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A. R. Ammons' Life and Career


David Lehmann

AMMONS, A(rchie) R(andolph) (1926- ), was born and raised in rural North Carolina, the youngest of a tobacco farmer's three surviving children. Ammons started writing poetry on board a United States destroyer escort in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Upon his return to civilian life he majored in science at Wake Forest University and later did graduate work in English at the University of California, Berkeley. For a year he was principa1 of the tiny elementary school in the island village of Cape Hatteras. For the better part of a decade he worked as a sales executive in his father-in-law's biological glass company on the southern New Jersey shore.

Ammons published Ommateum, his first book, at his own expense in 1955; sixteen copies were sold in the next five years. In 1964, the year he joined the English faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, he published his second collection and rather rapidly went from total obscurity to wide acclaim. Collected Poems 1951-1971 (New York, 1972), which won the National Book Award in 1973, capped an astonishingly productive period. Other high honours attended the publication of Sphere (New York, 1974) and A Coast of Trees (New York, 1981). Despite a variety of physical maladies, Ammons remains a genial presence on the Cornell campus, where he continues as poet-in-residence. Ammons is a maverick talent, utterly distinctive in voice, marked by high poetic ambition yet capable of whimsy. A nature poet, with a highly developed scientific acumen that sets him off from his contemporaries, Ammons often seems intent on making the consciousness of the poet the secret or real subject of the poem. In many cases, meticulous observation of the natural world is put at the service of abstract investigations and themes, such as the question of the one and the many; Ammons is constantly on the search for a unifying principle among minute and divergent particulars. The much-anthologized 'Corsons Inlet' is characteristically peripatetic, chronicling the poet's thoughts as he walks along the shore, where he celebrates fluid forms and disdains artificial enclosures. The critic Harold Bloom has championed Ammons as a transcendentalist, 'the most direct Emersonian in American poetry since Frost'. Like *Frost, Ammons loves nature too deeply to sentimentalize it or flinch in the face of its cruelties. But he is warmer; where Frost is a poet of terror, Ammons would convert fear into praise. He aspires, as he writes in 'The City Limits', to a transcendent 'radiance' that illuminates equally a sublime landscape or the scene of a natural slaughter.

Among his long poems, Tape for the Turn of the Year (Ithaca. NY, 1965; New York, 1972) is a notable experiment in form. The poem's skinny lines are the result of Ammons's decision to type out the poem, without revision, on a long roll of adding-machine paper. The buoyant and discursive Sphere (1974), Ammons's masterpiece, displays his formal and prosodic originality. Consisting of 155 sections, each containing four three-line stanzas, Sphere enacts 'the form of a motion' (the book's subtitle). The colon is used as an all-purpose punctuation mark, with the effect that closure is continually postponed. The three-line stanzas resemble a species of terza libre—a rhymeless version of the stanza unit of Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind'. Ammons writes in the American idiom, has a 'democratic' bias in favour of lower-case letters, switches rapidly from high to low diction, and in one mood may remind his readers that 'magnificent' in North Carolina comes out 'maggie-went-a-fishing'. But his sly wit doesn't obscure the visionary nature of his poetry, the aim to affirm the magnificence of creation, however lowly in appearance, however dark in design.

Ammons's Selected Poems (1987) and Selected Longer Poems (1980—both New York) offer an excellent introduction to his work. See also The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons (New York, 1991 ), 'A. R Ammons: The Breaking of the Vessels' in Figures of Capable Imagination, by Harold Bloom (New York, 1976) and 'A. R. Ammons' in Alone With America, by Richard Howard (New York, 1980).

from The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford UP. Copyright Oxford UP.


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