Archie Randolph Ammons was born on February 18, 1926 on a tobacco farm outside Whiteville, North Carolia, which is situated in the southeastern part of the state. He began writing while serving in World War II on the USS Gunason. After completion of his service, he attended Wake Forest University where he majored in biology. After graduating in 1949, he worked as principal and teacher at Hattaras Elementary School as well as a real estate salesman, an editor, and as an executive in the family's glass company before beginning teaching at Cornell University in 1964.
Ammons is arguably the most important American poet born in the South of the United States. Of his peers, the only close comparison is probably Robert Penn Warren, but because of Warren's reputation for fiction writing and criticism as well as poetry, Ammons is probably more noted and influential in poetry. After a slow start in his writing, Ammons became one of the most productive and versatile of American poets. Apart from a few short pieces of critical prose, his entire library of work consists of a wide range of poetry, including short, intense lyrics to long, relaxed verse essays. His style is notable for its ironic take on serious matters. Since 1975, Ammons has diversified his talents and has become a recognized painter as well as a poet. He was married to Phyllis Plumbo. He passed away on February 25, 2001.
Ammons often wrote in two- or three-line stanzas. Ammons's poems have a great variety of length, his shortest ones being only one or two lines long while others were hundreds of lines long. These were uniquely written on adding machine tape, such as those found in a cashier's till at a shopping mall or other similar strips of long, continuous paper. The medium of his work is often part of the art and message of his poetry and should be considered when analyzing his work. For example, his National Book Award-winning Garbage is a long poem consisting of a single extended sentence divided into 18 sections arranged in couplets. His work on the whole has been described as original, inventive, organic, homely, anti-institutional, nonestablishment, unacademic, eccentric, unpredictable, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic and patriotic.
Garbage was inspired by America's debate about the nature of waste management with humans' becoming more sedentary in their lifestyle; considering that they create permanent settlements, they therefore have to worry about the way they deal with waste. Ammons's poem takes a more philosophical view of the waste problem as opposed to the more conventional thinking that America's waste problem is going to continue to escalate into unmanageable proportions. The message of Ammons's poem is that with a growing collective consciousness, we can manage our growing waste problem as well as the world's other problems. The other themes he normally writes about are harmony and continuity as seen in one of his other notable works Ommateum. Within Ammon's work, blatant references to Emerson, Williams and Eliot as well as covert allusions to Pound, Stevens and Frost, along with several other poets and critics, ancient and modern, can be found.
It is surprising that more than 30 years since Ammons wrote Ommateum, there has generally been very little criticism of this and his other pieces of work. His many critics are Alan Holder and Richard Howard. However, Holder's book is not always accurate and is criticized itself as uninspired. Howard's criticism, on the other hand, expresses mainly appreciation and delectation and is sympathetic toward Ammons's work.
Among the many honors Ammons received as a result of his work are a Traveling Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Levinson Award, an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a MacArthur Prize Fellow Award. He has been given an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.