John Elder

John Elder: On "A Canticle to the Waterbirds"

Everson's canticle to the birds is an exhortation for them, in their turn, to lift their songs to God. Theirs becomes, in this way, a service of mediation: they are capable of a directness of response to the world beyond the human. The waterbirds' life is in the holy present, across which there falls no shadow of anxiety or regret; they "assume each instant as warrant sufficient of His final seal." Because they are determined in their songs--"the strict articulations of your throats"--as in the rest of their behavior, they achieve a fullness of harmony with that divinity immanent in the natural order: "But mostly it is your way you bear existence wholly within the context of His utter will and are untroubled." In some ways Everson's cosmic design here is parallel to Dante's, since the souls in the Paradiso are also blessed precisely because of the perfect accord of their wills with God's: "E'n la sua volontade e nostra pace," "In His will is our peace."

Dante is unable to remain in the luminous order of heaven for long, but must descend to earth to articulate his experience as best he can within the limits of mortal language. Everson, in a similar way, Must pitch his song to harmony across the chasm of his own humanity: "You keep seclusion where no man may go, giving Him praise; /.... / And where His true communion-keepers are not enabled to enter." As the second of these quoted lines makes clear, Everson's parallel with Dante is finally accomplished through an inversion. The birds are closer to God and the earth because lower in a scale of free-will, self-consciousness, and, in accord with orthodox theology, spiritual authority--"our lessers in the rich hegemony of Being." Though he sings to the waterbirds, Everson is not able to talk to them in the Franciscan spirit of fraternal love: they are both purer in their presentness and, by another measure, less conscious than man, "Outside the mulled incertitude of our forensic choices."

Its Catholic vocabulary notwithstanding, Everson's poetry resembles that of Robinson Jeffers, who struggles to free himself from humanity, or even from organic life, in his desire for a granite oneness with reality. Like Jeffers, Everson is thus involved in a paradoxical affirmation, couched in terms that question the validity of the affirming self. Such a stance results from passionate rejection of traditional anthropocentrism, with its disregard for the worth of the nonhuman world, and for the nonintellectual dimensions of human reality as well. In an essay entitled "The Giant Hand," from Everson's book Fragments of an Older Fury, about Robinson Jeffers, he defends the poetic principle that

. . . the initiating locus of energy (the archetype) must determine the configuration of its effect. To maintain otherwise is to betray the fact that the actual motive in play is not to register the naked truth of the subject, its essence, its truth of being, but is rather to situate it in our mental world, a secondary thing, locate it in some power-complex in the ego (Tradition, Politics, Religion, etc.), imposing definition from without. While all art is admittedly born of the tension between these two psychological polarities, the creative writer inevitably takes the plunge into the depths of the former....

Everson's values lead him to reject both conventionally based judgments of proper poetic form and the brutal subordinations of warfare and technology. Such impositions are alike in taking the immediate experience of the physical world to be "a secondary thing." The waterbirds of this canticle, by virtue of being "lesser," become primary in their value and contribution . . . .

In its own terms, "The Canticle to the Waterbirds" also achieves a primary and present quality beyond the endless relativism of selfconsciousness. Because he values the birds' nonhuman presentness, the poet is closely attentive to their particular lives and cries. This is a catalog of birds, like the catalogs filling the pages of Leaves of Grass. Especially in Everson's first two stanzas and in the last one, there is an ecstatic listing that identifies the eye and ear with all of the specifics of a world of creatures. Delight in the dimensions of creation thus makes the poem's body conform to the body of the world, in the same way that the long breaths of the verse echo the cries of wheeling, mixed flocks of birds at surf's edge: "Curlews, stilts and scissortails, beachcomber gulls." Although all human knowledge occurs in the waves and undertow of consciousness, the poet can go beyond the idea of waterbirds, as he uses human language to sing their songs with them.

There is a great tradition of birdsong in American poetry. Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" bursts at its crises into the whistling, slightly varied reiteration of the mockingbird calling for his mate:


Hither my love!

Here I am! here!

With this just-sustain'd note I announce myself to you,

This gentle call is for you my love, for you.


And Denise Levertov's piercing hymn to the white-throated sparrow, "Claritas," as it strives to attain the ringing purity of the bird's voice, concludes with imitation:





light light light


This is the grace conveyed in the cries of Everson's waterbirds: their "direct astuteness" to the natural order gives the poet a worthy model for imitation. The poet's eye and ear, fixed on the birds, practice obedience to the world.

John Elder: On "Corsons Inlet"

Natural process continually liberates Ammons from what would otherwise be the hardening circles of the mental order. In Emerson's formulation, "the natural world may be conceived as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations which apprise us that this surface on which we stand is not fixed, but sliding."' The significant shift from Emerson to Ammons is in the perception that dislocations are perpetual, not "now and then," and that they make available a human fertility of imagination corresponding directly to nature's superficial instability. The Jersey shore, where Ammons lived at one time, figures in many of his poems: its constant motion of wind and sand meets the movement of his accommodating mind. "Dunes" is a brief poem staking a poetic claim in the marginal world at the continent's shifting edge, where nature's universal dislocation is easiest to detect:

Taking root in windy sand  

   is not an easy


to go about

    finding a place to stay. . .


