Burning Trash: A Poem

Burning Trash

By John Updike

At night—the light turned off, the filament
Unburdened of its atom-eating charge,
His wife asleep, her breathing dipping low
To touch a swampy source—he thought of death.
Her father’s hilltop home allowed him time
To sense the nothing standing like a sheet
Of speckless glass behind his human future.
He had two comforts he could see, just two.
One was the cheerful fullness of most things:
Plump stones and clouds, expectant pods, the soil
Offering up pressure to his knees and hands.
The other was burning the trash each day.
He liked the heat, the imitation danger,
And the way, as he tossed in used-up news,
String, napkins, envelopes, and paper cups,
Hypnotic tongues of order intervened.

John Updike, “Burning Trash” from Collected Poems 1953-1993.

We would like to start a list of poetry about discards and discarding in our resource bibliography. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments section.

One thought on “Burning Trash: A Poem

  1. Thanks, I’ve not read this Updike poem before. Three personal favourites: two from the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella and another from Basil Bunting.

    A major element of waste
    needed in the living process,
    with an element of excess
    in the constituent materials;
    distinguishing basic features
    performing no apparent function,
    and playing no discernable part
    in countering any negative forces,
    but which are nonetheless clearly essential
    for fulfillment of the process,
    and which, if removed, would establish
    an emptiness under the heart.
    Accepting the waste and the excess,
    and a fundamental inadequacy
    in the structure as a whole
    and in each individual part,
    there is still an ongoing dynamic
    in the parts as they succeed each other,
    and in the assembling record,
    that registers as positive.

    From Kinsella, ‘Marginal Economy’ (Dublin: Peppercanister, 2006) 32.


    Discern process. You know that,
    mangled by it. We are all participants
    in a process that requires waste.

    From Kinsella, ‘One Fond Embrace’ (Dublin: Peppercanister, 1988) 27


    ‘Ode 11’

    To a poet who advised me to preserve my numerous fragments and false starts

    Narciss, my numerous cancellations prefer
    slow limpness in the damp dustbins among the peel
    tobacco-ash and ends spittoon lickings litter
    of labels dry corks breakages and a great deal

    of miscellaneous garbage picked over by
    covetous dustmen and Salvation Army sneaks
    to one review-rid month’s printed ignominy,
    the public detection of your decay, that reeks.

    From Bunting, ‘Complete Poems’, ed. Richard Caddel (Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2000), 107.


    I’ve written a little bit about T. S. Eliot’s poetics of waste, you can find part of that here: http://narratingwaste.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/t-s-eliot-and-the-writing-of-waste/

    – Will

Comments are closed.