A. R. Ammons, Pragmatism, and “The Philosophy Poem”

Criticism / Andrew Epstein

:: “Uh, Philosophy”: A. R. Ammons, Pragmatism, and “The Philosophy Poem” ::

Over two thou­sand years ago, in The Repub­lic, Pla­to famous­ly referred to the “ancient quar­rel between phi­los­o­phy and poet­ry” as part of his argu­ment for ban­ish­ing poets from his ide­al soci­ety. If it was already “ancient” then, clear­ly the vibrant, some­times heat­ed dia­logue between poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy has a long his­to­ry. Over the course of two mil­len­nia, this con­ver­sa­tion has tak­en many forms. Philoso­phers, for exam­ple, have fol­lowed Plato’s lead and sought to dis­tin­guish their own mode of inquiry from poet­ry, or even to ele­vate it above poet­ry as a high­er pur­suit. They have also approached poet­ry philo­soph­i­cal­ly, in terms of aes­thet­ics, seek­ing to define and under­stand it as a dis­tinc­tive genre and human activ­i­ty. Or they have longed to emu­late the free­dom, cre­ativ­i­ty, and elo­quence of poet­ry in their own field. For their part, poets have drawn con­trasts between poet­ic expres­sion and philo­soph­i­cal thought, often priv­i­leg­ing poet­ry in the process. Or they have made claims for their own medium’s abil­i­ty to be a potent vehi­cle for philo­soph­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion, or have wished for poet­ry to share the rig­or, pre­ci­sion, and grav­i­tas of philosophy.

Obvi­ous­ly, this is a long and com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry, and the list of poets who engage philo­soph­i­cal themes, or whose work can be dis­cussed in terms of phi­los­o­phy, is near­ly end­less. Few poems, how­ev­er, address phi­los­o­phy as explic­it­ly and suc­cinct­ly as “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” a poem by A. R. Ammons, writ­ten in about 1959, and pub­lished in the col­lec­tion North­field Poems (1966). In fact, Ammons’s poem is a potent exam­ple of one of the most recent man­i­fes­ta­tions of this old debate: the emer­gence of what I refer to as “the phi­los­o­phy poem.” This is a type of poem, writ­ten by a wide range of poets in the 20th and 21st cen­turies, that makes the con­ver­sa­tion between poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy explic­it. A “phi­los­o­phy poem” not only explores philo­soph­i­cal prob­lems, but direct­ly address­es phi­los­o­phy as a field, depicts the act of read­ing phi­los­o­phy, or takes pains to con­trast poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy. Such poems fre­quent­ly men­tion par­tic­u­lar philoso­phers by name, quote from philo­soph­i­cal texts, or address spe­cif­ic ideas and con­cepts from works of philosophy.

At the same time, such poems rarely seek to present a straight­for­ward trea­tise on philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts. For exam­ple, Ammons’s poem is delib­er­ate­ly slip­pery and con­tra­dic­to­ry, wind­ing its way through syn­tac­ti­cal­ly com­plex phras­es, doubts, hes­i­ta­tions, self-cor­rec­tions, and para­dox­es. As such, it embod­ies an essen­tial fea­ture of the broad­er cat­e­go­ry of “the phi­los­o­phy poem”: such works are not designed to func­tion like an essay or schol­ar­ly argu­ment, but rather to play out ideas in motion, to dra­ma­tize intel­lec­tu­al debates and prob­lems, and to chart how a mind might grap­ple with such ideas and their effects upon our lives.

The phi­los­o­phy poem moves to the fore in the mod­ernist peri­od: it can be seen in innu­mer­able poems by Wal­lace Stevens, like “To an Old Philoso­pher in Rome” (about George San­tayana) or “Descrip­tion With­out Place” (with its ref­er­ences to Niet­zsche), in William But­ler Yeats’ “Among School Chil­dren” (with its reflec­tion on Pla­to and Aris­to­tle), W. H. Auden’s “In Mem­o­ry of Sig­mund Freud,” or Del­more Schwartz’s poems “In the Naked Bed, In Plato’s Cave” and “The Ghosts of James and Peirce in Har­vard Yard.”

