A. R. Ammons, The Art of Poetry No. 73, Interviewed by David Lehman, © 2013 THE PARIS REVIEW
Does inspiration originate in nature, in external reality, or in the self?
I think it comes from anxiety. That is to say, either the mind or the body is already rather highly charged and in need of some kind of expression, some way to crystallize and relieve the pressure. And it seems to me that if you’re in that condition and an idea, an insight, an association occurs to you, then that energy is released through the expression of that insight or idea, and after the poem is written, you feel a certain resolution and calmness. Well, I won’t say a “momentary stay against confusion” (Robert Frost’s phrase) but that’s what I mean. I think it comes from that. You know, Bloom says somewhere that poetry is anxiety.
Bloom talks about the anxiety of influence, but you talk about the influence of anxiety.
Absolutely. The invention of a poem frequently is how to find a way to resolve the complications that you’ve gotten yourself into. I have a little poem about this that says that the poem begins as life does, takes on complications as novels do, and at some point stops. Something has to be invented before you can work your way out of it, and that’s what happens at the very center of a poem.
It took you a long time to get respect, honor, money, and fame for your work.
That’s right. I spent twenty years writing on my own without any recognition. You know, I started writing in 1945. In 1955 I published a book of my own with a vanity publisher, my first book, Ommateum. It wasn’t until 1964 that I had a book accepted by Ohio State University Press, Expressions of Sea Level.
So you found it possible to be a poet, and to thrive as a poet, without the material trappings of celebration and success.
I couldn’t avoid being a poet. I was really having a pretty rough time of things, and I had a lot of energy, and poems were practically the only recourse I had to alleviate that energy and that anxiety. I take no credit for all the poems I’ve written. They were a way of releasing anxiety.
What advice do you give to young writers?
I tend to agree with Rilke that if it’s possible for you to live some other life, by all means do so. If it seems to me that the person can’t live otherwise than as a writer of poetry, then I encourage them to go ahead and do it.