Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 613 words.)