In the peri­od since World War II, “the phi­los­o­phy poem” has flour­ished to such an extent that it seems to con­sti­tute a mini-genre all its own. With­in this mode, poets appeal to phi­los­o­phy direct­ly in order to take stock of spe­cif­ic philo­soph­i­cal ideas—often new or fash­ion­able ways of thinking—and to wres­tle with the impli­ca­tions of those con­cepts. Robert Hass’s cel­e­brat­ed response to the advent of post-struc­tural­ism and decon­struc­tion, “Med­i­ta­tion at Lagu­ni­tas” (1979), is exemplary:

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies. (4)

Along­side this well-known exam­ple, one could place a whole array of poems, like John Ashbery’s play­ful poem “My Phi­los­o­phy of Life,” which begins:

Just when I thought there wasn’t room enough 
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea – 
call it a philosophy of life, if you will. Briefly, 
it involved living the way philosophers live, 
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones? (73)

Ashbery’s ram­bling, half-seri­ous inves­ti­ga­tion turns on the lines “then you remem­ber some­thing William James wrote in some book of his you nev­er read,” ulti­mate­ly becom­ing more of a trib­ute to “the gaps between ideas” than phi­los­o­phy proper.

The phi­los­o­phy poem varies wide­ly in terms of form, sub­ject mat­ter, theme, and philoso­phies and philoso­phers addressed. The mini-genre ranges from Richard Wilbur’s “Epis­te­mol­o­gy” to Robert Creeley’s “Read­ing of Emmanuel Lev­inas,” from Ann Lauterbach’s “Pla­ton­ic Sub­ject” to David Shapiro’s “The Counter-Exam­ple” (which responds to Got­t­lob Frege), from Philip Whalen’s quo­ta­tions from Her­a­cli­tus in “Sour­dough Moun­tain Look­out” to David Lehman’s “Wittgenstein’s Lad­der” or David Kirby’s med­i­ta­tion on decon­struc­tion in “Dear Der­ri­da.” It includes, as well, any num­ber of book-length projects, like Ros­marie Waldrop’s encounter with Wittgen­stein in The Repro­duc­tion of Pro­files or Susan Howe’s with Charles Sanders Peirce in Pierce-Arrow. Over the past decade or two, such exam­ples have seemed to mul­ti­ply, includ­ing recent poems like Erin Belieu’s “The Body is a Big Sagac­i­ty” (which address­es and responds to Niet­zsche), Ari­ana Reines’ riff­ing on Alain Badiou in “[Try­ing to see the pro­por­tion­al rela­tion],” and Ana Božičević’s “About Nietzsche.”

Because Ammons’s poem “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” so point­ed­ly and play­ful­ly reflects on the act of read­ing phi­los­o­phy and shows a speak­er think­ing his way through the impli­ca­tions of cer­tain philo­soph­i­cal ideas, it encap­su­lates many of the fea­tures of the phi­los­o­phy poem and seems to antic­i­pate its flow­er­ing over the ensu­ing decades. It is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that Ammons, of all poets, would write such a poem, as he is gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered one of the most overt­ly philo­soph­i­cal of con­tem­po­rary poets. Much like Wal­lace Stevens, who devotes his entire body of poet­ry to rumi­nat­ing on the rela­tion­ship between imag­i­na­tion and real­i­ty, Ammons’s poet­ry end­less­ly weighs, tests, and pon­ders the dialec­ti­cal ten­sions between a set of inter­con­nect­ed bina­ries. In Willard Spiegelman’s words, “Ammons tells us over and over that his main theme, per­haps his sole one, is the rela­tion­ship between the one and the many, and this old pre-Socrat­ic dichoto­my, along with vari­ants (inside ver­sus out­side, up ver­sus down, cen­ter ver­sus periph­ery, free­dom-verg­ing-on-entropy ver­sus sta­bil­i­ty-turn­ing-into-impris­on­ment), is his obses­sion” (112). In poems, inter­views, and essays, Ammons announces that his poet­ry is one long med­i­ta­tion on the nag­ging philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of how to rec­on­cile uni­ty and diver­si­ty, the gen­er­al and the par­tic­u­lar, abstract ideas and con­crete particulars.

How­ev­er, in “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” Ammons address­es phi­los­o­phy qua phi­los­o­phy even more explic­it­ly than in most of his work. Here is the poem in its entirety: 

I understand 
   reading the modern philosophers
that truth is so much a method
       it’s perfectly all
right for me to believe whatever
   I like or if I like,

   I do not know that I care to be set that free
I am they say
       at liberty to be
provisional, to operate
expediently, do not have to commit myself

to impeturbables, outright 
   legislations, hardfast rules:
they say I can 
       prefer any truths 
   suits my blood,

blends with my proclivities, my temperament:
   I suppose they mean I’ve had more experience than I can 
ever read about, taking in
       as I do 
possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious
   and unconscious

and making a vegetal at least
from them all, so that
       philosophy is
a pry-pole, materialization,
   useful as a snowshovel when it snows:

something solid to knock people down with
   or back people up with:
I don’t know that I care to be backed up in just that way:
       the philosophy gives clubs to 
everyone, and I prefer disarmament:
   that is, I would rather relate

to the imperturbable objective
   than be the agent of 
“possibly unsatisfactory eventualities”:
       isn’t anything plain true:
if I had something
   to conform to (without responsibility)

