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.
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).
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.
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."