A.R. Ammons's Austrian Aesthetic

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by Myles Kantor

Unlike so many poets who genuflect to the State, A.R. Ammons is refreshingly iconoclastic when it comes to government and the arts. When the poet and author David Lehman asked in an interview, "How do you feel about government support of the arts," he replied:

"I detest it. I detest it on many grounds, but three first. And the first is that the government gouges money from people who may need it for other purposes. Second, the money forced from needy average citizens is then filtered through the sieve of a bureaucracy which absorbs much of the money into itself and distributes the rest incompetently – since how could you expect the level of knowledge and judgment among such a cluster to be much in advance of the times? At the same time the government attaches strings to the money, not theirs in the first place, to those who gave it in the first place. And third, I detest the averaging down of expectation and dedication that occurs when thousands of poets are given money in what is really waste and welfare, not art at all. Artists should be left alone to paint or not to paint, write or not to write. As it is, the world is full of trash. The genuine is lost, and the whole field wallops with political and social distortions."

In addition to delivering a nuanced tirade against cultural mediocrity and centralized aggrandizement, Ammons displays a liberal sensibility in the Austrian grain (Mises, not Freud). His skepticism toward bureaucratic cognition evokes Friedrich Hayek's "pretense of knowledge": the idea that a certain class is better qualified to administer the fruit of individuals' toil better than those individuals. It's an essentially imperious behavior, and the other FAA (Federal Artistic Apparatus) is pretentious knowledge in full effect. Maybe, just maybe, government shouldn't seize individuals' productivity for artistic engineering. Maybe individuals should be able to choose between consuming Marlowe or McNuggets. (True, the elegant Elizabethan poet and dramatist isn't in vogue. Make that Mapplethorpe or McNuggets.)

Ammons's Austrian features also manifest in his verse. He has said that "Poetry is action," and Sphere: The Form of a Motion instantiates this praxeological conception. (The poem is comprised of one hundred and fifty-five stanzas of quadruple tercets.) Consider this key passage:

…the way to write poems is just to start: it's like learning to walk or swim or ride the bicycle, you just go after it…

These lines confer primacy upon individual volition in accord with classical liberal values. No doubt highbrow vampires would recoil from the comparison of poetry to swimming or bicycling. (Hark, benighted masses, verse cannot be equated with plebian pastimes!)

Ammons also shuns the chiliastic kitsch that characterizes much contemporary "art." (It corresponds to an evangelical secularism: Save Yourself, Read This Month's Anointed Artist!) He observes in "Hippie Hop":

I have no program for saving this world or scuttling the next: I know no political, sexual, racial cures: I make analogies, my bucketful of flowers: I give flowers to people of all policies, sexes, and races including the vicious, the uncertain, and the white.

Such earthy irreverence is part and parcel of Ammons's aesthetic. Enjoy it at your leisure.

Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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