Remembering A.R. Ammons (1926-2001)
by Emily Wilson
A.R. Ammons and Emily Wilson
Photo by Phyllis Ammons
"I have lived so long away, by need and necessity, that I switch into another system, the 'blood-system,' when I think of Carolina, the corn-shuckings, the log-sawings on moonlit nights, Easter egg hunts--and the incredible pain of grief and work and incomprehension."
A.R. Ammons in a letter to Emily Wilson, August 21, 2000
North Carolina's native son, A.R. Ammons, had published more than two dozen books of poetry, won every major literary prize in America, taught for more than thirty years at Cornell University, and painted more than a thousand watercolors when he died of cancer February 25, 2001 in Ithaca, New York, a few weeks past his seventy-fifth birthday.
Still, the numbers do not add up to the size of the loss for those who loved him as teacher and friend. Readers who only knew his poems loved him, too. He was the human in humanity: He was "Archie," and his death was a troubling beginning for a new century. Before 9/ll and the war in Iraq and the tsunami, and on and on, we felt the loss of this one American poet in the marrow of our bones, for he walked into -- and too soon out of -- our lives with jangling nerves and the relaxed gait of an American Original.
Now there is a book of last poems he selected himself--with the seriously playful title of Bosh and Flapdoodle (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.)--to keep him alive as long as poetry matters. "I perforce raise the level of the mud till it endows shining," he wrote in "Fasting," one of his last poems for "possibility, hope, anguish, and alarm." Such mixing of commonplace and abstract language in his first book (self-published in 1955) was met mostly by indifference: Whose voice was this man crying out from his self-imposed exile, "I am Ezra"? Whose pig squeals? Prophet or farm boy?
Ammons's fame and fortune were a long time coming-- and he felt the absence in his marrow -- until by the l970s praise rolled in as if his place in American literature had always been undeniably secure (the literary critics Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom securely anchoring the praise). Large cash prizes arrived at the door, students worshipped him, colleagues leaned close to hear what he had to say in Cornell's coffee shop (made famous by his daily visits there), and poems continued to emerge from his old Royal typewriter (often first written on the back of an envelope). Recently a posthumous poem appeared in The New Yorker, there is a new book of essays about him (Considering the Radiance, also published this year by Norton), and one of his former students -- herself a fine poet, Alice Fulton -- hails Bosh and Flapdoodle as perhaps "his most moving book." Such slaphappy language in the title is undermined constantly in the poems by wit in the Mark Twain tradition, and by Old Testament pain and suffering.
But it is the loss of my friendship with Archie of more than thirty years that compels this love song (remembering the line "I will not end my grief" in his poem "Nelly Myers"). The day before he died in Ithaca, I leaned over to speak to him and read his whisper, "Well, look what the cat dragged in!" And then he said to me and to his beloved son, John, "Stand up, and let me look at you." He looked for a very long time, and then he said, "Now go." We had been blessed, as by a farm boy and a prophet. His blessings for us all continue in his poems.
In bringing the spirit of his great life and work home to North Carolina, let us remember him always in the wonderment of how he taught us to see the world in his poem "Still" -- "magnificent with being."
Emily Herring Wilson is a Georgia native and a graduate of Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (present-day UNC-G). She is a poet and nonfiction writer who lives in Winston-Salem, where she and her family became friends with A.R. Ammons and his wife, Phyllis, and son, John, during Archie's first residency at his alma mater, Wake Forest University ('49). Her most recent book is No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Elizabeth Lawrence(Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004).