A. R. Ammons Ammons, A. R. (Vol. 108) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A. R. Ammons 1926–

(Full name Archie Randolph Ammons) American poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Ammons's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 25, and 57.

A prolific writer, Ammons is widely considered among the most significant contemporary American poets. Often referred to as an Emersonian Transcendentalist, Ammons is praised for his sensitive meditations on the human capacity to comprehend the flux of the natural world. Initially characterized as a nature poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, Ammons frequently writes in a conversational tone and endows his verse with resonant images of detailed landscapes. While often linked with traditional literary movements, Ammons's poetry contains a modern skepticism which stems from his refusal to attach universal significance to religious or artistic doctrines. Abstaining from offering any facile resolutions to the tensions in his works, Ammons is concerned with broadening his readers' perceptions of their relationship to the world.

Biographical Information

Ammons was born in 1926 in Whiteville, North Carolina, where his father ran a small farm. He spent his first 17 years on the farm, and his poetry later exhibited a preoccupation with and an appreciation for natural processes. In 1943 he graduated from high school and got a job with a ship-building company in Wilmington. Ammons joined the U.S. Naval Reserve when he was 18 and served in the South Pacific for 19 months during World War II. After returning home in 1946, he entered Wake Forest College on the G.I. Bill. Ammons had begun writing poetry while in the South Pacific, and he continued throughout college. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1949. After working briefly as the principal of the elementary school in Cape Hatteras, Ammons left North Carolina to pursue a Master's degree in English at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1952 he moved to New Jersey, where he worked for several years as an executive for a biological-glassware factory. Ammons showed his poetry to the poet and critic Josephine Miles, who encouraged him to publish his work. His first collection, Ommateum with Doxology, appeared in 1955. The book sold only 16 copies in five years and did not garner much critical attention. Ammons continued to write and struggled to find a publisher for the next nine years.

In 1963 he served as editor of Nation, and did a poetry reading at Cornell University. Ammons was offered a teaching position and eventually received an endowed chair as the Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry. Ammons has since received increasing critical attention and acclaim, and has received numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry for Collected Poems (1972), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry for Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1973), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for A Coast of Trees (1982), and the National Book Award for Poetry for Garbage (1993).

Major Works

Ammons's work, occupied with speculations about natural processes, shows an appreciation of nature, but it is not an idealized vision as in pastoral poetry. Although the poetic landscape of Ammons's earlier work is dominated by images from the natural world, he is not a nature poet per se. His poetry is concerned with humankind's relationship to nature. The major themes of his poetry include the dialectic between the one and the many, the relationships between species, and the ever-changing nature of experience. His first collection, Ommateum with Doxology, studies different ways of looking at the world. The word ommateum means "compound eye," and exhibits Ammons's use of scientific language and his multiple perspectives. One of Ammons's main concerns is apparent in his next collection, Expressions of Sea Level (1964), in which he expresses the desire for unity between the flesh and the spirit—the form and the formless. He uses images of the sea and wind to represent nature's perpetual motion, and suggests that man is only partially aware of external forces. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965) is a book-length poem that takes the form of a daily poetic journal and chronicles the poet's thoughts on the mundanity of everyday life. The poem was composed on adding machine tape, as was his later Garbage. Sphere: The Form of a Motion concerns humanity's struggle to impose order on a world which defies structure and to suspend the motion of natural forces. Ammons believes that anything is a suitable subject for poetry. His collection Garbage was inspired by a landfill he passed on the highway during a trip through Florida.

