A. R. Ammons

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Although A. R. Ammons (AM-uhns) is known primarily for his poetry, he also published reviews and essays. Central to an understanding of his work are “A Poem Is a Walk” and his short autobiographical reflection “I Couldn’t Wait to Say the Word.” Ammons’s several published interviews, especially one by Cynthia Haythe, give additional insight into his poetics. Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, and Dialogues (1996) collects his most important writings about poetry.


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Throughout a distinguished and prolific career, A. R. Ammons observed and presented the particulars of the world while projecting his longing for a sense of unity. He immersed himself in the flow of things, celebrating the world and the self that sees and probes it.

Ammons’s work lies within the Emersonian tradition: He wrote from life without being a slave to any set poetic form. However, more than any other poet since Ralph Waldo Emerson, he developed a transcendentalism rooted in science and in a poetic that includes the self in the work. His epigrams, his short to moderate-length nature lyrics, and his long verse-essays are popular reading among poets.

His many awards include the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship (1961), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1966), an American Academy of Arts and Letters Traveling Fellowship (1967), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1969-1970), the Levinson Prize (1970), a National Book Award (1973) for Collected Poems, 1951-1971, an honorary Litt.D. from Wake Forest University (1973), the Bollingen Prize for Poetry for Sphere (1975), an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1977), a National Book Critics Circle Award (1981) for A Coast of Trees, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (1981), and the North Carolina Award for Literature (1986). In 1990, he was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Ammons won the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (1992), a second National Book Award (1993) for Garbage, the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal (1994), the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry (1994), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1995), and the Wallace Stevens Award (1998). Ammons is recognized as one of the most significant and original voices in twentieth century poetry.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. A. R. Ammons. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This volume contains eighteen essays on Ammons’s work, plus an introductory essay by Bloom. Among the contributors are contemporary poets John Ashbery, Richard Howard, and John Hollander. Perhaps the central theme of all the essays is that Ammons, like Walt Whitman, is a solitary self in the world.

Burak, David, and Rogert Gilbert, eds. Considering the Radiance: Essays on the Poetry of A. R. Ammons. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. A collection of essays on Ammons’s poetry, some of which were written by fellow poets.

Elder, John. Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Elder writes about poets who remember and re-create Earth. His chapter on Ammons is called “Poetry and the Mind’s Terrain.” Elder’s prose is clear and uncluttered; he presents Ammons from the fresh perspective of contemporary poets. Includes chapter notes and an index.

Hans, James S. The Value(s) of Literature . Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. This book addresses the ethical aspects of literature by discussing three major American poets: Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and A. R. Ammons. The chapter on Ammons is called “Ammons and the One: Many Mechanisms.” In a concluding chapter, “The Aesthetic of Worldly Hopes,” Hans speculates that one of the reasons poetry is not read widely in the United States is that it is “perceived to have nothing of ethical value inherent in it.” What...

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Hans calls “patterns of choice” exist in poems such as “Corsons Inlet” and “Essay on Poetics.”

Holder, Alan. A. R. Ammons. Boston: Twayne, 1978. This introductory book-length study presents Ammons’s life and works through Sphere. The text is supplemented by a chronology, notes, a select bibliography (with annotated secondary sources), and an index.

Kirschten, Robert. Approaching Prayer: Ritual and the Shape of Myth in A. R. Ammons and James Dickey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998. A mythopoetic study of each author that focuses on ceremonial strategies, this analysis examines the nature of Ammons’s interest in ancient Sumerian as well as other traditions.

Schneider, Steven P., ed. Complexities of Motion: New Essays on A. R. Ammons’s Long Poems. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999. Essays by Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, and other major critics examine the genre of the long poem as individualized by Ammons. Rationale, shape, structure, and strategy are explored, along with recurrent themes.

Sciagaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Along with Ammons, discusses and compares Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, and W. S. Merwin and their treatment of nature and environmental concerns in their works. Bibliographical references, index.

Spiegelman, Willard. The Didactic Muse. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Spiegelman’s chapter on Ammons is called “Myths of Concretion, Myths of Abstraction: The Case of A. R. Ammons.” Spiegelman ranges over Ammons’s work, particularly the longer poems through Sumerian Vistas. Spiegelman’s concern is the relation between poetry and philosophy. He contends that Ammons’s dominant conceit is motion: his attempt to find that place where the conscious and unconscious move, yet stay. The book is important to any student who wishes to see Ammons’s work within the larger context of contemporary poetry.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987. A companion to Voices and Visions, a Public Broadcasting Service television series. Calvin Bedient’s essay on Walt Whitman discusses Ammons’s Sphere within Whitman’s energetic thrust out—toward a desire to create a motion within the American attraction for space, for going on, for expanding one’s self in a larger world. The book contains pictures of poets, illustrations, notes on chapters, suggestions for further reading, notes on contributors, a list of illustrations, and an index.


Critical Essays