In ‘Corsons Inlet, ‘ A.R. Ammons describes a walk down the beach along the Corsons Inlet of the title. The speaker, who can be identified as A.R. Ammons, meditates on nature as he observes the flora and fauna that surround him. He also thinks about the character of poetry, in particular, his own poetry. In being a poem about poetry, ‘Corsons Inlet’ is an example of an ars poetica poem. Ars Poetica poems reflect on the character of poetic meaning.
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In ‘Corsons Inlet‘ the speaker sees no set, rigid structures in the natural world. There is nothing definite and absolute.
Gradations and curves, rather than sharp lines, dominate nature. These themes are reiterated throughout the poem as the speaker proceeds on his walk. While ‘Corsons Inlet‘ is a poem rather than a philosophical statement, it could be argued that the speaker evinces a totally relativistic stance to reality that, at the least, implies that genuine truth can never be found.
However, in fact, the speaker believes there is “not chaos” in the world. This is a key message that is put forth several times in the poem, including in the closing lines. The speaker says that “there is no finality of vision.” He has “perceived nothing completely.” But, to say there is no finality of vision does not mean there has been no vision at all. An absolute statement of the fullness of experience may be impossible, but a lesser, limited, conditional vision of nature is definitely available. It is this characterization which establishes the speaker of ‘Corsons Inlet‘ is not a nihilist or radical relativist. He rejects extremes of any kind.
Instead, the speaker is one who embraces the complex, variegated quality of nature. Doing so, the speaker finds, is ultimately freeing. Through the dense, rich poem that is ‘Corsons Inlet,’ A.R. Ammons puts forth a sophisticated, subtle, nuanced take on the character of truth, poetic meaning, nature, and reality.
Structure and Form
A.R. Ammons does not use the traditional forms of English language poetry in ‘Corsons Inlet.‘ Ammons follows the free verse form of poetry that became common in the 20th century. There is no regular use of rhyme. No particular metrical scheme is followed. Lines and stanzas vary in length.
The form employed in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ suits well the subject matter and themes of the poem. For the speaker, no rigid, set form can be found in the natural world he observes while walking along Corsons Inlet. Nature does not adhere to regulated forms.
The lines and the stanzas in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ are shaped so that on the page, the poem undulates from left to right, imitating waves as they roll in the ocean. The form of the poem suggests natural things rather than artificial, man-made objects. As the speaker notes, “In nature, there are few sharp lines.” Ammons structured ‘Corsons Inlet’ so that the poem would imitate that lack of sharp lines. This is especially appropriate since poetry and poetic meaning are one of the concerns in ‘Corsons Inlet.’
Punctuation use is minimized in ‘Corsons Inlet.‘ As the critic Helen Vendler points out in this essay on the poet, Ammons’ practice of preferring the colon over the period in his poetry is significant. That especially applies in ‘Corsons Inlet.‘ Rather than the permanent, end-stopped, sentence-ending quality of a period, Ammons prefers the colon; the colon is a choice for ideas continuing to unfold, with no definite summing up.
A good encapsulation of Ammons’ attitude to punctuation is found in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ when the speaker says he is willing to “stake off no beginning or ends.” By minimizing his use of periods, Ammons does indeed avoid both beginnings and endings. There is a mere single period in ‘Corsons Inlet,’ arriving at the end of the final line of the poem. Again, just as “in nature there are few sharp lines,” so it is in Ammons’ poetry.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike objects. Unlike with a metaphor, the comparison is made explicit by the use of the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’ In ‘Corsons Inlet,’ A.R. Ammons uses simile when he says he yields “to a direction of significance/ running/ like a stream through the geography of my work.” A few lines later, Ammons uses another similar to characterize his poetry: “swerves of action/ like the inlet’s cutting edge.”
Directly after these lines, Ammons uses the literary device closely related to simile: metaphor. In a metaphor, the explicit comparison of a simile is replaced by the identification together of two unlike things. Although it is obviously not literally true, Ammons says that in his mind, “there are dunes of motion,/ organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance.”
