Academic journal article Chicago Review

Ten Asteroids for Sphere

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Ten Asteroids for Sphere

Article excerpt


Sphere is among those topics that can be stuck to strictly, only by deviating from them. The multitudes that it contains, contain multitudes too. Whoever would Virgil us through its "heterocosm" (1.6) will hollow out its globe, by selecting, as key, some necessarily peripheral disturbance; whoever justly takes all its evanescences for essential will at last recoil in awed satiety. Hence this small shower of asteroids, whose light bombardment may strike some sparks from the planet's surface.


Sphere could qualify as a "long" poem only in an epoch of acute public distaste for verse. Ammons understands that distaste better than most poets. "I'm sick of good poems," he admits, "all those little rondures / splendidly brought off " (138.8). Any poem too conspicuously artifactual is for Ammons a funerary relic. To the urn, Ammons prefers "mosey" (8.6; 73.5). The poem is almost throughout determinedly disenchanted in its approach to line end. The small change of language, its particles, connectives, and prepositions, are as often or more often chosen to occupy this foregrounded site than the large bills. The same goes for the ends of the twelve-line groups, where "of" (7.12), "a" (106.12), "and" (83.12), and "up" (58.12) seem preferred candidates for this especially marked place. (Each of the poem's numbered sections is composed of four tercets.) Line length, meanwhile, appears determined just by a sense of each one's seeming full up before it is time to move on to the next one. The criterion is rough bulk of print, not stress or syllable count even of the most flexible kind. Right at the beginning of the poem this criterion is deliberately held out to readers by the conspicuous and funny insertion of a piece of lyrical filler at the end of a line that might otherwise risk not being properly topped up ("along a common Une, the in-depth knowledge (a dilly)," 1 .7). Yet this is not left-justified prose. Lines quite often stop even though there would have been space in this one for the next word of the next. This is instead nonmetrical verse at the extreme of external segmentation (Attridge), the technical antithesis of Whitman s. The result is that the fact of verse seems insisted on with a blinding purity, stripped to the maximum degree possible of any superstitious analogy whatever with the paraphrasable content (which does not need paraphrase). Sphere is as if a pure instance of Kant's idea that the merit of verse order lies precisely in its providing a merely external, inorganic container for that free play of genius that would otherwise go up in smoke.


Ammons's violent distaste for public funding of the arts points to something important in his thinking. It was respectable for poetry to be supported by Cornell, because Cornell was private and it was nobody's business what it did with its money. There is a strong antinomian element in Ammons's makeup. The idea of a publicly sponsored culture, or even of the state's very appearing, is felt to be uncanny, creepy. Absolute assent to the separation between church and state and to its successor separation, the separation between public and private, is the blind spot enabling Ammons's luxuriances of complexity. "Hocuspocus" makes appearances (110.6- with mitigating circumstances; 120.12; "hocus focus," 24.2). The phrase is a sure marker of the tacitly Protestant character even of a common sense thinking itself agnostic. When Amnions embarks on a rare meditation on social justice, it's telling that the redistributive mechanism envisaged is not taxation but iconoclasm: "I wonder if we / should pick the gems out of the reliquary crowns and / give to the poor" (103.5-7). The subsequent pang of qualification about what might happen "if we demolish the past's imposing achievements" (104.3)- what Ammons was not ashamed, once, to call "all that cultural crap"- is an afterthought whose lukewarmness can be surmised from the slackness, unusual in Ammons, of the Une here. …

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