Focusing on the literary significance of place in poet and former Cornell professor A.R. Ammons’ work, Prof. Roger Gilbert, English, delivered a lecture entitled, “From Whiteville to Ithaca: The Scenic Route of A.R. Ammons’ Poetry” yesterday in Warren Hall.
“Places are everywhere in Ammons’ poetry,” Gilbert said, although he made clear that Ammons had despised being dubbed as a “scenic poet” or “nature poet.” Such labels, Gilbert, said, are an inaccurate representation of his work.
Ammons’ poetry drifted nomadically in his work, from one location to another, knowing each had its own wisdom to impart, Gilbert said. He divided the lecture into four segments: the farm, the desert, the shore and the backyard as represented in Ammons’ poetry and real life.
“The landscape of Ammons’ formative years was the farm,” Gilbert said. When Ammons returned to it some years later, he harbored a “grief for a world that can’t be recovered,” for that landscape was one “seeped in love and loss.” In 1944, Ammons’ father had sold the farm and the family moved; in 1949 Ammons received his bachelor of science degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. When his mother died in 1950, Gilbert said, this allowed him “to severe ties to his old country.”
With that, he took off to the desert at the other side of the country, “tying it to his inception as a writer,” Gilbert said. “The desert is a barren space that is the ideal place for a poet to reinvent himself.” It was against this backdrop that he produced poems like “Driving Through,” “In the Wind My Rescue Is” and “Mansion.”
The third phase of Ammons’ life began in New Jersey, when his literary focused switched to the shore. By the early 1960s, his reputation as a poet was firmly established, and he turned his attention to the ocean, which represented “the inexhaustible complexity of nature.” Gilbert pointed to the poem “In the Wind My Rescue Is,” illuminating the brokenness of the lines that paralleled the brokenness of the shoreline. The wind was also a central theme in these years; Ammons was fascinated with it.
And finally, Gilbert said, Ammons loved the backyard, the enclosed space from which Ammons garnered inspiration in his home in Cayuga Heights, when he moved to the Ithaca area in the 1960s to teach at Cornell. “Neither as complex as the shore or as stark as the desert, the yard resembles a small scale version of the farm … both become deeply intertwined with home and family.”
Gilbert elaborated on how Ammons would spend hours peering out the window of his second-floor study, perceiving it as a “densely written text” to decipher. Both a large elm tree and the quince bush captured Gilbert’s eye.
“Beyond all these landscapes … is a complex layering of love and pain,” Gilbert concluded. “For all his attachment to these places … he harbored ambivalence of them … we are more than the places that we inhabit. Our bonds to them are tenuous.”
“I learned a great deal from the lecture,” said Ithaca resident John Ayer. “I was an engineer at Cornell and was never exposed to poetry; I never understood it. If I had read those poems without the help of Professor Gilbert, I wouldn’t have understood them.”
“I thought he [Ammons] had a great gift of simplicity,” said another Ithaca resident Joe Weneser. “He was a man who saw things a little more clearly than the rest of the human race.”
Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer