American Poetry at Nature's End
Margaret Ronda



Great Acceleration Poetics

How can a poem speak for, to, with ecological phenomena? Can poetry give matter and creaturely life a “voice,” a “face”? How does a poem make loss and extinction visible, or register new, disturbing presences, such as toxic sludge, oil spills, dead zones? How ought responsibility for ecological calamity be adjudicated at the level of the individual subject and the collective? The poems of this study think through these complex representational questions as they emerge in an era of unprecedented environmental crisis: the Great Acceleration. Environmental historians have identified the Great Acceleration as a distinct phase in global ecological history, defined by rapid deleterious change to various planetary systems.1 This period, beginning after 1945 and continuing into the present, is characterized by metabolic rifts occurring at a global scale, from the sharp spike in CO2 emissions and the disturbance of the nitrogen cycle to massive biodiversity loss and ocean acidification. While many of the broad-based environmental changes occurring in the Great Acceleration precede 1945, they undergo a dramatic scaling-up in the post-1945 era, a direct result of the intensified extractivist and expansionist strategies of global capitalism and the new technological innovations that accompany them.2 These accelerating environmental changes thus illuminate a key contradiction of capitalism in the twentieth and now twenty-first century: its innovative forms of “creative destruction,” in Joseph Schumpeter’s famous formulation, generate unexpected planetary consequences, new forms of destructive creation.3 This book offers a literary history of this postwar period centered on these pervasive changes, turning to poetry as an essential archive of ecological reflection and response.

Conceptualizing the postwar era as bearing distinctive significance has been a primary argument of environmental historians and theorists for several generations now, particularly given 1945’s bright line: the detonation of the atomic bomb.4 This apocalyptic threat was clearly the most spectacular ecological change of the era and the most visible signal of anthropogenic power to alter the planet. The devastating effects of nuclear warfare and testing in particular areas—Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Southwest, Bikini Atoll—made nuclear fallout one of the first fronts in the postwar study of toxic impacts on ecosystems, as scientists turned attention to the lingering effects of strontium-90 in waterways, soil, and human bodies and to the difficulty of managing nuclear waste. This new atomic regime produced important shifts in environmental thinking, ushering in new ways of conceiving of the destructive power of human technology and introducing dizzying new temporal scales—the half-life of radioactive waste, the instantaneity of nuclear winter—into the everyday imaginary of American culture.

Yet the nuclear threat has hardly been the only framework for conceptualizing emergent forms of environmental crisis in the postwar period. Historian Donald Worster famously called the postwar era the “Age of Ecology,” host to a variety of changing ideas about the environment and environmental politics.5 At the end of the 1960s, writers and activists in the United States such as Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, John Paul Galbraith, David Brower, and others had significantly widened the field of environmental attention beyond wilderness conservation and atomic fears to include pollution of air, water, and soil; toxins in consumer goods, in the home and workplace, and in bodies; population growth; and energy concerns.6 By the late 1990s, the broad-based impact of anthropogenic activity on the earth system led to globalized configurations of ecological crisis, from ocean acidification to mass extinction and climate change. This book chronicles the changing definitions of crisis across this period, examining them in terms of larger frameworks developing at the time, from critiques of agricultural exploitation, waste, and urban toxicity in the 1950s to the global scales and epochal redefinitions of the 2000s.

In this book, I use the term “Great Acceleration” as an overarching period frame that defines this era’s ecohistorical specificity. This term has significant explanatory power for describing the changes to planetary systems that emerge with increasing intensity in the postwar period—changes that are inextricably tied to the forms of capitalist economic growth in America and in the world economy after 1945. As historians J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke argue in their recent book on the Great Acceleration, this period is “the most anomalous and unrepresentative period in the 200,000-year-long history of relations between our species and the biosphere.”7 The sheer dimensions and scope of planetary change after 1945—the dramatic increases in population, energy use, urbanization, carbon dioxide and methane emissions, habitat loss, agricultural development, and species endangerment and extinction—demand a historical framework that can foreground these new intensities. The terminology of the Great Acceleration attunes us to the particular entwining of the economic and the ecological in this period, a distinctive phase within the longer history of the production of nature in capitalism wherein the contradictions immanent to this system become increasingly pronounced.8

The destructive speed of environmental change associated with this period must be understood not only as an outcome of capitalism’s production of nature in pursuit of profit but as another dimension of capitalism’s tendency toward crisis. The growth of capitalism in the postwar period produced a series of crises, from the oil shocks and deindustrialization of the 1970s to the financial crisis of the late 2000s, that underscored the internal contradictions of this system.9 At the same time, we see corresponding transformations in planetary systems and biospheric processes occurring during this era. While the ability to recalibrate by finding new venues for appropriation and development has been essential to capitalism’s repertoire, the material consequences of its production of nature are becoming increasingly difficult to manage. The history of this era is thus one in which capitalism’s expansionary drive, fueled by new productive capacities and speeds, comes to generate deepening global economic imbalance and devastating metabolic rifts in the earth system.10 Thus, if the term “acceleration” brings to mind capital’s fantasy of increasingly frictionless flows and flexibilization of labor, here those associations are brought up against the runaway speed of earth-systemic alteration and the forms of precarity engendered by economic and ecological dynamics.11

The Great Acceleration is often discussed in relation to the larger ecohistorical framework of the Anthropocene. For climate scientists and geologists, the Anthropocene can be measured by a series of stratigraphic signals, from changing sediment patterns to sea-level alterations to biotic changes such as extinction events, and it is by studying these geophysical changes that they date its beginning and calculate its effects.12 For humanists interested in studying these planetary changes, the Anthropocene’s most profound implication is that humans as a species have transcended their status as biological agents to become a collective force that can irrevocably mark the earth. Scholars in the environmental humanities regard this epoch as necessitating new perspectives, not only about human impacts on planetary systems but about the very nature of the human. Across various periodizations of the Anthropocene, the 1945 period plays a pivotal role, whether as the initiating point of this epoch or as a successive stage in a longer era.13

My account of this period centers on the biospheric ramifications of capitalist development in their different forms across the postwar era. Remainders focuses not on species-level culpability but on the dynamics of explosive economic growth and accompanying technological innovations as engines of earth-systemic alteration.14 This study also foregrounds the ways capitalist productive relations generate vast inequalities and uneven systemic effects across the globe. It explores how the consequences of these dynamics were felt in immanent ways during this time and how environmental thinkers and poetic works developed a language for describing these unfolding changes.

Remainders looks in depth at three key eras of the Great Acceleration—the 1950s, the early 1970s, and the 2000s—when distinct conceptions of ecology and crisis were taking shape. The first chapter surveys the era of economic growth and prosperity beginning in the 1950s, often called the “Golden Age of Capitalism,” and it details the new scales of postconsumer waste and new forms of uneven development in the rural and urban peripheries that accompany this postwar economic boom. I turn next to the transitional time of the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era of revolutionary politics and burgeoning economic destabilization. This period heralds new conceptions of generalized ecological crisis, including atmospheric pollution, systemic toxicity, and unsustainable fossil fuel dependency, alongside explorations of radical alternatives to capital accumulation and land enclosure. The final chapters examine the turn to the discourse of the Anthropocene in the 2000s. Tracking the changing discourses of environmentalism over the second half of the century and into the present, my study attends to the evolving rhetorics that reflect on and shape collective sensibilities around ecological crisis. I consider the discourses of popular environmental thinkers across this period, including Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Bill McKibben, and Naomi Klein, placing them alongside contemporaneous works of poetry in order to discern their continuities and disjunctions.

This book explores the ways these emerging paradigms of crisis after 1945 generate not only ecological and economic arguments but also aesthetic sensibilities that shape the poetry of this period. Yet in this study I resist approaching poems as merely symptomatic objects. Instead, my readings attend to the non-synchrony, even friction, between poetry and environmental discourse. While the arguments of prose writers such as Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben often had a transformative effect on environmental politics, the poetry of this project largely frames itself as out of sync with its present. I contend that the enigmatic, refractory ecological imaginaries of these works provide important historiographical counterpoints to the timely interventions of mainstream environmentalist discourse. In their resistance to the emplotment and closures of narrative form, their speculative turns toward unimagined futures and recursive engagement with prior modes, and their attention to dynamics of persistence and decomposition, these poems generate distinct vantages on their contemporary conditions. In this way, Remainders illuminates the unique perspectives that poetry, rather than literary nonfiction or novels, American ecocriticism’s preferred genres, might provide for accounts of postwar ecologically oriented writing.

Attuned to the planetary poiesis of global capitalism in the Great Acceleration, the poems across this book imaginatively tarry with what lives on and what is beyond repair. Taking as their subject matter remainders of various kinds, from obsolescent commodities to polluted air and toxic matter, they convey the strange temporalities and phenomenologies of socioecological life in turmoil. Some probe the ways genres long associated with environmental relations must be reimagined or deconstructed as these relations undergo significant alteration. Others invest figures of apostrophe and prosopopoeia with new proportions in relation to the accelerating destruction of habitats and biodiversity loss. Remainders examines these portrayals as meditations on the ecological aftereffects of productive innovation and on poetry’s own changing figurative investments in an age of calamitous environmental change. Charting these literary developments across a variety of texts, Remainders uncovers an urgent poetic record of the untimely history of our environmental present.

