Ammons was born near Whiteville, N.C., in 1926 and graduated from Wake Forest University 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., 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 Ammons' life and work held on campus in 1998. "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."
Phyllis Janowitz, Cornell professor of English, spoke of her long friendship with Ammons saying, "He was the most generous man and friend anyone could know or have; he made everyone feel like the only one."
Roger Gilbert, Cornell professor of English, appeared with Ammons at the Women's Community Building in downtown Ithaca for a reading last spring -- Ammons' last public appearance as it turned out. Gilbert, who has included Ammons' works in one of his own poetry anthologies, said it was a phone call from Ammons that convinced him to come to Cornell.
"Cornell had made me a job offer, and I was procrastinating to see what else would come along. One day the phone rang and it was Archie, as friendly and relaxed as he always was, saying nice things about my work and hoping that I'd come to Cornell," said Gilbert. "That call meant more to me than any material enticement could have, because it told me that if I went to Cornell, I'd have a genuine relationship with one of the poets I most admired, despite the huge differences in our ages and reputations. And that turned out to be true."
Ammons was a marvelous conversationalist who held weekly informal discussions in the Goldwin Smith Hall's Temple of Zeus coffee shop. Jonathan Culler, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and former English department chair, remembered Ammons as a "gentleman and a colleague interested in the work of others, even literary theorists whose concerns must have seemed remote from his own. He spent a lot of time around the department and was always available for a chat in the mailroom or over coffee in the Temple of Zeus," Culler said.
Gilbert said he'll miss those informal talks.
"For a poet as prolific as Archie, he was amazingly gregarious, often sitting in his office with the door open just waiting for visitors to drop by for a chat," Gilbert said. "Many mornings as I'd pass through Zeus to get my coffee, I'd decline Archie's invitations to sit and schmooze for a few minutes, explaining that I had to go prepare my class (which I did). I'd give anything to go back and have those missed conversations now."
Former Cornell provost Don Randel, now president of the University of Chicago, was an admirer of Ammons' work. Reflecting on his friend's passing Monday, Randel said:
"Archie Ammons once began a poem saying, 'Nothing's going to become of anyone except death.' He was right, as usual, and right in the same poem to urge us in the face of this fact to 'drill imagination right through necessity.' But in that opening line, he was in an important way also wrong about himself. For what has become of Archie is also that he has given many of us the words with which we will continue to think about nature, art, death, life and a good deal else. By this method he will outlive us all."
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.