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National Poetry Month - Geoffrey G. O'Brien and A. R. Ammons

Today, I have two poetry suggestions. The first--and a poet who I'll be writing about in a forthcoming column--is Geoffrey G. O'Brien, whose People on Sunday came out from Wave Books in 2013. 

O'Brien is a formalist, and we tend to associate formalism with conservatism. But O'Brien uses his regular verse forms--regular, stately seeming quatrains; clipped tercets--for radical ends. O'Brien has been associated with the Occupy Movement, and his collection expresses anger at the ceaseless commodification and endless suffering created by our market economy. Here is the opening to "At the Edge of the Bed":

No one yet has ever chosen misery
Those that seem to have done so
Haven’t any more than they have
Chosen this mist or is it rain

We would first have to own ourselves
Then give up on them entirely
Every day rather than once
And for all …

Several of O'Brien's concerns are expressed here: the sense that, in our current moment, the self is something that is bought and sold, that individual agency has been lost, if not given away. The collection's title indicates O'Brien's interest in what he has elsewhere called "desperate lesiure"--the enforced leisure of weekends and holidays that serves to distract us from a more radical rethinking of the relationship between labor and life. In “Thanatopsis,” O’Brien writes that “we’re taught to imagine days / As reprieves from other days,” and his poetry seeks to break out of this bind, to imagine, through collective and creative action, a new and less exploitative world.

The second poet I want to recommend is from an older generation--he passed away in 2001--and his writing expresses a very different aesthetic and spiritual sensibility. A. R. Ammons is an Emersonian: he is interested in the soul, in nature, and in the relation between the two. At the 2013 Commonweal Lecture in March, Christian Wiman quoted from Ammons's "The City Limits," and I'll pay it forward by offering the poem in full. It's a wonderful and clear expression of Ammons's particular brand of poetic and sensual (and spiritual) ecstasy:

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

There is so much to marvel at in this that I'll simply let it stand and close by linking to another, seasonally appropriate poem: "Easter Morning." In it, Ammons opens by meditating on regret, which he memorably calls "a life that did not become," and closes with a vision of the "dance sacred as the sap in / the trees" created by two birds in flight. The ending is as brilliant a rendering of the consolations of form, of the comfort and meaning we derive from the patterns we find amidst suffering, as you'll ever find. You should read the whole thing.

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.

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