do well to hear.  Walt Whitman understood the egocentrism that is always a danger to us as we read poems.  Early in “Song of Myself, he asks, “Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?/ Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”]  Ammons gets this and writes about it in an essay called “A Poem is a Walk.”  If you can stand to read more by the time you get to the end of this piece, you can find the essay on the internet just by Googling ‘Ammons a poem is a walk.’

 

     The aside is over.  Back to the poem.

 

      Ammons, his walk proceeding, continues to observe and honor a world with neither beginnings nor walls nor sharp demarcations:

 

by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek   

to undercreek: but there are no lines, though

       change in that transition is clear

       as any sharpness: but “sharpness” spread out,   

allowed to occur over a wider range

than mental lines can keep:

 

The “disorderly orders” that he encountered earlier are now are now a “‘sharpness’ spread out,/allowed to occur over a wider range/than mental lines can keep.”  Let me return again to Heraclitus, who was criticized by both Plato and Aristotle for violating one of the basic laws of logic, the law of non-contradiction, which stipulates that thing cannot be both true and not true.  Something is either orderly, or it is not.  Either it is sharp, having an edge or tight focus, or it is spread out. 

 

      Not for Ammons, walking through the world with his eyes open and his mind open as well.  Not for Heraclitus either, who both could and could not step in a river twice.  “‘Sharpness’ spread out” is an amazing phrase.  In some sense, the whole poem inheres in this phrase.

     

      As Ammons in the next stanza restates there are “no beginnings or ends….no lines” by observing that the tide which last night was full is now low, and that the “waterline [is] inexact,/caught always in the event of change,” he sees something else in flux: mussels attached to seaweed on rocks drifting with the tide and the waves, alternately safe in water and then at “risk” to air and sun.

       

the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:   

black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk

of air

and, earlier, of sun,

waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact,   

caught always in the event of change:   

       a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals

       and ate

to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab,   

picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy

turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits:

 

      The indentation of the line charts his focusing in in from the inexact waterline and the “shoals of mussels” to a singularity, a young seagull (“mottled” as the world we are encountering is mottled, but of course also because young gulls are mottled and not yet distinctly white and grey). The young gull is piercing mussels and eating beyond satiation “to vomiting.”  This gull connects him to another, which has “cracked a crab” and is now “picking out the entrails”  while a smaller bird dashes in to “snatch leftover bits.”

 

      As I went on a walk of my own yesterday (although as I walked I was not nearly as observant as Ammons) I told my wife Buff that I was working on this Ammons poem.  She asked me what it was about, and since – as you are seeing – it is about a disorderliness that cannot be accounted for in “as few sharp lines,” I took an easy way out and said, ‘some of it is about nature red in tooth and claw.’  That famous phrase, “nature red in tooth a claw,” comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and is one of the great summations of an understanding many of us prefer to ignore and elide, that the ‘nature’ which we like to think gives us sustenance and relief is in actuality a place of struggle and perilous risk, where the strong feed on the weak and the strong are fed on in their turn.  For in this stanza, nature is revealed as not merely a congeries of primroses and grass, but a gluttonous feast of barbaric destruction.  The mussels, in the second line of this stanza, were “exposed to risk,” and the mottled gull made clear that the risk was not just desiccation (the sun) but also the perilous exposure to predators.

 

risk is full: every living thing in

siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small

white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears

               the shallows, darts to shore

                            to stab—what? I couldn’t

       see against the black mudflats—a frightened

       fiddler crab?

 

      Risk and terror: Ammons sees the gull but also imagines the crab.  “Risk is full: every living thing/in siege.”  The stanza reflects the Darwinian understanding of natural selection that Tennyson was anticipating when he wrote of “nature red in tooth and claw.”  The beauty of that egret is related to, literally dependent on (in the sense that its existence depends on its killing and eating smaller creatures), violence and destruction.  “The demand is life, to keep life.”

     

      As the poet walks, the poem now takes another swerve, for his vision moves from the shoreline – mussels, gulls, egret, crab – inward to the dunes where he sees movement in the bushes.  He sees “thousands of tree swallows.”

     

               the news to my left over the dunes and

reeds and bayberry clumps was

               fall: thousands of tree swallows

               gathering for flight:

               an order held

               in constant change: a congregation

rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable

          as one event,

                      not chaos: preparations for

flight from winter,

cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,

beaks

at the bayberries

    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,

    sound:

    the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:

the “field” of action

with moving, incalculable center:

      

      The birds are feeding, preparing for the “flight from winter,” moving from one branch to another in search of food, “an order held in constant change,” a wholeness that is disorder (“a congregation rich with entropy”). This constantly changing scene before him, these thousands of birds feeding, “beaks at the bayberries” is “noticeable/ as one event,/ not chaos”.  Not chaos, but a changing order that cannot be defined and yet is always separable from the moment before and the moment after.  There is a “‘field’ of action/with moving incalculable center.”  The possibility of order is there, but before him is primarily disorder, though it holds the promise of a sharpness spread out, “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness.”

      

      It is a strange stanza, largely abstract (order, constant change, entropy, event, chaos, possibility, rule, rulelessness, ‘field,’ incalculable, center) yet somehow seeking is anchor the abstractness of thought in the concrete observation of those “thousands of tree swallows” making sounds “cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,/beaks/at the bayberries.”

     

      Almost as if he is himself dissatisfied by the abstractions, the poet turns from the birds in motion on the dunes to “the smaller view” in the next five lines.

