Archie Randolph Ammons (February 18, 1926 – February 25, 2001) was an American poet who won the annual National Book Award for Poetry in 1973 and 1993.
Ammons wrote about humanity’s relationship to nature in alternately comic and solemn tones. His poetry often addresses religious and philosophical matters and scenes involving nature, almost in a Transcendental fashion. According to reviewer Daniel Hoffman, his work “is founded on an implied Emersonian division of experience into Nature and the Soul,” adding that it “sometimes consciously echo familiar lines from Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson.”(citation needed)
Ammons grew up on a tobacco farm near Whiteville, North Carolina, in the southeastern part of the state. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, stationed on board the U.S.S. Gunason, a battleship escort. After the war, Ammons attended Wake Forest University, majoring in biology. Graduating in 1949, he served as a principal and teacher at Hattaras Elementary School later that year and also married Phyllis Plumbo. He received an M.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1964, Ammons joined the faculty of Cornell University, eventually becoming Goldwin Smith Professor of English and Poet in Residence. He retired from Cornell in 1998.
Ammons had been a longtime resident of the South Jersey communities of Northfield, Ocean City and Millville, when he wrote Corsons Inlet in 1962.
During the five decades of his poetic career, Ammons was the recipient of many awards and citations. Among his major honors are the 1973 and 1993 U.S. National Book Awards (for Collected Poems, 1951-1971 and for Garbage); the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets (1998); and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981, the year the award was established. A school in Miami, Florida, was named after him.
Ammons’s other awards include a 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award for A Coast of Trees; a 1993 Library of Congress Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry for Garbage; the 1975 Bollingen Prize for Sphere; the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal; the Ruth Lilly Prize; and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978.
Ammons often writes in two- or three-line stanzas. Poet David Lehman notes a resemblance between Ammons’s terza libre (unrhymed three-line stanzas) and the terza rima of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Lines are strongly enjambed.
Some of Ammons’s poems are very short, one or two lines only, a form known as monostich (effectively, including the title, a kind of couplet), while others (for example, the book-length poems Sphere and Tape for the Turn of the Year) are hundreds of lines long, and sometimes composed on adding-machine tape or other continuous strips of paper. His National Book Award-winning volume Garbage is a long poem consisting of “a single extended sentence, divided into eighteen sections, arranged in couplets”. Ammons’s long poems tend to derive multiple strands from a single image.
Many readers and critics have noted Ammons’s idiosyncratic approach to punctuation. Lehman has written that Ammons “bears out T. S. Eliot’s observation that poetry is a ‘system of punctuation’.” Instead of periods, some poems end with an ellipsis; others have no terminal punctuation at all. The colon is an Ammons “signature”; he uses it “as an all-purpose punctuation mark.”
The colon permits him to stress the linkage between clauses and to postpone closure indefinitely…. When I asked Archie about his use of colons, he said that when he started writing poetry, he couldn’t write if he thought “it was going to be important,” so he wrote “on the back of used mimeographed paper my wife brought home, and I used small (lowercase) letters and colons, which were democratic, and meant that there would be something before and after (every phrase) and the writing would be a kind of continuous stream.”
According to critic Stephen Burt, in many poems Ammons combines three types of diction:
Such a mixture is nearly unique, Burt says; these three modes are “almost never found together outside his poems”.
In contrast, critic J. Mark Smith notes that in long poems such as Garbage, with their “improvised, no-stopping, ‘one-time event’ compositional procedures,” “Ammons works with a continuum of utterance whose central furrows are the most frequently repeated words and phrases in the contemporary American vulgate, but whose far outcastings register the faintest traces of anomalous use.” That is, Ammons subjected his own poetic style and its relation to contemporary speech to considerable scrutiny. As Smith puts it, “Ammons’s premise is that the process of sorting and grouping (or abstracting) that produces what we commonly call ‘garbage’ also powers the appearances, disappearances, and re-appearances of words.”
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— Critical studies and reviews of Ammons’ work