Ammons, A. R.
A. R. Ammons 1926–
(Full name Archie Randolph Ammons) American poet.
A prolific writer, Ammons is widely considered among the most significant contemporary American poets. Sometimes referred to as an Emersonian Transcendentalist for his visionary view of the relationship between humankind and nature, Ammons is praised for his sensitive meditations on our capacity to comprehend the flux of the natural world. Furthermore, he frequently endows his verse with resonant images of detailed landscapes rendered in a conversational tone and flowing style similar to that of an interior monologue. Though features of traditional literary movements are evident in his work, Ammons's poetry is pervaded by a modern skepticism that stems from his refusal to attach universal significance to religious or artistic doctrines. Abstaining from offering any facile resolutions to the tensions in his verse, Ammons is concerned with broadening his readers' perceptions of their relationship to the world. Donald H. Reiman observed: "A. R. Ammons has engaged the fundamental metaphysical and psychological issues of twentieth-century man—concerns about the relationships of the individual with the Universe and with his own familial and social roots—and he has shown us a way to triumph without relying on dogmatisms or on mere palliatives."
Born in the rural community of Whiteville, North Carolina, Ammons was raised on a farm, where his appreciation for nature was fostered. A good student, he graduated near the top of his class in elementary school and high school. Upon completing high school in 1943, Ammons worked in the shipyards in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in 1944 joined the Navy for two years of service. He began writing poetry while in the Navy and, after World War II, enrolled at Wake Forest College, North Carolina, receiving a bachelor of science degree in 1949. For one year he was the principal of an elementary school in Hateras, North Carolina, then enrolled for a short while at the University of California, Berkeley. Ammons returned to the east coast, settling in south New Jersey, and there held several jobs, including that of a vice-president of a glass company. His poetry began to appear in magazines in 1953, and an inaugural collection, Ommateum with Doxology, was published in 1955. With the publication of a second volume, Expressions of Sea Level, nine years later, Ammons garnered widespread critical attention that established him as an important American poet. That same year, 1964, he began to teach in the English Department at Cornell University,
Ithaca, New York, where he continues to work as a professor. Ammons has received many honors during his career, including the 1973 National Book Award for Collected Poems: 1951-1971, the 1982 National Book Critics Circle Award for A Coast of Trees, and the 1993 National Book Award for Garbage.
Ommateum with Doxology—the title refers to the compound eye of an insect—conveys a broad range of expression. In his attempt to present a multifaceted view of humanity's relationship with the universe, Ammons vacillates between a scientific and a transcendental perspective. In the collection Expressions of Sea Level, his conception of the interdependence between humanity and nature becomes more complex as he begins to focus on the educative and restorative aspects of the universe. Often using images of sea and wind to represent nature's perpetual motion, Ammons suggests that man is only partially cognizant of external forces. In "Unsaid," one of his most acclaimed pieces, Ammons acknowledges the limitations of human expression and apprehension as he asks his readers, "Have you listened for the things I have left out?" In Corson's Inlet and Northfield Poems Ammons continues to examine the complex association between man and nature.
During the period in which he produced the above-mentioned collections of short lyric verse, Ammons also published two book-length poems, Tape for the Turn of the Year and Sphere: The Form of a Motion. Noted for its innovative structure, Tape for the Turn of the Year takes the form of a daily poetic journal and chronicles Ammons's thoughts on the mundanity of everyday life. In Sphere Ammons focuses on humanity's futile attempts to impose structure on the environment and to halt natural forces. While this work is arranged in 155 numbered sections of four tercets each, Ammons's minimal use of punctuation endows Sphere with a fluid style that conveys nature's inexorable motion. In the much later volume Garbage, Ammons returned to the long format of Tape for the Turn of the Year and Sphere, composing a poem that comprises what appears to be a single extended sentence, divided into eighteen sections, arranged in couplets. Starting with the image of a trash dump beside a Florida highway, the poem develops into a series of meditations about different kinds of waste, decay, and debris, but eventually makes the point that what we term garbage is part of the cycles of nature, evolution, and renewal. In other volumes, Ammons has tended toward a less discursive style. In such collections as A Coast of Trees, Worldly Hopes, Lake Effect Country, and Sumerian Vistas, he employs short-lined forms to create increasingly philosophical explorations of the natural world. A Coast of Trees presents a spiritually oriented view of nature and aligns Ammons's work more closely with the Romantics in its adherence to the primacy of human instinct and emotion. In Worldly Hopes and Lake Effect Country, Ammons fuses his empirical perceptions with hymn-like tributes to nature.