A governing aim of this book is to elaborate an ecocritical outlook that attends more fully to the forms and figures of ecological calamity rather than to narratives of sustainability and hope.15 It is my contention that the history of this period, one of intensifying catastrophe at various scales, demands such attention. This is also a period of sustained environmental response, and the poems of this study all provide creative and moving contributions to this effort. But they do so in a decidedly minor key, one that is skeptical of progress and reform. Taken together, the governing ethos of the poetry in this study might be glimpsed in a phrase by poet Brenda Hillman in her recent book Practical Water (2009): “We must do something but what.”16 Resisting a perspective of innocence or ethical outrage that would suggest an observational, distanced vantage, these poems emphasize forms of complicity in environmental destruction and convey collective feelings of vulnerability, hopelessness, and dread. They replace jeremiads of imminent apocalypse with an uncanny sense of living on amidst accumulating planetary disruption, and they mourn the loss of a belief in nature’s rejuvenating powers.

In so doing, this poetry offers insight into the feelings, forms, and situations arising in response to rapid environmental transformation without presenting easy resolutions. As a chronicle of these works, Remainders proposes an extended response to “green” readings that stress environmental consciousness, appreciation, and ethical action. I highlight how these poems engage in more ambivalent ways with the problem of human agency and the limits of individual perception and ethical response. Attuned to the damaging aspects of environmental existence, the works of this study dwell in unresolvable affects and bewildering sensations. Such attunement to the incipient and the untimely, I argue, embodies a sustained response to the accelerative temporality and logics of the era often called the “American Century.”

Accelerations and Untimeliness

To characterize this poetic ethos, I turn first to two poems, about a discarded beer can and a melting piece of glacier, respectively, which bookend this book’s historical period. Lorine Niedecker, midwestern midcentury poet, meditates in an untitled poem from 1956 on various forms of garbage that are tossed by urban weekenders onto the rural byways of her Wisconsin landscape:

People, people—
ten dead ducks’ feathers
on beer can litter . . .
will change all that17

Like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” the haunting quality of this poem emerges through its brief image that charts the strange temporalities of its present. While Pound’s modernist poem renders human life as spectral presence, evanescent as fallen petals, amidst the disorienting speed of urbanized existence, Niedecker’s postwar piece portrays “people, people” by way of lingering remnants. In these discarded signs of rural leisure, Niedecker sees a representative image of humans’ heedless, destructive practices; her tone here is subtly chiding, as if reminding us of the wastefulness we’d prefer to overlook. At the same time, the poem evokes the strange condition of these materials, intimating and yet resisting the existential qualities of death and life. The obdurate presence of the beer can conjures the uncanny animacy of the commodity persisting beyond the productive circuits of capital; the evanescent feathers dot the can in an eerie simulation of the duck’s living being. Niedecker’s image highlights matter not just out of place but out of time, lingering beyond the organic life cycle of the bird and the commodity cycle of the beer—a living on into decay that becomes a temporal hallmark of postwar poetic representations of remainders.

The closing image of this poem—“winter / will change all that”—marks, at one level, a seasonal transience that erases human traces from the landscape. In this sense, it speaks to the cyclical capacities for renewal that poets from Hesiod and Virgil forward have celebrated in the natural world. It evokes, moreover, the sense of transience and mortality that winter connotes. This reading of the image stresses the rejuvenating power of the natural world’s forces in relation to the frailty of human life and works, a powerful and enduring poetic trope. Yet Niedecker’s closing line also can be read with a more historically specific valence, evoking anthropogenic impacts on nature itself. Niedecker’s work, particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s, is imbued with the pervasive nuclear anxieties of the Cold War era. “In the great snowfall before the bomb,” begins one poem, and another poem depicts schoolchildren singing “O Tannenbaum,” with one child instead singing the phrase “atomic bomb.”18 “Winter / will change all that,” then, may refer to nuclear winter, the culminating sign of the destructiveness for which “people, people” are responsible and a figure of the increasing indistinguishability of natural and human histories in a nuclear age.

The specter of nuclear winter haunting these lines, in turn, forecasts a larger concern in the post-1945 poetry I examine: an emerging anxiety about the inability to count on nature to erase human traces and make new a landscape, and a sense of human imbrication in environmental processes to the degree that even winter becomes an indeterminate signifier of human activity. If the future-orientation of Niedecker’s language—“winter / will change all that”—conveys a particular kind of ecological thinking characteristic of the nuclear era, where the anthropogenic capacities for natural destruction that nuclear winter entails remain on the horizon as apocalyptic possibility, the obsolescing litter suggests a nearer, more daily destructive presence. This four-line poem holds different scales of ecological harm, from the proleptic fears of atomic calamity to the ongoing effects of consumption and the casual violence of humans. It draws these scales together through the material remnant of the litter that merges human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, natural and historical in an uncanny form with an indeterminate life span. In so doing, the poem stakes a claim for the mediating capacity of poetry, its ability to disclose and to hold open, to attend to what remains and to glimpse what might yet come.

