Garbage is A. R. Ammons’ attempt to write a long poem, the modern equivalent of the ancient genre of the epic. The modern long poem may have a unifying theme, but it is, as Northrop Frye has suggested, a “discontinuous epic.” It relies on short lyrical sections rather than an overall narrative. It is, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, said in In Memoriam(1850), “short swallow flights of song.”
The style that Ammons chose for the poem is significant as a structuring principle. It is written in long free-verse lines. The structural unit is the couplet, but these are not heroic couplets that rhyme and are separate units in themselves. These couplets run on; they do not rhyme, and there is minimal punctuation. The couplets give the reader a sense of order, while the lines run beyond the confines of the couplet. The run-on couplets mirror the movement of the poem’s affirmation and disavowal of order.
Garbage begins not with an invocation to the muse, as the epic does, but with a message being sent down the poet’s back by “creepy little creepers” to tell him that it is time to write “that great poem/ the world is waiting for.” He cites William Carlos Williams on the importance of producing such a poem, since “someone somewhere may be… dying” because it has not appeared. Yet the poet is resistant. He may now be “wasting” his life in teaching poetry, but he is settled; he can live on social security and does not need the challenge of the great enterprise that the long poem would represent. Furthermore, who would the long poem be for? Who would be the audience? Are “fuzzy/ philosophy’s abstruse failed reasonings” needed? Yet he does agree to answer the call and write the poem, although he is still filled with doubts. Humankind may be in a “crusty world, heading nowhere, doorless,” but will the poem overcome that emptiness? The purpose of the poem, it is clear, is to move the reader to some emotional change. It cannot and will not rely on argument or try to persuade the reader.
The second section of the poem announces the theme: “garbage has to be the poem of our time because/ garbage is spiritual, believable enough/ to get our attention.” Ammons describes landfills as “ziggurats,” the modern equivalent of Egyptian pyramids, so garbage takes on an ancient form. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, Ammons attempts to unify all the diversity of the world, including elements that are unpoetic. Nature is his subject in nearly all of his poems, and he insists here that “nature models values.” He announces that this work will be a “scientific poem.” His “science,” however, contains idealism that overcomes decay; matter may be destroyed but spirit remains: “in the abiding where/ mind but nothing else abides, eternal.” He ends the section by speaking of his dead: his mother, his father, his dogs. They too are subject to a transforming process: “what were they then that are what they are now.” This is an ambiguous statement that does not affirm transcendence. There seem to be many claims of universal transcendence in the poem, but Ammons questions his own affirmations, balancing the optimism with moments of pessimism or doubt. The movement of the poem, then, is a dynamic struggle between these two views; it is not a clear and logical process or even a dialectical one.
Once Ammons has accepted the challenge of the long poem and announced its subject, he structures the poem in eighteen sections that are filled with affirmations and denials; he even contradicts his own assertions. It is a loose and nonlogical but finally dramatic process that both defines the place of garbage in the modern world and affirms what humanity’s ultimate fate is. The poem can best be discussed by tracing some of Ammons’ major themes in all of their complexity and contradictions to see how he arrives at a resolution of opposites.
The first of these oppositions is order and disorder. Ammons tries out a number of...
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