Commentators have been almost uniformly complimentary of Ammons's work. Most commend his ability to provoke thought about the complexity of human nature through reflection upon our attitudes toward and understanding of the environment. Because of his iconoclastic views and association of nature and humankind, Ammons is customarily acknowledged to be a literary descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Clearly critics perceive Ammons's poetry to be distinctly American, and other comparisons find him frequently linked to Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson. Though Ammons has received high praise for his Whitmanesque extended interior monologues, some reviewers object that his poems can be self-indulgent and wordy, problems exacerbated by the occasional impression of structural arbitrariness and by his preference for minimal punctuation. Tape for the Turn of the Year, for example, has been called gimmicky because it was composed on an adding machine tape, which artificially prescribed the shape of the poem. Nevertheless, Ammons's manipulation of language is also recognized as one of his strengths. Commentators remark on the rhythm and phrasing of his poetry, finding them imitative of spoken language, and judge his vocabulary to be engaging and stimulating.
Ommateum with Doxology 1955
Expressions of Sea Level 1963
Corson's Inlet 1965
Tape for the Turn of the Year 1965
Northfield Poems 1966
Selected Poems 1968
Briefings: Poems Small and Easy 1971
Collected Poems, 1951-1971 1972
Sphere: The Form of a Motion 1974
Diversifications: Poems 1975
For Doyle Fosso 1977
Highgate Road 1977
The Selected Poems: 1951-1977 1977
The Snow Poems 1977
Breaking Out 1978
Six-Piece Suite 1978
Selected Longer Poems 1980
Changing Things 1981
A Coast of Trees: Poems 1981
Worldly Hopes 1982
Lake Effect Country: Poems 1983
Sumerian Vistas: Poems, 1987 1987
The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons 1990
The North Carolina Poems 1994
Brink Road 1996
Other Major Works...
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SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle: Last Poems, Fragments, and Wholes," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 537-43.
[Lieberman is an American poet and critic whose verse combines the particular and the visionary in its celebration of the physical world. The long, flowing lines and eloquent language of his poems set them apart from the works of his contemporaries. Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review, 1964-1977 (1977) collects Lieberman's reviews of the works of many important contemporary poets. His most recent book, Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets, continues his exploration of modern American poetry. In the following excerpt from a review of Ammons' s Expressions of Sea Level and several books by other poets, Lieberman calls attention to the talent of Ammons and James Dickey in the long poem genre.]
James Dickey and A. R. Ammons are evolving a poetic line that works wonders in the extended lyric. In composing the longer poem, most poets rely on sectional subdivisions and distinct variations in form between sections to keep the poem from growing tedious. But in so doing they jeopardize the key advantage that Dickey and Ammons get from writing on a broad scale—the unbroken flow of language.
For Ammons, words on the page weave in and out like crosscurrents in a calm river:
There is a...
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SOURCE: "Muse & Hearth," in Poetry, Vol. CVII, No. 4, January, 1966, pp. 330-31.
[An acclaimed American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Harrison is best known for his fiction but has published nine collections of verse. In the following review, he perceives some flaws in Tape for the Turn of the Year and Corsons Inlet but states: "In both books, I sense a poet on the eve of a breakthrough."]
A. R. Ammons' Tape for the Turn of the Year was composed on a roll of adding machine tape; it purports to be a long poem in the form of a journal covering some thirty-five days in the poet's life. There are a dozen or so things that make it fatally wrong as a long poem—the fact of its length alone was predicated by the size of the tape, its form determined by the width of the tape and the number of days. The whole idea is more than a bit fey; we have weather descriptions, nature walks, all manner of cracker barrel phenomenology; the poet pumping out large unleavened portions of his brain, the day in shorthand, creaking dross, rather house-broken observations on poetics, jokes, much fallow ground that might better have been left that way. It is a disastrously ambitious piece of work; the marriage of the poem and journal a bad one.
Despite these crude reservations Tape for the Turn of the Year has much to recommend itself. There are many fine short lyrics...
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SOURCE: "Interior and Exterior Worlds," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 204, No. 17, April 24, 1967, pp. 541-42.
[Logan is an American poet and critic whose verse is generally regarded as intense and personal as well as distinctly humanist in its central concern with humankind and its potential. He has served as the poetry editor of both the Nation and the Critic and is also the founder and coeditor of Choice, a magazine of poetry and graphics. In the following review of Northfield Poems, Logan comments on the relationship between the external world and the poet's internal life, as they are depicted in Ammons's early poetry. Logan concludes by declaring Ammons "a major talent."]
