Copyright (c) David A. Goldfarb, 1993

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Critical Distance:

The Psychology of Criticism and the Poetry of A. R. Ammons 1

David A. Goldfarb

Twentieth-Century Literature Conference, University of Louisville, 26 February 1993

for Jane and Pat Kelly

It takes so long to set up the terminological landscape,
a rise of assimilation here, wooded underpinnings
fringed by thickets of possibility there, and throughout

in a slope, an undulation falling away to one side, an
old river's work--before one can say, "May we sweetly
kiss" or "Mark, the woodlark"--: begins with an airy

nothingness lofted, on one arc of which is a great sea and in
the middle of the sea an island, in the middle of which
a city, and mid-city a spire, the coming to point

of the tallest assumption: after this, it follows
naturally to say, "Yesterday, after the morning clouds, we
packed lunch and went over to picnic in Aunt Polly's orchard."

A. R. Ammons (LEC 31)

I have it on the authority of one of his students and translators that Czeslaw Milosz finds it impossible to write critically on the writers who speak to him most profoundly, and for this reason he loses his voice when he arrives at Bruno Schulz (429-30). This need for distance from the text is troubling. There is a niche between enchantment and understanding, a conflicting matrix of anxiety and desire, where one can become trapped indefinitely.

Texts must emit pheromones, because we can certainly experience pair-bonding with them. Affinity for a text clicks in before we entirely understand why. External factors displace reason--perhaps the circumstances of the first encounter, past personal experience, or social background. From the bonding moment we cannot avert our gaze whenever the text crosses our path. We want to read more and more, without stopping to consider the consequences.

When our eyes have passed over all the available material, and we know only its texture, anxiety challenges desire. We want to explore further but fear what we might find underneath. We have remained outside--looking, fantasizing, but not touching. To begin critique would be to lay hands on the text itself: a hesitation "--before one can say, 'May we sweetly / kiss'," a line break before the "kiss" itself. The critic might find out that the enchantment was only a result of the accidental external factor, nothing more than the release of a certain chemical in the brain, and that the affinity was only fantasy. Or the affinity may be mutual, and the text will be touched, multiplying the original enchantment.

Once the touch happens there is no turning back. Knowledge cannot be disowned. The fear of the touch is substantial. Say the original bond was, in fact, only the result of the circumstances of the encounter. The work was introduced by a good friend, in a place of personal significance, at an important moment, or provided salvation. There is a real risk that, by discovering that the work lacks the resonance one thought it had, one's conception of the external factor will be upset. The act of critique could cause the critic to lose a friend, feel displaced, become detached from a touchstone of personal history, or to fall back into difficulty. The reward could be multifold, but what are the odds?

Some texts do not relent, and there is a point at which gazing from afar ceases to be an option. The play of exchanging glances expresses only anxiety, and desire is marginalized. Criticism becomes necessary, after which one says "Why didn't I do that before, and avoid the anxiety no matter what the outcome?" Of course, if anxiety were so easily avoided, it would not be anxiety.

Bewildering anxiety conflicts with a critic's self-image. The fear of touching produces a sense of failure, that the critic not only has nothing to say, when it is her business always to have something to say, but has nothing to say with regard to an object of powerful personal significance.

Limiting oneself to comment on "distant" texts is a form of self-protection. A critic wants to write about works that are close. By discussing a text which is too close, one may reveal intimacies which one would prefer private. After all, we've all been told that criticism is supposed to be about the text, not the critic. The distancing in question, then, works in two directions. By choosing an object which one profoundly under/stands, but by which one is not profoundly personally affected, the critic puts distance between himself and the reader, as well as the text. The text becomes an umbrella to stand/under. Distancing attempts to erase the person of the critic, creating the illusion that the reader is becoming closer to the text by means of an objective process (i.e. the disembodied arguments of the critic), rather than through the critic's bodily mediation.

My obligations to the University of Toronto were not quite fulfilled, but I was anxious to rid myself of an unpleasant living situation and a stuffy academic atmosphere, and to do the next thing. I would have to sever an umbilical cord attached to a familiar and fine library mid-project, but from a practical perspective, this was an arbitrary means of cutting off research and getting the work done. So I rented a U-Haul in Cleveland and carted excess furniture from my parents' house to Toronto. In Toronto, my friend Mark would help me load my belongings and come down to New York with me. My father thought it was foolish to bring Mark along, since he did not drive, but I explained that he could help me load and unload and would keep me awake while I drove. My father usually trusted my judgment.

