“Junk” is a thirty-line poem written in Anglo-Saxon strong-stress meter. Each line is alliterated and broken into two halves, the second of which is indented, making each full line two-tiered. In a note to the poem, Richard Wilbur provides a rough translation of the epigraph, which is excerpted from an Anglo-Saxon fragment: “Truly, Wayland’s handiwork—the sword Mimming which he made—will never fail any man who knows how to use it bravely.” The epigraph gives an example of the alliterative, accentual meter of the original.
The poem begins with the narrator’s detailed description of a neighbor’s trash, viewed with a frown of disapproval. It is a critic’s notice: “hell’s handiwork,” inferior wood, the grain not followed in its construction, broken tumblers, warped boards. The cool appraisal is interrupted by an exclamation in line 11: “Haul them off! Hide them!” The speaker can hardly stand to look at this deplorable “junk and gimcrack,” or to think of those responsible for the shoddiness, “men who make them/ for a little money.” He likens these craftspeople to dishonest boxers and jockeys, but he thinks more favorably of the things themselves. Somehow they retain their honor, their composure, since they are not to blame for their sorry condition. They are prisoners whose consignment to the dump is a release, a purgatory in which they shed their junkiness and become like new again, unspoiled, ready to be used properly.
The elements will gradually transform these objects back to something close to their original states. The dump is a compost heap, a place where time and depth can pressurize the materials into diamondlike purity. The poem ends by referring to the mythic smiths Hephaestus and Wayland, immortal craftspeople as opposed to the immoral tricksters responsible for the junk. “Junk” describes a return to origins and proclaims a faith in something good and creative in the “making dark” of the human psyche.
Each line of Anglo-Saxon strong-stress meter contains four stresses, or accents, three of which are usually alliterated. The number of unstressed syllables is not counted. There is a strong caesura (pause or break) in the middle of each line. This caesura can be indicated by space between the two hemistiches (half-lines), but Wilbur chooses to drop the second half down so that each full line has a two-step arrangement. As Wilbur’s first line shows, assonance (vowel repetition) can be used instead of consonant repetition: “axe angles,” “ashcan.” His second line, as well as the remaining twenty-eight, repeats consonants: “hell’s handiwork,” “hickory.” Any three of a line’s four stresses can alliterate. Sometimes all four do, as in the fifth line (“plastic playthings,” “paper plates”) and the nineteenth (“Talk,” “torture,” “tossed,” “tailgate”). Lines 22 and 30 repeat the w sound in all four stresses. No adjacent lines alliterate on the same sound.
On the framework of the poem’s thirty lines, Wilbur winds a series of ten sentences. A reader can chart the poem’s tone and temper by noting how full and steady or how brief and fragmentary those sentences are. The poem begins with three long sentences, each three or four full lines long. Then two exclamations burst out in a single half-line and are followed by the longest sentence of the poem, which runs five and one-half lines. The next two sentences also include half-lines, but the poem ends with the steadiness of two sentences that are both four full lines in length. On a seismograph, the poem would begin calmly, register tremors in the middle, and end calmly after a gradual return to regularity. That structure supports the dramatic or...
(This entire section contains 523 words.)
emotional “plot” of the poem, which begins with detached observation, erupts with disgust, then comes to reassurance, to a recognition of good after all.
Rhetorically, the poem turns on the word “Yet” in line 17, slightly after the half-way point. After that, Wilbur emphasizes the passivity of the objects, which are unable to speak on their own behalf. They are tortured, “tossed,” and will “waste in the weather/ toward what they were.” They need an advocate, just as they need an honest craftsperson to bring out the lasting beauty latent within them, the “good grain” that can be rediscovered.
Wilbur, as advocate of these things, uses similes to describe their construction and quick disposal, presenting a little morality play: the villainous makers, “like the bought boxer” or the “paid-off jockey,” versus the things themselves, “like captives who would not/ Talk under torture.” The poem describes dishonesty countered by honor, but it is not especially comforting that the heroes are inanimate, simply able to withstand or outlast punishment, better off buried than out in the open.
The alliteration tends to cluster words that are palpable, words that have heft and flavor, even when they refer to the deplorable junk: “shivered shaft,” “shattered tumblers,” a “cast-off cabinet/ Of wavily-warped/ unseasoned wood.” In describing ugliness, the poem rises to beauty. It is an illustration of how this ordinary junk really does have the potential to be more than “jerrybuilt things.” Wilbur himself shows how.
Bixler, Frances. Richard Wilbur: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Hougen, John B. Ecstasy Within Discipline: The Poetry of Richard Wilbur. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.
Michelson, Bruce. Wilbur’s Poetry: Music in a Scattering Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.
Reibetang, John. “What Love Sees: Poetry and Vision in Richard Wilbur.” Modern Poetry Studies 11 (1982): 60-85.
Salinger, Wendy, ed. Richard Wilbur’s Creation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.