The Poem

“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.

Forms and Devices

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...

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