March 12, 2001

Legacy of a C.U. Poet

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An eclectic’s gallery made from pink pieces of paper containing poems written by A.R. (Archie) Ammons, one of America’s most honored poets, began to decorate the walls of Goldwin Smith Hall last week — yet another sign of Ammons’s sweeping impact on the Cornell community and all who read his poems.

The exhibit, which many passing by described as “a lovely and moving tribute,” was organized by staff members from the English Department in commemoration of Ammons, 75, the long-standing Goldwin Smith Professor Emeritus of Poetry who passed away from cancer on Feb. 25 at his home in Cayuga Heights.

“As part of our grieving process, we spontaneously started picking poems, and our efforts quickly proliferated as students and faculty began to help. Before we knew it, we had touched a lot of people, and that made us feel better,” said Marianne Marsh, manager of the English Department.

Despite Ammons’s national prominence, he made himself very accessible throughout his career, often arriving at his office around 7:30 a.m. and staying there late in the day. All the while, he kept his door wide open, ready to welcome anyone who dropped by.

“Archie was like our building buddy,” Marsh said. “He was someone we staff members saw frequently, and he was an important part of our lives.”

Ammons could recognize people coming to his office just by the sound of their footprints, Prof. Phyllis Janowitz, English, recalled.

“He was as interested in you as you were in him. He liked people, and he gave himself away very generously,” Janowitz said.

At the time of his death, Ammons had won nearly every major poetry prize in the United States, including the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Poetry over a Lifetime and a MacArthur “genius award.”

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

Starting with a massive landfill “down by I-95/in Florida,” he suggests in Garbage that “anything,/anything, anything is poetry.”

Despite his long list of accolades, Ammons never felt that prizes were a test of good poetry, according to Alice Fulton M.F.A. ’82, one of Ammons’s former students who went on to teach English at the University of Michigan.

“Archie was so modest. If you began to praise his newest poem, he would try to change the subject and ask you about your own writing. His celebrity status was just something that fell upon him,” Fulton said.

Although he never traveled far beyond his birthplace in Whiteville, North Carolina and his Ithaca home, Ammons had a gift for careful observation and seeing wealth in small spaces, said President Hunter R. Rawlings III, who knew Ammons both as a neighbor and a friend.

“No one wrote like Archie,” Rawlings said, describing his style as “idiosyncratic, playful and concise” — a style that quickly became a distinguished voice at the University and brought a center of culture that has carried a legacy.

“There are few people who truly define a place. Archie was unique in that he helped define Cornell’s essence,” Rawlings said.

Rawlings singled out “Stand-In” (from Brink Road ) as one poem that rings near to Cornell:

“A young woman/On the bridge tosses/Rocks of/Old snow

Over the rail and leans to/Watch them/Streak/Down into the gorge: all

The pleasures of/Flight with/None of the harmful side/Effects.”

Ithaca’s natural scenery with its gorges, hills and capricious weather became the inspiration for much of Ammons’s poetry, Roald Hoffmann, the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor in Humane Letters, observed.

A former colleague, Hoffmann characterized Ammons as a “natural philosopher” in a speech he delivered at the AmmonsFest celebration given to honor the poet at Cornell in 1998.

Whereas the expectation is that a poet who writes about nature will be conventional, Ammons was an originator, Hoffmann said.

“His poems are mostly verbs. It is poetry of motion,” he said. “Archie was the master of walking the tight edge of syntax.”

Ammons’s interest in the local environment and its connections with the human soul often led critics to claim that he was the thematic descendent of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.

Ammons’s originality emerged not only in his poetry but also in the way he conducted his literary life, according to Fulton.

Often composing his long poems with minimal revision, Ammons used strips of adding machine paper as his medium.

“It was as though his poems were inside him coiled up, and all he had to do was draw them out,” Fulton said.

An architect of the heart, Ammons developed his own unique vocabulary to probe deeper than many other poets would dare.

“Everything we try to hide, he showed. He was the most emotionally naked poet I’ve ever known,” Fulton said.

Ammons’s sharp and witty, sometimes painfully honest, poetic descriptions struck so near to the common chord of real-life experience that he touched fans from many disparate ages and professions.

Fulton remembered one Ammons reading near his hometown in North Carolina where people from all over the country flocked to meet their poetic guru.

Engineers, real estate brokers, scientists, house painters and writers stood before the crowd to testify how his poetry had changed their lives.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Fulton recalled of the event.

Following another such poetry reading at Cornell in 1964, Ammons was invited to teach creative writing in the Department of English, even though he did not hold a Ph.D.

In this way, the tall, gregarious, red-haired gentleman from the South soon became a common sight around Cornell and the Temple of Zeus, the basement coffee shop in Goldwin Smith — where he remained for 26 years, influencing generations of students.

“He changed my life, and my poetry,” said Kenneth McClane ’73, the W. E. B. DuBois Professor of Literature.

Cathy Carlson ’93 added, “He was committed to helping us develop a particular voice that was personable and even familiar.”

Students in one freshman writing seminar last spring remember the day when Ammons surprised their class with a guest appearance, reading from his poetry despite his deteriorating health condition.

“Meeting him was an honor,” said AnnaRose Taber ’03.

“I couldn’t believe how lucky we were,” Taber added, describing Ammons’s friendly nature and his soft and distinct North Carolinian accent.

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 was surprisingly prolific and managed to write nearly 30 books throughout his career.

His first collection, Ommateum, referring to an insect’s compound eye, was published in 1955. Ammons finished Glare , his final book of poems, in 1997.

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.

In addition to these other careers, Ammons took to painting for a few years in the 1980s. He hosted a show at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in 1981.

Although he started painting with no serious training, Ammons took to the career in a big way, often completing five or six pieces each
day. Ammons finished one watercolor in a mere 15 minutes.

“Vivid and oddly soulful,” Ammons’s style of painting at times resembled the way he wrote poetry, McClane recalled.

He used the same gorgeous colors, curves and spheres, and he was experimental, spontaneous and always trying out new materials, McClane said.

Ammons’s talent for manipulating two such disparate media forms probably stemmed from “the fact that he was always thinking about space; he tried to portray the shapes and drifts of his imagination,” McClane posited.

“It was amazing to see,” he said, recalling how an art appraiser was visiting his office one day and caught sight of one of Ammons’s oil paintings on the office wall. Even though the appraiser was present for an entirely different reason, he saw the art piece and quickly became interested.

Life was not always easy-going for Ammons, growing up in the country, the son of farmers.

Ammons’s two younger brothers died as infants, and he once wrote how morbid images of his childhood remained in his mind — from a coffin being constructed for one sibling, to his mother trying to build a cover over a footprint made in the yard by another child.

The latter act of preservation, he once said, “was the most powerful image I’ve ever known.”

These early hardships helped developed Ammons’s character, observed Robert R. Morgan, the Kappa Alpha Professor of English.

He was willing to take the unpopular view and to champion “the truly disadvantaged outsider,” Morgan said. “He was a presence [and] a leader.”

Open, honest and free, Ammons was also known for his sense of humor, noted literary critic David Lehman.

He liked reminding his readers that the word ‘magnificent’ sounded like ‘maggie-went-a-fishin” where he grew up.

Down to earth, simple and sophisticated, Ammons drove a white Toyota every morning to work. Clothes and material possessions were never a big deal to him.

The poet of everything that is, he wrote his poetry as he lived his life.

“He was in all ways a poet. He loved what he did, and he wanted the common person to discover the delight of poetry,” said Phyllis Ammons, his widow.

“He shunned neither the low, the mean, the vulgar, the cosmic, the beautiful, the ethereal, nor anything in between,” Fulton said.

There was always a bit of the child in him, she added, recalling how Ammons once wrote in Cut the Grass that anything “less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys.”

“Archie was an immensely lovable, highly unique individual. Our literary careers were closely interwoven, and I miss him very badly,” said Harold Bloom ’51, famed literary critic and the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.

“His poetry will live on forever,” Bloom said, singling out Ammons as one of the premier poets of the 20th century.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts