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A.R. Ammons’ Poetry
Continues to Earn Recognition

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Melba Pate Wyche recalls Archie Randolph Ammons, Columbus County’s most celebrated writer, this way: "They called him ‘a poet’s poet,’ but he was down to earth; he was anybody’s poet.”

Wyche is one of the people who have worked hard to make Ammons "anybody’s poet” for generations of students and adults in the county. During her career as an English teacher at Hallsboro High School, she invited Ammons to come back to his home county and speak to high school and college students, and after her retirement she helped establish the annual spring poetry contest in his name. Sponsors are BB&T, The News Reporter and the Reuben Brown House Preservation Society.

Ammons 15jan18Wyche’s friend and colleague Susan Wood describes Ammons as a versatile, multitalented artist who "could be so esoteric sometimes, but then he could focus on the tiniest detail of a chickadee he saw out the window. If he’d been here for the snow we had, he’d have written four or five poems about it,” she said. "And that’s so typical of us here in this county. Whenever a few of us get together, what do we want to talk about? The weather.”

Wood has chaired the A.R. Ammons Poetry Contest committee since its formation in 1992. She estimates that the committee received about 450 entries for the first awards, given in 1993, and that "we’ve averaged about 700 per year since then. It’s been as high as 1,100.”

Two Huge New Books
In spite of the fact that Ammons died in 2001, he and his work have been the subject of recent enthusiastic articles in The New York Times, Harper’sand The New Yorker.This buzz in the literary world is due to the 2017 publication by W.W. Norton and Company of a two-volume set of Ammons’ complete poems, collected and edited by Robert West, with an introduction by poetry critic Helen Vendler. Notes explaining the poems’ composition and publication histories may be useful to students of poetry or just readers who want to understand some of Ammons’ more oblique references.

The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, volumes I and II bring together poems written over a four-plus decades period, beginning in 1955. In fact, Ammons began writing poetry as a youth growing up in a tenant farming family in New Hope, south of Whiteville. He wrote again during his days in the South Pacific during WWII, but when the GI Bill gave him the opportunity to attend college, it was general science he studied. After graduating in 1949, he taught school on the Outer Banks and married Spanish teacher Phyllis Plumbo. He received a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley.

Ammons’ first book, Ommateum, was privately printed with a run of only 80 copies. He wrote Corson’s Inlet and Tape for the Turn of the Yearduring the period in the early 1960s when he was working in his father-in-law’s New Jersey glass factory. In 1964 he joined the faculty of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. His Collected Poems, 1951- 1971 won Ammons his first National Book Award in 1973; his second came in 1993 for the 80-page sentence forming the book Garbage.

Ammons dedicated Garbage"to the bacteria, tumblebugs, scavengers, wordsmiths – the transfigurers, restorers.” His self-deprecation was evident not only in the way he put writers in the same category as bacteria but also in the way he reacted to fame. When accepting an honorary degree or a prestigious award, Ammons preferred not to sit on stage with the other dignitaries. When Wood asked him for permission to name the poetry contest in his honor, she said, "He wrote such a lovely letter, accepting, but saying, ‘I don’t know why you want to honor me.’”

Poet’s Poet and Anybody’s Poet
Contemporary critic and Wellesley College instructor David Chiasson, author of the New Yorker review, points out that Ammons’ sparsely-punctuated free-verse poems bring together the vocabularies of educated and everyday English, of the scientific world and of 1930s country life in a way that no other poet’s work has ever done. His "Carolina Said-Songs” recreate country dialect, spelled the way it sounded to Ammons. Other poems send the reader to the dictionary to find out what, for example, a word such as "copepod” or "noctilucent” means.

Ammons2 15jan18(Copepods are a subclass of crustaceans, including both freshwater and saltwater types. Noctilucent clouds are high ice-crystal formations in the western summer sky, invisible by daylight but visible after sunset when the sun’s light illuminates them from below the horizon. And the book title Ommateum refers to an insect’s compound eye.)

