If he weren’t shambling across the well-manicured quadrangle of Wake Forest College, the tall, slope-shouldered man might be figured for…a real estate salesman? The clothes aren’t flashy enough. How about a businessman trying to hustle an order from the college purchasing agent? Closer.
Actually Archie Ammons, in his 49 years, has sold real estate, been executive vice-president of a company that made science lab glassware, an elementary school principal, a magazine editor. Out of that variegated background finally emerged a poet, whom one critic calls “possibly the most important poet writing in America today.”
The reaction from A.R. Ammons is deadpan: “Oh that’s true, except you might want to leave out the ‘possibly.’ ” Not a twinkle or a smile betrays whether Ammons is less than cocksure about his skill and stature. But for the most part his wit is wry, his humor self-humbling. They are on display because it is Tuesday, and the visiting professor from Cornell is conducting a poetry seminar. “You are a terrible speller,” Ammons chides one of his students, then adds with a grin, “but I suppose poets are supposed to be terrible spellers.”
Poets, however, are not supposed to be TV sports freaks or billiards aces—least of all the 1975 recipient of Yale’s prestigious Bollingen Prize. Ammons is all three of these and, as recently as 1962 was sitting behind a desk at that New Jersey glass firm. Peddling test tubes was too great a distraction from his poetry, and—recklessly, or so it seemed to some of his colleagues—he quit.
“You dive off into a poem with a leap of faith,” says Ammons who rarely rewrites his first drafts and certainly doesn’t want to rewrite his life. “You never know where it will lead you.” Fulltime pursuit of his muse led Ammons to Cornell where by 1973 he had become Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry. He has taken a year’s leave of absence to teach at Wake Forest, from which he graduated on the G.I. Bill as a bachelor of science in 1949.
He loves it. “A poet has fallen out of every bush I’ve shaken around here,” observes Ammons of Winston-Salem in his native North Carolina. “Even a doctor reached into his pocket after my examination, pulled out a sheaf of papers and said, ‘I wonder if you’d have time to look these over.’ ”
Ammons makes the time for such would-be Dantes at a once-a-week convocation open to one and all with the gumption to read their work aloud. He’s also started The Nickelodeon, a weekly single-sheet poetry broadside—hawked around campus at 5¢ a copy. “I am the editor,” Ammons says with mock severity, “and I am dictatorial.”
He can be quite as stern with the 20 or so students in his seminar. “That,” he observes, jabbing a long finger at the bottom of the first page of a rambling three-page epic, “might have been a good place to quit.”
Perhaps in reaction to the loneliness he recalls as an 18-year-old seaman penning his first verses aboard a destroyer escort in World War II’s Pacific theater, Ammons prefers now to work almost in a crowd. He concocts his crisp poetry—whose cosmic themes dwell on man’s relationship to his universe—on the dining room table, hub of the rented house he shares with his wife, Phyllis, and adopted 9-year-old son John. His latest work, Sphere: The Form of a Motion, is up for a National Book Award. He won it in 1973 for his Collected Poems: 1951-1971. That volume contained a passage autobiographical of the former businessman turned poet and professor: “sing possible/changes/that might redeem.”