The publication of The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons (Norton) is one of the biggest literary events of this year. Edited by Robert M. West, the 966 poems in this two-volume set begin with the collection “Ommateum With Doxology,” which Ammons self-published in 1955, and end with “Bosh and Flapdoodle,” published posthumously in 2005.
Despite his multiple awards — including two National Book Awards — Ammons, who died in 2001, never achieved the renown he deserved, in part because he was uncomfortable reading his work in public. “I show off but not up,” he once told critic Helen Vendler. “The Complete Poems,” arranged chronologically, shows the tremendous range and innovation that, despite Ammons’s stage fright, helped establish him as one of America’s most original and important 20th-century poets.
The work shows how Ammons consistently addressed philosophical questions by exploring humanity’s connection to nature. “No use to linger over beauty or simple effect:” he notes in the expansive poem “Garbage,” “this is just a poem with a job to do: and that/ is to declare: however roundabout, sideways,/ or meanderingly (or in those ways) the perfect/ scientific and materialistic notion of the/ spindle of energy.” As Vendler wisely points out in her introduction, “Ammons’s poems, first to last, are . . . a master inventory of the vicissitudes of human life, worked by genius into memorable shapes.”
Poetry meets activism in Bullets Into Bells (Beacon Press), a timely, vital book that addresses gun violence in the United States. In these pages, poems by many of our best-known poets — Billy Collins, Natasha Tretheway, Rita Dove and Juan Felipe Herrera — are paired with prose reflections from gun-control advocates and community and family members affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack five years ago and other shootings. Edited by three poets — Brian Clements, whose wife survived Sandy Hook, and Alexandra Teague and Dean Rader — the book powerfully underscores the devastation guns can cause. “We must end this long winter and break the current cycle of history,” writes Nicole Hockley, whose son was killed at Sandy Hook, in response to Collins’s bracing poem “Boy Shooting at Statue.”
In it the speaker sees a child “pull an imaginary trigger/imitating the sounds of rapid gunfire./ . . . shooting blindly into the air.”
Writer after writer asks, Why aren’t we doing more to prevent gun violence? Poetry has to “stand up and shout. . . . It must kick down the doors and open the windows,” asserts novelist Colum McCann in his stirring introduction.
Together, the voices in “Bullets Into Bells” do exactly that.
Fans of Galway Kinnell won’t want to miss his Collected Poems (Houghton Mifflin), which reminds readers, three years after his death, why he is still one of our most beloved, essential poets.
Kinnell, whose honors include the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, imbued his poems with resonant images and a breathtaking combination of compassion, fragility and strength.
Whether he was writing in forms or in free verse, his deep awareness of life’s fleeting nature informed how he lived.
All of his best pieces are here, including “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” “Saint Francis and the Sow” and “Blackberry Eating” — from the book “Mortal Acts, Mortal Words” (1980) — along with several new poems, a biographical afterword and a wonderful introduction by poet and critic Edward Hirsch. Kinnell, Hirsch notes, was “socially engaged and identified strongly with people in trouble” and “relied on personal experience to try to transcend the self.” Notwithstanding his constant awareness of mortality, Kinnell crafted poems that feel almost mystical and provide readers with heart-rending solace, as with these lines from the poem “Cemetery Angels”: “our dead, who will/ erupt into flower as soon/ as memory and human shape/ rot out of them, each bent/ forward and with wings/ partly opened as though/ warming itself at a fire.”
Elizabeth Lund writes about poetry every month for The Washington Post.