If Niedecker’s 1956 poem registers a murmur of ecological disturbance unfolding at an incremental pace, Kaia Sand’s contemporary piece, “Tiny Arctic Ice,” is attuned to the accelerated flows of twenty-first-century global capitalism and their cataclysmic ecological implications. Here are the opening lines, each one appearing on its own page:

Inhale, exhale
7.4 billion people breathing
Some of us in captivity
Our crops far-flung
Prison is a place where children sometimes visit
Jetted from Japan, edamame is eaten in England
Airplane air is hard to share
I breathe in what you breathe out, stranger19

Evoking the seemingly seamless movements of commodities circulating—edamame, saffron, roses, microchips—Sand portrays airplanes “jetting” goods around the globe. Sand’s poem, illustrating how Quito and Prineville, Japan and the Cascade Mountains are drawn into proximity through “far-flung” supply chains, is suggestive of what environmental historian Elizabeth Kolbert calls the development of a global “New Pangaea,” a supercontinent of sorts characterized by increasingly homogeneous goods and decreasing biodiversity, fueled by contemporary patterns of commodity circulation.20 At the same time, by invoking images of containment, captivity, and sterility—people in prison, Araucana chickens that “won’t lay eggs in captivity,” Monsanto’s infamous “terminator seeds”—Sand draws the reader’s attention to the social inequalities and ecological limits that underwrite these planetary flows.

What moves and what is hard to move; what connections become perceptible and invisible in everyday patterns of living; what “stacks up” and what disappears; what and who is left over, cast off—these are the socioecological questions that the poem weighs. But perhaps the most powerful figure exemplifying these questions is one that appears only in the title: the “Tiny Arctic Ice” itself. This diminishing presence haunts the poem’s scenes of swift global transport and disposable goods. The arctic ice is one material reminder of the ecological consequences of these “far-flung” flows. Not directly integrated into the body of the poem, the glacier’s diminishment is nonetheless inextricably tied to them, as the repeated image of the airplane spanning the earth, emitting CO2 all along the way, underscores. Rather than distant and unreachable—a symbol of the sublime otherness of the natural world—the arctic ice, melting into “tininess,” is a material register of the indistinction of the anthropogenic and the nonhuman in a globalized age.

Like the slow decomposition of Niedecker’s beer can, the remainder of the melting glacier attunes the reader to untimely forms, marginal to the rhythms of capitalist production but also unmoored from biospheric cycles associated with the Holocene. While Niedecker’s poem holds out a hope for natural reintegration, albeit mixed with new anxieties about nuclear power’s unmaking capacities, Sand’s poem depicts an interconnected world where nature appears as commodity good and disappears as wild externality. The melting ice, the resistant seeds, the products headed for slow decomposition in the landfill—each portray toxic lingering and decay unfolding at divergent tempos. To consider these poems together, then, is to observe an evolving poetic inquiry, across the second half of the century, into the ecological limits and crisis tendencies that come to characterize the Great Acceleration. These poems show how such greater tendencies might be glimpsed in small, easily overlooked materials, made perceptible via the mediating capacities of poetic form. They also reveal the ways in which nature as an organizing poetic concept signifying otherness and creative renewal becomes increasingly cast in negative terms, as that which is fugitive or no longer available. In this sense, these works investigate nature itself as a remaindered category of poetic thinking.

Natural History and Nature’s End

In his 1836 essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson calls for an American literature that attends to “new lands, new men, new thoughts” rather than remaining mired in the “dry bones of the past.”21 Emerson argues that turning to the permanence and fecundity of the natural world can provide the basis for such literary imaginings. To undertake this endeavor, “Nature” examines the alterity of nature and the complexity of our relation to it, asking, “To what end is nature?” Emerson conveys a multifaceted definition of nature whose various inflections bear, in largely negative ways, on the poetic ethos this book explores. Emerson first claims that nature remains essentially external to humans, a realm impervious to our alterations: “Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.”22 For Emerson, the perfected forms of nature—“the acorn, the grape, the pine-cone, the wheat-ear, the egg, the wings and forms of most birds, the lion’s claw, the serpent, the butterfly”—serve as emblems of the possibility for spiritual and material wholeness available to humans.23 And in turn, human language and art emerge from and are indelibly connected to these perfect forms. Nature is the primal, abundant source on which humans depend for both material sustenance and imaginative “ministry.”24

