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Garbage: A Poem

by A. R. Ammons

ISBN 0393035425 / 9780393035421 / 0-393-03542-5
Publisher Norton & Co
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

"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 [via]