I wouldn’t feel so hot and sticky:
   (but I must be moved by what I am moved by):
they do say, though, I must give some force to facts,
       must bend that way enough,
be in on the gist of “concrete observations,” 
   must be pliant to the drift (roll with the knocks):

they say, too, I must halter my fancy
with these blinding limitations: 
      I don’t know that I can go along with that either:
for though I’ve proved myself stupid by 33 years
   of getting nowhere

I must nevertheless be given credit for the sense wherewith
   I decided to never set out:
What are facts if I can’t line them up 
       anyway I please
and have the freedom
   I refused I think in the beginning?  (95-7)

By wrestling with the pre­cepts and con­clu­sions of “the mod­ern philoso­phers,” Ammons speaks to issues that res­onate through­out a broad range of twen­ti­eth- and twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry poet­ry. For instance: do we have access to any objec­tive real­i­ty? Does “truth” exist, or only par­tial and con­tin­gent truths? What are the con­se­quences of embrac­ing the anti-foun­da­tion­al­ism and rel­a­tivism that char­ac­ter­izes so much twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry thought? What would it mean to accept some of the new, per­haps unset­tling ideas drawn from recent phi­los­o­phy and theory—to live with them, as both a writer and a per­son? Can one—especially if one is a poet or artist, or per­haps a philosopher—find a whol­ly mate­ri­al­ist or empiri­cist philo­soph­i­cal con­cep­tion of the uni­verse sat­is­fy­ing? What is the rela­tion­ship between philo­soph­i­cal inquiry and poet­ic expres­sion anyway?

The poem sug­gests Ammons’s uneasy rela­tion­ship with phi­los­o­phy itself. Even the title “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” with its slangy stut­ter­ing, seems designed both to evoke and then under­mine the idea of “a phi­los­o­phy” (as in “let me tell you about a phi­los­o­phy I read about”). With that ini­tial “uh,” Ammons seems to iron­i­cal­ly under­cut the valid­i­ty, the effi­ca­cy, the grandeur of phi­los­o­phy as a pur­suit. In the end, the poem seems to pull away from phi­los­o­phy itself in favor of a kind of neg­a­tive capability—an accep­tance of not-know­ing, an embrace of the con­crete sen­su­ous world, that Ammons pre­sum­ably asso­ciates with poet­ry (as opposed to “phi­los­o­phy” prop­er). Ammons artic­u­lates a sim­i­lar idea about the inutil­i­ty of philo­soph­i­cal truths or absolutes in anoth­er well-known ear­ly poem, “Grav­el­ly Run”: “no use to make any philoso­phies here: / I see no / god in the hol­ly, hear no song from / the unbro­ken weeds: Hegel is not the win­ter / yel­low in the pines” (56).

How­ev­er, as I will sug­gest, Ammons’s atti­tude in “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” may be more com­pli­cat­ed than it appears at first. As Lau­rence Lieber­man observes in one of the few dis­cus­sions of this poem, Ammons is “an orig­i­nal philoso­pher in his poet­ry, though he often parades in the guise of poet-as-anti-philoso­pher” (315). “In ‘Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,’” Lieber­man notes, “he cuts deep­er into the sub­ject the more he pre­tends, with grace­ful offhand­ed­ness, to dis­miss its importance.”