Emerson’s language in this section titled “Commodity,” however, also undertakes a complex reversal of this language of dependence, suggesting that nature’s plenty is intended to “serve” humans. Emerson describes a planetary system where all elements work harmoniously toward the end of human “profit”:

All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.25

Here we can see the way that Emerson’s sense of creative limitlessness derives from a material base, wherein natural phenomena serve as resource for human economy. As critic Carolyn Porter writes, the answer that Emerson gives to the question “Nature” poses is simple: “the end of nature is to be used,” whether for imaginative or material purposes.26

All of these interconnected frameworks for understanding nature—as autonomous externality, as site of imaginative renewal and trove of creative images, as ceaselessly replenishable resource for human endeavor—have been central not only to Anglo-American cultural understandings of nature from the Romantic period forward but to poetic imaginations in particular.27 In Emerson’s essay, it is the poet who best demonstrates these various aspects of nature: in the emblematic language that draws readers’ imaginations back to natural forms, but also in the way the poet “conforms things to his thoughts” in his work, using nature to her own ends. It is in poetry, Emerson suggests, that we can glimpse both the primal alterity of nature and also the most ingenious forms of its anthropogenic use, expressed through the poet’s imaginative symbols. Invocations of nature in American works by poets from Bryant and Whitman to Frost and Moore draw not only on these various tropes that Emerson describes but also assert poetry’s particular sensitivity to nature’s forms and capacities.28

Many of the poems in this study remain powerfully influenced by this poetic sensibility. Yet they confront, again and again, the ways this aesthetics of nature no longer obtains in a time of accelerating ecological crisis. They consider what happens when the figurative potential for natural renewal or refuge becomes no longer possible, and they meditate on this very unavailability, weighing the consequences for poetic thinking without this framework.29 We might discover in this archive another sense of Porter’s reading of Emerson’s essay: “the end of nature is to be used.” These works reveal how the desire for an original relation with nature characteristic of transatlantic Romanticism and its modern inheritors is inextricable from a belief in what Marx calls the “free gifts of Nature,” inexhaustible in its ability to be appropriated to human ends.30 They point not only to the impossibility of approaching nature in the green sense that Emerson evokes but to the way such logics are bound to the intensifying commodification of nature and its calamitous effects. “Nature’s end,” a concept invoked by theorists including Bill McKibben, Carolyn Merchant, Fredric Jameson, Ulrich Beck, and Bruno Latour (and discussed in Chapter 4), here signifies not the end of the real, ongoing phenomena and entities of the biosphere but of this organizing frame of nature’s exteriority and abundance. Looking at these works, we see how figures of nature as externality come to be replaced by figures of remainders that reveal the indistinction of natural and historical phenomena amidst the processes of capital accumulation. These poems reflect on the interpenetration of ecology and economy, the natural and the historical, and they consider the ways poetic form might be uniquely attentive to these deconstructive mergings.

I draw on Adorno’s and Benjamin’s historical-materialist idea of natural history to develop my readings of these postwar poems. Natural history, a philosophy of history developed in Benjamin’s Trauerspiel study and Arcades Project and Adorno’s lecture “On The Idea of Natural-History” and Negative Dialectics, emerges by way of a refusal to see the concepts of history and nature as idealized, opposed ontological categories. As a refutation of dualistic Enlightenment and phenomenological accounts, natural history offers a form of critical historiography that defamiliarizes “historical being” and “natural being” into relations of productive indistinction.31 This historiography decenters the human as history’s privileged subject, instead favoring a logic that stresses the ephemerality and finitude of all things. Natural history, in Benjamin’s and Adorno’s sense, rejects triumphal progress-narratives of historical development and cumulative meaning in favor of a governing logic of disintegration, loss, and untimeliness.32

At the site of indistinction between historical being and natural being, Benjamin’s Trauerspiel study asserts, is “originary decay.” Benjamin argues: “In the process of decay, and in it alone, the events of history shrivel up and become absorbed in the setting.”33 This decompositional principle, to which all beings are susceptible, de-essentializes nature as eternal presence while revealing human history as similarly bound by transience. Adorno claims that the work of the materialist philosopher, then, is to “awaken” the “enciphered and petrified object” by discerning in its fragmented corpus the allegorical meaning that is “transience.”34 For his part, Benjamin contributes an essential textual ingredient to this perspective, pointing to the hermeneutic task of apprehending natural history in baroque allegory, which he sees as a site in which the disintegration of history as it decomposes into nature is revealed. Benjamin argues that in such allegories, the inscriptions of history in nature become apprehensible in the form of the fragment and the ruin. These shards point not to the workings of nature in its “bud and bloom” but in “the over-ripeness and decay of her creations.”35 In turn, Benjamin’s lifelong Arcades Project extends this consideration to the petrifying commodities and decaying infrastructure of the Paris Arcades. In this natural-historical interpretation, such commodities reveal the accelerating process of transience characteristic of modern consumer capitalism.36

