The American poet Archie Randolph Ammons was one of those writers that defies categorisation. He wrote in an unusual style, sometimes without any punctuation. In fact one of his poems, the book-length Garbage, appears to be just one, elongated sentence which has been divided into sections and couplets. Despite being a piece of work that some might have difficulty reading and enjoying, it won the prestigious National Book Award, and he accumulated countless other honours and awards throughout his lifetime. Much of his writing explores our relationships with the natural world and is often portrayed, at first, in a solemn way before suddenly switching into something humorous.
Ammons was born in February 1926 and spent his early years on a cotton and tobacco farm in North Carolina. This was, of course, the time of the Great Depression and his education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. He enlisted into the US Navy, serving on an escort vessel that fortunately did not get him into too much danger. He found time here to write his first poems and, once the war had ended, he went back to college to complete his education. He majored in Biology and went on to do some teaching where he met his wife to be, Phyllis Plumbo. Continuing his studies he achieved a MA degree in English at Berkley’s University of California.
Teaching was definitely in his blood and he served in a number of posts including Professor of the English language at Cornell University from 1964 until he retired in 1998. His passion though was for poetry and he wrote for the best part of 50 years of his life. The honours and awards that came his way are too numerous to mention but included, in addition to the one mentioned above, the PSA’s Robert Frost Medal and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation.
As alluded to earlier, he certainly adopted his own style of writing that bore little resemblance to what might be considered “traditional” poetry. The 2/3-line stanza was a favourite mode of writing and some poems were even as short as 1 or 2 lines. Though it is longer than that, but not by much, here is a good example of his unusual writing style. He called the poem below Elegy for a Jet Pilot:
He seemed to write down his thoughts on whatever material was closest to hand – it could be a roll of adding machine tape for example. His attitude to punctuation was sketchy at best – even idiosyncratic. He was probably inspired by the great writer T S Eliot’s assertion that poetry is
Ammons occasionally ended his poems with a series of dots, maybe implying that there was more but the reader had to fill it in themselves. He was very fond of using the colon as, in some cases, his only bit of punctuation in an entire poem. It somehow made sense though and his readers didn’t seem to mind the idiosyncrasies.
Many of his poems explored religious and philosophical matters and sometimes skipped over into transcendental planes. He had a talent for stating the obvious sometimes, as in the line:
While this is fundamentally true the sentiment ignores the fact that great writers leave something behind them – a legacy of words to be enjoyed by generations afterwards. A R Ammons certainly did make something of himself. He was an influential writer, much revered by students of poetry and literary critics alike.
Archie Randolph Ammons died in February 2001, a week after his 75th birthday.