But by doing so, Ammons does not real­ly wash his hands of phi­los­o­phy entire­ly. Instead, he seems to throw his lot in with one par­tic­u­lar branch of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy with great impor­tance to poet­ry: Amer­i­can prag­ma­tism. Indeed, I read Ammons as a poet deeply invest­ed in the Amer­i­can prag­ma­tist tradition—the lin­eage that stems from the more ground­ed and skep­ti­cal side of the many-faceted Emer­son, moves through the thought of William James, Peirce, and John Dewey, to mod­ernist poets like Wal­lace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Mar­i­anne Moore, down to the “New Amer­i­can Poet­ry” of the 1950s and beyond. In recent years, many crit­ics have exam­ined the influ­ence of prag­ma­tism on mod­ernist lit­er­a­ture, and espe­cial­ly on Amer­i­can poet­ry. Fol­low­ing the lead of Richard Poiri­er, crit­ics have argued for pragmatism’s impor­tance to mod­ernist fig­ures like Hen­ry James, Stevens, Frost, Moore, and Gertrude Stein, to the African-Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of W. E. B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Ralph Elli­son, and Amiri Bara­ka, to the jazz and blues tra­di­tion, and to the post­war poet­ry of Frank O’Hara, John Ash­bery, David Antin, Susan Howe, and oth­ers. [1] But Ammons has been absent from those dis­cus­sions, and his abun­dant con­nec­tions to prag­ma­tist think­ing and poet­ics have been over­looked by Ammons’s crit­ics, who have more often viewed him as a nature poet, a lat­ter-day Roman­tic and tran­scen­den­tal­ist. This is a par­tic­u­lar­ly strange omis­sion giv­en that Ammons’s obses­sions, even his vocab­u­lary, are often strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to those at the heart of the phi­los­o­phy of William James and oth­er pragmatists—the “one and the many,” monism ver­sus plu­ral­ism, the nature of atten­tion and per­cep­tion, the impor­tance of the local, small-scale, and mar­gin­al, and so on.

Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” is a fair­ly ear­ly Ammons poem, one that catch­es him at a tran­si­tion­al moment as he strug­gles to leave behind the mys­ti­cal, vision­ary poems of his ear­li­est work and moves toward the more prag­ma­tist out­look he would soon adopt. As they turn away from the uni­ty and final­i­ty of a monis­tic out­look and accept a uni­verse of flux and diver­si­ty, Ammons’s poems reg­is­ter a deep ambiva­lence about both the gains and loss­es of such a view. For exam­ple, in the poem “Guide,” he acknowl­edges the dan­gers of any uni­fy­ing or total­iz­ing view of the world: “you can­not come to uni­ty and remain mate­r­i­al: / in that per­cep­tion is no per­ceiv­er: / when you arrive / you have gone too far.” But he also notes that this recog­ni­tion is “the sin you weep and praise”—it is an unset­tling wis­dom, one that makes the speak­er simul­ta­ne­ous­ly “glad and sad.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, in “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” Ammons stages an inter­nal debate about prag­ma­tist phi­los­o­phy and its con­se­quences. It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing, then, that the anti-philo­soph­i­cal ges­tures one finds in “Uh, Philosophy”—its impa­tience with phi­los­o­phy itself—are actu­al­ly quite sim­i­lar to char­ac­ter­is­tic moves of prag­ma­tism, which has often been described as “anti-philo­soph­i­cal” because of its empha­sis on avoid­ing the pit­falls of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic inquiry. Thanks to what the neo-prag­ma­tist philoso­pher Richard Rorty sees as its “post­philo­soph­i­cal” atti­tude about the field itself, prag­ma­tism has often been seen as a way of doing phi­los­o­phy with­out philosophy.

To return to the poem’s open­ing stan­za, when Ammons refers to mod­ern philosophy’s atti­tudes about “truth,” “method,” the will to “believe” in what­ev­er one wish­es, and rel­a­tivism, he imme­di­ate­ly ges­tures toward key words and con­cepts of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, and espe­cial­ly to buzz­words from the prag­ma­tist lex­i­con. It almost sounds as if he has just read and set aside James’s chap­ters on “What Prag­ma­tism Means,” “The Will to Believe,” and “Pragmatism’s Con­cep­tion of the Truth” (with its argu­ment that prag­ma­tism “is a method only” and “does not stand for any spe­cial results”), or per­haps a more recent text in dia­logue with prag­ma­tism, like Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

Ammons invokes the prag­ma­tist pref­er­ence for plur­al truths and its skep­ti­cism of monism and absolutes. At the same time, he also echoes the famil­iar (and much debat­ed) neg­a­tive char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of prag­ma­tism as envi­sioned by its detractors—that it is lit­tle more than a blithe endorse­ment of a pro­found rel­a­tivism, a phi­los­o­phy that holds one can believe what­ev­er one wants or even noth­ing at all. The poem acknowl­edges that such a stance may be lib­er­at­ing, but also recoils from this per­haps trou­bling notion and its ramifications:

   I do not know that I care to be set that free
I am they say
	at liberty to be
provisional, to operate
expediently, do not have to commit myself

to impeturbables, outright 
   legislations, hardfast rules.

Ammons again echoes some of the terms used to define, and at times crit­i­cize, prag­ma­tist phi­los­o­phy as an out­look which calls for us to respond to the world pro­vi­sion­al­ly, and to view “truths” as mere­ly expe­di­ent (“what in short is the truth’s cash-val­ue in expe­ri­en­tial terms?” James famous­ly asks).

