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Garbage: A Poem by A. R. Ammons

Garbage: A Poem

by A. R. Ammons

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Reading the first poem in the book, one learns right away that A. R. Ammons’ Garbage (Norton, 1993) is not a book about garbage. It’s about poetry writing; it’s about ageing; it’s about values and survival (“simplicity and elegance, pitch in a / little courage and generosity, a touch of / commitment, enough asceticism to prevent / fattening: moderation: elegant and simple / moderation.”) Ultimately, and above all, it’s about anxiety: the anxiety we feel for those we love, whose errors and anguish we must live with, but in whose lives we must not intercede.

This long poem won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1994. Its eighteen separate sections (like separate poems, actually) are written in unrhymed, run-on couplets and (like its predecessor, Tape for the Turn of the Year) typed on adding machine tape. The blurb on the back jacket is a quotation from Harold Bloom’s review. I seldom trust blurbs and often disagree with Bloom’s judgments on contemporary poetry. But this time, he has it just right: “The outrageously titled Garbage is strong Ammons: wise, eloquent, exuberantly argumentative, imbued with the continued inventiveness of a maker who would have delighted Whitman and Emerson.”

At the beginning of section #2, the poet states his theme by exploring his dominant metaphor. You have to see the lines and hear the rush of language to get a sense of how eloquently Whitmanesque the poem is.

garbage has to be the poem of our time because
garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling
up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the
errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is not too far off, and,
anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic: . . .

At the age of 63, driving down I-95 in Florida, the speaker watches garbage trucks crawl “as up ziggurats” to deposit yet more garbage where gulls and earthworms and natural processes continue their ceaseless work. But quickly, even before he catalogs the refuse being deposited, even in the refuse itself, “the very asshole of comedown,” the poet finds “redemption.” Alluding early on, as he will recurrently throughout the poem, to modern physical sciences, he lifts us up to “the pole where matter’s forms diffuse and / energy loses all means to express itself except / as spirit.”

So, this long poem Garbage is not about garbage—the burgeoning material waste of our world. It’s really about the spiritual. Oh, yes, it’s about anxiety, not so much how to overcome anxiety, but how to harness it, use it to “behold the / wonder . . . of things.” To the philosophic mind (that is to say, the poetic and also the scientific mind), “the mystique of high places lingers / on, the altar-like flames residual in the high / levels of trash management.”

And the ageing poet’s poem is also about poetry. “The best kind of poetry,” he seems to conclude, may be that in which “understatement rides swells / of easing away.” The best metaphor, after all, may be the simplest, and the simplest, the most elegant:

and, often, truly, it can be so nice to watch
the classical moves through the complication, as

with Larry Bird en route for a lay-up, and
anxiety often itself has such heights of stalled

cumuli it can perform miracles . . . .

In such a poem of so many delightful catalogs of metaphors (and repulsive catalogs, too), the best metaphor for poetry itself may turn out to be a Larry Bird layup, so naturally skillful, so seemingly effortless, so swiftly exhilarating.

In these lines, Ammons glides in for many a layup.


Appendix (7.18.2011)

[I'm sorrythe LibraryThing review format makes these lines run over; they shouldn't. Just pretend they don't, OK?]

Is a Poem about Garbage Garbage?

What Lyrical Ballads was to the 1790s
(though they didn’t know it) and In Memoriam
to the Victorians (they did), Wasteland to all of us,
Age of Anxiety in the Great Depression,
Howl to the Beats, Sylvia Plath in the Sixties,

Archie Ammons’ Garbage was to the 1990s,

its iambic pentameter the width of adding machine tape,
its author sixty-three and counting, its original stimulus
a mound (mountain) of trash off I-95 in south Florida,
its unrhymed, run-on couplets, fromless – well, mostly formless.

They weren’t Gay Nineties, you understand, but leftovers
from the American Century (its wasteland and age of anxiety),
so lets show the rest of the world, all those ages past
(and to come) that poetry can be made of anything, anything:

“Lines Written after Passing a Trash Heap in South Florida”

. . . . old deck chairs,

crippled aluminum lawn chairs, lemon crates
with busted slats or hinges, strollers with

whacking or spinningly idle wheels: stub ends
of hotdogs . . .
(Never mind; never mind.)
NB: the liquidity of all those l's, assonance and
consonance, and all those internal, almost rhymes
(lemons, hinges, spnningly, ends) just right
for these times:: fin de siecle, Y2K, Armaggedon.

Garbage has to be the poem of our time because . . .
well, just because. Make a list of all those aches and pains:
count ‘em out, the signs of our times: medicare/Medicaid,
national osteoporosis week, gadabout tours,
hearing loss, homesharing programs, and choosing
good nutrition!
(Been there, done that!)

Forget about sequence and consequence, suspense and
closure, about coherence and unity and parallelism and
proportion, “balance and reconciliation.” Juxtaposition

is the principle, recurrence and repetition, free association
(or the appearance of free association). Work in a little bit

of Confessional Poetry, of what Frank O’Hara would have sat
down and written at lunch time (at the Museum of Modern Art),
just jotting down whatever came to his attention, whatever
came to mind. Every once in a while, throw in an obscurity or
two in memory of T.S. Eliot (and all his Writers’ Worskhop
descendants); some ambiguity and ambivalence for those old
New Critics; with a bit of graffiti for Ginsberg and Kerouac and
the Merry Pranksters gallivanting in their school bus Further;
with enough accessibility to please Billy Collins, but not his brevity.

