Ammons and regulation (longer read)

The proposition I write to support is: “When having less knowledge is key to knowing more.” I want to demonstrate how tomorrow we might get all manner of official regulations right—when today we rethink “regulation” as a category of knowledge. In arguing so, I appeal to the poetry of A.R. Ammons.

Ammons, a great American poet of the last half of the 20th century, was tenacious in returning again and again to a set of topics he felt he hadn’t gotten quite right. One of the subjects was how knowing less entails “knowing” more. It’s his analytic sensibility in persistent revisiting a topic from tangents affording different insight and nuance that I rely on as an optic to parse my own topic of government regulation.

Policy types typically fasten to knowledge as a Good Thing in the sense that, on net, more information is better in a world where information is power. Over an array of accounts—and his tenacity meant he wrote a great deal—Ammons insists that the less information I have, the better off I am—not all the time, but when so, then importantly so. (To be clear, he is not talking about “ignorance is bliss.”)

For those working in policy and management—and I include myself—how could “the less we know, the more we gain” be the case and what would that mean when it comes to the heavy machinery called official regulation? Is there something here about the value of foregrounding inexperience—having less “knowledge”—as a way of adding purchase to rethinking difficult issues, in this case, regulation?


Start by dispensing with popular meanings of “the less I know, the more I know.” It is easily reversed to “the more I know, the less I really know.” This is the conventional wisdom that “data and information” are not knowledge—in fact the opposite. I also do not pursue another sense of “the less I know, the more I know” that Ammons foregrounds from time to time: the hiving off what we thought we knew creates the stuff from which new knowledge is formed. It is my failing—not Ammons’s—that I cannot see how “from-ruins-and-waste-come-something-altogether-better” applies to the 70,000+ paged IRS code and other volumes of government regulations.

My focus instead is on a very difficult set of insights in some of his poems. Let’s jump into the hard part—Ammons’s poem, “Offset,” in its entirety:

Losing information he
rose gaining
till at total
loss gain was
extreme & invisible:
the eye
seeing nothing
lost its
(that is a mere motion)
fanned out
into failing swirls
slowed &
became continuum.
(TCP1, 418)

Please reread the poem once more.

Part of what Ammons seems to be saying is that by losing information—the bits and pieces that make up “you”—you gain by becoming whole and continuous. As it were, “loss gain” becomes one term. You cease to be separate, your bits and pieces slow down, fan out, spread into a vital one. We empty our minds so as to attend to what matters—emptying the eye to have the I. An obvious example others have noted: If obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and restraining inhibitions are, in their own ways, altogether absorbing forms of self-knowledge, then this is knowledge we need not to know in order to have more to know better.

How, though, is this different from ignorance is bliss or, less pejoratively, seeking to know only what you need to know? Part of Ammons’s answer appears to be getting to the point where you know enough to be naïve again, to be open to the wonder of it all, to give yourself up to the kind of attention that is, if you will, self-reabsorbing. To telegraph ahead, naïveté does not center around knowing and not-knowing for Ammons: There’s feeling and living, wishing and dreaming, desire and more, and such are different kinds of “knowing,” as if thinking feels and feeling thinks.

Naïveté here is the adult version of child-like, decidedly not the childish that gutters out early on. It is positive, because adult wonder and curiosity are the space for noticing and being alert to more—an orientation that gains from the loss of information. Compare this, however, to what is expected of government regulators: Whatever happens, they must not be uninformed or naïve—in a word, inexperienced—and when they are, shame on them.

The ways in which this wonder and inexperience do matter for regulation means keeping with Ammons longer. For him, staying uninformed and open to new experiences is the hard work of affirming study,

….my empty-headed

contemplation is still where the ideas of permanence
and transience fuse in a single body, ice, for example,
or a leaf: green pushes white up the slope: a maple
leaf gets the wobbles in a light wind and comes loose

half-ready: where what has always happened and what
has never happened before seem for an instant reconciled:
that takes up most of my time and keeps me uninformed:
(TCP1, 497-498)

Being empty-headed is part of knowing enough: having to know less so as to be ready for whatever the next experience you proved to have been half-ready for in hindsight. It’s as if Ammons is asking us to be smart enough to see it’s more than about a knowing doubt and a knowing certainty.

Living is the space for feeling, which is where “knowing,” writ large belongs: “how can I know I/am not/trying to know my way into feeling/as//feeling/tries to feel its way into knowing,” he asks in “Pray Without Ceasing” (TCP1, 779). This notion of a half-readiness open to new experience and the wonder awaiting is nicely caught in the ending lines of one of my favorites, “Cascadilla Falls”:

I do
not know where I am going
that I can live my life
by this single creek.
(TCP1, 426)

By the time you surge to those lines, there is so much feeling in that “Oh” you might miss how living takes place beyond not-knowing.” Or better, the line break of “do/not know” intimates that the doing of “not know” is a good part of living that life.