To explain fur­ther the idea that truths grow out of the flow of expe­ri­ence rather than exist­ing eter­nal­ly on some ide­al plane of uni­ver­sal truth, Ammons seems to echo James’s famous descrip­tion of expe­ri­ence as a “bloom­ing, buzzing con­fu­sion” we must nav­i­gate moment by moment:

   I suppose they mean I’ve had more experience than I can 
ever read about, taking in
as I do 
possibly a hundred sensations per second, conscious
   and unconscious

and making a vegetal at least
from them all.

From these mod­ern philoso­phers, Ammons says he has learned that “phi­los­o­phy is / a pry-pole, mate­ri­al­iza­tion, / use­ful as a snow­shov­el when it snows.” Although Ammons presents this in a some­what neg­a­tive­ly charged man­ner, prag­ma­tists have always argued that phi­los­o­phy should be a use­ful tool, to be employed in our every­day lives, rather than con­sid­ered a final answer that ends our quest for answers to irre­solv­able meta­phys­i­cal questions.

Not­ing that phi­los­o­phy can also be used to “knock peo­ple down with / or back peo­ple up with,” and that “the phi­los­o­phy gives clubs to / every­one,” Ammons claims, “I pre­fer dis­ar­ma­ment.” In this way, the poet pulls back from the fray, the free-for-all quar­rels of philo­soph­ic debate in a post-“Truth” con­text. “Isn’t any­thing plain true” the poem won­ders rather poignant­ly. Well, no, the prag­ma­tist would answer, not if you think “true” means some last­ing, per­ma­nent qual­i­ty inher­ent in an idea or thing, rather than some­thing that hap­pens to an idea in the course of experience.

Ulti­mate­ly, Ammons’s poem seems to reel with queasi­ness, the ver­ti­go that comes from accept­ing the anti-foun­da­tion­al­ism of mod­ern philosophy:

if I had something
   to conform to (without responsibility)

I wouldn’t feel so hot and sticky.

The speak­er is pal­pa­bly, phys­i­cal­ly dis­com­fort­ed by the recog­ni­tion that he has no pur­chase on plain truth, noth­ing to hold on to. All that mod­ern philoso­phers (like James or Wittgen­stein) can offer us, Ammons sug­gests, is empiri­cism and expe­ri­ence rather than eter­nal ver­i­ties or gov­ern­ing abstrac­tions. What such an anti-ide­al­ist out­look demands is an atten­tive­ness to the ever-flow­ing, ever-chang­ing nature of a world defined by flux and chaot­ic dynamism:

they do say, though, I must give some force to facts,
	must bend that way enough,
be in on the gist of “concrete observations,” 
   must be pliant to the drift (roll with the knocks).

Here, Ammons seems to echo James’s famous def­i­n­i­tion of the pragmatist:

He turns away from abstrac­tion and insuf­fi­cien­cy, from ver­bal solu­tions, from bad a pri­ori rea­sons, from fixed prin­ci­ples, closed sys­tems, and pre­tend­ed absolutes and ori­gins. He turns towards con­crete­ness and ade­qua­cy, towards facts, towards action and towards pow­er. That means the empiri­cist tem­per reg­nant and the ratio­nal­ist tem­per sin­cere­ly giv­en up. It means the open air and pos­si­bil­i­ties of nature, as against dog­ma, arti­fi­cial­i­ty, and the pre­tence of final­i­ty in truth. 

This priv­i­leg­ing of facts, the close obser­va­tion of con­crete detail, and atten­tive­ness to the con­tin­gency and flux of expe­ri­ence become the hall­marks of Ammons’s poet­ry from this point forward—a stance crys­tal­lized most suc­cinct­ly and mem­o­rably in Ammons’s most famous poem, “Cor­sons Inlet,” which he would write soon after “Uh, Philosophy”:

        I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory: 
	still around the looser, wider forces work:
        I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening 
scope, but enjoying the freedom that 
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
        that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk. (151)

With­in the realm of “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” how­ev­er, Ammons is less com­fort­able with the notion that “there is no final­i­ty of vision.” He balks at the idea that expe­ri­ence and facts must be revered above all else; the stric­tures of such a world­view seem too severe, too con­strict­ing. These philoso­phers, he avers, insist that “I must hal­ter my fan­cy / mare / with these blind­ing lim­i­ta­tions: / I don’t know that I can go along with that either” (96).