Ammons eulogized hardworking mules and humans; he mourned his siblings who died in infancy, especially his little brother Elbert, who died at a year and a half when Archie was only four. In a series of numbered "Hymns,” Ammons addresses God as being present "everywhere partial and entire” in nature. But he also tells God, "I hold you responsible…” for a list of phenomena ranging from the existence of light, to "ducks on the bay barking like hounds all night,” to the workings of the human brain, and to cancer.

"Hymn V” begs God to provide certainty in an uncertain world:

"Assure us you side with order:…spare us/the accidents, controversies, novelties,/ constant adaptations, the working truths and/tentative assessments, the upheavals and unrest/of an unquiet past shaken by/the addition of a modern fact…”

"Correction,” one of Melba Wyche’s favorites from the 1951-1971 collection, plays with scientific terminology to make a point about the poet’s personal state of mind:

The burdens of the world/ on my back/lighten the world/ not a whit while/removing them greatly/decreases my specific/gravity.

While some of Ammons’ poems are book-length, others are merely one or two lines long, such as the following image, called "Mirrorment”:

Birds are flowers flying/and flowers perched birds

Ammons’ poems can be enjoyed on several levels, said Susan Wood, with apparent simplicity that young readers can enjoy, but also with more adult meanings that will continue to unfold as the readers grow.

In the 1951-1971 collection are six poems beginning with the words "I can tell you what I need…” The needs turn out to be "a stronger assortment of battleboasts,” "a soft counselor laboriously gentle,” "somebody to asserverate I’m a poet,” "one of those poles Archimedes thrust,” "money” and "a good periodontist.”

Columbus County Remembers Ammons
Ammons’ only surviving sibling is his two-years-older sister Vida Ammons Cox. "All you need to say is we were born in the 20s and grew up in the Depression. That says it all,” Cox said. "That was a difficult time. We were poor, but no more than the others in the community were. There was no electricity.

"We walked to school. That was always an adventure, playing with ice in the ditches. He had a bird in a cage and his dog, Spot. He had ants in a terrarium.”

The young Vida and Archie Ammons were "very close,” she said, not only in age but by inclination. "We played together a lot. There were pine woods behind us, with pinestraw on the ground. It was a beautiful place to play. We built wigwams and made our own inventions.”

The Ammons children attended elementary school in New Hope, with their first cousin Mabel Powell as teacher and principal. "She was all business and everybody loved her,” said Vida Cox. Cox believes it was in 7th grade that her brother wrote his first poem, "Pocahontas,” for which he received important validation from their cousin, encouraging him to continue writing. The Ammonses attended Whiteville High School for 8th through 11th grades.

Wood said that the new release of the two huge volumes does not mean that Ammons has been "rediscovered.” On the contrary, "He’s been prominent since the 60s, and he’s never sunk. He got every (poetry prize) there was to get while he was still alive, some of them twice.”

What is new is simply that Ammons’ work is now all in one place. During his lifetime, his poems were printed individually in literary magazines or collected in slim paperback books that had very small press runs.

A hardback first edition of the award-winning 1951-1971 collection is practically impossible to find today. When it was released in paperback, only 2,000 copies were made, and "that was considered a large press run for a book of poetry,” said Wood.

Ammons’ widow and son established a scholarship at Southeastern Community College in his honor. Another important part of Ammons’ legacy, Wood said, is the "approximately 17,000 poems” written by students and others for the contest held in his honor since 1993.

The Reuben Brown House Preservation Society has worked to plan special observances in connection with the 25th anniversary of the A.R. Ammons Poetry Contest. Capping the events will be a visit by the U.S. Poet Laureate, Dr. Tracy Smith, who will provide educational programs to area students.

Entries for the 2018 contest must be postmarked by February 17 and received by Hilda Ray, committee secretary, no later than February 24. Detailed information is available at www.reubenbrownhouse.com. The limit is three entries per person.

By Diana Matthews (dianamatthews@nrcolumbus.com)

Article and Images Courtesy of and as Published January 15, 2018 in The News Reporter www.NRColumbus.com

The Reuben Brown House Preservation Society is an IRS Code 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Contributions to the RBHPS are fully tax-deductible for federal income tax purposes.

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