Benjamin’s and Adorno’s philosophy has powerful and largely unrecognized implications for socioecological thinking in the Great Acceleration. Their concept of natural history is illuminating both in its emphasis on material processes of decomposition and in its insistence that this is the fate of all historical beings.37 This attention to what Adorno calls “dialectical nature”—nature overwritten by history, history suffused by decay—gains a more urgent historical significance in a time of generalized environmental crisis.38 I employ the term “remainder” to draw out both key allegiances to and divergences from this Frankfurt School method. As a conceptual term, remainder operates as a means of considering the relations between ecology, history, and form as they become newly visible in the devalued remnants of capital’s circuits of production, circulation, and consumption. Such remnants might appear as unintentional by-product (emissions, toxic waste, agricultural run-off, glacial melt) or as superseded commodity. Unlike the monumental figure of the ruin or the elliptical shard of the fragment, the remainder, as considered in these poems, evokes the ongoing and intensifying processes that characterize natural-historical entanglements in this period. Posing a challenge both to the capitalist narratives of perpetual growth via productive cycles and to the predictability of ecosystemic patterns, the material life of these remainders signifies new ecological limits. This natural-historical image works, then, not to renaturalize the production of nature under capitalism but to provide a causal account of matter-in-time and thus to expose the historicity, the social kernel, of its composition and decay.

In turn, the deconstructive operations of transience central to Adorno’s and Benjamin’s sense of natural history are subtended, here, by an uncanny sense of endurance. What defines the natural-historical in the Great Acceleration is not so much the motions of transience that unmake all phenomena over time but the way this unmaking itself seems to be interrupted, altered, undone. In this sense, we might see new dimensions and scales of natural history, glimpsed in myriad contexts: in the expansive decay of landfills and oil spills, in the afterlife of obsolescent objects, in the abandoned lots of Rust Belt cities, and in the slow toxic seepage of industrial chemicals into waterways, soil, air, and animal products.39 As in Adorno’s and Benjamin’s perspective, these remainders convey, in their decompositional lingering, catastrophe unfolding at various speeds. In postwar American poetry, we can discern various literary representations of such remainders. These figurations, with their dialectical reflections on the accelerative speed of earth-systemic change, offer powerful expressions of the complex and often contradictory socioecological dynamics of their present.40

Innovation and Remainders

Remainders reads these portrayals not only as meditations on socioecological transformations but also on the changing state of American poetry in a postliterary and postnatural age. My study asks whether, in a half century characterized by the progressive diminishment of poetry’s cultural authority, poems of this period might be attuned to poetry’s own cultural status as a remainder. What if a poem builds obsolescence into its own structure, signaling its imminent outmodedness and potential non-endurance as an artifact? Throughout this book, I trace how a variety of poems in the wake of modernism depart from an ethos characterized by innovation and avant-gardism and instead reflect a self-reflexive bearing of untimeliness. I argue that their imaginative tarrying with the residual offers reflections on the status and fate of poetry in mid-twentieth- to early-twenty-first-century American life, reflections that burrow deep into the very material textures and self-definitions of these works.

The work of Niedecker and Sand discussed above provides instances of the way poetic attention to natural-historical dynamics extends beyond theme to compositional principle and internal ethos. These writers’ texts mark, in proleptic fashion, their own exposure to temporal decay. Perhaps the most striking example of this tendency in Niedecker’s work can be found in an early poem, “Next Year or I Fly My Rounds Tempestuous,” which is handwritten on the tear-off sheets of a desktop devotional calendar for 1935. This calendar-poem is suffused with a sense of the slippery ephemerality of time—“Wade all life / backward to its / source which / runs too far / ahead,” goes the first poem’s koan-like logic.41 This untimeliness is further underscored by the poem’s material form. Over the dates for the second half of January, Niedecker writes: “after / you know me / I’ll be no one.”42 Playing with the homophones “know” and “no,” these lines look into the future to declare anonymity as final fate and envision this anonymity not as a condition of being unknown but of being known. To be “no one” is the denouement of all matter, after it is known, encountered, read. That this poem is written by hand on the calendar only heightens its insistence on potential non-endurance, as the poem’s very existence is bound to the ephemeral presence of the tear-off calendar page, a material record intended not for longevity but for brief use and quick disposability. The poem’s marking of its own obsolescence through the calendar page speaks to an orientation toward historical time that is regressive rather than forward-looking, wading backwards rather than keeping up. While the calendar-poem persists, remediated in book form, it highlights the susceptibility of all things to transience and decay and frames its own presence as remnant, lingering on.