Taken together, these two similes and one metaphor are important for establishing one of the important themes of the poem. A major concern in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ for A.R. Ammons is relating the similarity between nature and his poetic efforts. In both, absolute visions of truth are not possible. In Ammons’ mind, there is complexity and variegated nuance, as in the natural world of Corsons Inlet he sees around him.
Paradox is another important literary device in ‘Corsons Inlet.’ The use of paradox is important for understanding the meaning of the work. Perhaps the best example of a paradox is in the line “the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness.” Rulelessness as a whole serving itself, as a rule, is a direct paradox. The use of paradox is in keeping with the overall sense of the poem. The speaker does not see simple absolutes when he looks at nature but rather cross-currents, variations, subtleties, and gradations. A paradox rejects simple, logical statements for a more complex means of revealing reality.
I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning
In these opening lines of the poem, Ammons introduces the subject matter of his poem. The speaker takes a walk along the dunes next to the sea, as he has done before. When he returns, he walks along the Corsons Inlet of the title. Corsons Inlet lies along the shoreline in southern New Jersey. Ammons set the scene for his poem by describing the weather conditions of the day: humid and overcast.
These relatively simple opening sections of ‘Corsons Inlet‘ serve to establish the contemplative tone of the poem. The speaker walks alone with only nature as his companion. The fact that he is walking “over the dunes again” will become significant in view of what Ammons does in the rest of the poem. The speaker has taken the same walk before and will do so again — yet each time, the experience is different. For the speaker, variability and change are the only constants.
the walk liberating, I was released from forms,
In this section, the reader begins to learn what the walk down Corsons Inlet was like for the speaker. He found the walk free because of the release from the hard, perpendicular lines of man-made structures such as city blocks. The nature he now experiences, by contrast, is characterized by soft, gradual swelling. Things flow into one another without harsh lines. Colors shade into each other.
This section introduces what is a significant theme in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ – the relation between nature and man-made things, such as towns. The natural world versus civilization is a focus of the speaker in ‘Corsons Inlet.’ The line “of thought” is important because it establishes that the poem is ultimately as focused on the speaker’s internal mental state as on the natural scene before him. The poem is about the impression that Corsons Inlet makes on his mind, more so than any objective reality of the place. In fact, the speaker does not believe it’s possible to find any fully objective reality of Corsons Inlet.
I allow myself eddies of meaning:
beyond the account:
In this section, the speaker begins to compare the nature of Corsons Inlet to his poetry. He characterizes his poetry as being similar to the aspects of the natural world he observes. His poetry has soft, swerving edges like that of the inlet; the geography of his work allows a stream to run through it. However, “the Overall” is beyond his comprehension. He cannot sum up the things he portrays in his poetry into one overarching vision.
While sometimes poets will write in the voice of a speaker who should not be identified with the poet themselves, that is not the case with A.R. Ammons in ‘Corsons Inlet.’ It can be safely assumed the poem is basically autobiographical. The speaker’s characterization of his poetry is accurate to the actual poetry Ammons produced.
This section introduces what is best understood as the primary theme of the poem. Namely, that in nature, there is no final, absolute truth accessible. This is what the speaker means when he refers to “the Overall.” While smaller, less generalizable verities can be grasped, any kind of grander encapsulation of reality is not possible for the speaker.
in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
so I am willing to go along, to accept
than mental lines can keep:
The speaker characterizes the nature he sees along Corsons Inlet, as well as continuing to compare what he sees to his thinking. In nature, the speaker believes, “there are few sharp lines.” While there is primrose and other plants, they are dispersed. Nature is “disorderly” and “irregular.” The speaker issues caveats on top of caveats: not only are the “swamps of reeds” irregular, but the swamp is “not reeds alone.”
The speaker is alike the nature he observes, having reached no conclusions. He has not put up boundaries or drawn lines between one thing and another. Like the passage of time from one day to another, which changes the shape of a dune, he is willing “to accept the becoming thought.” He will make neither beginnings nor ends.
