Breath of Fresh Air

Bosh and Flapdoodle, A.R. Ammons
[160pp, 9.99, Norton]
Everything is Burning, Gerald Stern
[96pp, $13.9, Norton]

There are some American poets who have about them an enviable feeling of freedom, spaciousness, of plenty of truly democratic air to breathe in, elbow room in which to be wisely outspoken, poets in the tradition of Whitman and Frost. Reading them is like inhaling a lungful of the Big Outdoors: there's something companionable and healthy to it. In the poem 'Quibbling the Colossal' Ammons talks of 'room to / breathe and stretch and not give a shit.' Reading poets like him and Stern makes one aware how stuffy and insular some British poetry can be. That is unless you're sceptical of poets who give you the feeling that, despite its ups and downs, life is still worth - even wryly - celebrating or you are averse to poetry that's unashamedly solipsistic.

Ammon and Stern are two distinguished American oldies. Ammons (author of more than twenty books) died six years ago aged seventy-five; Stern, born in 1925, now in his eighties, has published fourteen books. Both are highly regarded in America as major poets of celebration and have been honoured with prestigious awards: Stern is cherished for a uniquely bitter-sweet blending of the Whitmanesque and the Judaic, Ammons for his down-to-earth irreverence and overriding insistence on 'joy's surviving radiance.' It is their vigour and - to adopt a phrase of Lawrence - the man-aliveness that one relishes.

Bosh and Flapdoodle is a posthumous work, containing seventy-eight poems, all written in the course of six weeks. Ammons looks on the world with a knowingly 'innocent' eye, with a certain maverick knowingness, sometimes with a lovable kind of crankiness and garrulity, but always with a metaphysical cast of mind. What seems at first sight to go off at tangents always arrives back to its first thoughts enriched. He sets his mind questing and doesn't mind taking meanders. He tells us 'my poems come in/dislocated increments.' It's been said of him that he puts observation 'to service abstract investigation and themes' in search of 'a unifying principle among minute and divergent particulars' - which is to say that he is a poet of nature and everyday experience who brings a scientific questing mind to his writing. Inevitably many of the poems here are about the pros and cons of old age and many of them are wryly and slyly comic: poems about erections, peeing, dieting and counting calories, the generation gap, weathers, marital love, illness - all in couplets and all using an Ammons' trademark, the colon, which it has been observed means that 'closure is constantly postponed.' We are drawn into a kind of honest companionship, one that wants to share 'a lifetime's/worth of getting on with life', of being human, vulnerable, fallible with us rejoicing in this in an attempt to 'wipe out some of the darkness, put the/jiggle back in.' So a poet who retains an optimism, who affirms, wants to help us 'move more/smoothly in and out of the circuits of grace'; but by the same token tough-minded, unsentimental, a no-nonsense poet who tells us in Hooliganism, a poem in which he looks back over the many loves in his life:

                                      one learns to love, it is

     not easy, yet not to love, even astray, leaves
     something left for the grave: burnt out
     completely is ease at last, the trunk honeyed
     full as a fall hive: when the light dies out

     at last on the darkening coal, the life
     turns to jewels, so expensive, and

     they never give the sparkle up: this was
     a fancy, and not half fancy enough and somewhat

     lacking in detail but ever true.

Stern's Everything Is Burning is the work of a man in his eighties, unflagging in its energies. Charles Simic quoted on the back cover talks of Stern's 'freedom to go wherever his imagination happens to take him'; this 'gives his poems a feel of adventure that is hard to resist.' So we have similar qualities to the ones found in Ammons. But Stern is more of a storyteller with twist of the surreal and the tough-mindedness is harder, spikier than Ammons'. Here for example is a poem called Loyal Carp:

     I myself a bottom feeder I knew what
     a chanson a la carp was I a lover
     of carp music for I heard carp singing
     behind glass on the Delaware river,
     keeping the shad themselves company
     and always it was basso, in that range there
     was space for a song compleat, it was profundo
     enough and just to stop and drink in that
     melody and just to hum behind those
     whiskers, that was muck enough for my life.

This is a cunning mixture of the real and the surreal (carp are usually perceived of as being silent in the water; hauled out on a fishing line they can however grunt like a pig) - and written about in a strange challenging mixture of styles and odd punctuation, arriving at what I take to be a last-line affirmation ('muck' being ironically positive word).

Like Ammons, Stern explores the paradoxical nature of life, celebrating both the foolishness and beauty to be observed in the way humans beings try to live it.

          Matt Simpson 2007