Sand’s poem attends in similar ways to these dynamics. It first appeared, in 2007, as a typewritten chapbook on a tea bag, published by a small press, Dusie Press. Through this format, Sand’s poem imprints a sense of its own material impermanence, recorded on a product made for single use and instant disposal. That this product is tea, one of the commodities central to the development of global trade, underscores the poem’s thematic meditation on the global production and circulation of goods. To inscribe the poem onto a one-use commodity good is to contemplate the materials and means by which a poem circulates in the global economy and to raise questions about the relation between disposable commodity and poem. It is to highlight, in its very form, an attention to what persists and what might not last. Sand has subsequently recast this poem as a performance piece in various evanescent or disposable formats: on paper airplanes sent into audiences, on newspapers, and inscribed on e-waste cords.43 Sand affiliates the linguistic object of the poem with these discarded material goods, even as the poem’s inscriptive capacity allows for reflections on these elements of transience.

In figure and form, these works convey the larger natural-historical poetics that this study tracks, which attend in various ways to the temporal dialectics of lasting and passing. Troubling what Susan Stewart has called the “move to transcend or escape time that . . . [serves as] the paradigm for literary idealism from romanticism through modernism,” these works chart presences that linger at the verge.44 This study attends to the historical, ecological, and poetic insights that a particular archive of postwar poetry achieves through its imaginative affiliation with residual materials and forms. Across its chapters, this book attends to remaindered presence as theme, topos, and formal pattern in a variety of poems. If these texts make it new, it is often by way of testing the capacities and limits of older genres, tropes, and recurring figures. Rather than offering a declension narrative for American postwar poetics, I consider the insights this obsolescent imaginary develops in its forms of ecological attention and its self-conception of poetry’s persistence as a nondominant cultural form.

Through this attention to the logics of obsolescence and residuality across postwar American poetry, my study proposes a critical counternarrative to what I call the “innovation paradigm” that has dominated literary-critical accounts of modern and contemporary poetry over the past two decades. Innovative poetry could be most broadly characterized in Marjorie Perloff’s terms as a “language of rupture,” associated with modernist avant-garde practices of the early twentieth century but continuing into the contemporary field of poetic practice.45 A host of monographs and anthologies on twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century American poetry invoke innovation as their organizing framework.46 Beyond these particular titles, the concept of innovation has come to define the genealogies of poetry from modernism into the present more than any other term. Poetic innovation begins with the modern need to turn away from received form—from the pentameter to the genteel conventions of late Victorian verse to the lyricism of Romantic poetry—and to “make it new.” Innovation, in this sense, is grounded in poetic practices that disrupt legibility, mix genres and styles, engage in paratactic and perceptual leaps, elaborate formal constraints, and otherwise foreground the materiality of their medium. The extended analogy of this paradigm connects innovative strategies in poetry to the non-expressivist aims of other art forms.47 The inventions and refusals of the modern period, in turn, become resources for various forms of innovation in the postwar era. The poetry of Pound and other modernists, the New American poets, Language poetry, and contemporary performance, digital, Conceptual, multimedia, and post-Language writing—all have been grouped within the capacious frame of innovative or avant-garde poetry.48

Innovation paradigm proponents also suggest that beyond any specific practices, innovation bespeaks a larger ethos. Innovation has been a decidedly positive term in postwar American poetics, with liberatory and even revolutionary connotations. Innovation refuses the status quo, subverts conventional forms of thinking, and imagines new possibilities for poetic practice, according to this framework.49 The concept of innovation thus suggests an essentially optimistic narrative of poetic production, circulation, and reception, one attentive to the generative energy of poetry as a cultural form. It views poetry as a means of unveiling new forms of thought that might generate larger social change. Such views find analogical affinities with the logic of commodity production and liberal narratives of historical progress.50 We might say that this ethos, with its celebrations of subversive innovation, dovetails significantly with the progress-oriented sensibilities of the American Century.

Yet even if poetry remains a widespread cultural enterprise across the second half of the century and into the present, it cannot be understood as possessing sustained, meaningful influence on the wider spheres of American social and political life.51 Since the 1990s, critical pronouncements of the “death” of poetry, backed up by statistics about the steep decline in American poetry readership, have circulated widely.52 While recent cultural studies investigations have highlighted poetry’s populist forms and myriad locales, from Internet chat rooms to public elegies, these critical works nonetheless acknowledge the larger marginality of poetry as a literary form within postwar cultural production.53 Approached from this historical vantage, the imperative toward innovation itself begins to appear like an anachronistic holdover from the modernist era, a nostalgic desire to occupy a poetic modality with more direct cultural relevance.54

It is no coincidence, then, that one image this study’s title, Remainders, evokes is that of the remainders table in a bookstore, an image of the decidedly equivocal value of the literary in this period. My study is not, however, a sociological portrait of postwar poetry’s institutional life or a direct analysis of the literary marketplace for poetry, territory that has been ably covered by various scholars of postwar poetics.55 Nor does it engage in depth the “poetry wars” of recent years, suggesting by this sidestep that such frameworks have perhaps determined the methods and categories by which we frame postwar poetry at the expense of other conceptions. And it does not elegize poetry as irrelevant, archaic, or dead but instead examines ways that a sustained examination of the cultural obsolescence of poetry might be apprehensible in and through this work’s attention to the untimely persistence of remainders.