How­ev­er, the stance Ammons chal­lenges has more in com­mon with the car­i­ca­ture of prag­ma­tist phi­los­o­phy pre­sent­ed by its crit­ics than with prag­ma­tism itself. James dis­tanced his own stance from the “buga­boo empiri­cism” pragmatism’s “tra­di­tion­al ratio­nal­ist crit­ics” charge it with being—an out­look that “is accused of chop­ping up expe­ri­ence into atom­istic sen­sa­tions, inca­pable of union with one anoth­er” (Menand 133). James’s pre­ferred mode—which he called “rad­i­cal empiri­cism” to dis­tin­guish it from the buga­boo version—was actu­al­ly designed to avoid the dan­gers of an atom­istic view of the world as a mere col­lec­tion of dis­con­nect­ed facts. Rad­i­cal empiri­cism, like Ammons’ lat­er poet­ry, takes into account the con­junc­tions and rela­tions between things, by hon­or­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of expe­ri­ence as well as its disjunctiveness.

In “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy,” Ammons, like James, seems to reject the idea of a phi­los­o­phy over­ly reliant upon facts and con­crete obser­va­tion. Even more so, he cel­e­brates his own reluc­tance to go into bat­tle armed with the blunt “club” of phi­los­o­phy in the first place:

for though I’ve proved myself stupid by 33 years
   of getting nowhere

I must nevertheless be given credit for the sense wherewith
   I decided to never set out.

The pas­sage mix­es self-dep­re­ca­tion with a touch of self-con­grat­u­la­tion. While the speak­er admits that he, in his stu­pid­i­ty, may not have got­ten very far yet in answer­ing the big ques­tions of life, he has also had the good sense to not try—to resist the promis­es of instru­men­tal rea­son and goal-direct­ed phi­los­o­phy, and to opt, instead, for being a poet: one who is, as Keats famous­ly argued, “capa­ble of being in uncer­tain­ties, mys­ter­ies, doubts, with­out any irri­ta­ble reach­ing after fact and reason.”

In the end, he seems to ele­vate the imag­i­na­tive free­dom and cre­ativ­i­ty of the poet over the intel­lec­tu­al com­bat of the philosopher:

What are facts if I can’t line them up 
        anyway I please
and have the freedom
  I refused I think in the beginning?

At first blush this sounds like a defense of poet­ic license and cre­ativ­i­ty and a final dis­missal of phi­los­o­phy. How­ev­er, as Lieber­man observes, Ammons iron­i­cal­ly ends up pret­ty much where the poem began—upholding the “free­dom” to believe what one wants to believe (to line up facts as one pleas­es). As the poem itself notes, this is the very stance that he ini­tial­ly attrib­uted to mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and “refused” at the start of the poem (or at least that he thinks he reject­ed ear­li­er). [2] By chart­ing all the para­dox­es and uncer­tain­ties of the speaker’s dia­logue with him­self, the poem depicts a trou­bled mind, one that is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sus­pi­cious of and attract­ed to the lessons of mod­ern philosophy.

Although at this stage he remains guard­ed­ly wary of the con­se­quences of prag­ma­tism, Ammons will return again and again to its lessons, and become much less anx­ious about their ram­i­fi­ca­tions. For exam­ple, in the long poem “Hiber­nac­u­lum,” from the lat­er 1960s, Ammons is decid­ed­ly more com­fort­able assert­ing “my phi­los­o­phy” than in the ear­li­er poem:

I hope my philosophy will turn
out all right and turn out to be a philosophy so as
to free people (any who are trapped, as I have been) 

from seeking any image in the absolute or seeking
any absolute whatsoever except nothingness:
nothingness far from being failure’s puzzlement,

is really the point of lovely liberation, when
gloriously every object in and on earth becomes just
itself, total and marvelous in its exact scope. (379)

This pas­sage, like the hymn “Amaz­ing Grace,” sug­gests the speak­er once was blind but now can see: he used to be trapped in a fruit­less search for the absolute, but now has found a phi­los­o­phy that has released him from that quest. This phi­los­o­phy has taught him, as he hopes to teach oth­ers, to find “love­ly lib­er­a­tion” in a view of the “noth­ing­ness” that char­ac­ter­izes the world. As in many Stevens poems, like “Evening With­out Angels,” “On the Road Home,” or “The Lat­est Freed Man,” where human beings see the uni­verse de-divinized and are there­by freed to embrace its sen­su­ous par­tic­u­lar­i­ty, here Ammons sug­gests that once the quest for “Truth” is relin­quished, the world becomes a glo­ri­ous riot of par­tic­u­lar details, each valu­able in its own right. This phi­los­o­phy, which sounds an awful lot like prag­ma­tism, “allows free­dom to fall / back from the thrust of the absolute into the world // so man­i­fold with things and beings: the hol­ly­hock, / what a mar­vel, com­plete in itself: the bee, / how par­tic­u­lar, how noth­ing­ness lets him buzz // around…” (380).

