The Poets A. R. Ammons (1926-2001)


About the Poet

A science-minded businessman late bloomed into rustic bard, Archie Randolph Ammons unintentionally achieved a visionary optimism through lyric analogies. He was influenced by Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams. He has earned critical respect for verse essays, meditations, and anthems replete with rural pragmatism, contemporary misgivings, and a vibrant but guarded holiness. Deriving focus from Henry David Thoreau's hermitage at Walden Pond and structure from Wallace Stevens' exacting phrasing, Ammons has forged a unique succinctness. His logic derives from patterns in nature.

A native of the poor North Carolina sandhills outside Whiteville, Ammons was born on February 18, 1926. His link with nature stems from life on a farm, where the regeneration of nature was an everyday occurrence. A United States Navy veteran of the Pacific theater, he began writing poems during long night watches at sea. After graduating from Wake Forest University with a degree in chemistry, he married Phyllis Plumbo, mother of their son, John Randolph. He did advanced work in English at the University of California at Berkeley, which matched Ammons' concreteness with a poet's curiosity. His twelve-year pre-literary background includes a principalship of a Hatteras, North Carolina, elementary school and serving as officer of Friederich & Dimmock Inc., a New Jersey manufacturer of laboratory glass.

Beginning in the 1950s, Ammons injected vigor into American poetry. He earned little attention for his first self-published collection, Ommateum, with Doxology (1955), which uses the multiple eyes of an insect as metaphor for the fragmented poetic vision. After a nine-year pause, he issued Expressions of Sea Level (1964), the preface to a staff position at Cornell and a growing shelf of poetry collections. He allowed himself an unusual experiment — typing a daybook on a piece of adding machine tape, which resulted in a lengthy, digressive narrative, Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965). Sure-footed at last with formal verse, he blended poignant puzzles with humor in Corsons Inlet: A Book of Poems (1965), Northfield Poems (1966), and Selected Poems (1968), a success that earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship. Mid-career titles continued the rhythm of innovation in Uplands (1970), Briefings (1971), and Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974). A pinnacle of his mature verse, Collected Poems 1951-1971 (1972), won a National Book Award.

Firmly wedded to studying physical nature, Ammons interspersed classroom work with increasingly welcomed collections: Diversifications (1975), The Snow Poems (1977), Selected Longer Poems (1980), A Coast of Trees (1981), World Hopes (1982), Sumerian Vistas (1987), The Really Short Poems (1991), Garbage (1993), and Glare (1998), a venture into funkier rhythms, eccentric subjects, and colloquial speech. For his visionary grace, he has earned numerous awards, including the Lannan Poetry award, National Book Critics Circle award, Bollingen Prize, MacArthur Foundation award, and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the MacArthur Foundation.

Chief Works

A casual verse anthem to the dynamics of nature, "The City Limit" (1971) demonstrates Ammons' ability to match an emotion with reality. In a straightforward rhetoric achieved through five parallel adverb clauses and an answer begun at the end of line 14, the poet observes the rightness of nature. Robustly assertive, he imposes a rigid graphic discipline on observations of a power he names "the radiance." The resultant equilibrium between natural cycles of decay and reemergence offsets a fear wrought by "the glow-blue / bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped / guts of a natural slaughter." Beyond the haphazard urban "coil of shit" that defines "the city limits," his facile creation of glory out of garbage leads naturally to the "May bushes" and a restrained praise for order.

Critics declare Ammons' concept of God a form of visionary romanticism. Combining loss with emerging faith, "Easter Morning" (1981) reflects candidly on divinity. Sparsely punctuated, but guided by confessional, the narrative follows a spiritual pilgrim through grief over passing generations. In the fourth stanza, a simple statement captures the crux: "the child in me that could not become / was not ready for others to go." In the child's blunt cry of "help, come and fix this," he speaks for the human family in the pervasive fear that "we / can't get by."

In line 53, the speaker perches on the end of childhood and envisions "the flash high-burn / momentary structure of ash," which prefigures a more lasting burn in the final image. In line 71, he banishes doubt by observing the stages of flight executed by "two great birds." Investing them with the incompleteness of earthly lives, the observer remarks that they "flew on falling into distance till / they broke across the local bush and / trees." In the disappearance of the birds, he praises "bountiful / majesty and integrity," his summation of patterns in nature.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Determine the direction, shape, and clarity of Ammons' best nature poems. Comment on his intent to order in verse an impersonal, constantly shifting universe.

2. Contrast Ammons' portrayal of an emotion with reality in "The City Limit."

3. What does the title "The City Limit" mean? What does the city symbolize?

4. How does Ammons conceive of God in "Easter Morning"? Does God play an active role in human life according to the poem?

5. Compare the wonder and sufficiency of the soaring bird in Ammons' "Easter Morning" with Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Windhover."

6. Summarize how Ammons resolves questions of religious faith in "Hymn," "The Foot-Washing," "Christmas Eve," and "The Dwelling."