While the speaker observes changes from one kind of land to another, there are still no lines on the display. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, the transition from one kind of land to another is still clear. What could have been sharp lines is instead spread out too widely for the mind to establish lines.
In these stanzas, the poet’s statement, “there are few sharp lines,” is one of the most important phrases in the entire poem. It communicates the speaker’s understanding of nature. He believes that there are no clear divisions in nature — no definite, absolute expressions of truth.
But it is crucial that the speaker says there are few, rather than no, sharp lines. A poem about emptiness and meaningless nature might have opted for the full negation of saying there are no sharp lines. Ammons takes a different tack. While nature may be “disorderly” and “irregular,” it is not chaos. It does not completely lack meaning. In fact, the poem itself, as a whole, proves the point that nature has meaning. The speaker is seeking the meaning — the reality — of what he sees throughout ‘Corsons Inlet,’ even as he simultaneously avers that no absolute summary of what he sees is possible.
the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:
black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk
see against the black mudflats—a frightened
The speaker observes mussels that have been exposed to sun and air by the low tide of the day. The waterline is always in the midst of change, never exactly in one location. The speaker watches two gulls. One eats until it vomits. The other cracks open a crab and eat part of it. The leftovers are eaten by a turnstone (a species of bird). The speaker thinks of how the world is marked by risk. All living things are under siege; nature demands them to preserve their lives. The speaker observes an egret stabbing a creature; he is not sure what the creature is but thinks it might be a fiddler crab.
These two stanzas stand at the center of the poem. In them, a new tone is introduced to the poem. The speaker observes ugliness and violence in nature. Significantly, these are nearly the only stanzas of the poem in which living creatures are mentioned. (There will be another minor mention, similar in character, a few stanzas later.) When the speaker moves from observing inanimate nature, he starts to see darker, more malevolent things. It is seemingly the living creatures of the natural world that give nature a dark aspect.
However, the speaker characterizes these ugly, gross, violent actions as being part of the natural desire for life — “the demand is life, to keep life.” The creatures are not to blame for what they do. Significantly, the speaker describes the egret as beautiful, even as it “stalks and spears” another “frightened” creature. Violence in nature is apparently a fact of life to the speaker. It is a necessary part of existence.
the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
the “field” of action
with moving, incalculable center:
In this stanza, which is the longest in the poem, the speaker looks to his left and sees signs of the coming of fall. He observes tree swallows preparing to fly South for the winter. In this, the speaker sees constant change and entropy but not chaos. He watches the birds fly, perceiving the effects of winds as the birds seemingly curve through the air. This makes him meditate on the paradoxical idea that a rule could be the “sum of rulelessness.”
The phrase “rich with entropy” in this section is crucial. Entropy is a scientific concept for the tendency for systems to move from order to randomness and disorder. As the speaker walks down Corsons Inlet, it is entropy that he sees in nature. However, importantly, he does not see mere chaos. This is a key message of the poem. Entropy may hold sway, but it is not the radical entropy of total chaos.
In ‘Corsons Inlet, ‘ Ammons is always balancing disorder and order against each other, neither arguing that the world is total chaos nor that a simple, rigid rule, order, or framework could explain nature. Despite the “entropy” and “constant change” he sees, he also sees the tree swallows flying “as one event.” Ammons is trying to give an honest account of the complexity of nature. He rejects the easy answer available at either extreme. This devotion to nuance makes for a richer, deeper poem.
in the smaller view, order tight with shape:
could enter fall
berryless) and there is serenity:
Next, the speaker turns his attention to the small details he can observe around him, such as tiny flowers on a weed. These tiny things are like signs of order in something as small as the bellies of minnows. While these small signs of order can combine to make up large orders, the speaker still rejects the idea that there are “changeless shapes,” thereby avoiding making a “form of formlessness.” Actions such as the speaker startling the swallows into flight could change events in a non-predictable way. This sense of contingency is a source of serenity.
