Handstands through the Universe
A.R. Ammons mentions “Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness” an interview as a poem he considered, along with “If Anything Will Level with You Water Will,” among his two best. “Casadilla Falls” or “Corsons Inlet” are easier poems, surely, but “Conserving the Magnitude” is a marvel of invention, behaving at first like a cautious ode to uselessness, “to all things not worth the work,” then summersaulting into an Ozymandian trope: human triumph reduced to sand or wind. But this complicated poem circles back on the phrase “not worth the work” and “uselessness,” tacking between various readings like a sail boat in an strong wind, to become an ode to a universe whose ultimate workings remain lastingly beyond human understanding.
The poem unfolds as a single sentence in seven stanzas of free verse in symmetrical, four-line stanzas. As elsewhere in modern verse, tone replaces meter as the subtext. Here’s the first stanza:
Spits of glitter in lowgrade ore,
precious stones too poorly surrounded for harvest,
to all things not worth the work
Ammons’ phrase “not worth the work/ of having” recalls me to Ammons upbringing in the foothills of turn-of-the-century and Depression-era Appalachia. I can hear the phrase in the mouths of my mother’s people, similarly raised in the Far West. It’s a phrase from a deeply conservative world, an illiberal culture and hardscrabble life in which a thing is not much regarded “for its own sake,” but must be weighed, and once weighed may be found wanting.
These first examples of “things not worth the work / of having” are monetarily accessible–ore and precious stones. Ammons goes on to list useful things that become useless when they cannot be harvested. Here’s my paraphrase of his list:
- Brush oak, like any lumber, becomes useless if it cannot be logged (St. 2, 5)
- Boulders, essential for gravel-making, are useless if they’re inaccessible. (St. 2, 6)
- Land, essential for human life, becomes useless when stubbornly, irretrievably arid (St. 2, 7)
One of the charms of an Ammons poem is vocabulary, and in this poem, the poet does not disappoint. St.1 gives us spits of glitter, while St. 2 has woods-lodged boulders, irreparable desert, and drowned river mouths, one after the other, all rousing images that in a lesser poet might have taken more words. Again, the subtext is what is left unsaid: Deserts are sometimes reclaimed for use, worth the work, as the Jews of Shoah-blasted Europe reclaimed the sand of Sinai in mid-20th Century. And the mouth of a river being the place where it enters a lake or the sea, a “drowned river mouth” is something of an oxymoron, not only useless but impossible. Figuratively, drowned river mouths may be the silence after human chatter ceases. At the least, the phrase is a conundrum.
Like one of his running mountain streams that abominates height, Ammons’ argument rushes on. The final line of St. 2 enjambs into St. 3:
drowned river mouths, lost shores where
the winged and light-footed go
The caesura in that final line of St. 2 is interesting. For here is where the first tonal shift occurs. At “lost shores where// the winged and light-footed go,” we get the first glimmering of the complexity of the narrator’s intentions, a definite inkling of the irony of the phrase “not worth the work of having.” Shores “where// the winged and light-footed go,” hint of the poets of the final stanzas of the poem, for surely not creature is as winged and light-footed as the good poet. Countless sea and shore birds feed at shores, and otters, raccoon, and even deer visit them. These places are “lost” to those who expect return value, practical “worth,” but surely they are not lost to living things, nor to those with imagination. Nor are they “worthless.”
St. 3 continues, its enjambment with the preceding St. suggesting as subtext the enmeshed nature of any ecosystem or habitat:
the winged and light-footed go,
take creosote bush that possesses
ground nothing else will have,
to all things and for all things
The second shift in tone, as the poet tacks through his thesis, comes at the end of St. 3, as Ammons’s list becomes more indeterminate and general, and he writes “to all things and for all things // crusty or billowy with indifference.” Here Ammons begins to suggest, through tonal modulation, his clear-eyed view (his practical view, we might say) of the impractical. We have left the realm of monetary value of the first stanza, where the talk was all of ore and timber, and come to “thing// crusty or billowy with indifference.” Like the “winged and light-footed,” the words “crusty or billowy” apply often to the impractical poets (artists, dreamers, prophets) of his final stanza. Ammons here signals his refusal to make something black-and-white, or cut-and-dried, of the dichotomy between good and bad guys, between the imaginative, if lost or grandiose, poets on the one hand, and the practical stone-cutters, oilmen, and timber merchants who calculate “the work of having.”
