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.