March 12, 2001

Ammons: A life, A Legacy

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A giant of the poetic world, A. R. (Archie) Ammons, left a legacy of poetry, a throng of fans and a lifetime’s accumulation of major prizes and awards for his work.

“In his work and personally, Ammons never had the airs of the pretentious literary figure, or of the academic,” said Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky.

“In the course of his life, he had been a high school principal and a businessman before becoming, through his poems, a professor at Cornell, where he became a beloved teacher,” Pinsky added.

Before becoming a teacher, Ammons was first a student, studying science as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, a time that would heavily influence Ammons’s poetry. One of Ammons’s biggest contributions to the poetic world was his use of science in his work.

Ammons pioneered, through his poems, the reconciliation of the scientific world with the world of poetry, according to Prof. Roger Gilbert, English.

“Probably more than any other contemporary poet, Archie uses the language and terminology of science,” Gilbert, said. “Archie proved that there was room for science in poetry,” he added.

Ammons’s ability to utilize science and natural phenomena in his work was noted by University President Hunter R. Rawlings III in his commencement address to the 130th graduating class in 1998.

“One of Archie Ammons’s special gifts is his ability to draw richly upon his perception of the natural world, which he observes with the skill of the science major he once was and the competent naturalist he remains,” Rawlings said.

Ammons himself once said that he, “couldn’t write if he thought it was going to be important,” so he wrote on the back of used mimeographed paper that his wife brought home.

At other times writing on adding machine tape, Ammons’s “lines would be as close to the width of the tape as he could get them to be,” Gilbert said. This method of writing, in addition to giving the poetry its structural form, according to Gilbert, created the sense of endless unrolling of thoughts and experiences, reflecting the flux and flow of Ammons’s work.

Echoing this tactic, Ammons wrote using his trademark colon to reflect the flow of his poems. The colon would stand for the period, the comma, or almost any punctuation mark.

“The colon permits him to stress the linkage between clauses and to postpone closure indefinitely,” conveying the continuous flux he desired, literary critic David Lehman once said.

Ammons refused to commit to a specific length in his poetry, writing book-length poems as well as poems that consisted of two lines. Ammons won his second National Book Award in 1993 for Garbage, a book length poem, described as “networks of words, intricate as the realities they represent,” by famous literary critic Helen Vendler, A. Kingsley Porter Professor of English as Harvard.

“In Garbage, the realities are death, desecration and despair and Ammons’s volatile currents of language unfailingly provide that network,” Vendler said.

Ammons’s subjects varied like the lengths of his poems, balancing his heavier subjects with playful poems, displaying characteristic wit.

“Ammons’s sly and sometimes bawdy humor turns up more frequently in his extended poems, which are spacious and inclusive, accommodating everything from hymns to credos to memos received and jokes overheard,” Lehman said.

“Ammons’s short poems tend, by contrast, to be compressed and intense meditations on nature and natural phenomena,” Lehman continued. This ability to master both the long and the short poem allowed Ammons to go further in both directions than most poets had gone, according to Gilbert.

As a gift to the Cornell community, Ammons gave some of the originals of his poetry to the Kroch Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts. Ammons donated these notes and papers at “Ammonsfest,” a celebration of his poetry held at Cornell on April 2-4, 1998.

Despite all of the awards and praise that Ammons received, despite writing nearly 30 books of poetry, despite the masses of fans and students who came to love Ammons’s poetry, his life’s work can best be summarized by the man himself, “But Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events/ I cannot draw the ledger I cannot keep the accounting/ Beyond the account.”

Archived article by Ruthie Wahl