A. R. Ammons is one of the most prolific and, at the same time, most intelligent gifted poets of recent years. North-field Poems is his third book to appear in two years—with Corsons Inlet and Tape for the Turn of the Year— and there were two others in the previous ten-year period; Ommateum (which was privately printed) and Expressions of Sea Level.
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SOURCE: "A Poem Is a Walk," in Epoch, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall, 1968, pp. 114-19.
[In the following essay, which was first presented as a lecture in 1967, Ammons considers the difficulty of defining poetry. He concludes by offering two observations: "poetry is a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition…. [and] leads us to the unstructured sources of our beings, to the unknown, and returns us to our rational, structured selves refreshed."]
Nothing that can be said
in words is worth saying.
I don't know whether I can sustain myself for thirty minutes of saying I know nothing—or that I need to try, since I might prove no more than you already suspect, or, even worse, persuade you of the fact. Nothingness contains no images to focus and brighten the mind, no contrarieties to build up muscular tension: it has no place for argumentation and persuasion, comparison and contrast, classification, analysis. As nothingness is more perfectly realized, there is increasingly less (if that isn't contradictory) to realize, less to say, less need to say. Only silence perfects silence. Only nothingness contributes to nothingness. The only perfect paper I could give you would be by standing silent before you for thirty minutes. But I am going to try this imperfect, wordy means to suggest why silence is finally the only perfect statement....
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SOURCE: "The New Transcendentalism: The Visionary Strain in Merwin, Ashbery, and Ammons," in Chicago Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Winter, 1973, pp. 25-43.
[Bloom is one of the most prominent contemporary American critics and literary theorists. In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), he formulated a controversial theory of literary creation called revisionism. Influenced strongly by Freudian theory, which states that "all men unconsciously wish to beget themselves, to be their own fathers," Bloom believes that all poets are subject to the influence of earlier poets and that, to develop their own voice, they attempt to overcome this influence through a process of misreading. By misreading, he means a deliberate, personal revision of what has been said by another so that it conforms to one's own vision. In this way the poet creates a singular voice, overcoming the fear of being inferior to poetic predecessors. In addition to his theoretical work, Bloom is one of the foremost authorities on English Romantic poetry and has written widely on the influences of Romanticism in contemporary literature. Here, Bloom, who was a prominent early supporter of Ammons, calls upon his theory of the anxiety of influence to help explain the development of Ammons's poetic voice within the American poetic tradition established by the nineteenth-century literary figure Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
In turning to A. R. Ammons, the...
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SOURCE: An interview in Diacritics, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter, 1973, pp. 47-53.
[In the following excerpt, Ammons discusses his ideas about poetry.]
[Grossvogel]: You seem to be suspicious of mentalisms. In your poem "Uh, Philosophy," isn't that "uh" a disclaimer?
[Ammons]: Yes. At the first level of the critical I tend to think of the discursive as assuming limits which then prevent it ever from encompassing the work that is before it. So I always think of that mode as a lesser mode than the imaginative. There is nothing new about that; most people grant it, I believe. Along the same lines as when Laotse says that nothing that can be said in words is worth saying. He means, I think that by the time we have embodied into limitation any sort of reality, it has limited itself out of the total adumbration. It is true that I use the discursive in my work a good deal, but always as a character in a play: I don't particularly care what I say; I care only that the dramatic placing of the thought is accurate in the piece as if it were a stage play. So and so enters from the left and says his thing, and it either fits in and promotes the dramatic action, or it doesn't. Whether or not it is literally true is of little interest to me because I don't think that the truth can be arrived at in that mode; but I do believe a character can represent that truth.
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of A. R. Ammons: Some Notes and Reflections," in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 285-93.
[An American educator and critic, Waggoner was known for his expertise in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His writings also include American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (1968) and American Visionary Poetry (1982). In the following excerpt, Waggoner compares and contrasts Ammons's poetry to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
What follows is simply some of the thoughts, and a few reflections on those thoughts, that have come to me as I have read through seven volumes of [Ammons'] poetry, the product of something more than a decade of writing. I do not own, am not near a library that contains, and so have not seen Ammons' first volume, Ommateum (1955), an omission which must qualify anything I may say about Ammons' development.