Ammons’s direct con­tem­pla­tion of such philo­soph­i­cal themes paves the way for the wealth of more recent “phi­los­o­phy poems” that I dis­cussed at the out­set, which would include Charles Wright’s “Read­ing Rorty and Paul Celan One Morn­ing Ear­ly June” (1995). Wright, like Ammons, tries on a philo­soph­i­cal con­cept, again drawn from prag­ma­tism (in this case from the neo-prag­ma­tist philoso­pher Richard Rorty), and weighs its impli­ca­tions for how we view the uni­verse around us:

If truth is made and not found,  
                                                                    what an amazing world 
We live in, more secret than ever,
And beautiful of access….

If sentences constitute
                                                      everything we believe,
Vocabularies retool
Our inability to measure and get it right,
And languages don’t exist.
That’s one theory.  Here’s another:
Something weighs on our shoulders
And settles itself like black light
                                                       invisibly in our hair … (10-11)

Both Ammons and Wright, like Stevens before them, respond to prag­ma­tist ideas about truth, lan­guage, and per­cep­tion, and exam­ine how they might change our expe­ri­ence and under­stand­ing of the sen­su­al, con­crete world. If there is no such thing as tran­scen­dence, no sin­gle expla­na­tions, no com­plete per­cep­tion or absolute truth, it is less cause for despair or nihilism than for ela­tion. Poets fueled by the insights of prag­ma­tism often resem­ble Stevens’s “Lat­est Freed Man”—“tired of old descrip­tions of the world,” he woke up one day and “escaped from the truth,” only to dis­cov­er “every­thing being more real,” “every­thing bulging and blaz­ing and big in itself” (187).

By dra­ma­tiz­ing an expe­ri­ence of “read­ing the mod­ern philoso­phers,” by chart­ing his own turn toward a poet­ry of plu­ral­ism and rad­i­cal empiri­cism, Ammons’s “Uh, Phi­los­o­phy” is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the ancient quar­rel between poet­ry and philosophy—a con­ver­sa­tion that has ani­mat­ed Amer­i­can poet­ry for decades and con­tin­ues to trou­ble and ener­gize the poems of our moment. Hav­ing absorbed the lessons of prag­ma­tism and oth­er mod­ern, anti-foun­da­tion­al­ist philoso­phies, Ammons begins to move beyond the old scheme in which it is philosophy’s job to strive for eter­nal truths, absolutes, and cer­tain­ty, and poetry’s to pro­duce noth­ing but imag­i­na­tive creations—or what Pla­to dis­dained as fic­tion or lies. Once phi­los­o­phy has relin­quished the quest for cer­tain­ty, and the two fields are no longer seen as dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed, poet­ry becomes an impor­tant vehi­cle for weigh­ing philo­soph­i­cal ideas and test­ing their real-world effects. The con­tem­po­rary “phi­los­o­phy poem”—like prag­ma­tism itself—is freed to explore new ways for us to come to terms with a world in which “truth is made and not found.” And what an “amaz­ing,’” mirac­u­lous, abun­dant world it is, “more secret than ever, / And beau­ti­ful of access.”


[1] For exam­ple, see Richard Poirier’s The Renew­al of Lit­er­a­ture and Poet­ry and Prag­ma­tism, Jonathan Levin, Ross Pos­nock, Tim­o­thy Par­rish, Joan Richard­son, Frank Lentric­chia, Lisi Schoen­bach, and Paul Grim­stad. For recent stud­ies that focus specif­i­cal­ly on prag­ma­tism and Amer­i­can poet­ry, see Andrew Epstein, Michael Magee, Ann Marie Mikkelsen, Raphael Alli­son, and Kacper Bartczak.

[2] Ammons’s lan­guage is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to Mar­i­anne Moore’s in this poem (as are its odd­ly shaped stanzas)—more so than most oth­er Ammons poems. Specif­i­cal­ly, Ammons echoes the themes and lan­guage of “In the Days of Pris­mat­ic Col­or” (which sim­i­lar­ly med­i­tates upon “truth” and longs for “plain” ver­i­ties: “com­plex­i­ty is not a crime, but car­ry / it to the point of murk­i­ness / and noth­ing is plain”). Fur­ther­more, the twisty, strange syn­tax and final rhetor­i­cal ques­tion sound a great deal like the end­ing of “Crit­ics and Con­nois­seurs”: “What is / there in being able / to say that one has dom­i­nat­ed the stream in an atti­tude of self-defense, / in prov­ing that one has had the expe­ri­ence / of car­ry­ing a stick?”


