The Phenomenological Ecology of the Poets A.R. Ammons & Jorie Graham

Daniel Uebbing

Dr. Black

Contemporary American Poetry

Essay 2 / May 7th, 2010

Phenomenological Ecology in the Poetry of A.R. Ammons and Jorie Graham

The post-modern poet is increasingly aware of his or her environment.  To this end, the notion of self-contained poems has morphed to contain the material world.  For an age of industrialized materialism has mass produced its own ecosystem of garbage.  The fallout of nuclear explosions has injected radioactivity into the global atmosphere.  Climate change has tinctured our world with a very real concern.  Thus, the post-modern poet faces environs slightly more complicated than just a few ‘satanic mills’ or a choice of left or right in a yellow wood.  The road less traveled, too, has been pummeled, by the machines of industry for a new suburban residential hamlet.  Yet still, the poetic organism survives in this ecology, finds a new road.  Just as the second law of thermodynamics measures the difference between systems in contact with each other, the poet attune to his her  environment such as A.R. Ammons and Jorie Graham,  measures the difference between the human and the external world.  For the poet is not an isolated ecosystem.  He interacts with his environment, and in so doing, shows us the poetic intricacies of our nature and evolution.

First and foremost, in the sake of clarity and ‘science envy,’ some scientific theory must be  described before being applied: the second law of thermodynamics is best used to determine if an ecosystem, that has undergone change, can reverse back to its original state.  Therefore “an irreversible process increases the entropy of the system, which is a measure of the microscopic disorder of the system whereas a reversible process does not” (  To this extent, all complex natural processes are irreversible because if a thermodynamic state, which is any “system of sufficient complexity, of interacting molecules (that) is brought from one thermodynamic state to another, the configuration or arrangement of the atoms and molecules in the system will change in a way that is not easily predictable” (

Chaos theory stems from here as well, as a certain sense for apocalyptic worry emanates from Graham’s poetry.  She submerges us to the most infinitesimal changes: “plankton is forced north now, & yet farther north, / spawning too late for the cod larvae to hatch” (Graham 4).  Clearly, the microscopic changes tincture Graham’s environment with a motion for concern.  She recognizes this change as the external literally drifts into her and our collective consciousness: “how the world is our law, this indrifting of us / into us, a chorusing in us of elements” (4).  Yet we ourselves are thermodynamic systems, for we are made up of our own molecules and atoms: “a chorusing of us in elements, & how the / intermingling of us lacks in- / telligence” (4).  The break of the lines even tells us that we have no unification, no power to fuse our systems, to meet and conspire against the environment; for we have no control over it.  We are floating in the water as well, only on top of the water.  And within our slanted, subjective systems of perception there are only “syllable(s) untranscribable, in-clingings” (4); yet Graham stands on one collective piece of theoretical ground when she attributes the ‘wonder’ to our phenomenological experience of sea change.  She probes mystically yet naturally, ethereally yet earthly, comprising a surreality in tone, like swimming in her own ‘useless’ poems: “how wonder is also what / pours from us when, in the coiling, at the very bottom of / the food / chain, sprung” (4).

In fashion attributable to William Carlos Williams, Graham places her images on the threshold of pure poetic anxiety.  Line to line must break and be read in order to see where this wondrous poet is in the poem and where she is taking us with all these oceanic images, sounds and minute details.  Onomatopoeia also effectively imbues her sinuous portrait of Sea Change:

somewhere the thought won’t outlast

the minute, here it is now, carrying North

Atlantic windfall, hissing Consider

the body of the ocean which rises every instant into

me, & its

ancient e-

vaporation, & how it delivers itself

But of course there is no period.  Graham expresses a complete thought attached to the dangling indistinctness of a fragmented thought which in the context of post-modern poetry is the complete thought of fragmentation, relating to the juxtaposition of reversibility, similar to T.S. Elliot’s modern classic voice in Prufock and all his “visions and revisions.” Subsequently, her diction and line breaks show dissipation as the end of ‘evaporation’ literally evaporates to the next line, like the mist on the surf, or on the plankton scurrying north, the form continues in waves.  For “The permanent is ebbing” (3), Graham punctuates on the previous page.  This is her thesis, her content which exemplifies itself in her form.  In this chaotic state she stakes her poetic tree in the windy weather, to observe, like an ecologist, the undoing and yet sustaining nature around her – a nature in a state of flux.

Moreover, Graham’s state of being fuses with her environment as she observes the “nonnegotiable / drama…(3).  Her aesthetic apperception constantly runs away from any true form of an idea: “one feel(s) the mischief in faithfulness to an / idea” (3).  Thus Graham skirts ideology yet manages to criticize political ideology in Guantanamo, while at the same time, absorbing the phenomenological ecology of climate change around her.  In this sense Graham manages to run a discourse against discourse.  It is not a so much a politically liberal discourse as it is simply a poetic discourse, discursive of the nature around her, and hinting at the politics, Guantanamo, engulfed in such heated nature.  For as we know when the sea changes from heat, little microscopic particles move, leaving the ecosystem changed forever.  Never will an entropy, or organization of such particles, or words exist again.  Graham seizes this change and documents it in her poetry, which reflects the meshing of ecosystems.  In such a fashion Graham paints Guantanamo’s political canvas engulfed in an ineffectual sea change.

