'Garbage': A.R. Ammons's Tape for the Turn of the Century

Article excerpt

Time and again a poem of such magnitude and power is written that it achieves what Whitman called a "tallying." T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land was such a poem for the Victorian era turned Modern, but it is A.R. Ammons's Garbage that tallies up for us the meaning of the twentieth century on the eve of the birth of the twenty-first. In contrast to Eliot's images of physical and spiritual barrenness, Ammons depicts a world cluttered with mounds of garbage. Positioning himself before the grotesque backdrop of the landfill site in contemporary America, the poet as archeological garbologist ponders the significance of garbage in an attempt to construct a cultural mirror that will allow us to see who we are and how we can meaningfully advance to the next age. The value and power of his philosophical and spiritual insights are brought clearly into focus if we first consider the cultural context of garbology since the late nineteenth century. By placing Garbage in the history of discourse on America's war with its waste, we can see it as the poetic product of an old man who dares to turn his eyes down to his and his culture's rejectamenta so as to liberate us from an increasingly apocalyptic cultural discourse that would rivet us in anxiety. Ammons's fin de siecle long poem is anything but a nightmare portent of the next age.

Construction of the cultural mirror through the examination of refuse is essential to Garbage as "a scientific poem" (20). We can best understand this process by considering briefly the science of garbology, its origins and purpose. Rathje and Murphy explain the scholarly interest in garbage by analyzing the Garbage Project, founded at the University of Arizona in 1973. The Garbage Project entered the "terra incognita" (23) of garbage to study "consumer discard patterns" (15) in the belief that "behavior is reflected in artifacts" (55), "that what people have owned -- and thrown away -- can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may" (54). What began as the sorting of fresh garbage to study human behavior ultimately shifted to the excavation of landfills so as to study "garbage management" in the "aggregate" (21). They make the point only too vividly that garbology is anything but an abstract study: "To understand garbage you have to touch it, to feel it, to sort it, to smell it" (9), a comment which they follow up with a vile catalogue of the kinds of organic and non-organic material one finds in a typical day's work. This particular type of archeologist makes it his or her job to "investigate human behavior `from the back end', as it were" (14), because the garbologist believes that unlike most artifacts that cultures leave behind that are "little more than self-aggrandizing advertisements," garbage is "a kind of tattle-tale, setting the record straight" (12). In short, garbage never lies. As James Deetz argues in In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life, "the disposal of refuse is one of our most unconscious acts" (125)

Similarly driven to expose something essential about who we are, as we shall discuss later in fuller detail, let it only be established at this time that Ammons poses as a garbologist, drawn to the things we cast off as opposed to our written records about ourselves. When he engages "a monstrous surrounding of / gathering -- the putrid, the castoff, the used, // the mucked up -- all arriving for final assessment" (32) he does so out of a desire to know "[s]imple people doing simple things, the normal, everyday routine of life and how these people thought about it" (Deetz 8). He will assess, "like an analyst / or critic of action or behavior" (64), who we are and what it is to be alive during this century. To get the real, behind-the-scenes look, he must also enter by the rear door: "the very asshole of comedown" (21). For only by examining and embracing our personal and collective garbage -- our "failure, loss, error" (21) -- can we hope to find "redemption" (21). …