Poet A.R. Ammons, twice a National Book Award winner, dead at 75

A.R. Ammons, master of modern American poetry, died Feb. 25 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 75.

Ammons, Cornell University's Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry emeritus, was winner of two National Book Awards, one in 1973 for Collected Poems , 1951-1971, and another in 1993 for Garbage . He has won virtually every other major prize for poetry in the United States, including: the Frost Medal for Distinguished Achievement in Poetry over a Lifetime, in 1994, given by the Poetry Society of America; the Bolligen Prize for Sphere: The Form of a Motion, from Yale University; the National Book Critics Circle Award of Poetry for A Coast of Trees ; the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize; as well as a Lannan Foundation Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur "genius award" fellowship. In 1998, he received the Tanning Prize, a $100,000 award for "outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry." In 1990 he was inducted into the National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters.

Yale literary critic Harold Bloom has said, "No contemporary poet in America is likelier to become a classic than A.R. Ammons."

Ammons was born near Whiteville, N.C., in 1926 and graduated from Wake Forest College in North Carolina, where he received a bachelor's degree in biology. He began writing poetry while serving onboard a U.S. Naval destroyer during World War II. Before coming to Cornell in 1964, he attended graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, worked as an elementary school principal in Cape Hatteras, N.C., worked as a real estate salesman, an editor and as a sales executive at his father-in law's New Jersey glass company. His first book of poetry was published in 1955.

The citation for Ammons' 1973 National Book Award reads in part: "In the enormous range of his work, from the briefest confrontations with the visual to long powerful visionary poems, he has extended into our present and our future the great American tradition of which Emerson and Whitman were founders." Roald Hoffmann, a 1981 Nobel laureate in chemistry as well as a poet and Ammons' colleague at Cornell, described his friend as a "natural philosopher" in an address he gave during Cornell's "Ammonsfest" -- a celebration of the Ammons' works held in 1998 on campus. "His search, gentle yet insistent, is for a philosophy of nature -- a metaphysics always, an epistemology of openness to the connectedness of things and ideas, its inherent logic, an aesthetics rooted in the wonder of it all, and reinforced by the purposive harmony of his poems, an ethics, even an eschatology of the very real world."

Fellow North Carolinian, Robert Morgan, novelist, poet and Cornell Kappa Alpha Professor of English, spoke of faculty member Ammons' willingness "to take the unpopular point of view in a discussion, to be advocate for the truly disadvantaged, the outsider. He was always able to surprise us. He was a presence, a leader."

Of Ammons' poetry, Morgan said, "Though he was famous for the fine abstraction of his poetry, he was also capable of vivid and significant detail. The high abstraction of his thought was wedded to an immediate idiom, a living voice. He was one of the most distinctive voices in American poetry. There is no one like him."

Ammons is survived by his wife, Phyllis Ammons, of Ithaca, his sister, Vida Cox, of North Carolina, son John Ammons and daughter-in-law Wendy Moscow, and two grandchildren, Matthew and Jasmine, all of California. Plans for services are incomplete at this time.

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