“Junk” is a poem about renewal. On a literal level, it envisions the recycling of shoddy goods into good raw materials. By extension, however, it also foresees the regeneration of the human soul. It is a paean to biodegradability as well as a meditation on culture, both a lament for American planned obsolescence and a hymn to natural process and artistic dedication.
Although the poem begins with an ironic, detached view of a banal, commercialized hell, a scene of wastefulness on an ordinary sidewalk, it ends with a lofty, impassioned vision of a different underworld, the “making dark.” Between the dull, discarded objects and the “depth of diamonds” there is an all-important illumination, the sun glorying “in the glitter of glass-chips.” This sunlight will act literally and figuratively like a paint stripper, a purging light in which both object and spirit can be cleansed.
The image of an axe at the poem’s opening represents a means of breaking into pieces, chopping down, and gathering materials, yet it too is simply junk headed for the dump. The axe also echoes the sword mentioned in the epigraph, a weapon for a hero, an instrument of deliverance. Knowing how to use a sword bravely is analogous to the poet’s task of cutting through the appearances of things to the truth they embody—or could embody.
A number of words in the poem suggest Anglo-Saxon culture: “axe,” “angles,” “shaft,” “shellheap,” “dolmens,” “barrows.” As in most of Wilbur’s poems, the vocabulary is rich, precise, and evocative. The Anglo-Saxon form reflects a rough culture; the alliterative line clangs noisily. It is physical, hefty, pushy, combative, primitive, almost berserk on words, almost incantatory and hypnotic. It brings Beowulf to suburbia. One of the marvels of the poem is the blending of this tough, hardy, oar-splashing, sword-wielding form with the characteristic elegance of Wilbur’s argument, his steady pacing of sentences interrupted in line 11 by two exclamations that are the dramatic heart of the poem: “Haul them off! Hide them!”
One of the twentieth century’s poetic dilemmas has been the difficulty of bringing the industrialized world into poems without losing the poetry. Poetry that ignores its actual surroundings is merely escapist, yet poetry that uncritically embraces cultural trash might not be poetry at all. Wilbur presents the junk of mass production directly as evidence of industrial degradation, but he also imagines a way out, a way that is not merely a nostalgic return to a buried vitality but also a vigorous recapturing of it.
The poem is about discarding and recovering—and the transformation that time, earth, and the decay of the compost heap can bring about. One of the things recovered here is the poetic form itself, the Anglo-Saxon meter, revived from obsolescence into something contemporary and American. Other twentieth century English and American poets used the form, notably W. H. Auden in his long poem, The Age of Anxiety (1947). As if to demonstrate that writing in the form was more than a tour de force, Wilbur began his next collection, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translations (1969), with “The Lilacs,” another poem in Anglo-Saxon meter.
“Junk” is a kind of ars poetica, suggesting a view of the art of poetry, which similarly begins anew in the “making dark.” The Scots call a poet a makar, or “maker,” and Robert Graves has likened the craft of poetry to smithcraft. The two deities allied in this restorative enterprise are the Germanic Wayland and the Greek Hephaestus, both smiths. The poem begins (in the epigraph, a recovered fragment) and ends with Wayland, who gives a sense of mythic transformation, which is the goal and reward of honest craftsmanship.