I write these notes seated in a mountain meadow, facing north towards a spruce woods fringed with poplar and balsam fir, the short-lived forward units of the woods as it edges across an unused pasture beyond the meadow. I have been watching the woods take over the pasture for more than thirty years now but have seen no movement. All I know is that the woods are a hundred or so feet closer to engulfing the spot where I sit and the house behind me than they used to be, and from that I can deduce that they are coming...
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SOURCE: A review of The Snow Poems, in Epoch, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 304-11.
[Bullis is an American poet and critic. In the following review of The Snow Poems, he finds that Ammons is one of the few poets to successfully undertake the challenge of the non-narrative long poem. Bullis claims that one of Ammons's greatest strengths, demonstrated in The Snow Poems, is his ability to express the interrelationship of all things, thereby overcoming artificial categories and divisions.]
The Snow Poems are actually one poem. It is a diary of the 1975-76 year: a record of Ammons's own experiences, observations, attitudes that begins in the fall with the bird migrations heading south and ends in the spring, with welcoming (the last word of the poem is "we(l)come") "a young/birch frilly in early-girlish/ leaf." The Snow Poems is at the same time an almanac—a compendium of useful and interesting facts, proverbs, weather news. It is also an adventure story in which Ammons, in Ithaca, wanders far and the extravagance of the wandering becomes a reaffirmation of the poet's role as adventurer, as Odysseus (Odysseus's name, in Greek at least, meant trouble—it was his fate to Odysseus himself and others heroically). Ammons's own wandersong precisely distinguishes the heroic potentiality of now from the models of unreclaimable times: without coming on in a high-hatted,...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of A. R. Ammons," in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 2-9.
[Reid was an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he traces Ammons's emergence as a major post-modern writer who has rejected modernist sensibilities and seeks humankind's integration with the universe.]
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SOURCE: "Reason, Shape, and Wisdom," in The New Republic, Vol. 184, No. 17, April 25, 1981, pp. 28-32.
[Vendler is regarded by many as one of America's foremost critics of poetry. Since the mid-1960s she has contributed reviews and articles on poetry to prominent literary publications, in particular the New York Times Book Review, and since 1978 has served as poetry critic for the New Yorker. In addition to her reviews and articles, Vendler is the author of acclaimed book-length studies of poets W. B. Yeats, George Herbert, Wallace Stevens, and John Keats. Her most noted work, the award-winning collection of criticism Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980), is recognized as a thorough and informed view of contemporary American poetry. In the following review, Vendler offers an enthusiastic appraisal of Ammons 's A Coast of Trees and states: "Ammons's own newness … lies in his finely calibrated sense of the actual, non-transcendent motions of the natural world."]
A classic poem, when it appears, comes not as a surprise but as a confirmation:
I have a life that did not become,
that turned aside and stopped,
I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow or grow old but dwell on
it is to his grave I most
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SOURCE: "The Problem of Freedom and Restriction in the Poetry of A. R. Ammons," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, Nos. 1-2, 1982, pp. 138-48.
[In the following essay, Fink explores the tensions between the concepts of individuality and unity as presented in Ammons's poetry, claiming that this polarity gives rise to a political dimension in the poet's work.]
A number of highly regarded contemporary poets, among them Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, and A. R. Ammons, have been accused of evading the responsibility of bringing political concerns into their writing. In his long poem, Sphere: The Form of a Motion, Ammons summarily dismisses this charge, suggesting that his readers are simply blind to the political aspect of his poetry:
they ask me, my readers, when I'm going to go politicized or
radicalized or public when I've sat here for years singing
unattended the off-songs of the territories and the midland
coordinates of Cleveland or Cincinnati: when I've prized
multeity and difference down to the mold under the leaf
on the one hand and swept up into the perfect composures of
nothingness on the other: my readers are baffling and
uncommunicative (if actual) and I don't know what to make of
or for them….
In referring to his concern with "multeity...
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SOURCE: "The Arc of a New Covenant: The Idea of the Reader in A. R. Ammons' Poems," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 86-103.
[Allen is an American educator, poet, and critic. In the following essay, he asserts that Ammons's poetry constantly challenges the traditional conception of poetry, as well as the standard roles of the poet and reader.]
Most writers cultivate their ability to satisfy expectations. A. R. Ammons is a notable exception. Through his defiance, he hopes to make us question the assumptions behind—our ideal of Good Poetry and to join with him in creating new, provisionally more satisfying standards. Then, in the next poem, or in the next book of poems, the process of denial and revision begins afresh: or, as Ammons succinctly puts the matter at the end of "Corsons Inlet," "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk."