Next morning, I pulled the truck around with a rattling clatter to my old apartment. I drove it three hundred miles the day before with no problem, and figured that the rattle would go away when the engine warmed-up. Mark and I jigsaw-puzzled my intellectual baggage into the vehicle, started out, and ever more violently quaked for two miles before finding a service station where we could get some advice and call U-Haul for a mechanic.

Four hours and a one hanger bearing later, we set out for the City with no chance of my driving straight through. The impossibility of making it to my new place that day provided the ideal possibility to visit Ithaca, New York, where I knew cheap lodgings at the Hillside Inn, more than sufficient diversion until the next day, and could take a last breath of clean air before descending into Manhattan. I screeched the turnoff for Taughannock Falls, and Mark was convinced that this was the place to stop. We ate at the Apple Blossom Cafe, walked Cascadilla gorge, hunted Linneas the cat at the Cornell Herb Garden, and in this liminal space which lay at a critical distance from both Toronto and New York, in which past, present and future were all potently near, nothing could mar the vista.

When I noted that bookstores were open until eleven or twelve p.m., Mark remarked "very civilized." I recalled that my first memory of him outside our class in modern Polish poetry was when we had encountered each other several times in one afternoon, scouring used bookstores on Queen Street. In Ithaca "Borealis" was reshelving its entire stock after its second move in four years, but from its temporarily limited collection, a name registered in Mark's head, and he located the perfect souvenir of a brief passage through "Lake Effect Country."

Anyone who lives south of a lake in North America knows that the "lake effect" is the phenomenon whereby the area immediately contiguous with the lake is warmer in early winter than the surrounding area. In cities along the Great Lakes, the most obvious symptom of the lake effect is the inland "snow belt," which receives snow that passes over the warm area along the shore. In the Finger Lakes region, the lake effect is of particular interest to vintners who wish to extend the growing season; thus, Cornell University has been an important center for the study of the lake effect.

A. R. Ammons names his 1983 collection "Lake Effect Country," challenging the domain of meaning assigned this term by the College of Agriculture. A lake has more than meteorological effect on the country. The lake effect is peripheral. The lake itself is prime mover, center and cause, but its effects happen at the edges, and peripheral effect is what Ammons is about. Periphery is the space of loss and longing. Effect is the mere trace of a lost cause at an unattainable center. Thus the poet describes himself a "periphery riffler" (SP 71), or in "Coming Round" (LEC 51) writes:

but I run on

ruffling the periphery,
the treadmill's outwheel,

declining center
or any loss of it

and no longer
crying help.
Coming round at the poem's periphery, Ammons leaves us a riffle--a point of indeterminacy defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as a surface scraped by the curved file called a "riffler," or a rapid in a river caused by uneven rocks just below the surface. We do not know if the speaker is "not crying 'help' any more," or if having given up crying he is now able to help, or if after a life of writing about longing Ammons is finally "crying 'help,'" having decided in the end not to be a "longer." Reading the riffle, elaborating the fringe, will serve as an inroad to further texts, our "airy / nothingness lofted."

Ammons is ever playing with Sir Joshua Reynolds stiff claims about "taste," a term which may be applied to "our judgement upon an airy nothing, a fancy which has no foundation," as well as "our determination concerning those truths which refer to the most general and most unalterable principles of human nature." The poet reads with a vicious seriousness Reynolds' offhanded remark about the incongruity of these two definitions: "However inconvenient this may be, we are obliged to take words as we find them; all we can do is to distinguish the things to which they are applied" (Discourses on Art, VII). Reynolds' inconvenience becomes Ammons primary technique--to take an "airy nothing" and loft it to the greatest height.