Regulation from this viewpoint is never a case of regulators starting with knowledge and assuming what matters for living resides elsewhere. Regulation isn’t about expunging naïveté as inexperience but—in ways not yet clear—cultivating it. What is clear is the starting point, however: Wonder is not dread; naïveté is not ignorance; and no-longer-knowing is not not-knowing, full-stop.

In this way, Ammons makes a frontal attack on what policy types hold very dear: the notion of usefulness. In his essay, “A poem is a walk,” Ammons defers to a paradox: “Only uselessness is empty enough for the presence of so many uses”. Only uselessness is a sufficiently capacious category to embrace all the uses that come and go with experience and ensuring space for more feeling and living.

What could better capture all the many uses as they shift to the wayside than uselessness, “an emptiness/that is plenitude” (TCP1, 503)? Less and less information, against this backdrop, empties us and thereby makes us—leaves us open—differently. It is, in Ammons’s wonderful turn of phrase, to be “emptied full” (TCP2, 4). To seek more and more knowledge and information and never waste what has already been gotten leads to in Ammons’s acid throwaway, “total comprehension is/a wipe-out” (TCP1, 659). It’s a wipe-out because this totality leaves no room for more. 

Where, then, does this leave us when it comes to “knowing” regulation better?


In answer, I ended up going back to Ammons’s “The Eternal City”—“After the explosion or cataclysm, that big/display that does its work but then fails/out with destructions, one is left with the//pieces. . .” (TCP1, 596)—lines that resonate with what I had read in one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters. He is writing about the sculpture studio of Auguste Rodin:

It is indescribable. Acres of fragments lie there, one beside the other. Nudes the size of my hand and no bigger, but only bits, scarcely one of them whole: often only a piece of arm, a piece of leg just as they go together, and the portion of the body which belongs to them. Here the torso of one figure with the head of another stuck onto it, with the arm of a third. . .as though an unspeakable storm, an unparalleled cataclysm had passed over this work. And yet the closer you look the deeper you feel that it would all be less complete if the separate bodies were complete. Each of these fragments is of such a peculiarly striking unit, so possible by itself, so little in need of completion, that you forget that they are only parts and often parts of different bodies which cling so passionately to one another.

I read the passage—at least one other translation captures the same sense—as suggesting that Rodin’s “cataclysm” incorporated fragments that were, in a sense that matters for our purpose, more complete as separate fragments. So too Ammons’s “cataclysm” in “The Eternal City” refers to pieces that are themselves whole—asynoptic, unassimilable, piece after piece. Another of Ammons’s lines, “all the way to a finished Fragment,” catches the sense I am after here (TCP1, 366).

By extension, we’d have to believe that official regulations ad seriatem, while appearing a growing shambles, are in fact more complete as the piece-work of individual regulations than they would be were they improvised into something new or part of, in policy-speak, a more integrated body of regulations for use over time.

How could this be?


One way ahead, Ammons implies, is to see how the waste of regulation isn’t decline-and-fall, but rather the rearguard action against such declension narratives: an argument for creating room for us to recast decline. Ammons directs our attention, for example, to waste-as-generosity in “The City Limits,”

. . . .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. . .
(TCP1, 498)

The “heart moves roomier” not because the pile is any less shite, but because it opens to being more—certainly more than that mortal coil of Hamlet. This is the hot mess of feeling and living expansively, of being somatically sprawled all over the place, now. Regulatory waste in this mode is a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it sight/site to behold, maverick and inciting at the same time.

The hot mess that you can’t keep your eyes—our inner and physical I’s—off and the incitements it offers take us to Ammons’s late, long poem, Garbage (TCP2, 220-306). (Famously, Garbage, for which Ammons won the 1993 National Book Award for Poetry, was inspired by his passing an immense heap of garbage alongside the Florida Interstate.) Mountains and mountains of garbage are “monstrous”; in fact

… a monstrous surrounding of
gathering—the putrid, the castoff, the used,

the mucked up—all arriving for final assessment,
for the toting up in tonnage, the separations

of wet and dry, returnable, and gone for good:
(TCP2, 234)

For Ammons “gone for good” is decidedly ambiguous, in the sense of begging the question about just to what good has garbage gone for. An answer—and Ammons resists being pinned down to any one answer—lies in the garbage that human beings themselves are:

we’re trash, plenty wondrous: should I want

to say in what the wonder consists: it is a tiny
wriggle of light in the mind that says, “go on”:
(TCP2, 245)

