A.R. Ammons’ long poem “Corsons Inlet” reports a morning’s walk near a beach in New Jersey. It begins matter-of-factly, “I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning,” and the first stanza summarizes the itinerary. Although it reads like a diary entry, the poem is also a manifesto for a particular kind of free verse in which there will be:
… no forcing of image, plan,
no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept.
The American city, with its rectangular blocks and buildings, represents thought as organized, articulated, and linear. In the city, nature has been humbled to design. Similarly, in a sonnet or a villanelle, language has been forced into a form. But Ammons reports that on the Jersey shore,
I was released from forms,from the perpendiculars,straight lines, blocks, boxes, bindsof thoughtinto the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blendsof sight:
The narrator offers precise observations about changes that occur gradually. For instance, a dune is really different from a creek, but there is no point where one turns to the other. The “transition is clear / as any sharpness: but ‘sharpness’ spread out … ”
The poem’s layout–with its ragged margins and sudden blank lines–resembles the shapes of nature on a sandy coastline on a muggy, hazy day. On the dunes, and elsewhere “in nature there are few sharp lines.”
If the poem were all about vagueness, it would be dull. And if nature were truly formless, it could not be captured in words, no matter how loose and free. But Ammons detects tight order at small scales. The order turns blurry only from further away–a model for his own poetic form.
in the smaller view, order tight with shape:blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab:snail shell:pulsations of orderin the bellies of minnows: orders swallowed,broken down, transferred through membranesto strengthen larger orders: but in the large view, nolines or changeless shapes: the working in and out, togetherand against, of millions of events: this,so that I makeno form offormlessness:
“Carapace of crab” is a fragment of tightly observed, onomatopoeic, self-conscious verse, but it is adrift in a larger poem whose form is loose and impressionistic.
I have cited examples of vagueness in space. Ammons is also interested in vagueness over time.
thousands of tree swallowsgathering for flight:an order heldin constant change: a congregationrich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeableas one event,not chaos: preparations forflight from winter, …
As someone who once wrote a whole long poem about entropy, I am especially interested in this passage. I had treated disorder as problematic, both morally and aesthetically. For Ammons’ narrator, receptivity to vagueness and resistance to distinctions are not just valid aesthetic choices, but also moral imperatives. He identifies structure with “propaganda” and even “terror” (political words) but reports his acceptance of nature:
I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,shutting out and shutting in, separating insidefrom outside: I havedrawn no lines:…so I am willing to go along, to acceptthe becoming