Though A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) had a late start at it, he eventually produced nearly thirty books of poetry, twice winning the National Book Award, and is now counted among the great American poets of the twentieth century.
Ammons’ extraordinary career accomplishments seem even more so given his background. He was born to a lower middle class family in rural North Carolina during the Great Depression. In his formative years, he attended local schools and worked on the family tobacco farm that barely produced enough to live on. After serving in the Navy at the end of WW2, he attended Wake Forest University on the G.I. Bill and earned a Bachelor of Science degree. He married and began post-graduate studies toward a master’s degree which he never completed. Following a brief stint as a primary school principal, he worked for almost a decade as a sales executive in his father-in-law’s biological glass company in southern New Jersey. His first book of poetry, Ommateum, was self-published in 1955 and sold only sixteen copies in the next five years. Nevertheless, his work began to appear in prominent literary journals, notably The Hudson Review in July, 1963, which led to an invitation to read at Cornell University. One can only imagine how impressive that reading was. In 1964 Ammons was offered a teaching position at Cornell and eventually became the Goldwin Smith Professor of English and Poet in Residence until his retirement in 1998.
“Cascadilla Falls” first appeared as the penultimate poem in Uplands (1970) and was later published in Selected Poems (1986), which won the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry; it is now found in Collected Poems, 1951-1971 (2001) (CP. 206-207). The poem exerts a magnetic attraction, largely due to its lyric intensity and the unpredictable development of its content: from a pastoral setting on Cornell’s campus in Upstate New York (where the “single creek” featured in the poem cuts through the Cascadilla gorge), to the capaciousness of its scientific quantifications of the cosmos and the apparent awe inspired by the poet’s realization of his place in the universal scheme, and finally to the surprising lament at the end of the poem. It is there in the conclusion’s cri de coeur that Ammons carves the unique emotional space where poetry lives.
I quote the poem in full:
I went down by Cascadilla
stream below the falls,
and picked up a
kidney shaped, testicular, and
thought all its motions into it,
the 800 mph earth spin,
the 190-million-mile yearly
displacement around the sun,[i]
of the galaxy with the 30,000
mph of where
the sun’s going:
thought all the interweaving
into myself: dropped
the stone to dead rest:
the stream from other motions
rushing over it:
to the sky and stood still:
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.
The poem’s opening lines broadly evoke the grand scheme of the universe and by implication the origins of life on earth. Although the mathematical calculations appear to have been cribbed from a high school science text, they first came to us by way of the “scientific revolution” of the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly as a result of the work of Tyco Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. The reference to the “motions” of the universe recalls the work of their contemporary, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, whose book De Corpore (1655) posited that the cosmos was a complicated machine that moved in ways that were reducible to geometric figures.
Hobbes believed that motion, i.e., any kind of change, was the universal cause of all things, and that all the sciences were essentially the study of motion: for example, physics as the study of physical bodies, moral philosophy as the study of the motions of the mind (envy, greed, lust and so forth). Hobbes draped this mechanistic view of the universe with scriptural references so as to tie the divine will of God to his explanations. He did this partly to appease the religious powers who were in the habit of mortally extinguishing any spark of apostasy that deviated from conventional religious cant. Notwithstanding his obeisance to the powers that be, Hobbes thought that we would never really understand what God is, which allies him with Ammons’ own sympathies on the subject.[ii]
In “Cascadilla Falls,” the motions of the galaxy, the sun and the earth, as those of the Falls and the stream, are set in opposition to the pedestrian poet and sedentary stone. To the stone Ammons ascribes human attributes, “handsized,” “kidney shaped” and “testicular,” the last being at once grandiloquent and comical. But the characterization establishes a discomfiting correspondence between man and nature, one that defies Biblical teachings, which then offers Ammons an opportunity to contemplate the existential question of our place in the universe.