Whether “in the smaller view” or on the scale of “larger orders,” the speaker continues to see a complex, subtle balance between, on the one hand, form and order and, on the other, formlessness and disorder. For the speaker, nature is a continuum. It is always in flux, without the possibility of “changeless shapes” existing.
The phrases “form” and “changeless shapes” in these stanzas can be taken as an indirect reference to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s thought. Plato posited the existence of unchanging ideas outside of space and time that were more real than the apparent reality we observe with our senses. These ideas were called forms. Clearly, the speaker in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ does not agree with the Platonic theory of reality.
no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
In the first of the three final stanzas of the poem, the speaker starts to characterize the serenity he has found. He rejects the “arranged terror” of forcing a set plan on nature, which would be akin to propaganda. This allows him to retain all possible routes of escape from the unarranged terror that does pervade nature.
While the speaker does see narrow, limited visions of nature that he could take as an easy victory, he rejects them. Instead, he will embrace the freedom found in the fact that there is no final vision of Corsons Inlet (and nature in general) available. This means that walking down Corsons Inlet again the next day will be a fundamentally new experience.
In these closing stanzas, the reader gets a fuller sense of the advantages the speaker sees in his way of understanding nature. For the speaker, imposing “narrow orders, limited tightness” on nature would be a sort of injustice. While it would represent an “easy victory,” it would be mere propaganda. If he were to force “image, plan, or thought” onto nature, he would be shutting himself down to possibilities. Instead, he stays free to take any escape route. Having “no finality of vision” is, in fact, freedom.
This sense of freedom is communicated in the final line of the poem. Taking another walk the next day will be a chance to experience something fundamentally new. The speaker is not bound by a rigid, unchanging, set formula for reality.
While the speaker will only enjoy a contingent, limited experience of reality, Ammons does not believe that is a bad thing. It is the better choice since to embrace the opposite option is to choose “propaganda” and the “humbling of reality to precept.” This latter phrase means that rules — precepts — cannot encompass the fullness of reality. Thus, as tempting as a final vision that tries to sum up all of reality might be, it has to be rejected because it would not tell the truth.
Ammons is putting forth in ‘Corsons Inlet‘ an understanding of nature and reality that is paradoxical. The paradox lies in that pursuing a final, full, absolutely truthful take on the world cannot lead to genuine truth. A more limited, complex, nuanced, and subtle approach is what Ammons argues for in ‘Corsons Inlet.’
A.R. Ammons was a poet and English professor who assumed a place as one of the preeminent American poets in the latter half of the 20th century. In 1973 his Collected Poems, which included ‘Corsons Inlet,’ won the National Book Award. Ammons’ poems are often about nature.
Yes, Corsons Inlet is a narrow straight in Southern New Jersey that A.R. Ammons liked to walk beside. There is an adjacent state park named Corson’s Inlet still there today.
The meaning is that Corsons Inlet (and nature as a whole) cannot be described in any simple, set way. No final conclusions or absolute visions of reality are possible. However, at the same time, nature is not merely disordered chaos either.
Yes. A.R. Ammons rejects the possibility that nature could be summed in any structured, ordered way in ‘Corsons Inlet.’ The poem is similarly loose in its structure. Ammons uses free verse, almost entirely avoids capitalization, and minimizes instances of punctuation in the poem.
- ‘Coward‘ – is another of Ammons’ most famous poems. It stands in great contrast to ‘Corsons Inlet,‘ being an exceptionally short, spare poem of just nine words.
- ‘The City Limits‘ – is a poem that, like ‘Corsons Inlet,’ has the relation of mankind and nature as a major theme.
- ‘Ars Poetica‘ by Horace – is the foundation poem for the ars poetica tradition, of which ‘Corsons Inlet‘ is an example. Horace was a major Latin poet who, in ‘Ars Poetica,’ explores the function of poetry.
- ‘The Beach‘ by Robert Graves – has a similar subject matter to ‘Corsons Inlet.’ Though both are 20th-century poems in style, themes, and message, ‘The Beach‘ is divergent from ‘Corsons Inlet.’