Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A. R. Ammons's Stevensian Search for a Supreme Fiction in Sphere

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A. R. Ammons's Stevensian Search for a Supreme Fiction in Sphere

Article excerpt

Our own time, and by this I mean the last two or three generations, including our own, can be summed up in a way that brings into unity an immense number of details by saying of it that it is a time in which the search for the supreme truth has been a search in reality or through reality or even a search for some supremely acceptable fiction.

- Wallace Stevens, Necessary Angel (NA) 173

Ammons claims that Emerson and Whitman are his most immediate "forebears" (Grossvogel 51). Evidence for the validity of this claim is his long-standing search for a poetics capable of accommodating the most inclusive vision of reality. Always striving to assimilate the unassimilated, to keep the one and the many in a balanced perspective, he attempts to rediscover how he himself is part of a completely interconnected universe. Yet this search for an inclusive poetics, which culminates in his long poem Sphere, reveals the influence of another major poet. When Ammons in Sphere alludes to Wallace Stevens and suggests that "if truth is colorless fictions / need be supreme" (S 57),(1) he further defines his preoccupation with inclusiveness as a search for "some supremely acceptable fiction" that will serve as a unifying mythos. This allusion prompts a reading of Sphere as Ammons's own notes toward a supreme fiction - a reading that shows that his major preoccupations in this poem have virtually identical counterparts in the poetry of Stevens. Both poets are preoccupied with accommodating the unlimited possibilities of reality, the relationship between the earthly and the celestial, and the idea that the ultimate poetry must be abstract. Such preoccupations pervade Ammons's canon - from his earliest volume, Ommateum, to his latest, Garbage - but register their strongest signal in Sphere. In this volume, they are repeated and modulated in a number of different contexts and combine to create an unmistakably Stevensian poetics, which Ammons assimilates to his own vision.

My discussion will focus on how Ammons's treatment of these preoccupations acknowledges the legacy of Stevens and at the same time points toward a new vision of a supreme fiction. By appropriating the poetry of Stevens to his own poetics, Ammons sees the supreme fiction as revealing our sense of place in a hierarchical universe where the divinely ordering forces of what he calls the "Most High" (S 69) are extensions of ourselves. Sphere, then, somewhat mitigates Stevens's liminal "war between the mind / And sky" (Collected Poems [CP] 407). As we find ourselves immersed in Ammons's verbal concatenations stretching from the atom to the highest levels of pure energy, we feel the possibility of a more sustained union between self and world. This is a unifying mythos, which, as I will argue, owes a great debt to Stevens's insistence on writing a poetry of earth. Ammons makes it quite clear that intuitions of the "Most High" begin with a desire "to appreciate the lesser celandine" (S 82); and surely Stevens is somewhere behind his suggestion that "wherever the imagined lands it's / likely to brush up against a thorn" (S 59).

In the heterocosmic world of Sphere, Ammons's continual preoccupation with what he calls his "one many problem" (S 4) - the need to assimilate particulars within general patterns - is still his primary motivation for achieving a poetics of supreme accommodation. Ammons avoids imposing any artificial unity on a transformative world by focusing "on process rather than on taxonomy" (Clark 1). Recalling his own "Essay on Poetics," he describes the progression from cell to water to energy to spirit as a movement "through the discrete to the general" (S 9), and suggests further that he himself is a part of this progression that inevitably connects him to all other forms of life: "I could not say, then, that the earthworm is not / my radical cousin" (S 10). Given this sense of the interconnectedness of all things - how "The unassimilable fact leads us on" (Selected Poems [SP] 32) - Ammons is wary of the idea of fixed boundaries, for he asks: "at what aural / remove from the actual leaf does light cease to be tree (S 25). …

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