Some critics call this 21st century slush, begging the question, “But at what point does the desire to represent the imprecision of perception become an excuse for imprecise writing? (Guriel).  For example, Guriel draws to question how the “bent back ranks of trees / all stippled with these slivers of / light” (5) cannot exist in logical grammar because to stipple denotes to paint or engrave in small dots or spots – and how can a sliver be a dot? – but it can be kind of spot?  The image of something “stippled with these slivers” draws alliteration yet also a paradox in imagery, as though two shapes have been mismatched on top of each other; yet still the words flow and the light, “like / breaking grins – infinities of them – wriggling along the walls” (5) emits through.  Perhaps, the second denotation of spots is more accurate to ascribe here, bearing in mind the free-flowing nature of painting as well and the difficulty of making a natural-looking painting out of perfectly round dots.  The latter ascribes more closely to the work of a digital high definition television set.  Graham reminds us that this is art, reflective, introspective, and very much in motion and there are some “loose stones in the sill” (5).

Furthermore, Graham’s poem, “Embodies” embodies the theme of phenomenological ecology as objects appear out of nowhere but her poetic pallet.  She begins with the disturbance, or rather, the effect of the disturbance in the ecosystem: “Deep autumn & the mistake occurs, the plum tree blossoms” (6).  Given the backdrop of phenomenology, we know that subjects, or a highly modified collective first person point of view, can see the phenomena of objects flashing across their consciousness.  More theorists embark from here, such as the Hegelian totality and Karl Marx’s “Fetishism of Commodities” wherein there is no synthesis of subject and object but the objects in the capitalist market take dominion over man and exploit the workers.  Given this range of theory, Graham illustrates how she externalizes herself to her environment, as though it were sucking her in: “breathing into this oxygen which also pockets my / looking hard, just / that it takes it in, also my / thinking which I try to seal off, / my humanity, I was not a mistake…I cannot / go somewhere / else than this body” (6).  So her surroundings envelop her yet she is still stuck in her body.  She enacts phenomenology as her ecology shifts, as though she can feel, by the change in the wind, the slightest effects of climate change, and how it irreversibly affects the ecosystem.  Witnessing such affects, her thoughts flow from one to the other, overturning each other as she realizes: “we are islands, we / should beget nothing & / what am I to do with my imagination” (7).  An argument of empiricism versus rationalism conjures up from her lines as she absorbs her surroundings and makes her own rationale of them: how the bird “is going somewhere precise” (7).  Yet it is not really a bird at all.  Alas, it is a hawk – the stronger, more patriotic symbol, as she moves to the images of armies, men and a priest, leaving us with a dead body – food for the birds.  Will all these moving images, Graham creates a superstructure of slanted consciousness.

Moving to the next poem, the title “This” acts like a buoy in the gulf.  We would not know where we are if it were not for “This.”  The unidentified pronoun is left ambiguous throughout the poem.  It has no antecedent, but perhaps, the vague title.  The mistake of consciousness collides once again with an element of her external environment in the beginning – or rather a mistake in writing: “Full moon, & the empty tree’s branches – correction – the tree’s / branches” (8).  Either way, the description slants, but rings ever true in the moment.  As the poem moves, we feel a connection to it and the poet, for her imperfection glides perfectly with the story of consciousness.  Doubly, in her shifting environment, she elicits a political ruse: “being told it is postponed again / Hope as it / exists in them” (9).  Thus the dichotomy of master and slave comes forth, as well as a hint of Orientalism (or anti-background bias) as “the distant countries / don’t exist, enemies do” (9).  How better to shine light on these oppositions then in the ineffectual flow of post-modern poetry?  For what can we do besides document despair?  To this extent her style puts the poet in a realized powerless position as not just a political statement but a human one.

Thirdly, we move to Guantanamo.  Sea Change Embodies This: Guantanamo.  The sequence of the titles uniquely encapsulates this political setting.  It is the natural versus the unnatural and her useless position in between all over again.  Subjects are interpolated into the ideology of interrogation: “give me your name, give it, I will take it, I will re- classify it” (11).  She thus exposes the cruelty of a political ideology in the methods of interrogation, but she herself does not subscribe to an ideology outside her self and the phenomenal conversation to, in this case, the moon.  Like Whitman she speaks to it:

Moon, who will write

the final poem? Your veil is flying, its uselessness makes us feel there is

still time, it is about two now,

you are asking me to lose myself.

In this overflowing of my eye,

I do (11).

Altogether, several theoretical approaches relating to politics, nature and the world, Graham embeds into her poetry.  Her most consistent method however, to encompass so much, remains her phenomenal poetic conversation with nature, as each of her poems are framed with some sort of outlandish disturbance in nature.  Graham represents us by writing about the phenomena that occurs when the ecosystem of man collides with that of nature.