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SOURCE: "Stanzas, Organic Myth, and the Metaformalism of A. R. Ammons," in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 4, December, 1987, pp. 513-27.
[Cushman is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he attempts to define the structural principle of Ammons's verse, focusing on such features as stanza shape and length, typography, and linguistic patterns.]
In his long poem "The Ridge Farm" (1983), A. R. Ammons continues his persistent meditation on poetic form:
don't think we don't
know one breaks
form open because he fears
its bearing in on him …
and one hugs form because
he fears dissolution, openness,
we know, we know:
one needs stanza to take
sharp interest in and
one interest the stanza
down the road to the wilderness:
This passage uses the word "form" in suggestive ways. Unlike the "completed, external form" Ammons renounces in the "Foreword" to Ommateum (1955), where "external" suggests nonorganic rigidity and "completed" implies the kind of autotelic closure Charles Olson, among others, was lobbying against when Ammons wrote his first poems, "form" in the later poem both repels and attracts. In a characteristic gesture, the passage opens with Ammons' version of epanalepsis, an enjambed line which begins and...
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SOURCE: An interview in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 105-17.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in March 1988, Ammons speaks about his literary career and his poetry.]
[Walsh]: I read an interview the other day where the guest was asked if there was a question he had always wanted to answer, but had never been asked.
[Ammons]: Most of the questions I have been asked have had to do with literary reputations rather than what I considered the nature of poetry, that is, what is poetry and how does it work? In what way is it an action or a symbolic action? In what way does poetry recommend certain kinds of behavior? Questions like that are of absorbing interest to me. What Robert Bly or somebody else is doing is of no interest to me whatsoever. I've written my poetry more or less in isolation without any day-to-day contact with other writers. Though I have read tidbits in anthologies of other people, I've made no study of anybody else's work, except in school where I read Shelley, Keats, Chaucer, and so on. I like questions that address, if they can, the central dynamics of this medium we work with, not that any answer is possible, but that we meditate the many ways in which it represents not only our verbal behavior but other representative forms of behavior—how poetry resembles other actions such as ice skating or football. That is...
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SOURCE: '"How Are We to Find Holiness?': The Religious Vision of A. R. Ammons," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 477-98.
[In the following essay, Lepkowski perceives religious sentiment and motifs in Ammons's poetry.]
Critical attention to the religious element in the poetry of A. R. Ammons has generally subsumed it in an overall argument placing him as a modern Romantic visionary poet. Locating Ammons in this way has obscured somewhat the extent of his spirituality and its unique emotional tonality. A reading of Ammons sensitive to these may find in his development a spiritual pilgrimage with distinct phases. His idea of God, clearly present in the early poetry, undergoes a period of doubt, reconstruction, and denial in the middle of his career, and after a strong negation becomes a renewed theme in his later poetry. Meditation on the nature of God and interrogation of the visible world for revelation of the Divine occasion some of his most powerful writing.
Marius Bewley in an early review first pointed out that "Ammons is a mystical poet in the same sense that Whitman was" ["Modes of Poetry," Hudson Review, 1968-69]. Somewhat later, Hyatt Waggoner discerned that "a sense of God's reality, whether as immanent or as deus absconditus, is everywhere present in the poems and should be recognized …. Ammons is a poet of religious...
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Baker, David. "The Push of Reading." The Kenyon Review 16, No. 4 (Fall 1994): 161-76.
A review of four books, including Ammons's long poem Garbage. Baker observes that the poem illustrates the interconnectedness of all things: "We become witness to something of a generative and evolutionary process—the turning of garbage into utility, decay into new life, an idea into further ideas."
Bloom, Harold. "A. R. Ammons: When You Consider the Radiance." In his The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, pp. 256-89. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Examines Ammons's handling of ideas treated previously by American poets in the Romantic tradition, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Wallace Stevens. This essay was originally published in 1970.
——. "A. R. Ammons: The Breaking of the Vessels." In his Figures of Capable Imagination, pp. 209-33. New York: The Seabury Press, 1976.
Explores Ammons's poetry apropos of Bloom's theories of poetic influence and creative misreading. This essay was originally published in Salmagundi, Fall-Winter, 1975-76.
Bullis, Gerald. "In the Open: A. R. Ammons' Longer Poems." Pembroke Magazine, No....
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