In St. 3 and 4, Ammons moves from natural resources useful to humans to vast terrestrial features and meteorological events. Ammons’ muscular vocabulary compels us forward like moving water through his argument. Here the reader encounters creosote bush, crusty or billow with indifference, incalculable, irremovable water, and least breeze. (Is there another poem in the English language in which creosote bushes appear?) The dismissive tone of “not worth the work” of the first stanza modulates to something more active, even malevolent; it become “ground nothing else will have” (St. 3,3).
In this atmosphere of malevolence, or abandonment, rise the graceful larch and dwarf aspen, shivering in their ground of fluvio-glacial deposits when the least breeze comes. The earth here is a living thing capable of–indeed, full of–rejection and indifference. Within this tonal shift downward to indifference, the poem makes a third tack at the line “larch or dwarf aspen in the least breeze sometime shiver in” (St. 4,4). Like the winged and light-footed creatures of St.2, the larch and aspen are living things, but unlike creatures, these trees are rooted and must shiver in whatever breeze comes to them; they are the poets trapped by circumstance of the poem’s final stanza, and abandoned by an indifferent world. And what of these slender pieces of life slipped into the meteorological and terrestrial world like pressed flowers in the O.E.D? The question is a subtext speaking out through all these tonal shifts: Is not life itself worth the work of having?
In St. 4, Ammons makes these additions to his list of uselessness:
- “incalculable, irremovable water”
- “Fluvio-glacial deposits / larch or dwarf aspen in the least breeze sometimes shiver in”
- “the gales wasting and in waste over / Antarctica”
- “the sundry high shoals of ice”
Humans do not have mastery, or at least not complete mastery, over any of the items on this list. Indeed, these items sometimes have decided mastery over us, in the form of floods, rising sea levels, and ship wrecks. They are indifferent to humans. Gales over Antarctica don’t even both to strike where we live. They calmly disdain to destroy us. What is “incalculable, irremovable water” if not a substance–or indeed, nature itself–over which human beings have no control? If we cannot measure a body of water, and make it go where we want it to, with dams and such, perhaps, then is it useless?
The em-dash at the final line of St. 4 is a brief respite, a pause, before the onslaught of St. 5, a rush of uselessness, gathering force of an earth huge and wrathful in its judgment of all this uselessness, now in St. 6, described as inexcusable (the worthless abundant), or merely tiresome, or obviously unimprovable. Like one of the gales of St. 5, by St. 6, Ammons’ vocabulary becomes a whirlwind:
- “the inexcusable (the worthless abundant)”
- “the merely tiresome”
- “the obviously unimprovable”
The poem’s irrevocable turn comes in the final lines of St. 6 above:
to these and for these and for this undiminishment
the poets will yelp and hoot forever
Ammons here is taking issue with the poets who “will yelp and hoot forever // probably,/ rank as weeds themselves and just as abandoned:” (Sts. 6, 7). The poet Fred Marchant has remarked to me in conversation on the beauty of that word “probably” here, how it nips in the bud any hint of the preacherly. Ammons final stanza:
Rank as weeds themselves and just as abandoned:
Nothing useful is of lasting value:
Dry wind only is still talking among the oldest stones.
Ammons’ examples of the useless began with the inanimate–lowgrade ore, precious stones. In St. 2 he introduces brush oak, and shores where (moving in to St. 3) “the winged and light-footed go” (St.3, l) and expands bushes to include creosote; St. 4 moves up the evolutionary chain to larch and dwarf aspen trees; St. 5 retreats back to the more primitive, ancient earth forms, Antarctica, and “the sundry high shoals of ice” (St. 5, 4). Then the turn of Sts. 6 and 7 move suddenly and dramatically to human life (poets), “rank as weeks themselves and just as abandoned:” (St. 7,2)
As I have tried to show here, in each modulation, Ammons weaves in and out of the questions of usefulness, teleology, man’s place in the scheme of things, and ultimately the point of creation. After the colon on “abandoned,” the poem closes as tidily as a sonnet. The poets are the singers of old, the prophets and seers on the Hebrew bible, who can be both billowy and winged. Being a modern poet, Ammons cannot say much about “lasting value” without taking himself out of–and in opposition to–his time. The voice of what once might have been characterized as an ultimate creative force is, in the age of the Holocaust and other horrors, mere “dry wind” like the high wind that whistles in winter through abandoned Stonehenge or troubled Gaza. The poem ends on the “useless” (“nothing useful”) which is classically the thing-in-itself, for and of itself, worth the work of being in a system of thought where “having” is meaningless. Nothing useful might even be the What Is that some thinkers once called, and others might still call, God.