In this nature of collective phenomenological consciousness, there also exists heaping hordes of material refuse.  A.R. Ammons engages this ecological cite and examines such refuse as a poet and a garbologist.  He holds up a mirror to the backside of a material culture.  And in so doing as Lorrain DiCicco concludes, he advocates for a more communal consciousness, as garbage is the one thing that we all have in common:

For a century now discourse on garbage in America has foretold with escalating urgency the incontrovertible fact of the apocalyptic destruction of humanity and our world, drowned in a sea of refuse. Ammons’s Garbage dares to challenge this mounting rhetoric of hysteria in American culture. Without naively denying the insights of twentieth-century science, but rather grounding his poem in it, Ammons takes a serenely spiritual and philosophical look at waste. In the place of debilitating hysteria, Garbage offers a vision of ease and action that is possible with the transmutation of waste into energy. As the poet of waste discovers, the key to our survival and the way to the future is through eros and the adoption of a communal consciousness (DiCicco).

Hence, contrary to the hysteria of worry over an aching planet, Ammons suggests positively, fusing science with a serene spirituality, that we improve our environment by turning garbage into energy (DiCicco). The form of the poem itself – written on adding tape – speaks to the production of a heaping pile of material.  Ammon’s material is metaphoric, meditative and scientific.  For instance:

scientific and materialistic notion of the

spindle of energy: when energy is gross,

rocklike, it resembles the gross, and when

fine it mists away into mystical refinements,

sometimes passes right out of material

recognizability and becomes, what?, motion,

spirit, all forms translated into energy, as at

the bottom of Dante’s hell all motion is

translated into form   (25).

Here we see a scientific theorem imbuing.  Ammons shows us the power of the “spindle of energy” as the poem itself looks like a spindle, or a DNA strand, spiraling down into a pit of garbage and fusing dead objects together, theoretically, to create energy.  Energy, the ultimate scientific goal, is also the goal of the poet: “to declare, however roundabout, sideways, / or meanderingly (or in those ways)” (24)

a solution to garbage which is to transform it into energy.  This hypothesis can be applied to any form, for history is not just a collection of dead facts (David Hume), there is a human consciousness behind the wheels here.  Ammons, a 66 year old senior citizen at the time submits himself to reawaken his readers from the mush of a material world as “a world of community, not safe, still needs / feelers sent out to test the environment” (26). His use of the comma at the end of lines creates a form resembling a ‘spindle of energy’ which evokes his thesis.  Thus form coheres to content.  Just as Graham’s form resembles the sea, Ammons’ form resembles this spindle of energy, the human DNA strand tied inextricably to our material world.  “So, in value systems,” Ammons teaches us, “to the staid gross: stone to wind, wind to / stone: there is no need for ‘outside,’ hegemonic / derivations (25).  Thus he theoretically closes the gap between the other or the object and us, the reader.  The colon therein is not an empirically divisive equal sign, but rather a human rational one. For ideology has no history. In these poems Ammons demerits the hegemonic derivations of value and illuminates the organic ecology of human and material energy fused.

Tapered by commas and connected by colons, Ammons adds up the cultural garbage and exposes it as “muff along this spindle” (25). The energy he creates is the very communication of poetry.  He wants a conversation with his reader.  He recognizes the reality that readers hail from the very moral, scientific, aesthetic derivations of ideology that perpetuate a compiling of materialism. Ammons strives to break through all boundaries, exposing all for the freedom of poetic communication:

to understand how to reach this creativity’s

sinfulness ourselves: so why can’t poets

speak in tongues, others than their own; is

truth in the fact or in the persuasion, in the

credible action or the flat statement: I don’t

care whether anybody believes me or not: I

don’t know anything I want anybody to believe or

in: but if you will sit with me in the light

of speech, I will sit with you: I would rather

do this than eat your ice cream, go to a movie,

hump a horse, measure a suit, suit a measure:

I would rather at this age… (73).

Such a statement epitomizes Ammons, the great compassionate intellectual rambler.  He undoes the material activities, or (what will produce more garbage) he un-hails the ideologies that impose materialism and divided consciousness upon us, all for one real connection in poetic conversion.

In closing, Graham and Ammons are two poets who deal with large growing problems of the world.  They both write in forms that resemble a product of their subject, and they both, in this sense, are poetic ecologists, examining the damage of hegemonic ideology and materialism in our environment.  Yes, the world is slowly heating up and yes, garbage heaps are compiling with landfills running out of space, but thankfully, Ammons and Graham remind us that we have the capacity for communal consciousness, to decide how to not let the material world erase the immaterial.  They remind us to absorb the ebb and flow of this world and decide where to go from here.  In this sense, the ecosystem of the poet, when fused with the external environment, does not add to the heat, but instead examines what replaced the original organisms, and checks to see if the process is reversible.

Works Cited

Ammons, A.R. Garbage. WW Norton and Company.  New York, 1993.

DiCicco, Lorraine C. “‘Garbage’: A.R. Ammons’s tape for the turn of the century.” Papers on Language & Literature 32.2 (1996): 166+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 May 2010.

Graham, Jorie. Sea Change. HarpersCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2009.

Guriel, Jason. “Not just poetry.” Poetry Oct. 2008: 60+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 May 2010 May 9th, 2010, 2:00pm.


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