Thus, when Ammons holds the stone and thinks “all its motion into it” and then “into myself,” it is a necromantic gesture calling forth the “overriding/grand/haul//of the galaxy,” as if the act of thinking were itself paralleling its creation and becoming coextensive with the physical movements of the stream, the earth and the universe as a whole. In doing so Ammons appears to summon an “oceanic feeling” – the sense of being one with the universe, which Freud discussed in his essay, “Civilization and Its Discontents” (1929). But Ammons never discloses whether he feels anything of the sort. Indeed, the scene makes a feint toward, but never achieves (perhaps intentionally), the Zen perception of “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, where:
the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Instead, Ammons indicates just the opposite is happening when he drops the stone and it comes to “dead rest” as:
the stream from other motions
rushing over it:
A traditional reading might invest the scene with open-mouthed awe as the cosmos rushes over the poet, much as the stream does the stone, and that is because our Romantic tradition has conditioned us to expect that transcendence is always imminent when communing with nature. Yet Ammons eschews Wordsworthian intimations of immortality. Indeed, “Cascadilla Falls” may well be a responsive counterpoint to Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”:
And I have feltA presence that disturbs me with the joyOf elevated thoughts; a sense sublimeOf something far more deeply interfused,Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,And the round ocean and the living air,And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:A motion and a spirit, that impelsAll thinking things, all objects of all thought,And rolls through all things.
In “Cascadilla Falls” the cosmos has come to life in the poem solely by virtue of the poet’s meditation on its inexorable “motions,” not as the result of the immanent sublimity in nature. Thus, this meditation reflects, if anything, scientific faith, not spiritual intuition[iii]; as when Heraclitus, who said one could not step into the same river twice, observed the physical universe perpetually change and yet remain unified, but found no underlying metaphysical plane of existence there.
In one sense “Cascadilla Falls” finds common ground with “The Snow Man” insofar as both poems are about ways of perceiving the world without the overlay of occult or metaphysical beliefs. Yet, for Ammons, even a perception of reality based upon scientific analysis is unsettling. Rather than seeking comfort in the knowledge of “the nothing that is,” Ammons finds himself in a state of nature, as Hobbes would have understood it [in Leviathan (1651)]: vulnerable and fearful, habitually at war with the physical elements and the rest of life. At the poem’s dramatic precipice, Ammons describes himself “shelterless.” The demons spawned by mortality’s terrors are sublimated by yielding to religious belief and social organization on one end of the spectrum (the Hobbesian solution in Leviathan), or succoming to asocial behavior or the nausea and ennui of ultimate resignation on the other. For Freud, this agon was the principal challenge to human existence.[iv]
Ammons’ rejection of the romantic pastoral idyll confuses us upon a first reading, especially in light of the time (evening) and place (scenic Cascadilla Falls), the conjuring of the inviolable cosmos and the anthropomorphic stone, all of which are the equivalent of a pantomime of sentient nature. For all his higher aspirations man suffers his mortality (for this is what seems indicated by the stone at “dead rest”), but, with or without human nature, the indifferent, unshakable haul of the galaxy goes onward without a hitch. Ammons reinforces the feeling of this autonomous movement with the constant turning of each stanza, using their end words (“and,” “haul,” “dropped” and “turned”) to respectively move from one stanza to the next.
The final lyric comes as a lament in the form of a rhetorical apostrophe whose addressee is unspecified (but is likely self-addressed):
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.
The negative construction of the sentence confounds syntax and meaning, as Stevens was wont to do, and smacks of “It did not give of bird or bush, like nothing else in Tennessee,” at the conclusion of “Anecdote of the Jar.” Were we to go further with this comparison we might also find that Ammons’ “kidney-shaped, testicular” stone has taken the place of the Stevens’ jar in a dramatically different way, where nature is indifferent to its presence rather than deferential. At “dead rest,” the stone is just a stone despite its service in the poem as an objet trouvé with human features, and it is needless to explicate the symbolic implications of this.
Notably the final strophe is cast in the present tense, whereas the balance of the poem, up to that point, is an anecdote in the past tense. The shift in tense, combined with the change in mood, accentuates the surprise we feel at the poet’s utterance, as we become suddenly aware of an internal dialectic going on behind the narrative, and hence the poem acquires its double vision. At ground zero, the shift to the present tense affects the narrative action, producing a story told in medias res, with the figure of the poet frozen in time, still decrying his dilemma. In the secondary, supervening “overview” of the creative consciousness, the poet seems to come out of character as the poem is transformed from anecdote to confession.
