In 1955, A.R. Ammons self-published his first collection of poems in a volume titled Ommateum. Five years later, he sold the 16th copy of his book. Working his way steadily up the ladder of success at his father-in-law’s company producing glassware used in biological and medical industries. The money was good and the dream of making a living as poet he’d had since writing verse while the war in the Pacific raged around him in 1945 was fading without too much concern. After all, when you do not depend on your poetry to feed and shelter you, broad vistas of freedom open up.
Then in 1964 he took a position teaching at Cornell, published his second collection of poetry and found himself at the center of one of the most extraordinary reversals of fortune in the history of American literature. Less than a decade later, Ammons collected most of the poems he’d produced over the course of the last twenty years, compiled them together and published them as Collected Poems 1951-1971. In 1973, the man who practically couldn’t give his poems away ten years before found himself accepting the National Book Award for Poetry for those collected poems.
Since then, Ammons has been vociferously championed by esteemed critic Harold Bloom in ways that have compared him favorably to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Frost. Twenty years after publishing Collected Poems, Ammons would pick up his second National Book Award for Garbage. Although primarily known as a traditionalist American transcendentalist, Ammons has also gained fame for avant-garde experimentation for the unique provenance of the unusually constricted appearance of Tape for the Turn of the Year. The idiosyncratic construction of that particular piece is due to its being type out on the narrow media of adding machine tape in a manner to be taken “as is” with no later corrections or revisions.
As for the recurrence of themes in the poems of A.R. Ammons, look no further than the man to which Bloom compares with the greatest singularity of purpose. Ammons belongs to the long and great tradition of the American Transcendentalists who sought to find unification between the great and the small. The result is an almost scientific obsession with the minute as a means of discovering something magnificent and prosaic preoccupation with the tangibility of nature as a pathway to the abstract. At the heart of the poetic output of Ammons is a concern to discover the connections between the one and the many and the opportunity for understanding that may derive from analysis of this dualism.