Archie Randolph Ammons was born in the New Hope Community in Columbus County on February 18, 1926. His humble beginnings were no indication of the notoriety that he would enjoy as a world-renowned poet.
Ammons’ love for his family and his boyhood home became the topic of many of his poems during his career as a writer. Surviving family members, Vida Ammons Cox, a retired registered nurse, of Clarkton, and Ammons’ son, John, a network engineer with Entertainment Digital Network in California, can attest to that fact. His late sister was Mona Ammons Smith. A brother, Elbert, who died at age two, influenced one of his most popular poems, “Easter Morning.”
The respect that Ammons has garnered in Columbus County is evidenced by the popularity of the A. R. Ammons Poetry Contest, held annually for all Columbus County school children and students enrolled in undergraduate coursework in North Carolina institutions. The A.R. Ammons Poetry Contest Committee is chaired by Susan Wood and sponsored by the Rueben Brown House Preservation Society, The News Reporter and BB&T. SCC’s Williamson Library houses the A.R. Ammons Collection and one of Ammons’ drawings, Recording, hangs there, a donation from his sister Vida’s collection. These and other demonstrated displays of appreciation for Ammons’ work has prompted the Ammons family to make an initial contribution to the SCC Foundation establishing the A.R. Ammons Literary Scholarship.
“The seed money contributed by the family is expected to grow quickly to an endowed status with contributions from both local admirers of Ammons’ work and admirers from across the country,” stated Sue Hawks, Executive Dean of Institutional Advancement. “The goal is for a student from Columbus County, enrolled in English or a literature course of study at SCC, to be awarded the A.R. Ammons Scholarship; a student who embraces the written word, with the potential of inspiring yet another skilled writer to emerge,” she concluded.
Tax deductible contributions to the A.R. Ammons Literary Scholarship may be made to the SCC Foundation, P.O. Box 151, Whiteville, NC 28472. Hawks may be reached by calling the 642-7141, X 320.
Ammons’ parents were Willie and Lucy Della McKee Ammons. When he graduated from Whiteville High School in 1943, Ammons had never left North Carolina. In fact he had barely left Columbus County. That fact was soon to change. With the U. S. entering World War ll at the end of 1941, military service, education, marriage and career all converged to draw Ammons away from his birthplace.
Ammons spent a year in the South Pacific on a destroyer escort, all the while writing prolifically. After his discharge in 1946, he enrolled at Wake Forest College via the G.I. Bill, where he majored in General Science. However, his interest in literature continued to grow, finding fuel in his love affair with a young Spanish teacher named Phyllis Plumbo. After graduating in 1949, Ammons took a job on Hatteras Island as a principal of a small elementary school. That same year he married Phyllis. In 1950, the couple moved to California, where he enrolled in the English graduate program at UC Berkeley. Ammons went on to work as an elementary school principal, a real estate salesman, an editor and an executive in his father-in-law’s biological glass company, before he began teaching at Cornell University in 1964.
Ammons published his first book of poems, Ommateum: With Doxology, in 1955. He went on to publish nearly thirty collections. His honors included the Academy’s Wallace Stevens Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal, the Ruth Lilly Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ammons lived in Ithaca, NY, where he was Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry at Cornell University until his retirement in 1998. Ammons died from cancer on February 25, 2001, a week after his 75throots, and often spoke warmly of the family and teachers who fostered his talents early on. He paid tribute to his home county many times in his poetry, as in this bittersweet reminiscence:
Alligator Holes Down Along About Old Dock
Lord, I wish I were in Hallsboro, over by the tracks,
or somewhere down past the Green Swamp around Nakina, or
traipsing, dabbling in the slipping laps of Lake Waccamaw:
how I wish I were over by Fair
Bluff where the old Lumber River snakes under overhanging
cypress-moss, black glass going
gleamy deep and slow,
‘gator easy and slow:
I bet a mockingbird’s cutting loose a Dido in wisteria
vine or mimosa bush over there right now: if I were
down by Shallotte, the fish fries, scrubby sand-woods,
the beach dunes nearby: of Gause’s Landing:
Lord, I wish I were home—those pastures—where I’ll
never be again: Spring Branch Church, South
Whiteville, New Brunswick: mother and father, aunts,
uncles gone over, no one coming back again.
Excerpts provided by Ammons biographer Roger S. Gilbert, Chair, English Department, Cornell University.