The bridge over Triphammer gorge is a common jumping-off point for harried Cornell students at exam time; hence, "Triphammer Bridge" (SP 88) seems a fitting place to leap from the periphery to the center of Ammons:

I wonder what to mean by sanctuary, if a real or
apprehended place, as of a bell rung in a gold
surround, or as of silver roads along the beaches
of clouds seas don't break or black mountains
overspill; jail: ice here's shapelier than anything,
on the eaves massive, jawed along gorge ledges, solid

in the plastic blue boat fall left water in: if I
think the bitterest thing I can think of that seems like
reality, slickened back, hard, shocked by rip-high wind:

sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the
word's sound is the one place to dwell: that's it, just
the sound, and the imagination of the sound--a place.
We begin at "a place" with several concrete images. Triphammer Bridge joins Center Campus of Cornell University with the largely residential North Campus. The clock in McGraw Tower sounds Westminster Chimes: eight tones like the eight monosyllables of "as of a bell rung in a gold," followed by the resound of "surround." Winter ice hangs from steep gorge walls below the bridge. On the north side of the bridge small boats are moored on Beebe Lake. Bordered by the open lake and empty space of the gorge, cold high winds blow across the bridge. Only the olfactory sense is absent, as it might be on a blustery day. We have a place, "real or apprehended."

The images are of containment: "sanctuary." The sound of a bell is contained "in a gold / surround." Clouds are not broken by seas, nor are they caused to "overspill" by black mountains. Icicles in the gorge form the bars of a jail. The word "jail" itself is imprisoned between semicolon and colon, behind bars of l's and i's: "ill; jail: i." Further ignoring the bounds of the written word, we can see the image of the letter "a," suggesting all letters by its primacy, graphically imprisoned as "|||| |a||| |." Solid ice trapped in the "plastic blue boat" is confined by the word "in" on both sides. Above all, we know that many, seeking sanctuary, have leapt from the bridge into "jaws" of the gorge, signaled by the jawed "w" and the descenders of the "j" and "g's" hanging from the last line of the second stanza, in contrast to the "eaves massive" resting above the line, "v's" suggesting the imposing inscription on a Roman architrave.

"Sanctuary, sanctuary," rings like the "bell" of the first stanza. The "bell" rings within a "sanctuary" of a "gold / surround" of ice which "[hears] shapelier than anything,"--a meaning we can only derive if we "dwell in the sound" of "ice here's shapelier than anything." The duck-rabbit effect of the adverbial and adjectival suffixes together in "shapelier" further support the bivalence of here's/hears. Italics signal that "Sanctuary" is spoken. Repeating the word three times, Ammons "dwells" upon it. By inscribing sound in the text he "dwells" in the sound, where meaning is. Meaning dwells in the sound, here. "Sound" is the sacrosanct "place" where the poem arrives from the physical place where it originated in the title, "Triphammer Bridge." Just as the place is "real or apprehended," the sound is "the sound, and the imagination of the sound." The inscription is the "imag/in/ation" of sound, i.e. the sound-apprehended-in-image, which becomes the node which permits the utterance of the sound and the production of further meanings. We see "here's" but hear "hears." The letter itself, the "a" that belongs to "hears" is in "jail," frozen in ice.

Within the letter, sound is "apprehended" like a fugitive. The law cannot seize it, so the sound, "that's it, just." "Just" implies "not quite." The sound is the place to dwell, but it is "not quite" or "just barely" it. The letter takes custody of the sound, is its sanctuary, but sound and its meanings can always riffle through the bars. "Mark, the woodlark."

Having "set up the terminological landscape" and, through "wooded underpinnings / fringed by thickets of possibility," reached "the coming to point of the tallest assumption" we have achieved a right of access to Ammons. An Ammons poem is a thicket of polyvalence that explodes in release at the end like those "morning clouds." Pure, natural American speech is recovered in each work's narrative conclusion--"that's it, just," "'Yesterday after the morning clouds, we / packed lunch and went over to picnic in Aunt Polly's orchard.'" In turn, it sets a model for a critical reading of Ammons: a passage through amazement and anxiety to recovery. Criticism is the desire to regain the lost amazement of the first encounter, the "old desire" (LEC 34), which was replaced by anxiety. Critical reading is a restorative activity. From a distance we can give a postcard view of the mid-city spire, but up close we must rebuild it with our hands. Almost blindly examining the details like archeologists sifting through earth, uncovering entire towns with fine sable brushes, we go so far, and there it is, and we wonder what all the fuss was about.


  1. I am grateful to Mary Ann Caws and Nancy Miller for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. [RETURN]

Works Cited


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David A. Goldfarb