“Firm ground is not available ground.”—A meditation upon two poems by A. R. Ammons

READINGS (and they do need to be read first if any of what follows is to make any real sense!): Two poems by A. R. Ammons. Just click in the links below to read them at the Poetry Foundation website:

You can also hear A. R. Ammons read Corsons Inlet at this link. It's obviously an ad hoc reading but it's always interesting to hear poets read their own work even if, as is the case here (in my opinion), they are not the best people to read their own poems!

Given my long-standing love of Lucretius, before I begin the address, it seems worth noting that another American poet, Richard Howard once said,  “Ammons is our Lucretius, swerving and sideswiping his way into the nature of things, through domestic doldrums, cardinals and quince bushes, fields of sidereal force, out into what he so accurately calls ‘joy’s surviving radiance.’ [Source]


“Firm ground is not available ground.”—A meditation upon two poems by A. R. Ammons

In the middle background is a small dredger attempting to keep The Run free
It was only a couple of years ago that I first gratefully stumbled across the work of the great twentieth-century American poet A. R. Ammons (1926–2001). That discovery took place at a very specific time and place — namely a winter break in Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast, that memorable landscape of big-skies filled with the sound of sea-birds, the ever-roaring open sea, wide sandy beaches, always-shifting sand-dunes, gorse, creeks, inlets, marshes and the endless whisper of old Scots, Maritime and Corsican Pines. It’s a place I’ve known and loved since I was a boy and only last week I was once again there with Susanna. (All the pictures in this post were taken by me during this last visit. Just click on a photo to enlarge it.)

The two poems by Ammons which have particularly come to shape my thinking on every return visit since discovering him are those you heard earlier, “Corson’s Inlet” and what may be considered its epitaph, “Dunes”. They both seem to say to me something of perennial religious and philosophical value but I think they also speak particularly powerfully, relevantly and positively to our recognition that we are currently living on some highly unpredictable shifting religious, political and cultural sands.

In order to tease out what I mean let’s start with the final line from “Dunes” — a line that begins to articulate what is, I think, Ammons’ basic gospel, his hopeful, good news: “Firm ground is not available ground.”

Now I realize that for many people this will not be received as good but as terrible news. What they want more than anything else is firm ground and this desire all too easily encourages in them a reactionary return to what they believe were the certainties and answers embodied in older ways of being and doing. But I strongly feel that if our culture is to have a chance of recovering its confidence and footing and of moving into the future in a healthy and realistic way then the first thing we need to see with absolute clarity is that ALL so-called religious, political and cultural certainties were and always will be an illusion and that firm ground has never been, and never will be, available ground.

Sandy beaches teach us this lesson simply and eloquently. Reaching Wells beach for the first time this year I was for a moment astonished (but not surprised) to see that the big, sheltering sand-dunes which for many years have lain half-way between the beach huts and the sea had been reduced to a few low, grass covered bumps no more than a few feet high. In recent years I have spent many a happy hour there with Susanna sheltering from the wind reading, eating a sandwich and drinking a flask of tea in between spells of kite flying: but no more. Turning away from the sea and looking back towards the colourful beach huts, those icons of halcyon child-hood summer holidays — although at sixty-grand a piece now they are now definitively out of reach of all normal working-folk — I was also astonished (but not surprised) to see many of them swamped by sand. Ammons’ poem “Dunes” is a perfect illustration of this: “Taking root in windy sand / is not an easy / way / to go about / finding a place to stay” and that a “ditch bank or wood’s-edge / has firmer ground.” True enough, but as our walk up into the pine woods from the beach also quickly revealed the wood’s edge, though clearly firmer than the beach, has also seen significant change since we were last here.

Yet, as Ammons goes on to say, “In a loose world though / something can be started— / a root touch water, / a tip break sand— / Mounds from that can rise / on held mounds, / a gesture of building, / keeping, / a trapping / into shape.”

The vital point to grasp here is that just because there is no firm, eternal lasting ground anywhere in this world this does not mean that there is no place where — for a time anyway — we might stay, build dwell and think and where we might find appropriate ways create some meaningful form of life.

But the question is: “What does such an appropriate form of meaningful life look like in practice?” In Ammons’ work we begin to see this most clearly in “Corsons Inlet”.

From Ammons’ perspective (and mine) the appropriate form of life is one that resembles a liberating walk through a landscape that  everywhere and always clearly embodies movement, transition and change and which helps reveal that all appropriate and, therefore, genuinely successful building, dwelling and thinking must always be a temporary gesture, provisional and contingent.

(NB Ammons gave an important talk in 1968 called “A Poem is a Walk” in which he makes explicit the connections he thinks exists between poetry — and by extension philosophy — and walking. You can find a copy of it at this link.)   