Poetry should be about poetry: self-consciousness is part of the
art of post-modern poetry. Notice all those lines ending in the;
and the time that rhyme dropped in – a coincidence? or the subtle
craft of a craftsman, aware of his work, letting you the reader in on
his search for words, his apprehension, misgiving, what transfigures this
into this, garbage into something golden? or maybe trash into cash?

And then, all of a sudden (you’ve been forewarned not to expect it),
profundity occurs: “life, too, if it is to have / meaning, must be made
meaningful: if it is to / have purpose, its purpose must be divined,
invented, / manifested, held to.” A wee insight emerges: “I who want-
ed the sky / fall to the glint in a passing eye . . . “; “the aperture so to /
say, poetically speaking, into faith is, of / course, as everyone knows,
the magical exception / to the naturalistic rule . . .” Oh yes, of course,
as everyone knows. Then, too, “we have replaced / the meadows with
oilslick.” Reading along, I trip over “a persiflageous empurpling.” Then,

suddenly . . . the spirea bush, the five
nearly round, slightly dented petals to each

blossom, snows the ground white during rains:
the norway maple I cut back in the hedge has

turned out leaves ten inches between the
points! the robin down by the fence just about

sings his head off now, close to dusk . . . “

There have been disasters, and there will be disasters yet
to come. Users of language will use language to use you.
C’est la vie. But among them are the whisperers,
whose language is gentle and whose faith is not fugitive.
We arise from some eternity, and to some eternity we will
return. In the meantime, the moments in which we live
live on in us, and live on, beyond us. And so, we live on
and on. In the meantime, among the profundities, a chuckle
or two to relieve our anxiety, quench the stench of our waste-
land—reaching higher, skyward just off I-95 in south Florida:

we’ll kick the l out of the world and cuddle
up with the avenues and byways of the word:
( )
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0393324117, Paperback)

"Garbage," A.R. Ammons writes in this book-length poem, "has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough / to get our attention, getting in the way..." Talky and playful, the couplets of the National Book Award-winning Garbage propel one through the trash dump of 20th-century meaning, as well as into the past and future, where "millennia jiggle in your eyes at night." This project, by turns wryly self-deprecating and densely philosophical, places Ammons in the company of such recent epic funnymen as John Ashbery, Ronald Johnson, and, very self-consciously, William Carlos Williams. Like any good epic, the poem begins in doubt, with Ammons wondering whether to write the book or simply retire and live a life of leisure on Social Security (plus a surely ample pension from his longtime Cornell University professorship). Like John Milton in the preamble to his epic, Paradise Lost, Ammons uses the metaphor of a tree to focus his poetic ambition. "I mean," he writes, "take my yard maple--put out in the free / and open--has overgrown, its trunk / split down from a high fork ... The fat tree, unable to stop pouring it on, overfed and overgrew ... It just / goes to show you: moderation imposed is better / than no moderation at all." Indeed, the poem's 121 pages seem at times nothing more than an attempt to buoy the moment between two extremes: exuberant falsehoods at one end of the scale, cynical platitudes on the other. This "moderation" has served as Ammons' dominant aesthetic during his long poetic career, though Garbage's length and epic ambitions disrupt his trademark austerity. Despite his tangential questioning of reality and time, the poem's ultimate wisdom lies in how it imagines the actively good person, one who sees that
...life, life is like a poem: the moment it
begins, it begins to end: the tension this

establishes makes every move and movement, every
gap and stumble, every glide and rise significant

In a time when most poetry is about loss, Ammons wanders through our community junkyard and, with his good eye, points out what's valuable, and tells us, in his trustworthy tone, why. --Edward Skoog

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:41 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In his first book of new poetry since Sumerian Vistas (1987), A. R. Ammons, one of America's greatest living poets, uses an unlikely subject - garbage - as the occasion for a profound and often funny meditation on nature and mutability. Driving along I-95 in Florida the poet sights a smoldering mountain of the stuff and is moved to muse: "garbage has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough to get our attention, getting in the way, piling up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and / creamy white: what else deflects us from the / errors of our illusionary ways..." Ammons proceeds to evoke with his unique blend of intellectual rigor and American sublimity the impersonal beauties of natural processes both microscopic and cosmic, including ruefully amusing observations on the vagaries of aging.He asks what place poetry and language might have in this vast system and finds startling correspondences: "our language is something to write home about; / but it is not the world: grooming does for / baboons most of what words do for us." Never has the dreadful sundry of this world inspired such beauties of thought and expression. Already the subject of intense discussion following its partial publication in American Poetry Review, Garbage is A. R. Ammons's finest long poem since Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965). (Both poems were composed on adding machine tape.) It reaffirms the estimate of his work delivered on the presentation of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for 1981 for Lake Country Effect, that he "stands in the tradition of Wordsworth, Emerson, and Whitman," creating poetry "remarkable for its radiant density of argument and feeling."… (more)

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