Authors: A. R. Ammons

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Author Works


Ommateum, with Doxology, 1955

Expressions of Sea Level, 1963

Corsons Inlet: A Book of Poems, 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, 1975

The Selected Poems, 1951-1977, 1977

The Snow Poems, 1977

Highgate Road, 1978

Six-Piece Suite, 1979

Selected Longer Poems, 1980

A Coast of Trees, 1981

Worldly Hopes, 1982

Lake Effect Country, 1983

The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition, 1986

Sumerian Vistas, 1987

The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons, 1990

Garbage, 1993

The North Carolina Poems, 1994

Brink Road, 1996

Glare, 1998


Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, and Dialogues, 1996


Archie Randolph Ammons was born on a farm near Whiteville, North Carolina, in 1926, the son of Willie M. and Lucy Della (McKee) Ammons. During his formative years, he was expected to help his father, so although he lived close to nature, it was as a worker rather than as a mere observer. Springtimes he was excused from school early to help with the plowing.{$I[AN]9810001979}{$I[A]Ammons, A. R.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Ammons, A. R.}{$I[tim]1926;Ammons, A. R.}

A. R. Ammons

His parents were religious but not highly educated; the only book in the house was the Bible. College did not seem to be an option. After graduating from the local high school in 1943, Ammons worked in a Wilmington, North Carolina, shipyard; the following year, he joined the navy and saw service on a destroyer escort in the Pacific during World War II. There he began writing poems.

Like many returning GIs, he enrolled in college after the war. At Wake Forest University, young Ammons concentrated on scientific rather than literary studies, but his interest in science and familiarity with the Bible contributed to the poetry that he continued to compose. In 1949, he married Phyllis Plumbo; later, they became the parents of one son, John Randolph.

The future poet found a position as principal of a small elementary school in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1949. In 1951, he decided to pursue graduate study in California; after a year, however, he went to work for a New Jersey firm specializing in the manufacture of biological glass. He rose to the rank of executive vice president of the company before resigning in 1961.

Meanwhile his first book, Ommateum, with Doxology, appeared in 1955 but attracted little attention from critics or poetry readers. His preoccupation with seeing things clearly can be seen even in these early poems, however; words such as “clarity” and “clarify” recur frequently in his work.

His poems of the early 1960’s began to attract critical attention, and in 1964 he accepted the offer of an assistant professorship at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In Ithaca, as earlier in New Jersey and North Carolina, he enjoyed taking long walks and observing nature closely. Scores of his poems reflect this interest, particularly the title poem of his third book, Corsons Inlet, which describes the central New Jersey coastline, with its undulating shore and shifting dunes. The theme of this famous poem is that nature is fluid and mobile; it can be interpreted only provisionally.

Another of Ammons’s habits was rising early and making entries in his journal. Like many diarists, he recorded the weather and small events in his life; the difference is that for five winter weeks he experimented with composing this journal in short free-verse lines on adding machine tape. This experiment became his next book, Tape for the Turn of the Year.

In 1966, he earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1968 he was promoted to associate professor in the English Department at Cornell. Three years later, he was a full professor, his specialty being the teaching of poetry and poetry writing. His books now appeared regularly, several to the decade. A 1972 collection of his poems earned him the National Book Award the following year.

Among the American poets whose work Ammons studied was Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, he developed his themes by an accumulation of precise and personally felt detail. Also like Whitman, Ammons was not afraid to include seemingly trivial events and observations if collectively they demonstrate the flow of life–or the flow of the poet’s mind–over its barriers and limitations. At Cornell he was named Goldwin Smith Professor in 1973 and the following year was granted the prestigious Bollingen Prize for his poetry. His poetic output throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s consisted of both short lyrics, now reflecting the beautiful landscape around his home in Ithaca, and long poems in the manner of Whitman.

One day while driving along Interstate 95 in Florida, he saw a vast mound of incinerated garbage. “Why would anyone want to write about garbage?” he said to himself. It occurred to him that the heaps of garbage were like the “dead language” of everyday life. His job as poet was to recycle language just as waste products are increasingly recycled. In his resulting book-length poem Garbage, he makes the witty point that late twentieth century garbage launched into outer space is the “highest evidence” of human existence. The poem earned him another National Book Award in 1993.

His 1997 volume Glare comprises two sections, “Strip” and “Scat Scan,” and is written in his familiar couplet style. The work is self-deprecating and spontaneous. Critics noted that his apparent ambition in Glare was “to make the finished form of the poem indistinguishable from the process of composition.” In doing so, this volume reveals an immediacy of experience and thought, a kind of poetry in real time. In 1998, Ammons was selected to receive the Tanning Prize, a $100,000 award for “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” established in 1994 by the Academy of American Poets.

Ammons’s experiences taught him the importance of encountering nature not only as something pleasurable in itself but also as a valuable source for reflection on the meaning of life. His poems re-create both the pleasure and the wisdom. Ammons died in 2001 just after his seventy-fifth birthday.

BibliographyAmmons, A. R.. “An Interview with A. R. Ammons.” Interview by Cynthia Haythe. Contemporary Literature 21 (Spring, 1980): 173-190. Ammons responds to questions about his southernness and his “exile” in the North. He discusses Sphere and other poems, as well as his affinity with other contemporary poets.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. Ammons himself offers an essay. Perhaps the central theme of all the essays is that Ammons, like Walt Whitman, is a solitary self in the world. The text is supplemented by a chronology, notes, a bibliography, acknowledgments, and an index.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 the 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 Hans calls “patterns of choice” exist in poems such as “Corsons Inlet” and “Essay on Poetics.” Contains chapter notes.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.
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