Critical Reception

Critics often refer to Ammons's work as Emersonian, asserting that his poetry shows the influence of the American Romantic tradition. Some critics assert that Ammons's work is more complicated than that, however, citing the lack of resolution and optimism in his poetry. Critics also point out the lack of an overriding doctrine in Ammon's work. Josephine Jacobsen states: "Though Ammons now and then reminds his reader of Emerson, there is an unbridgeable gap between the basically firm optimism of the transcendentalist, and the painful, theory-free search of the poet of 'Extremes and Moderations.'" In discussing Ammons's style, reviewers often note his natural and appropriate use of scientific language. As Ammon's career progressed, critics recognized a greater scope to his work and praised his ability to turn anything into poetry. Critics assert a continuity of theme and purpose in Ammons's work, and praise his ability to bring new life to his recurring concerns. Josephine Jacobsen says, "To be able to control so much renewal, to strengthen and deepen new insights and hints, upon so permanent a project, to maintain so much oneness and flexibility in such an unrelentingly coherent poetic purpose, is perhaps the most solid of Ammons's achievements."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ommateum with Doxology (poetry) 1955
Expressions of Sea Level (poetry) 1964
Corsons Inlet: A Book of Poems (poetry) 1965
Tape for the Turn of the Year (poem) 1965
Northfield Poems (poetry) 1966
Selected Poems (poetry) 1968
Uplands (poetry) 1970
Briefings: Poems Small and Easy (poetry) 1971
Collected Poems, 1951–1971 (poetry) 1972
Sphere: The Form of a Motion (poetry) 1973
Diversifications: Poems (poetry) 1975
For Doyle Fosso (poetry) 1977
Highgate Road (poetry) 1977
The Snow Poems (poetry) 1977
The Selected Poems: 1951–1977 (poetry) 1977; expanded edition, 1987
Breaking Out (poetry) 1978
Six-Piece Suite (poetry) 1978
Selected Longer Poems (poetry) 1980
Changing Things (poetry) 1981
A Coast of Trees: Poems (poetry) 1982
Worldly Hopes: Poems (poetry) 1982
Lake Effect Country: Poems (poetry) 1982
Sumerian Vistas: Poems, 1987 (poetry) 1987
The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons (poetry) 1991
Garbage (poem) 1993
The Best American Poetry 1994 [editor] (poetry) 1995

Wendell Berry (review date 23 March 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Antennae to Knowledge," in The Nation, Vol. 198, No. 13, March 23, 1964, pp. 304-6.

[In the following review, Berry discusses Ammons's focus on knowledge in his Expressions of Sea Level, and analyzes the poet's use of form and scientific language.]

In this admirable book, [Expressions of Sea Level], Mr. Ammons' aim isn't beauty, though there are poems here that I think are beautiful, and it's not the suggestiveness which is sometimes meant by the word "poetic." His aim is knowledge, the getting of it and the use of it; the art of poetry is held out to the world like an antenna. A man who is concerned with knowing must necessarily be concerned...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)

Josephine Jacobsen (essay date Winter 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Talk of Giants," in Diacritics, Winter, 1973, pp. 34-8.

[In the following essay, Jacobsen discusses the major sources of tension in Ammons's poetry, including limitation, utility and waste, and compensation, as well as the features which make Ammons's work so strong.]

The publication of A. R. Ammons' Collected Poems, 1951–1971, has focused attention on a poet who has quietly risen to the top rank of American poets. Actually, it was obvious in his first book (Ommateum), that his work was strong and original, and formidable in its promise. Belonging to no clique, identifiable by no gimmicks, he continued to publish increasingly commanding...

(The entire section is 3745 words.)

D. R. Fosso (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetic Metaphysic in A. R. Ammons," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 158-63.

[In the following essay, Fosso analyzes the ontological and cosmological concerns in Ammons's poetry.]

His poems witness that A. R. Ammons knows what he is about and we who relish reading him are finding him out. Take a small poem of 1975, scarcely even one of his "rondures":


Because I am
here I am

A "metaphysic," of course, is one whose epistemological concerns are especially with ontology and cosmology....

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Sister Bernetta Quinn, OSF (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Scholar of Wind and Tree: The Early Lyrics of A. R. Ammons," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 236-47.

[In the following essay, Quinn discusses the place of the physical world and the figure of Ezra in Ammons's poetry.]

Beginning his 1968 Selected Poems "in the middle of the thing," A. R. Ammons as Ezra stands up against the physical universe simply by introducing himself to it: "So I said I am Ezra." The wind whipping his throat captures the words as a hunter might game, then whistles off into the dark night, a temperamental companion, or guide, as he is throughout the book. Rejected by the wind in his attempt to start a conversation, Ezra turns...

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Thomas Dilworth (essay date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ammons's 'Coon Song,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 40-3.

[In the following essay, Dilworth interprets Ammons's "Coon Song."]

"Coon Song" by A. R. Ammons is a remarkably metamorphic literary experience. It seems to deconstruct itself by denying its opening narrative description—about a raccoon surrounded by hunting dogs—in order to express something beyond the range of narration and description. The narrative is broken off by the poet's direct address to the reader, which initiates a dramatic monologue. Within this monologue, kinds of relationship between the poem (or poet) and the reader are in conflict. Because the dramatic...

(The entire section is 1479 words.)

Cary Wolfe (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Symbol Plural: The Later Long Poems of A. R. Ammons," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 78-94.

[In the following essay, Wolfe asserts that from "Essay on Poetics" on, "Ammons emphasizes the becoming, rather than the Being, of nature—the processes rather than the fixity of a logos which drives them." He notes a connection between Ammons's portrayal of nature and the English romantics.]

