A. R. Ammons Ammons, A. R. - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


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

Uplands 1970

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

Garbage 1993

The North Carolina Poems 1994

Fear 1995

Brink Road 1996

Other Major Works

Set in Motion: Essays and Interviews 1996

Laurence Lieberman (essay date 1964-65)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jim Harrison (essay date 1966)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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John Logan (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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A. R. Ammons (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Harold Bloom (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Ammons with D. I. Grossvogel (interview date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Hyatt H. Waggoner (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Jerald Bullis (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Alfred S. Reid (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

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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Helen Vendler (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Thomas A. Fink (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Gilbert Allen (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stephen B. Cushman (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

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

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A. R. Ammons with William Walsh (interview date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Frank J. Lepkowski (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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.


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