A. R. Ammons was born Archie Randolph Ammons near Whiteville, North Carolina, in a house bought by his grandfather and situated on the family farm. The main book in the house was the Bible. Ammons’s early experiences on the farm, working the land, helped shape his imagination. The self in his poems appears most frequently in relation to the natural world he knew as a child.
He was his parents’ fourth child. Three sisters were born before him and two brothers after; one sister lived for only two weeks, and both brothers died, one in infancy and the other at birth. Ammons remembered the deaths of his brothers, saying that they accounted in part for the undercurrent of loss and loneliness in his work.
Upon graduation from high school in 1943, Ammons took a job in the shipyard in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy, spending nineteen months in service, including time in the South Pacific, where he began writing poems. Returning home after the war, Ammons attended Wake Forest College (his tuition paid for by the G.I. Bill) and graduated with a B.S. in 1949. That year he married Phyllis Plumbo and took a job as principal of an elementary school in the remote coastal community of Hatteras, North Carolina. From 1950 to 1952, he studied English at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1952, he took a position with his father-in-law’s New Jersey medical glassware firm, a job he held for twelve years. He soon began to send poems to literary magazines, and in 1953, Hudson Review accepted two of them. His first book of poetry, Ommateum, with Doxology, appeared in 1955. Eight years later, Expressions of Sea Level appeared. In 1964, he began teaching at Cornell University. Other books of poems followed, and in 1972, most of his poems were published as Collected Poems, 1951-1971. Sphere, his poem of more than two thousand lines, published in 1974, gained for him the Bollingen Prize in Poetry for 1974-1975. Whitmanesque in its tendency toward democratic feeling, Sphere presents Ammons’s aesthetic of continual motion and a musical affirmation of interdependence in the energy of all life. Ammons continued to be highly productive in his later years. The North Carolina Poems appeared in 1994; Brink Road was published in 1996; and his final book during his lifetime, Glare, appeared in 1997.
Ammons served for many years as the Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry at Cornell University. In 1998, the university honored him with a celebration of his monumental achievement. He died from cancer in February of 2001, leaving behind his wife, his son John, and two grandchildren. Throughout his career, Ammons made frequent trips to eastern North Carolina, a place that figures prominently in his poems.
Archie Randolph Ammons was born on a farm near Whiteville, North Carolina, in 1926, the son of Willie M. and Lucy Della (McKee) Ammons. During his formative years, he was expected to help his father, so although he lived close to nature, it was as a worker rather than as a mere observer. Springtimes he was excused from school early to help with the plowing.
His parents were religious but not highly educated; the only book in the house was the Bible. College did not seem to be an option. After graduating from the local high school in 1943, Ammons worked in a Wilmington, North Carolina, shipyard; the following year, he joined the navy and saw service on a destroyer escort in the Pacific during World War II. There he began writing poems.
Like many returning GIs, he enrolled in college after the war. At Wake Forest University, young Ammons concentrated on scientific rather than literary studies, but his interest in science and familiarity with the Bible contributed to the poetry that he continued to compose. In 1949, he married Phyllis Plumbo; later, they became the parents of one son, John Randolph.
The future poet found a position as principal of a small elementary school in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1949. In 1951, he decided to pursue...
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