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Poetry as Autobiography

Friday from the Archives: “Reconciliation and Return: A.R. Ammons’s Poetry as Autobiography” by Ted Olsen from NCLR 15 (2006)

by Abby Trzepacz

“Defining a A.R. Ammons poem as “North Carolinian” may seem provincial and limiting,” NCLR Founding Editor Alex Albright wrote, “but Ammons is a poet known better in the small but extensive world of his art than in his home state. These poems are really not so much regional as they are for a region of readers, those in North Carolina who’ve somehow managed to miss the word that Archie Ammons from down about Whiteville is one of the great American poets.”

Ted Olsen provides a scholarly review of A.R. Ammons’ childhood and upbringing that shaped him into the poet he was. He writes, “Ammons’ childhood coincided with the worst years of the Great Depression, a period of emotional and spiritual, as well as economic privation for the poet and his family.” When Ammons’ popularity began to peak up North, he made the decision to move back to the South “And after he had done so, he created some of his greatest poems, which voice Ammons profound and unique – so personal and yet so universal – poetic expressions of the meanings of place, community, and the past,” Olsen said.

When discussing Ammons’ later career, Olsen focuses on the National Book Award winning Garbage, which is described as personal and direct. “That is not to say that in Garbage Ammons had abandoned his penchant for punning and word play;” Olsen notes, “the poet simply employs these literary techniques without self-consciousness. Utilized in complete harmony with his chosen topic, such techniques illustrate linguistically the complexity of people understanding something as profound as death.” Olsen provides this excerpt from Garbage Section 6 to illuminate the death motif:

we wheeled down the long glide from the mountains
into Wheeling: morning fog smoked away the tops

of hills and a river (or two) confluencing slashed
across by scary iron bridges jammed the narrowed

valley road, when the big black mouth of a tunnel
suddenly opened out of fog in solid rock, all the

events at once happening in the shakes: but then going
on down Route 7 along the Ohio; mammoth standings

of steam, way out of size, too solid to vanish, oozed
up from the nuclear craters, so much so tall that even

on our side of the river that outsized opal shades
of steam broke across, shadowing us once and again:

slows like flying by or trying to drive to a mountain,
the far ahead lingering far behind: the freeway of

refineries, chemical steams, the gross companies
toughening the banks down by the banks of O-hi-o. (44)

A.R. Ammons is a native North Carolinian, born on February 18th, 1926. His published his first collection of poems in 1955, called Ommateum: With Doxology. From here he continued to publish his poems up until 2001, when he passed away. In 2005, Bosh and Flapdoodle, the last completed collection Ammons wrote, was published. In addition to the National Book Award, he was honored many times, including the Library of Congress’s Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Throughout his life, Ammons had five poems featured in NCLR, from 1992 to 1996.

Keep an eye out for our upcoming NCLR Online Spring 2024 Issue, coming out in April, for a new essay on A.R Ammons.

Read the entire article by purchasing a copy of the 2006 issue.