For years now, Ammons criticism has in general followed Harold Bloom's reading of the poet out of the American transcendental—Bloom's "Emersonian"—tradition. Bloom's readings have been instructive, often exciting (and make for a compelling...

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Elizabeth McGeachy Mills (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ammons's 'Singing & Doubling Together,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 49, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 187-90.

[In the following essay, McGeachy Mills asserts that "In its every complexity" Ammons's 'Singing & Doubling Together,' "signals the mysterious, paradoxical, somehow linearly unknowable experience of doubling with the divine."]

A. R. Ammons's poem "Singing & Doubling Together" demonstrates the power of carefully chosen signs to create and to recreate, while exposing through the medium of the poem a complex, nonrational experience of union.

Speaking in the first person, in the present tense, from within the event itself, the speaker...

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David R. Jarraway (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ammons Beside Himself: Poetics of 'The Bleak Periphery,'" in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 99-116.

[In the following essay, Jarraway discusses Ammons's "Essay on Poetics" in relation to American literature.]

In the context of American literature, the presentiment of the writer-as-critic or the critic-as-writer is likely to be inherently a more available one than in other literatures. This is due in no small part to the fact that American literature, as Kenneth Dauber pointed out several years ago, "is a literature whose primary concern has always been its own nature," and whose object, even in the classic period of American letters,...

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Pedro E. Ponce (review date 1 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Poet's Long Path to Literary Honors," in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. XL, No. 15, December 1, 1993, p. A6.

[In the following review, Ponce discusses Garbage, stating that "As in his earlier poems, he uses an object as a springboard into thoughts of a universal significance."]

Writers usually prefer not to have their work labeled as garbage, but the poet and Cornell professor A. R. Ammons has found phenomenal success with the label.

Garbage, his latest book, won Mr. Ammons his second National Book Award for Poetry two weeks ago. It is a single, 121-page poem inspired by a heap of garbage that Mr. Ammons saw in...

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Edward Hirsch (review date 12 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Trash and Other Wonders of Nature," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 98, December 12, 1993, p. 30.

[In the following excerpt, Hirsch praises Ammons's Garbage.]

Archie Randolph Ammons's book-length poem, Garbage, the winner of this year's National Book Award, has a rueful grandeur and characteristically splendid oddity. Following the abbreviated lyricism of the retrospective volume The Really Short Poems, Garbage is a single extended performance, a meditation, as the poet says, "assimilated into motion." Over the last 40 years Mr. Ammons has consistently demonstrated the democratic precept that "anything is poetry" and here he playfully...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Robert B. Shaw (review date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From A to Y," in Poetry, Vol. CLXIV, No. 2, May, 1994, pp. 97-107.

[In the following excerpt, Shaw offers a mixed review of Garbage.]

We have landfill to thank for A. R. Ammons's latest book-length poem. The sight of a huge mound of refuse beside I-95 in Florida was the epiphany that spurred him to this effort; like the garbage heap that fostered it, the resulting poem is imposing, at once anarchic and subject to a degree of formal design. It is also, fortunately, a lot more appealing. There is no question that you would rather read about the place as described by Ammons than be there. More than most poets, he knows what can be made of what others discard or...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

Lawrence Sail (review date Autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Recent Poetry," in Stand Magazine, Vol. 36, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 77-8.

[In the following excerpt, Sail discusses the virtues and flaws of Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Year and Garbage.]

… Should a poem be, formally or thematically, open or closed? What is the poet's responsibility to himself or herself, to the poem, to the tradition, to the events of the twentieth century? Can the modesty that history may seem to demand also mislead into political oversimplification? Where does an awareness of complexity become clutter or prolixity? When does spacious equal specious? At what point might self-consciousness become self-defeat?


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Ian Sansom (excerpt date 7 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cheesespreadology," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 5, March 7, 1996, pp. 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Sansom discusses Ammons's critical reception in England.]

In a power-rhyming slap-happy parody of Thirties doom-mongering published in 1938 William Empson famously had 'Just a Smack at Auden':

What was said by Marx, boys, what did he
No good being sparks, boys, waiting for the end.
Treason of the clerks, boys, curtains that descend,
Lights becoming darks, boys, waiting for the end.


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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Baker, David. "The Push of Reading." Kenyon Review 16, No. 4 (Fall 1994): 161-76.

Praises Ammons's Garbage as a "brilliant book."

Cushman, Stephen. "A. R. Ammons, or the Rigid Lines of the Free and Easy." In his Fictions of Form in American Poetry, pp. 149-86. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Analyzes the place of form in Ammons's poetry.

Deane, Patrick. "Justified Radicalism: A. R. Ammons with a Glance at John Cage." Papers on Language and Literature 28, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 206-22.


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