The German poet, playwright, and critic Friedrich Schiller thought there were two kinds of poets: “sentimental” and “naive” (and neither term, for Schiller, was an insult). Sentimental poets, he said, are self-conscious and retrospective; they “look for lost nature” in the people and things they write about. Their characteristic works, Schiller believed, sound carefully wrought, conclusive, even if written at high speed. Naive poets, on the other hand, seem to “be nature”—poetry seems to come out of them as wind from the sky, or leaves from the trees, as if it were their native speech. Naive poets often sound as if they never revise, even when we know they’ve worked hard on many drafts; their poetry seems to flow and does not want to end.
A.R. Ammons (1926-2001) was in Schiller’s sense the most “naive” of America’s very good poets. His poems, written over nearly 50 years, include almost every kind of speech-act a person can say, from shrugs to prophecies, and they sound spontaneous even when it’s clear they reflect decades of thought.
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