One of my favorite poets is A. R. Ammons, or “Archie” as he was affectionately known to the people of Ithaca, New York.    I was somewhat familiar with his unique poetry long before I ever moved to Ithaca.  After I moved to Ithaca from northwest Florida in 1995 I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the great man himself lived and taught in the same town in which I lived!  After I took a job at Cornell in 1996 I started to become alert for sightings of Archie on the Cornell campus.  I took a great interest in his work and read everything he wrote, finding it to be poetically and intellectually dazzling and mind-expanding.  On campus he had the appearance of a very simple, conventional, rather mundane fellow.   He looked like an old farmer who’s been transplanted to the city.  For an academic he seemed to be unusually lacking in pretense, egotism, and flamboyant affectations.  And he was apparently much respected and beloved by the general Ithaca community, not only by the academic literati.

I’ll always remember an odd little incident involving Ammons.  One morning I went to a doctor’s appointment downtown, and as I was sitting in the waiting room I was surprised to see Ammons himself approaching the door from outside.  It was quite a startling coincidence because earlier that morning at home while having my coffee I had just been reading the book Set in Motion, a collection of essays by and interviews with Ammons.  And then he appeared as if by magic!   The funny thing was, when he got to the door he couldn’t open it.  The front door opened to the inside instead of to the outside, but Ammons was trying to pull it open and of course it wouldn’t open that way.  There was even a little sign on the door that said to turn the knob and push IN, but Ammons apparently didn’t notice it.  He stubbornly tried to pull the door open for a few moments, until I got up from my chair in the waiting room and opened the door for him.  He thanked me for opening the door, and when a nurse appeared to see what was going on he asked her why they had the door locked!  I thought it was amusing that this great intellectual genius couldn’t figure out how the door was supposed to open.

At Cornell I was in the habit of stopping off at the Temple of Zeus Cafe in Goldwin Smith Hall to get a cup of coffee on my way to my job in the Linguistics Department.  Often I would see Ammons there talking with his fellow poet and professor Phyllis Janowitz at a table.  From what few words I could hear of their conversation I got the impression that they talked about investments.  One morning I went to the Temple of Zeus and I was standing in line to pay for my coffee when Ammons got in line behind me.  I introduced myself, told him I was an enthusiastic admirer of his work and that I’d recently read Tape for the Turn of the Year and thought it was really beautiful.  He thanked me warmly and inquired about what I did at Cornell.  I thought he was very gracious.

When he retired from Cornell the English Department put on a two-day celebration of his work called Ammonsfest.  Not long after he retired he had a stroke, a bad one, that left him in a frail condition.  I would still see him occasionally on campus but he did not look good.  He walked very slowly and moved with difficulty.  It was very sad to see him like that.  And then he got cancer.  And not long after that he died.  His extraordinarily wide-ranging, far-seeking imagination lives on in his work.  He was one of a kind.  There has never been anyone else who wrote like him or thought like him, and there never will be.

Advertisements