A.R. Ammons

Title: Project
Poet: A.R. Ammons

My subject’s
still the wind still
difficult to
being invisible:
nevertheless should I
presume it not
I’d be compelled
to say
how the honeysuckle bushlimbs
wave themselves:
beyond presumption

Ammons, above, is no stranger to inference to the best explanation: the wind, unseen, may be inferred to exist, not because it is felt but because without such an invocation we are left powerless to explain the movement of the honeysuckle bushlimbs. This is a routine idea – what makes Ammons’ portrayal of it so compelling?

There is, first of all, the connection to Ammons’ other poems, in which the wind is a frequent character. “So I said I am Ezra,” where the wind games for the sounds of Ezra’s voice. “I came upon a plateau,” in which a pious person wears a windy cloak hiding whirls of dust. “The wide land,” where we see the wind plead for understanding even as it destroys. In these and other poems the wind is felt, directly perceived; it is no ethereal inference to an unknown cause. Yet when Ammons comes to explain himself and his project, his need to present the wind, he does not take these stark perceptions as his motivation, but something more distant: the waving of the honeysuckle bushlimbs. In this way his relation to the wind takes on an especially poignant serenity, and perhaps also an objective distance.

Despite this separation, however, the struggle comes through. The poem lilts along in iambs for the first few lines, up to “difficult,” but then Ammons stumbles over himself, throwing in a jolting anapest (“to present”), only to immediately be caught up by another stressed syllable at the start of “being.” The colon after “invisible” allows us to catch our breath, and from there the poem again trots iambically for a time (from “nevertheless” to “to say”). The remainder of the poem is basically a string of trochees, though the line breaks disguise this somewhat. Here the switch is not so jarring: it is controlled, in keeping with the increasing confidence the poet shows.

A further formal feature that brings out this shift between stuttering and confidence concerns the two lines featuring “difficult.” The first occurrence marks the start of the metrical irregularity, with the unwieldy “to” forced by grammatical necessity to intrude between the metrically proper “still / difficult / present.” (This is, by the way, a fine example of how the poet, imprisoned by the hardened whimsy of language, may yet manufacture some little freedom.) In contrast, the second instance finds “difficult” isolated, a line by itself. It is compact, and stark. This repetition of a line, with two differences – the extra, awkward word, and the switch from iambic to trochaic meter – captures in astonishingly few syllables the overarching tonal shift of the poem, as we come to fight through the poet’s difficulty with our tongues. In that way, Ammons turns the routine act of inference to the best explanation into an affecting deed.

I hope these reflections shed some light on Ammons’ delightful poem, as well as correct the sometimes-encountered misunderstanding that what is called “free verse” (the best of it, at least) does not tolerate metrical analysis.