Ammons’ poetry as a whole — and “Corsons Inlet” in particular — helps us to see that this truth is not one that should be turned away from in horror but willingly embraced as perfectly natural. He does this by helping us see that were our human creations anything other than temporary then we would be beginning a process of bringing about the premature closure of our world and the destruction of what we may call (after “Bifo” Berardi) the “futurability” of any truly living, creative world: whenever we succumb to this temptation we begin to find ourselves living increasingly restricted lives under the “tyranny of straight lines” within stationary, opposed orders and with associated “hardening circles of the mental order” (John Elder).

Ammons sees this danger clearly and (as the literary critic John Elder notes in “Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature”, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1985) his poetry is nearly always concerned to emphasize “the way in which nature and the poet alike break open old orders continually, to liberate the materials from which new orders may be ‘grasped’” and the world Ammons helps us see through this process “is always presented as a freshly emerging event” replete with new possibilities.

However, as we proceed, please don’t be seduced into thinking that Ammons is offering us here merely a “self-contained poetic artifact”. It’s important to see that Ammons is also offering us “a [actual] terrain into which [we] the reader may step” (John Elder). This is an incredibly helpful gift because standing at this lectern today in the middle of the City of Cambridge I cannot, alas, invite you to step outside into the ever-moving coastal terrain around Wells-next-the-Sea but I can invite you to take on a liberating walk in the company of Ammons into the ever-moving terrain expressed in the terrain of his poem.

“Corson’s Inlet” is a kind of journalistic record of a liberating walk in which the walker is “released from forms, / from the perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought / into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends/ of sight.”

Holding the gospel that “firm ground is not available ground” close to our hearts we find that as we walk through the poem we are slowly helped, like the terrain itself through which we are imaginatively moving, to begin to experience “eddies of meaning” which “yield to a direction of significance” and “swerves of action”. This, in turn, helps us engage in meaningful activities which also begin to mirror “the inlet’s cutting edge”, “dunes of motion”, “organizations of grass” and “white sandy paths of remembrance”. We begin to see and internalize the fact that these constant natural changes are akin to “the overall wandering of [our] mirroring mind” because we, too, are as much an ever-changing natural phenomenon as any inlet, dune, grass or sandy path.

As we walk through this shifting terrain, our body’s motion carrying “the mind, alert and moving” we slowly begin to find (again as John Elder notes) not “the conflict of stationary, opposed orders” but instead “ordered flux” where everything is always-already in transition, land falling “from grassy dunes to creek / to undercreek”, a landscape where “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.”

As it unfolds the liberating walk begins more and more to free us from the dangerous desire to seek out and impose on the world static, permanent overall (or underlying) orders and arrangements and begin to accept the extraordinary gift of what Ammons calls “disorderly orders” — the kind of living orders that can only be revealed to us through a constant “circumambulatory” immersion in the event of the world’s unfolding — it is to begin to experience “an order held / in constant change: a congregation / rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable / as one event, / not chaos.” Please do note this last point well: the loss of firm ground, when experienced aright, does not deliver up to us chaos but a new kind of living order, one HELD in constant change.

It helps Ammons — as I hope it helps us —  modestly to admit that: “Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events / I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting / beyond the account” — beyond the account, of course, of both number (as used in mathematics, physics and statistics) and the account that is any piece of writing, including this poem (and most certainly this address).

To keep all this insight alive it is vital that the liberating walk never imposes any “form of / formlessness” on the “millions of events” around us and, as such, this practice also helps us to avoid the danger of articulating and promoting any traditional dogmatic religious or philosophical metaphysics.

Reading and rereading “Corsons Inlet” — as does any careful, sustained, reflective walk — continually helps to reveal these wonderful disorderly orders now in this natural phenomenon to the left, now in this natural phenomenon to the right and, in repeating the reading or the walk we are ever more introduced to “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness: / the “field” of action / with moving, incalculable center.”

What local, smaller, temporary orders, “tight with shape” we do find along the way, such as “blue tiny flowers on a leafless weed: carapace of crab: / snail shell” — and by extension this current church tradition, this or that current religion, political or financial system — all these can now simply be seen as “orders as summaries”, “outcomes of actions” that will in time, like sand-dunes and creeks, transition into something else. The hope is that reading/walking through the shifting terrain of Corsons Creek or the beach at Wells-next-the-Sea we will have truly learnt that these “narrow orders”, these “limited tightness[es]” must never be allowed an “easy victory” and stop us from seeing that “still around the looser, wider forces work” and it is with them that we must learn to live with equanimity.

The whole intention is to bring us to the point where with a clean heart, full pathos and belief we are able to make the same affirmation with which Ammons’ concludes his most famous poem: “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.”

Today when significant change is more clearly occurring in our culture than at any other time in our own lives Ammons’ gospel is, I think, a necessary and practical one to heed — yes, firm ground may not be available ground, but it is precisely this truth which guarantees that tomorrow a new walk IS a new walk and it is one which will always gracefully be revealing to us that:

“In a loose world though / something can be started— / a root touch water, / a tip break sand— / Mounds from that can rise / on held mounds, / a gesture of building, / keeping, / a trapping / into shape.”