MSU English professor lauded for major publishing achievement

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

Robert West (Photo submitted)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—“One of the most anticipated books of the fall.”

So proclaimed a recent review in New York-based Publishers Weekly about a two-volume set edited over recent years by Robert M. West, an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University.

“The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons” was released Tuesday [Dec. 19] by W.W Norton & Co. The first volume includes works of the internationally acclaimed poet from 1955-77; volume two, from 1978-2005. Helen Vendler, a literary critic known for her writings on Ammons and other poets, provides the introduction.

The complete Publishers Weekly review may be read at  

A Whiteville, North Carolina, native, Ammons (1926–2001) was a two-time winner of the National Book Award, as well as a selection for a National Book Critics Circle Award. A graduate of Wake Forest University and University of California, Berkeley, Ammons received the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal and fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations, among other distinctions. 

West also is a North Carolina native and Wake Forest alumnus. An admirer of poetry for what he calls “the pure dance of language,” he said “Ammons thought that every poem should be an act of discovery, both for the reader and for the writer.”

With master’s and doctoral degrees completed at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, West is a specialist in post-1900 American and British literature. He formerly served as interim director of the Shackouls Honors College.  

From 2009–14, West said he assembled a preliminary manuscript before spending three additional years collaborating with the publisher, finalizing details and preparing the edition for publication. Collectively, his two hardcover volumes include more than 2,100 pages.

The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons, Vol. 1: 1955-1977 and Vol. 2: 1978-2005 (W. W. Norton & Co, 2017)

“A lot of people probably see ‘edited by’ on a book’s cover and wonder what that really means,” he said. “As editor, one thing I did was decide how to organize the edition; another was to decide how to deal with revisions Ammons made to many poems after those poems were first collected in one of his books.”

West gave special credit to the “immense help” of four former English department graduate students. Serving as research assistants, they included Tyler Trimm, Christie Collins, Jessica Burton and Carol Hogan-Downey.

West said the process began by tracking the revisions and identifying and correcting past printing mistakes.

“Sometimes the poems appeared with what I suspected were typos or formatting errors made in production,” he explained. “I had to find Ammons’s own typescripts to verify my educated guesses. Working on those and other issues required a good bit of time at the large Ammons archives at Cornell University and East Carolina University.”

West said all of the poems had to be entered manually because “there were no electronic files of any of Ammons’s books that I could use in drawing up the manuscript.”

Following Ammons’ death in 2001 at age 75, executors of the poet’s estate and representatives of Norton, his longtime New York-based publishing house, agreed a complete edition of the poems should be published.

“A couple of people in touch with the estate were familiar with some editorial work I’d done and suggested I send a proposal, and that was accepted,” West said.

“It’s been a privilege. Ammons is a major figure in late 20th-century American poetry, and I’m proud to have played a role in presenting the whole oeuvre in a way that I hope others will find attractive, informative and otherwise helpful,” he added.

Dan Punday, MSU English department head, observed how collections such as West has created “can alter a whole field of literary studies, often in fairly dramatic ways.

“An edition like this synthesizes his writing and makes it available in a way that opens it up to academics and general readers alike,” Punday continued. “It is likely that scholars and students will be referring to ‘The West edition’ of Ammons’ work for decades to come.”

Punday also predicted his campus colleague’s achievement will helps other scholars better understand Southern literature as a whole and “20th American poetry, in general.”

West’s essays, book reviews, and poems have appeared in publications including Alabama Literary Review, American Life in Poetry, Appalachian Journal, The Best Nonrequired Reading, Christian Science Monitor, Poetry, South Atlantic Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Southern Quarterly. 

His other publications include the poetry chapbook Convalescent (2011) and an anthology he co-edited with poet Jonathan Greene, Succinct: The Broadstone Anthology of Short Poems (2013).

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