Nothing integrated about this! For: “Go on” to what in a world where garbage and waste conjure a meaninglessness of things and of our own existence, as we too are trash? In the case of Ammons, the garbage we are and the meaninglessness that poses, like capacious uselessness, offer up the wonder of being more—of meaning possibly—once we leave space for such feelings and experience:

we should be pretty happy with the possibilities

and limits we can play through emergences free
of complexes of the Big Meaning, but is there

really any meaninglessness, isn’t meaninglessness
a funny category, meaninglessness missing

meaning, vacancy still empty, not any sort of
disordering, or miscasting or fraudulence of

irrealities’s shows, just a place not meaning
…there is truly only meaning,
only meaning, meanings, so many meanings,

meaninglessness becomes what to make of so many
(TCP2, 277)

That word, “becomes”—that insistence on meaning-less possibility as a “funny category”—is, we see by way of conclusion, core to having room to recast regulation.


Richard Howard, himself no mean commentator on Ammons’s poetry, points the way: “How often we need to be assured of what we know in the old ways of knowing—how seldom we can afford to venture beyond the pale into that chromatic fantasy where, as Rilke said (in 1908), ‘begins the revision of categories, where something past comes again, as though out of the future; something formerly accomplished as something to be completed’”.

The importance of this revising categories of thinking and living is captured in an interchange Ammons had with Zofia Burr. When pressed by Burr, he summed up: “I’m always feeling, whatever I’m saying, that I don’t really believe it, and that maybe in the next sentence I’ll get it right, but I never do”.

Imagine policymakers and regulators, when pressed, recognizing that not getting it right today places them at the start of tomorrow’s policymaking—not its end but its revision as “policymaking” and “regulation.” For that to happen, they’d have to understand just how funny-odd a category regulation is.

Ammons, if I understand him, is insisting that in the compulsion and not just desire to “get it right the next time around,” there at least be a next time (room) to make it—this revision of categories—better. Ensuring (risking) there is a next time is the way we keep open to—empty for—the feeling and living and participating that, in the process, push conventional notions of regulation to the periphery, changing their milieux, rendering regulation less and less meaningful and thus returning it as a concept and instrument to us re-freshed and re-wondered about; in short: recasted.

Again, how so? Let’s jump into Ammons’s deep-end one last time:

Yield to the tantalizing mechanism:
fall, trusting and centered as a
drive, falling into the poem:
line by line pile entailments on,
arrive willfully in the deepest

fix: then, the thing is done, turn
round in the mazy terror and
question, outsmart the mechanism:
find the glide over-reaching or
dismissing—halter it into

a going concern so the wing
muscles at the neck’s base work
urgency’s compression and
openness breaks out lofting
you beyond all binds and terminals.
(TCP1, 535)

(You may want to re-read the poem one more time. I return to that “deepest//fix” momentarily.)

Ammons commented on this poem, “The Swan Ritual”: “The invention of a poem frequently is how to find a way to resolve the complications that you’ve gotten yourself into. I have a little poem about this that says that the poem begins as life does, takes on complications as novels do, and at some point, stops. Something has to be invented before you can work your way out of it, and that’s what happens at the very center of a poem”.

Ammons touches on the major implication extended here: If rendering any regulation useless takes us closer to reinventing what “regulation” is, so too reinventing “regulation” can render an existing regulation useless. Regulating to reduce risk and inequality or improve economic growth and statecraft is that way we rethink these ends so to make those other means or ends no longer useful.

To rethink (revise, redescribe, rescript, recast, refashion, recalibrate) the categories of knowing and not-knowing is to resituate—make room for—the cognitive limits of “knowing” that matter. The eye is no longer fixed on where it had settled before, but with a new focal point in sight (this being today’s version of our wager on redemption). That, truly, is the fix we want to be in, “the deepest//fix.” It is where wonder renders dread incomplete, where knowledge is unlearned, where knowledgeable gives way to refreshened inexperience, and, in Ammons’s earlier astonishing lines, “where what has always happened and what/has never happened before seem for an instant reconciled”.

Principal sources:

Ammons, A.R. (1996). Set In Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues. Ed. Zofia Burr, The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

—————— (2017). The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, Volume 1 1955 – 1977 and Volume 2 1978 – 2005. Edited by Robert M. West with an Introduction by Helen Vendler. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, NY. [The volumes are referred to in the blog entry as TCP1 and TCP2, respectively.]

Howard, R. (1980). Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. Atheneum: New York, NY. Rilke, R.M. (1988). Selected Letters 1902-1926. Transl. R.F.C. Hull, Quartet Encounters, Quartet Books: London.

Rilke, R.M. (1988). Selected Letters 1902-1926. Transl. R.F.C. Hull, Quartet Encounters, Quartet Books: London.

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