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 graduate study in California; after a year, however, he went to work for a New Jersey firm specializing in the manufacture of biological glass. He rose to the rank of executive vice president of the company before resigning in 1961.
Meanwhile his first book, Ommateum, with Doxology, appeared in 1955 but attracted little attention from critics or poetry readers. His preoccupation with seeing things clearly can be seen even in these early poems, however; words such as “clarity” and “clarify” recur frequently in his work.
His poems of the early 1960’s began to attract critical attention, and in 1964 he accepted the offer of an assistant professorship at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In Ithaca, as earlier in New Jersey and North Carolina, he enjoyed taking long walks and observing nature closely. Scores of his poems reflect this interest, particularly the title poem of his third book, Corsons Inlet, which describes the central New Jersey coastline, with its undulating shore and shifting dunes. The theme of this famous poem is that nature is fluid and mobile; it can be interpreted only provisionally.
Another of Ammons’s habits was rising early and making entries in his journal. Like many diarists, he recorded the weather and small events in his life; the difference is that for five winter weeks he experimented with composing this journal in short free-verse lines on adding machine tape. This experiment became his next book, Tape for the Turn of the Year.
In 1966, he earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1968 he was promoted to associate professor in the English Department at Cornell. Three years later, he was a full professor, his specialty being the teaching of poetry and poetry writing. His books now appeared regularly, several to the decade. A 1972 collection of his poems earned him the National Book Award the following year.
Among the American poets whose work Ammons studied was Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, he developed his themes by an accumulation of precise and personally felt detail. Also like Whitman, Ammons was not afraid to include seemingly trivial events and observations if collectively they demonstrate the flow of life—or the flow of the poet’s mind—over its barriers and limitations. At Cornell he was named Goldwin Smith Professor in 1973 and the following...
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year was granted the prestigious Bollingen Prize for his poetry. His poetic output throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s consisted of both short lyrics, now reflecting the beautiful landscape around his home in Ithaca, and long poems in the manner of Whitman.
One day while driving along Interstate 95 in Florida, he saw a vast mound of incinerated garbage. “Why would anyone want to write about garbage?” he said to himself. It occurred to him that the heaps of garbage were like the “dead language” of everyday life. His job as poet was to recycle language just as waste products are increasingly recycled. In his resulting book-length poem Garbage, he makes the witty point that late twentieth century garbage launched into outer space is the “highest evidence” of human existence. The poem earned him another National Book Award in 1993.
His 1997 volume Glare comprises two sections, “Strip” and “Scat Scan,” and is written in his familiar couplet style. The work is self-deprecating and spontaneous. Critics noted that his apparent ambition in Glare was “to make the finished form of the poem indistinguishable from the process of composition.” In doing so, this volume reveals an immediacy of experience and thought, a kind of poetry in real time. In 1998, Ammons was selected to receive the Tanning Prize, a $100,000 award for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” established in 1994 by the Academy of American Poets.
Ammons’s experiences taught him the importance of encountering nature not only as something pleasurable in itself but also as a valuable source for reflection on the meaning of life. His poems re-create both the pleasure and the wisdom. Ammons died in 2001 just after his seventy-fifth birthday.