The poet A. R. Ammons never fit comfortably into any of the well-defined groups and movements of post-1945 American poetry — he wasn’t part of the Beat movement, or Confessional poetry, or the Deep Image movement, or any other group. Nevertheless, he does have deep affinities with various strains of the broad postwar avant-garde tendency known as the “New American Poetry,” especially with the New York School and the Black Mountain poets. However, as I argued in my recent book Attention Equals Life, the tendency to view Ammons as either completely sui generis or as a neo-Romantic “nature poet” or practitioner of ecopoetics, has tended to obscure those links and similarities.
Late in life, in the 1993 poem “Ping Jockeys,” Ammons playfully declared his connection to the New York School of poets, based (in part) on a surprising coincidence he had just discovered. Reading an interview with James Schuyler, he learned that he and two of the central figures of the New York School, Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, shared an unlikely formative experience: during World War II, all three were trained in Key West to be sonar operators (or “ping jockeys,” in military slang) in the U. S. Navy. Upon learning this odd detail, Ammons writes “Gosh! Imagine! How did it happen? I am / virtually a New York School poet (maybe not // virtually a poet!).” “I have affinities,” he goes on, “old solid / ineradicable affinities” with Schuyler and O’Hara.
What are the odds that three different young men who went to the same sonar school to be radio operators in the Navy during WWII all went on to become major American poets?
Maybe it’s not a total coincidence. O’Hara’s superiors seemed to think he would be well-suited for the job of “radioman” because of his ear and his facility with music: “with my years of musical training I would have good pitch and be able to operate a machine which sends out sound waves and can determine what objects are around it by the pitch of the surrounding sound.” He thought it might prove useful for his own aesthetic development too: “The training should improve my pitch and teach me about the physics of sound and therefore music,” he wrote to his parents rather optimistically. Unfortunately, as Brad Gooch puts it in his biography of O’Hara, “sonar school was less like the New England Conservatory than he had hoped.”
Ammons too, though, suggests that perhaps there was something related to a future life in poetry in this unusual job: speaking of O’Hara, Schuyler, and himself, he writes “we were younglings / with special gifts of sound, striking sonarmen // discriminating pitch, doing theory, and learning how / to lay down depth-charge patterns on enemy hulks.”
So there you have it — proof of the existence of a little-known “Ping Jockey School of Poetry.” The poem also provides us with another sign that Ammons shares not just a surprising bit of personal history but also “old solid, / ineradicable affinities” with O’Hara, Schuyler, and John Ashbery (with whom he shared a deep mutual admiration), along with the rest of the New York School of poets.
Here’s Ammons’s poem in full:
Gosh! Imagine! How did it happen? I am
virtually a New York School poet (maybe not
virtually a poet!): I have affinities, old solid
ineradicable affinities: I just read Schuyler’s
interview and learned 48 years later that I was
there in Key West (in the Navy, I mean) just about
when Schuyler and O’Hara (both) were, and we
sailed at dawn every day out on the trainer boats
catching on to sub chasing; we were younglings
with special gifts of sound, striking sonarmen
discriminating pitch, doing theory, and learning how
to lay down depth-charge patterns on enemy hulks
(where was John, anyhow): oh, the Navy, the
sweet Navy, sound pinging out through the waters
of the Caribbean, later the Pacific, thrilling
the submarines deep down hustling to get away
or pop us off point-bank with a slim torpedo!
(Note: this poem was published in the Princeton University Library Chronicle in 1994, but remained uncollected until the recent publication of Ammons’s Complete Poems in 2017).