(1926—2001) A. R. Ammons, one of the most popular and prolific poets of the latter half of the 20th century, managed to be both a member of the academy and a renegade, the heir to Robert frost in his descriptions of domesticated nature and of William Carlos williams in his generosity of spirit and freedom with poetic form. A prolific poet, he wrote numerous collections, including a volume called The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons (1990) and five book-length poems: Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965), Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974), The Snow Poems (1977), garbage (1993), and Glare (1997).
Ammons was born in Whiteville, North Carolina. While serving in the navy during World War II, he began writing poetry aboard a destroyer escort in the
South Pacific. After the war, he attended Wake Forest University. Before he began teaching at Cornell University in 1964, he held a variety of nonacademic jobs. He paid for the publication of his first book, Omma-teum (1955), the title of which refers to the house fly's compound eye. Ammons's Collected Poems 1951—1971 (1972) won the National Book Award. Sphere (1974) received the Bollingen Prize. A Coast of Trees (1981) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Garbage (1993) won the National Book Award and the Library of Congress's Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize. The American Academy of Arts and Letters made Ammons a fellow in 1978. Ammons's other honors include the Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award (1998), the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Medal (1994), and Poetry magazine's Ruth Lilly Prize (1995).
His experiments with form include typing a poem, Tape for the Turn of the Year, on an adding machine tape. The long, narrow paper determined both the length of the poem's lines and of the whole poem. He used this medium for other poems as well, including The Snow Poems and Garbage. Ammons's innovative approach to form led Marjorie Perloff to argue that one of Ammons's collections of short poems, Briefings: Poems Small and Easy, is actually one long poem in small sections (Schneider 68-82). His long poems are sometimes triggered by a single image, such as a photograph of Earth from outer space in Sphere or a mound of trash in Garbage (see long and serial poetry). A Tape for the Turn of the Year, on the other hand, proceeds more or less chronologically, something like a diary for the end of one calendar year and the beginning of the next. Whatever the trigger, his long poems often include self-mockery for the ambitiousness implicit in undertaking a long poem in the first place.
Ammons's work is often humorous in a nonchalant way, as when a mountain says to the speaker of "Classic" (1971), "I see you're scribbling again." In addition to his deft handling of the long poem, Ammons is also known for very short, often wittily compressed poems, such as "Small Song" (1971). In the 12 words of the poem—which begins, "The reeds give," and ends, "the wind away"—Ammons both describes and demonstrates a relationship between form and identity.
One of the central concerns in all of Ammons's work is "the one and the many," the search for a single unifying principle to account for the bewildering array of individual objects of which the world is composed. In some ways, this concern reflects a dualism in which "the many" is the world of the senses and "the one" is some form of, perhaps spiritual, transcendence.
In "One: Many" (1965), he warns that people should, "fear a too great consistency, an arbitrary imposition" of abstraction on the concrete details of sensory experience. Drawn back to particular details, he may offer such specifics as "the river is muscled at rapids with trout and a birch limb" ("Visit" 1965), but often his particulars are the particulars of type or species, as "The glow-blue / bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies" ("The City Limits" 1971).
Ammons uses the colon as a multipurpose form of punctuation. This stylistic idiosyncrasy allows him to bring closure to individual clauses while suggesting at the same time the ongoing flow of the poem. Such punctuation also implies his sense that any state-ment—any answer—is conditional and may be dissolved later in the poem's flow.
In an essay on poetry, Ammons likens a poem to a walk in four ways. First, both walk and poem involve the whole body—that is, the mind and the body. Second, every walk, like every poem, is "unreproducible" (Burr 17). Third, a poem, like a walk, "turns, one or more times, and eventually returns" (Burr 17). Fourth, the motion of the walk, or poem, "occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. It can't be extracted and contemplated" (Burr 18).
This walking motion is illustrated in Ammons's poem "Corsons Inlet" (1965), which describes a physical walk as "liberating," releasing the speaker "into the hues, shadings, risings, flowing bends and blends of sight." It is noteworthy that even when he tries to free himself from form, he comes back to the particular forms of nature, and though he says, "Overall is beyond me," he is repeatedly drawn by a desire to understand that "Overall." Perhaps the most characteristic summary statement in the poem, Ammons writes, is "I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries." Harold Bloom, one of Ammons's earliest and most ardent admirers, sees the poet's work as belonging to the important line of poetry influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson in its attempts to approach an American sublime and pinnacle of human thought and activity. Bloom describes Ammons as "the central poet of my generation" (5), a viewpoint many others share.
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