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.
9 Comments Add yours
I think that passion is key, and also tension, but those may just be other ways of saying anxiety.
I quite like the way he is arguing for his point. I don’t know A.R. Ammons at all, but will check him out because of this interview.
I had never put anxiety and poetry together before — this is a real epiphany!
Here’s what I’m thinking: There is a kind of urge in anxiety which might find a way to express (itself) in poetry. I’m not sure if it is expressing something in particular, maybe its just the act of expressing.
Well, Auden’s famous collection’s titled “The Age of Anxiety,” though perhaps not quite meant as Ammons here outlines it. I like much of Ammons but find some of his long poems rather trying. He also wrote very short poems–aphorisms, really–a very versatile writer, and amazingly observant. Many years of hard, lonely work matured him into a splendid writer; I do prefer his later poems.
Anxiety can give a person a sense of urgency, but it can also paralyze. So it is interesting to see how the process unfolded for Ammons. Was this interview in Paris Review?
Yes, Paris Review (have entered a more visible link in the beginning).
I believe I will like his shorter works too, have also ordered a copy of “Garbage”, do you know it?
I’m more familiar with “Summer Place” a long poem from his collection Brink Road. I read “Garbage” but wrote a paper on the Brink Road book in grad school and I recall mentioning that I found “Summer Place” a trying poem that interested me much less than “Garbage.” But perhaps that was partly because of how I was trying to analyze it.
I do like most of the poems in Brink Road. I will be curious how you respond to Ammons. I consider him a very “American” voice.