Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The City Limits

I closed my "Reading Poetry" course this quarter with A. R. Ammons' poem "The City Limits," asking my students to give it a "cold close reading." If you don't know the poem, here it is:

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

We started, as I always ask, by dividing the poem into sections: in this case, seven of them, marked by the semi-colons, by the turn from "When..." to "then" in the middle of the penultimate stanza, and then finally the "and" clause that closes the poem. We read it, that is to say, as a three-part core sentence with elaborations: "When you consider the radiance...then the heart moves...and fear...turns to praise."

That's such a simple move (for me), and was so hard, still, for some of my students! Why so hard? I just don't know.

In any case, two things struck me after our discussion.

First, thanks to my two or three visibly Muslim students, I was reminded of just how powerfully Christian the vocabulary of this poem is, even though the poem itself isn't a Christian text. Words like "consider" (as in, "consider the lilies of the field") and "testimony," and a phrase like "make no awful noise" (which rewrites "make a joyful noise"): it's hard to appreciate this poem if you don't hear their scriptural & religious echoes, I think.

Second, this morning I went online to find a version of the poem to cut & past for you, and I hit a half-dozen offers to buy electronic notes to the poem: potted readings, "study guides," and the like. The few I browsed--just the free stuff, the teasers, of course--were pretty dreary stuff. You can consider one of them here , if you have the stomach for such things. Does this poem really get taught as an "environmental" text? I guess if you ignore the part about "the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart" you can pull that off, but do we really want to? Would a good follow-up exercise to this poem really entail making an audio collage of statements from local environmental activists? (I kid you not, Dear Reader!)

Anyone out there know the Emerson passage this poem glosses? I don't recall where it is, offhand--maybe in "Nature"?


1 comment:

Emily Lloyd said...

Eric (unrelated to your post, I'm afraid), I seek your help. I'm editing an anthology to be used in high school and college classrooms and have recently received permission to accept "donations" (that is, the press can't pay for the poems) by contemporary poets (most of the poems in the book are public-domain). The book is arranged thematically, and one of the categories is Religion. So far I've got tons of Christianity, one agnostic, one pagan. Are you interested--or do you know anyone else writing poems about faith (or lack thereof) from a Jewish perspective? Please see the blog post for more details. My deadline for turning the anthology in is next Monday, so I'd need to see work as soon as possible. Thanks and sorry to contact you here--I didn't have an email address for you.