So I’ve been reading A.R. Ammons’ TAPE FOR THE TURN OF THE YEAR. I’ve finished reading it, actually. I don’t exactly know where Ammons stands in the pantheon of contempoetry—I don’t think he’s read much now, especially by young poets. Perhaps the new selected from Library of America will change that a bit (that’s what hooked me). But, everybody should be reading him. His concerns seem to me to be at the core of where poetry, and America, are at right now.
TAPE FOR THE TURN OF THE YEAR is a 205 page poem, published as its own volume, which Ammons wrote in the mid 60’s. He was waiting to hear back from Cornell about whether or not they would give him the job he famously held for the rest of his life, and to deal with that anxiety, he decided he would fill an entire roll of adding machine tape with a skinny poem.
So, the poem itself, the object, the pile of paper, is a metaphor for all the kinds of preoccupations people come up with the pass the time between birth and death without freaking out about what’s really going on. At the same time, the poem tries as hard as it can to look at what’s really going on, so it’s like two river currents flowing against each other (which creates TENSION)—the poem tries simultaneously to avoid the world and to engage it, which is a pretty accurate way of conveying experience (mine, at least).
Written in a plainspoken, matter-of-fact voice, the poem winds its way through descriptions of the natural world—sections often begin with weather reports (“raining: / at the borderline & promise/ of snow:/ gale warnings up/ along the coast:/ no small craft to/ enter heavy water:”)—metaphysical and philosophical considerations (“I feel ideas—as forms of/ beauty: I describe/ the form as/ you describe a pear’s/ shape:/ not idea as ideal—/ideas are human products,/ temporal & full of/ process:”), and, most important to its dramatization of anxiety, narrates its own composition:
the reason I write so much
that I can’t do anything
poem must be now
close to 40 feet long: I
can’t get it out
to write letters or
postcards or anything:
The single word lines above should be indented a bit.
This poem dramatizes my own anxiety better than anything I’ve read; I can’t imagine it’s just my anxiety it dramatizes so well. The book’s still in print. Go get it.