     

in the smaller view, order tight with shape:

blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:

snail shell:

            pulsations of order

            in the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,   

broken down, transferred through membranes

to strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, no

lines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, together   

            and against, of millions of events: this,

                         so that I make

                         no form of

                         formlessness:

 

      At first he sees order, “order tight with shape” as in the “tiny blue flowers…carapace of crab:/snail shell” but this order of dead or motionless things is quickly displaced as he regards minnows in the water close to shore and sees the “pulsations of order” that reveal what he had tried to master by turning to “the smaller view.”  For in the bellies of the minnows he sees life – the digestive process, the beating of the heart – and continual movement and change, and more, the very “risk” he had encountered when he observed the gull with the mussels, the egret in its feeding.   I should intrude, for those of you who have never stood by the shore of a body of water and watched minnow swimming in the shallows: so small are they, so transparent their flesh, that one can see the the digestive system and the heart’s beating in their bellies. Order [here, the algae or plankton or baby shrimp that the minnows have swallowed] dissipates and is literally “broken down” through digestion, “transferred through membranes/ to strengthen larger orders.”  Contrary to his claim about “the large view,” what dominates “the smaller view” is exactly similar: there are “millions of events” ranging from the digestive processes of countless minnows to  those thousands of tree swallows that prevent him from comprehending “the Overall.” 

 

                         so that I make

                         no form of

                         formlessness:

 

      There is a wisdom to this poem, but it is not the wisdom we conventionally expect, which touches universal truths.  The wisdom has to do with accepting change, accident.  It understands, that formlessness will not resolve into larger form, though smaller forms and temporal orders may appear before us.

 

orders as summaries, as outcomes of actions override   

or in some way result, not predictably (seeing me gain   

the top of a dune,

the swallows

could take flight—some other fields of bayberry   

            could enter fall

            berryless) and there is serenity

           

      He sees what he sees, the birds feeding, the minnows swimming in the water near his feet with their bellies pulsating.  The particular order is accidental and “not predictable.”  In one of the poem’s wonderful insights, he realizes that if he were to turn inland towards the dunes, the birds might take flight and “some other fields of bayberry/could enter fall/ berryless.”  That imagined image, not just of the other bayberry fields, but of the birds taking flight, wheeling by the thousands as swallows can do, in constant motion and without a center and yet not formless or without order, and with whatever form they have constantly in motion and constantly changing, that order of the swallows in flight, wholly imagined following the suggestion that the route of his walk could change, is for me the dominant image of the poem.  Merely suggested, totally imagined on my part, not imagined for me by the poet.

     

      I hesitate to go further, but I will, though I know I am projecting this on the poem.  There are moments when we see huge flights of wheeling birds.  What I mostly recall is swallows in constant motion, always recognizable as a ‘flock of birds,’ always held together by the centrifugal force of bird-community, but in constant motion, different at every moment and always chaotic,  yet at the same timesuggesting order.  Yesterday I saw – I write this in Vermont’s midwinter, when the swallows are long gone – a flock of fifty or sixty crows, veering and wheeling as they looked for a tree-top on which to roost.   When I read this poem, the formed formlessness, or the formless form, of flocks of birds in flight is what comes to mind, even though I know Ammons is describing birds in constant motion on the bayberry bushes as they seek yet other berries to consume.  Yet that phrase, “the swallows/could take flight,” works powerfully on my imagination.  Every time I read the poem.  When I see flocks of birds in flight – not, emphatically, the geese who migrate in the skies of Vermont  in the fall, in their very evident Veees, but swallows or crows – I think of this poem.

     

      In the awareness that there is “no form of/formlessness,” that the outcomes we see are manifested “not predictably,” that everything could be otherwise and “other fields of bayberry/could enter fall berryless,” we encounter – most surprisingly I think – the poet finidng that  “there is serenity.”  In accepting what is and what may be, Ammons is neither quietist nor passive, but instead large-minded and open to possibility, open to life what is beyond category and “image, plan,/or thought:/ no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept.” No humbling of reality to precept. 

 

            no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,

or thought:

no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept:

 

terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities   

of escape open: no route shut, except in   

   the sudden loss of all routes:

 

      Risk, terror, death exist: “terror pervades but is not arranged.”  Twice in the first four lines above he stresses that the terror is “not arranged.”  “All possibilities/ of escape open: no route [is] shut.”  The birds could fly off, and other bayberries be eaten; one mussel could be cracked open instead of another; one order can emerge (momentarily) instead of another.  Only death can cancel the possibilities, “no route shut, except in/the sudden loss of all routes.”  Yet even death is not arranged, and as one looks forward “all possibilities/ of escape open.” 

 

      The poem ends with a summary, which is paradoxically a refusal to summarize, for “scope eludes by grasp, there is no finality of vision.”  He will, being human, try “to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder,” but a triumph of consciousness is that he can recognize his  limitations, that “the Overall is beyond me.” 

      

            I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will   

not run to that easy victory:

            still around the looser, wider forces work:

            I will try

       to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening   

scope, but enjoying the freedom that

Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,   

that I have perceived nothing completely,

that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

 

      Through Ammons’ meditations on and in his walk, the poem earns not just awareness, but “serenity” and human “freedom.”  Yes, “there is no finality of vision;’ yes he has great limitations and has “perceived nothing completely.” But  a capacious future opens: here I am reminded, perhaps not so strangely, of the last lines of one of the great epics of poetry, Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden,  leave paradise and inherit our world, the one Ammons has been wandering through:

The World was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:

They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way.

 

      So  too, for Ammons and for us, the world is all before us.  It is very hard to end poems— far more  often than not, poets can begin poems, develop poems, far better than they can end them.  To my mind, “Corson’s Inlet” has one of  the finest endings of any poem of the past half century.  It encapsulates what the poem has to tell us about the Heraclitean world and the impossibility of final summation,  The world is all before us:  “Tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.”

     

      Tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.