Next to Nothing

by A. R. Ammons


Original Language English

Surely, choice in life isn't just a one-sided manufacture of mental boxes
to set out fluorescent along preferred directions nor mental blocks

to heighten retaining walls against rivers of self-insistence: surely,
there is interplay: just because a rein will sway the horse one way rather

than another doesn't mean you can get there without the horse, with just
a rein: surely, there is a shifting dynamics between artifice, as imposed

choice, and emergence, as that which finds its way: choice includes choosing
to be chosen by life, that is, choosing to be willing to be led out, like

a horse, into whatever options may perchance arise: but, naturally,
you don't want a horse just standing there steaming with incipience unable

to devote himself to rolling in the sand, say, or taking off at a gallop down
the freeway: you can't let a horse get up every morning and decide to do

something different: choice does not predominantly mean multiple choice, it
tends to mean narrowing imposition, settling for one thing and sticking to

it: adolescence is just a boiling off of puzzlings, polymorphous
possibilities, in order to cool down into a thing or two, mostly on top or

mostly on bottom with an occasional visit otherwise: let's say that after
adolescence you start to have sense, you start to make sense, and you start

making right on the top of the brain where the day to day mishmash of
decision-making chooses its ground, and then a kind of surface crystallization

-- from Brink Road: Poems, by A. R. Ammons

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

What an interesting mediation on choice, possibility, and steadiness. I really liked this poem a lot. Thank you for introducing me to it.

just so
The phrase itself can mean "simply to be able to" or "for no other reason than to." So that line can also be rendered as, "Would you want to storm an ocean / free for no other reason than to take a little cruise."

be choosy: live for others
I think Ammons is summing up the entire poem in a short, ironic statement. Most people assume that to be choosy is to choose from multiple options in order to satisfy your own personal desires, but he is saying that real choice is expressed through steadiness, without constant variation, and not to satisfy individual whim but to fulfill the needs of others and the world around us. The way it relates to the image of the ship in the ocean is that you wouldn't want to clear out the entire ocean only for your own desire for a private cruise...

you may even... boulder-like / steadiness
Just prior to this section he has described how our choices become regularized as we mature into adulthood, more limited perhaps, but sturdier and dependable, like fixed piers. So a "many-decked sealiner" would be some aspect of ourself that can maneuver between choices. But he then suggests that sometimes in life the waters freeze, which would imply that we can no longer move between choices. That seems like an image of being stuck in life, but in Ammons's language, that's not exactly true. That fixed person watches life move around him, presumably without making choices, yet he still "comes and goes through the world with a boulder-like / steadiness" -- which sounds more like a sign of strength and supreme maturity. It's as if he is giving us an image of someone who is still active in the world, but who no longer feels the need to make choices. This reminds me of the idea of the sage who acts with an unstoppable steadiness, but without ego or self-will.



Recommended Books: A. R. Ammons

Collected Poems: 1951 - 1971 Brink Road: Poems Selected Poems A Coast of Trees: Poems by A R Ammons Uplands: New Poems by A R Ammons
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Next to Nothing