Criticism — From the August 2017 issue

American Expansion

The innovations of A.R. Ammons

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Archie Randolph Ammons, one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, never became as widely known as his contemporaries. He avoided reading his poems in public (“I get stage fright,” he wrote), and even when he received the National Book Award in 1993, anxiety precluded his appearing in person to collect it. I was one of the judges that year, and he asked me to read his acceptance speech at the ceremony. “As you’ll recall,” he wrote to me, “I show off but not up.” In spite of this intense emotional fragility, he wrote tirelessly.

If poetry is a perpetual standoff between tradition and the individual talent, Ammons always emphasized the latter. And unlike T. S. Eliot, whose allusive, multilingual poems established his individuality against the European canon, Ammons defined himself explicitly as an American poet writing of American places and American people. His goal, it seemed, was to reinvent lyric poetry for contemporary America.

Ammons’s America stretched from the magma underneath the continent to the expanding universe above. He extended Walt Whitman’s generous conception of the country by incorporating into his work not only the vocabulary and the formulas of modern scientific discovery but also the revolution of the imagination that followed in its wake. In place of Whitman’s terrestrial, geographic idea of poetic structure, Ammons adopted a geometric one, drawing on forms such as crystals and spheres. With each new volume, he revealed a surprising phase of creative experimentation. He had the rare good luck of remaining a striking poet into old age, revealing in every decade fresh and original impressions on social, cultural, and personal phenomena.

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the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University, has written frequently on lyric poetry. This essay is adapted from her introduction to The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons, which will be published by W. W. Norton in October.

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