Firm ground is not available ground.

In its brevity and the directness of its closing statement, "Dunes" could be read as an epigraph for Ammons's best-known poem, "Corsons Inlet." That poem too is set at the seashore, but in its greater complexity embodies what "Dunes" says. It is like Everson's "Canticle to the Waterbirds" or Levertov's "The Coming Fall," in an inclusiveness of observation that keeps any one image or statement from becoming dominant. "Corsons Inlet" is not a self-contained poetic artifact but a terrain into which the reader may step. Verse records the scattered impressions and reflections of the poet walking by the shore. The body's motion carries the mind, alert and moving, through a world of shifting sand and waterline, minnows and wind. Instead of the conflict of stationary, opposed orders, the walk brings ordered flux. Accordingly, the poem has a journalistic quality in parts, presenting scraps of information about how the sky turns overcast, an egret stalks an unseen prey. Only in the circumambulatory integrity of the poem are these events connected.

Ammons is determined to impose "no form of / formlessness on the "millions of events"; he wants, like the bayberry along the dunes, only "disorderly orders." In the midst of this flow, in the course of his walk, the poet can say, "I allow myself eddies of meaning: / yield to a direction of significance / running / like a stream through the geography of my work." In "Corsons Inlet," as in his other lengthy poems, Ammons's drift is celebration. And the key word for his experiences of such significance is "eddies": affirmation coalesces in a moment, and then the flow of events continues past. It is a word that recalls Whitman:

I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.


I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look under your bootsoles.

Effusions and eddies cannot be compressed into discrete orders, because they are continually merging with the larger disorderly orders of the world. Ammons's rhythms and syntax convey the world's constant reformulation. David Kaistone's analysis of this effect in "Saliences" is equally descriptive of "Corsons Inlet": "Nouns are suspended in a chain of participial explosions ... you almost feel that the verbal motion is more important than the mixture of abstractions and particulars swept along." Such a dynamic vision of reality leads, in Ammons, to a certain modesty of statement, though accompanied by the broadest ambitions for connectedness and for participation in the natural order: "I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will / not run to that easy victory: / still around the looser, wider forces work: / I will try to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder. . . ." Like Berry and Pack, Ammons practices a poetry of "proud humility." But where they root their poetry in the chosen landscapes of personal experience, he finds his art among the shifting winds and dunes of process, the country where every walk must follow a wavering shore.

"Corsons Inlet" has a great deal in common with that other extended meditative poem, "Sunday Morning." But Ammons's final stanza underlines the poems' crucial difference. Stevens's natural order, after the collapse for him of the Christian system, is "an old chaos of the sun," and his tone is a mingling of nostalgia and exhilaration in the freedom that comes with submission to universal entropy: these are the complex feelings compressed into the poem's last line, "Downward to darkness, on extended wings." For Ammons, though, the emphasis is on the way in which nature and the poet alike break open old orders continually, to liberate the materials from which new orders may be "grasped." Decay is, as we have seen, a central process of human experience as of the earth, and is in both realms a renewing dynamic. Accordingly, the world of Ammons's poetry is always presented as a freshly emerging event. In Science and the Modern World, Whitehead generalizes the creative dimension of each moment in this way: "An event is the grasping into unity of a pattern of aspects." And in Ammons's poems the sequence of natural shifts and the path of human consciousness are tied into just such a pattern of coherence, in an ecologically balanced art.

Like walking, ecology is one of Ammons's chief formal metaphors. It relates to his knowledgeable fascination with nature's inter twined specifics (Sphere: "touch the universe any where you touch it / everywhere"), and it also speaks to the loose balance of poetic form and experience affirmed by the last stanza of "Corsons Inlet." In Tape for the Turn of the Year, Ammons develops this concept most explicitly:

ecology is my word: tag

    me with that: come

    in there:

    you will find yourself

in a firmless country:

    centers and peripheries

    in motion,



Later on in Tape's entry of "27 Dec:" he continues his development of this aesthetic:

don't establish the



    the squares, triangles,


    of preconceived


    and then


    life into them, trimming

off left-over edges,

ending potential:

    let centers



self-justifying motions!

Ammons's dislike of fixed boundaries relates both to what he sees and how he says it. Unlike the majestic blank-verse stanzas of "Sunday Morning," "Corsons Inlet" presents a thoroughly irregular verse form, with the wavering left margin responding to the eddies of perception. Ammons's poetry does not line up and march but holds together in a dense, unhierarchical order of suspension, like a flock of seabirds wheeling above the surf.

From Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature. Copyright © 1985 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.