We generally recognize the apostrophe as a rhetorical figure from Greek literature. Poets use it chiefly to express heightened emotion. Its presence here signals a break in the emotional tenor of the poem, elevating the importance of what is being said. Ammons’ confession, “I do/not know where I am going,” illustrates a dilemma posed by one’s present place in the world; and the statement’s continuation,”that I can live my life/ by this single creek,” confesses a personal and spiritual disconnection. The “single creek” is not “single” by any construction of its nature, but imports the physical strata of the entire universe. Thus, the lament calls forth the old ghosts of the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic era, pitting intellectual truths against emotional ones, and brings the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of lyrical expression into conflict, as Nietzsche observed in The Birth of Tragedy.
One questions whether the final lyric is informed by Ammons’ turn “to the sky,” lamenting a neo-Romantic form of transcendence which cannot be sustained as a practical matter, or admitting the failure to achieve it at all, and therefore investing the lyric with pathos. Conversely, it may be a plea to an unheeding sky where science has taken the place of God, supplanting pathos with irony. In any event, the expression seems far more laden with meaning than one that is merely bemoaning Ammons’ future at Cornell.
Ammons’ quandary is evident in the scansion [“I do/ not know where I am going” rather than “I do not know/where I am going”], lapsing from the affirmative to the negative with the turn of the line. While the reader senses the possibility of transcendence through the immanent ne plus ultra of pastoral consciousness, Ammons refuses to deliver the Damascene moment, as opposed to Stevens (in “The Snow Man”), who clearly does. Ammons has deliberately withheld going there. One cannot traffic in the pragmatic vein, as Ammons did, without the realization that any untoward (and unearned) spiritual epiphany would be met with self-conscious incredulousness.
In the words,”that I can live my life/by this single creek,” Ammons ambiguously uses the word “by” in a manner that means “according to,” as well as that indicating relative proximity. The final lyric highlights the impossibility of a cogent resolution to the question of “how to live, what to do,” or where one goes after confronting the reality-based universe on terms that leave little room for divinity or any other creed that exalts the human race over the rest of nature. In fact, nature here becomes a constant reminder of our own powerlessness in the void.
One may justly be perplexed to have arrived at this conclusion: How did we get from the motions of the galaxy, the sun, earth, the Falls and the stream to the rhetorical quandary of living life by a single creek? The lament seems a non sequitur or at least quixotic for the way Ammons leads us toward and then intentionally avoids the convenient pastoral epiphany. Ammons shows us the dilemma. Once he interposes the mechanistic universe, the spiritual intuition that gave rise to religious belief or other metaphysical fictions must face incontrovertible facts, especially when measured against the scientific method introduced by Sir Francis Bacon. Is this the best of all possible worlds as Hobbes maintained (and Voltaire ridiculed), or will a giant meteor or atom bomb summarily end our existence with a bang and a whimper?
Notwithstanding science, living life “by this single” creek is a bridge too far in a world where human beings often require the true voice of the ineffable to make life tolerable, though we may ever be in search of it. Poetry is made of such yearnings.
© 2016 Steven M. Critelli
[i] Ammons was wrong in his calculations. The rotational speed of the earth is approximately 1,040 mph and its solar orbit is 584 million miles long. He was also wrong about the travelling speed of the sun’s movement toward Lambda Herculis, which is at 45,000 mph. But we understand the general sentiment intended. The earth rotates fast and travels with great speed a long way around the sun, yet we feel the motion as much as a stone.
[ii] In his interview for the Paris Review, Ammons explained the animus of his earliest poetry: “I began to apprehend things in the dynamics of themselves—motions and bodies—the full account of how we came to be a mystery with still plenty of room for religion, though, in my case, a religion of what we don’t yet know rather than what we are certain of. I was de-denominated.” Paris Review, Interviews, “A. R. Ammons, The Art of Poetry No. 73,” Summer 1996, No. 139 – http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1394/the-art-of-poetry-no-73-a-r-ammons
[iii] See Ammons’ “Hibernaculum”:
I hope my philosophy will turn
out all right and turn out to be a philosophy so as
to free people (any who are trapped, as I have been)
from seeking any image in the absolute or seeking
any absolute whatsoever except nothingness . . .
Categories: Literary Criticism