February 28, 2001

C.U. Mourns Loss Of Legendary Poet

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Cornell continues to mourn the death of Archie Randolph (A.R.) Ammons, one of America’s most celebrated poets, who critics claimed could turn practically any topic — even spiders, McDonald’s hamburgers and heaps of garbage — into poetry.

Ammons, the longtime Goldwin Smith Professor Emeritus of Poetry, was 75 when he passed away from cancer on Sunday at his home in Cayuga Heights.

At the time of his death, he had won virtually every major poetry prize in the United States.

“Ammons was — well — something special,” said President Hunter R. Rawlings III, remarking on how meaningful it was to have such a legendary figure within the Cornell community for so many years.

“He was unique, and he left a huge imprint on all of us,” Rawlings added.

While he was at Cornell, Ammons won two coveted National Book Awards — in 1973 for Collected Poems and in 1993 for Garbage, often regarded as his finest work.

Garbage described the poet’s thoughts as he drives past a smoldering mountain of trash in Florida:

“Garbage has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough to get our attention, getting in the way, piling up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and / creamy white: what else deflect us from the / errors of our illusionary ways.”

“It seemed like a symbol of our times,” Ammons once told students about his 121-page mediation on the uses of poetry and the meaning of human refuge.

Critics have long considered Ammons to be the natural legacy of the 19th Century American transcendentalism defined by Whitman and Emerson.

“No contemporary poet in America is likelier to become a classic than A.R. Ammons,” famed Yale literary critic Harold Bloom once said.

Kenneth McClane ’73, M.F.A ’76, Ammons’s former student and W.E.B. DuBois Prof. of Literature at Cornell, was quick to admit the influence that his teacher had on his own development as a writer.

“He was as interested in you as you were in him,” McClane said, adding that Ammons had “great imagination. Archie was a true literary genius and that’s not hyperbole.”

Ammons started writing poetry aboard a Navy destroyer during World War II.

Despite his relatively late start — he did not publish his first book until he was 29 — Ammons managed to write nearly 30 books throughout his career. His first collection, Ommateum, came out in 1955; his final book of poems, Glare in 1997.

Born in the mountains near Whiteville, N.C., the son of farmers, Ammons earned a biology degree from Wake Forest College in North Carolina and attended graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley.

Before devoting himself to poetry, Ammons was an elementary school principal, a real estate salesman, an editor and an executive in his father’s glass company.

Ammons found his literary refuge at Cornell in 1964, where he taught undergraduates and graduate students in formal classroom settings and presided over weekly poetry readings in the Temple of Zeus Cafe.

Despite his national prestige, the tall, gregarious, red-haired man from the South, was a commonplace sight to several generations of students who would find him sitting in his office with the door open welcoming anyone who dropped by.

“He loved people, and he was a great champion of the outsider,” McClane said.

“He was someone for whom writing was as essential as air. Even his everyday speech was poetry. We were very, very lucky to have him here,” said McClane, adding that his own answering machine was filled with messages from dozens of students of all ages — a sign of Ammons’s extraordinary ability to impact so many disparate people, from engineers to real estate brokers, scientists to house painters.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts