April 9, 2001

Show Honoring Ammons Airs Today

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A TV show featuring readings from the poetry of A.R. (Archie) Ammons, one of America’s most honored poets, will air tomorrow afternoon at a community reception held in Anabel Taylor Hall.

Ammons, the man whom critics dubbed “the contemporary American poet most likely to become a classic,” was the longtime Goldwin Smith Professor Emeritus of Poetry who passed away on Feb. 25. At the time of his death, he had won virtually every major poetry prize in the United States.

The Cable Channel 13 program, a special co-production by Robert Finley as part of the weekly series Roundabout Tompkins County will highlight readings and short anecdotes about Ammons’s poetry from a cross-section of colleagues, friends and former students.

The group’s mission in producing the program has been to use TV as a media for aesthetical and spiritual expression while commemorating the life and work of a beloved poet, according to David Burak ’67, Ammons’s former student.

“Archie Ammons was possessed by a rare type of artistic brilliance which made even his idiosyncrasies have quirks, but there was little doubt in the minds of those of us who were his close friends that when we were together with him a transcendence took place,” Burak says in his program introduction.

“We’re here to honor that marriage of the day-to-day and the sublime which Archie’s work and life so eloquently represented,” Burak adds.

Starting off the reading series is Prof. Phyllis Janowitz, English, who selects “Bourn,” a poem about grief and loss, which concludes,

“So I came to

the decimal of being,

entered and was gone

What light there no tongue turns to tell

to willow and calling shore

though willows weep and shores sing always.”

The next program reader is James McConkey, Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus, who recalls the summer of 1964 when Ammons first visited Cornell. Following a poetry reading, Ammons so impressed the department that he was invited to teach poetry at Cornell even though he did not hold a Ph.D.

“He was a rare poet in that his very voice, his very presence, is right there on the page in the poem,” McConkey says.

Meanwhile, Prof. W. Lamar Herrin, English, remembers Ammons’s unique style, which critics have long considered to be the natural legacy of the 19th Century American transcendentalism defined by Whitman.

“I thought I’d meet another Walt Whitman or a Dylan Thomas, but I met an entirely different man altogether. What amazed me most was how gloriously he contained his contradictions,” Herrin says.

Ammons’s poem “Reflective” (from The Selected Poems) is full of such inconsistencies, Burak notes.

“I found a


that had a

mirror in it

and that


looked in at

a mirror


me that

had a

weed in it.”

The more you read “Reflective,” the more profound it becomes, according to Burak.

Characterizing Ammons as a philosopher of language and nature, Prof. Biodun Jeyifo, English, claims that Ammons’s poetry will never die.

“A philosopher has described language as the house of being. If that’s the case, I think Archie is still here,” Jeyifo says.

Arnesen describes Ammons’s role as a community builder. Despite his national prestige, Ammons was a commonplace sight to several generations of students, who would find him sitting in his office or at the Temple of Zeus Cafe waiting for visitors to drop by.

“Archie has given us all so much, including a sense of community to which I am forever grateful,” Arnesen says.

Ammons’s poems were so universal and distinctive that they expressed a religious sentiment without a particular creed, according to Prof. Emeritus M.H. Abrams, English.

“His poems conveyed a gratitude and praise for light which sheds its grace on everyone and everything equally,” Abrams says.

Ammons published nearly 30 books over the course of his lifetime. His first collection, Ommateum, came out in 1955; his final book of poems, Glare in 1997.

While he was at Cornell, Ammons won two coveted National Book Awards — in 1973 for Collected Poems and in 1993 for Garbage. The popular Collected Poems were re-released on massive scale for distribution last month by W.W. Norton and Company Publishers.

Burak ends the program by encouraging viewers to read Ammons’s poems. Teaching others to enjoy the power of poetry was the most that Ammons ever wanted.

As Ammons wrote in “Triphammer Bridge,”

“…..sanctuary, sanctuary, I say it over and over and the

word’s sound is the one place to dwell: that’s it, just

the sound, and the imagination of the sound — a place.”

“His poems are a wonderful treasury. Words and memory are stronger than physical passing,” Burak said after the program was taped.

“He seemed like everyone else, but it was an act. He was more one of a kind than anyone,” Janowitz said in an interview. “He’s irreplaceable.”

The reception, which will be an informal showing of the TV program with refreshments, will be held today from 3:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. in the Founders Room of Anabel Taylor Hall. All are welcome to attend.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts