Archie Randolph Ammons | Critical Review by Pedro E. Ponce

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Archie Randolph Ammons.
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Critical Review by Pedro E. Ponce

SOURCE: "A Poet's Long Path to Literary Honors," in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. XL, No. 15, December 1, 1993, p. A6.

In the following review, Ponce discusses Garbage, stating that "As in his earlier poems, he uses an object as a springboard into thoughts of a universal significance."

Writers usually prefer not to have their work labeled as garbage, but the poet and Cornell professor A. R. Ammons has found phenomenal success with the label.

Garbage, his latest book, won Mr. Ammons his second National Book Award for Poetry two weeks ago. It is a single, 121-page poem inspired by a heap of garbage that Mr. Ammons saw in Florida.

For the author of 21 books, Mr. Ammons is reticent about his work. "It's just what I do," he says.

His colleagues are more forthright. David Bonanno, an editor at The American Poetry Review, says Garbage is "a major poem by a major poet."

Roald Hoffman, a Cornell chemistry professor who has published two books of poetry, calls Mr. Ammons "an inspiration." Over the last 10 years, Mr. Hoffmann has participated in an informal poetry-reading group with Mr. Ammons. "He's more than a fellow poet," says Mr. Hoffman, a winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry. "He's sort of my guru."

Although Mr. Ammons says that poetry was his "governing energy from the age of 18," his path to publication was a long one. Born in Whiteville, N.C., in 1926, he attended Wake Forest University on the GI Bill after serving in the Navy during World War II.

He spent his first year out of college as the principal of an elementary school in Cape Hatteras, N.C. He moved to New Jersey and worked for 12 years as an executive for a biological-glassware factory.

In 1955 Mr. Ammons published his first book of poetry, Ommateum, with Doxology. Printed at his expense, the book, he says, sold 16 copies in five years.

In 1963, Mr. Ammons was asked to do a reading at Cornell University. He has been teaching poetry there ever since.

Nine years separated the publication of Ommateum and the appearance of his next book, Expressions of Sea Level. This was followed by Corsons Inlet in 1965.

In his early poems, the author wrestles with the conflict between the artist, who tries to structure the world, and the world itself, which defies structure. As expressed in the title piece of Corsons Inlet, "in nature there are few sharp lines." Mr. Ammons observes:

        I will try
      to fasten into order enlarging
      grasps of disorder, widening
    scope, but enjoying the freedom that
    Scope eludes my grasp, that
      there is no finality of vision,
    that I have perceived nothing completely,
    that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

Of Mr. Ammons's technique, Mr. Hoffmann says: "He makes us walk the hard edge of syntax. He uses language to make us read slower, to feel something in a way that no other poet does."

Since he began to publish steadily, Mr. Ammons has been no stranger to literary success. His work won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1973, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1973–74, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1981.

Garbage was conceived during a trip Mr. Ammons made to visit his mother-in-law in 1987. While driving on I-95, he saw a mountain of garbage at a landfill. He didn't stop, but the image stayed with him.

After an unsatisfactory first draft, he returned to the poem in earnest in 1989. He used a roll of adding machine tape to compose "because you don't have to stop to change the sheets of paper."

A heart attack later in the year and triple bypass surgery in 1990 forced him to set the poem aside again. The first five sections of the completed poem did not appear in print until 1992 in The American Poetry Review, but the positive response encouraged Mr. Ammons to submit it to his publisher.

Garbage comprises 18 sections that follow the poet's thoughts, both sacred and scatological, as he contemplates a pile of trash. As in his earlier poems, he uses an object as a springboard into thoughts of a universal significance:

      garbage has to be the poem of our time because
      garbage is spiritual, believable enough
 
      to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
      up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and
 
      creamy white: what else deflects us from the
      errors of our illusionary ways …

Of Garbage, Mr. Bonanno of The American Poetry Review says: "Part of what makes it a successful poem is that once he gets going, he can move so quickly from subject matter to subject matter and it's all of one piece." Mr. Bonanno likens the tone to the improvisational style of a jazz musician.

Mr. Ammons declines to discuss his future plans, except to say that he wants to retire from teaching after this academic year.

Despite his success, Mr. Ammons keeps a perspective on his work that is as uncompromising as his compressed and complicated use of language in poetry.

"The most important thing to me about poetry is writing the poem," he says. Reflecting on his long apprenticeship before publishing his poetry, he remarks, "Do you think the audience sustains you during that period? They're not even there. I write poems whether anybody reads them or not. I read them."

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This section contains 869 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Pedro E. Ponce
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