Works Cit­ed

Alli­son, Raphael. “David Antin’s Prag­ma­tist Techno­pho­bia.” Jour­nal of Mod­ern Lit­er­a­ture 28.4 (2005): 110–134.

Ammons, A.R. Col­lect­ed Poems: 1951–1971. New York: W. W. Nor­ton, 1972.

Ash­bery, John. Can You Hear, Bird. New York: Far­rar, Straus, 1995.

Bartczak, Kacper. “Prag­ma­tism and Poet­ry: The Neo-Prag­ma­tist Dif­fer­ence in the Dis­cus­sion of Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Poet­ry.” Prag­ma­tism Today 2.2 (2011).

Epstein, Andrew. Beau­ti­ful Ene­mies: Friend­ship and Post­war Amer­i­can Poet­ry.  New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2006.

Grim­stad, Paul.  Expe­ri­ence and Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing: Lit­er­ary Prag­ma­tism from Emer­son to the Jame­ses. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013.

Hass, Robert. Praise. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1979.

James, William. The Writ­ings of William James: A Com­pre­hen­sive Edi­tion. Ed. John J. McDer­mott. Chica­go: U of Chica­go P, 1977.

Lentric­chia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Fou­cault, William James, Wal­lace Stevens. Madi­son: U of Wis­con­sin P, 1988.

Levin, Jonathan. The Poet­ics of Tran­si­tion: Emer­son, Prag­ma­tism, and Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Mod­ernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1999.

Lieber­man, Lau­rence. “Of Mind and World: North­field Poems by A. R. Ammons.” The Hud­son Review 20.2 (1967): 315–321.

Magee, Michael.  Eman­ci­pat­ing Prag­ma­tism: Emer­son, Jazz, and Exper­i­men­tal Writ­ing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alaba­ma P, 2004.

Menand, Louis. Prag­ma­tism: A Read­er. New York: Vin­tage, 1997.

Mikkelsen, Ann Marie. Pas­toral, Prag­ma­tism, and Twen­ti­eth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Pal­grave, 2011.

Poiri­er, Richard. Poet­ry and Prag­ma­tism. Cam­bridge: Har­vard UP, 1992.

—. The Renew­al of Lit­er­a­ture: Emer­son­ian Reflec­tions. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

Pos­nock, Ross. Col­or and Cul­ture: Black Writ­ers and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern Intel­lec­tu­al. Cam­bridge: Har­vard UP, 1998.

Par­rish, Tim­o­thy. Walk­ing Blues: Mak­ing Amer­i­cans from Emer­son to Elvis.  Amherst, MAU of Mass­a­chu­setts P, 2001.

Richard­son, Joan. A Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of Prag­ma­tism: The Fact of Feel­ing from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge UP, 2007.

Schoen­bach, Lisi. Prag­mat­ic Mod­ernism. New York: Oxford UP, 2011.

Spiegel­man, Willard. The Didac­tic Muse: Scenes of Instruc­tion in Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Prince­ton: Prince­ton UP, 1989.

Stevens, Wal­lace. The Col­lect­ed Poems. New York: Vin­tage, 1954.

Wright, Charles. Neg­a­tive Blue: Select­ed Lat­er Poems. New York: Far­rar, Straus, 2000.


Andrew Epstein is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of Beau­ti­ful Ene­mies: Friend­ship and Post­war Amer­i­can Poet­ry (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press) and Atten­tion Equals Life: The Pur­suit of the Every­day in Con­tem­po­rary Poet­ry and Cul­ture (forth­com­ing from Oxford). His essays have recent­ly appeared in Con­tem­po­rary Lit­er­a­ture, Los Ange­les Review of Books, Wal­lace Stevens Jour­nal, and Jacket2, and he blogs about the New York School of poet­ry at Locus Solus.


Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor Christo­pher Find­eisen is a Ph.D. can­di­date in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Chica­go. His dis­ser­ta­tion exam­ines how a par­tic­u­lar genre of lit­er­ary narrative—the aca­d­e­m­ic novel—helped to restruc­ture shift­ing ide­o­log­i­cal agree­ments about the mean­ing and social func­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion across the 19th and 20th cen­turies. A select­ed chap­ter of this project—“Injuries of Class: Mass Edu­ca­tion and the Amer­i­can Aca­d­e­m­ic Novel”—is forth­com­ing from PMLA.