We tend to think of waste and garbage as civilization’s abject “other,” the marginalized and repressed excess produced by the machinery of capitalism. Then why does it seem to be everywhere in American poetry? A new book by the critic and poet Christopher Schmidt examines the preoccupation with trash and detritus in twentieth-century poetry. The Poetics of Waste (just out from Palgrave Macmillan) has excellent chapters on James Schuyler and John Ashbery, as well as extended discussions of Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Goldsmith, plus a dazzling bit on the movie Wall-E.
Schmidt uncovers a line of poets who embrace waste and detritus as a source of value, fascination, pleasure, and, most importantly, queer identification. He argues that this recuperation of waste defies the pernicious cultural logic that has long associated queer and other marginalized identities with degradation, garbage, and mass culture.
It’s a great book, and I was happy to be able to provide this blurb for it:
“In this remarkable, illuminating study, Schmidt explores the ‘mysterious charisma of waste,’ the magnetic pull it exerts on a vital strain of modernist and contemporary poetry . . . Schmidt’s brilliant, incisive argument gives us valuable tools for understanding key features of avant-garde poetics — such as fragmentation, collage, excess — in a fascinating new light: as complex, subversive methods of ‘waste management.’ A timely, provocative, and important book.”
Schmidt’s chapter on Ashbery examines one of the poet’s strangest, most intriguing, and least discussed works, The Vermont Notebook (1975), a volume in which Ashbery’s own writings are paired with drawings by Joe Brainard. Schmidt reads The Vermont Notebook as “a ‘waste book’ in which the poet collects scraps excised from other poems and recycles them into new ‘anti-lyric’ form.” He argues that “the book establishes what I call a ‘queer nature,’ in which waste—a growing concern during the overpopulation fears and nascent environmentalism of 1970s—undermines the false boundary between the natural and the cultural.” Ultimately, Ashbery replaces “landscape with landfill, as if to suggest that nature and environment are as much produced by human presence as perceived by it.”
In his chapter on Schuyler, Schmidt draws attention to what he calls “Schuyler’s camp poetics.” He argues that the “poet’s brazen identification with waste—much more direct than that of any other figures in the book—suggests that his rag picking is a form of sexual and economic recuperation.” He argues that Schuyler’s work “addresses economic imbalances by mirroring and exaggerating the excessive consumption encouraged in capitalism—a consumption that Schuyler represents in campy performances of
overeating and profligacy—and by revealing the damage wrought on consumers compelled to gorge themselves on the excess.”
Here is the description from the publisher:
Since the modernist period, waste has functioned as a potent symbol of cultural decline and environmental damage, in artworks ranging from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ to Pixar’s Wall-E. In The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith, Christopher Schmidt argues that before we demonize excess out of hand, we ought to attend to the many possibilities for artistic innovation and literary experiment that detritus, garbage, and excrement have afforded artists and writers throughout the twentieth century. Schmidt looks at modernist and postmodernist writers who resist such biases, developing poetries that are formally excessive and preoccupied with waste’s transgressive aspects. This lineage stretches from the counter-modernism of Gertrude Stein to the New York School poets John Ashbery and James Schuyler, who grapple with and resist ideologies of Taylorist efficiency, cold war ‘containment,’ and phobias associating queer bodies with mass cultural waste. The book ends with a consideration of more recent conceptual poetries and asks the question, do these twenty-first century writers reanimate modernist prejudices against gender politics and queer sentimentality?
Check out the book on Amazon here, and from the publisher here. As Daniel Kane puts it in another blurb for Schmidt’s book, “We’ll never think about poetry — or garbage — in quite the same way again.”