Raymond Williams’s concept of cultural residuality from his chapter in Marxism and Literature titled “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent” provides a useful framework in approaching poetry’s cultural status in the postwar period. Williams describes the residual as a cultural formation that, unlike the archaic, retains a certain distance from the dominant culture and can thus possess “an alternative or even oppositional relation” to this culture.”56 Residuality not only denotes cultural status, but it conveys a necessary relation to the past that is notably absent in arguments that stress innovation. Williams’s definition of residuality indicates the ways prior cultural forms and meanings exert continuing pressure on the cultural forms of the present, as well as how these present forms represent an uncertain relation to the future. For Williams, this uncertainty centers on the ever-present possibility, for residual modes, of incorporation by the dominant culture or diminishment into nonexistence. Drawing on these ideas, I explore the ways poems across this period might be understood as residual cultural forms, still an active presence in and of the present but with no claim to dominance in the cultural sphere.57 In their shared attunement to recursivity and belatedness, these works present an alternative to literary histories organized around innovative imperatives. And in their form and theme, these various texts conceive of poetry as an aesthetic space for meditating on what remains.

The Chapters

My first chapter offers an introduction to the dynamics of postwar American life, a period often called the “Golden Age of Capitalism,” as revealing emergent signs of ecological catastrophe. To do so, I consider the work of two midcentury poets, Lorine Niedecker and Gwendolyn Brooks, as chroniclers of socioecological transition in the American Midwest.58 While environmental historians have recently drawn attention to the suburbs as the key site of inquiry into changing postwar conditions, these writers’ work highlights the rural and urban peripheries as key locales for understanding changing environmental dynamics. I turn first to Niedecker’s development of a poetics attentive to uneven development and ecosystemic degradation in the mixed economy of rural Wisconsin. Across her work, we glimpse the changing tempos of the historical nature of North Central, Niedecker’s name for her region, as it undergoes sustained transformation, charted by way of the small thing—lilacs, quack grass, corn—that emblematizes what lasts and what is rendered obsolete. The second half of the chapter moves from Niedecker’s rural Wisconsin to Brooks’s urban Chicago. Brooks depicts the production of space in relation to the forms of environmental inequity emerging in South Side housing and neighborhood conditions after 1945. In so doing, her poems, with their folk forms, detail an emergent history of racism and impoverishment as environmental conditions, a key dimension of the Great Acceleration.

Chapters 2 and 3 turn from the immediate postwar period to the late 1960s and early 1970s, amidst the emergence of the modern environmental movement and new definitions of systemic ecological crisis. In Chapter 2, I place John Ashbery’s atmospheric poetry of the late sixties and early seventies in dialogue with the influential environmental reflections of Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner. In Carson and Commoner, we see two examinations of the ways the empirical verifiability of biospheric crisis—particularly in terms of systemic toxicity and pollution—remains difficult to perceive and apprehend. Ashbery’s atmospheres similarly convey not the spectacular or apocalyptic recognition of ecological calamity but a more strange and uneven perceptibility. My third chapter engages with two poetic texts of the early 1970s, Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island (1974) and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (1971), which were important documents for the countercultural left. These works reflect on a short-lived ecopolitical itinerary in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the revolutionary commitments of New Left activists and the back-to-the-land practices of the counterculture generated a distinctive radical ecological politics. The creative operation of the books is to impart glimpses of an idyllic vision as an interruptive, untimely alternative to the ongoing operations of modern capitalism. At the same time, they tie this pastoral of the future to the imminent need for revolutionary transformation, offering a thoroughgoing critique of systemic ecological and social crisis wrought by industrialized capitalism and the modern state. I point toward the historical conditions that led to the decline of radical ecological politics by the late 1970s and the corporatization of the environmental movement in the Reagan-Bush era, indicating the ways these changing conditions rendered this version of pastoral not only untimely but untenable.

The final two chapters turn to the 2000s and to the new global scales of ecological crisis, associated with climate change and other biospheric rifts, that characterize this period’s ecological thinking. My fourth chapter describes the emergence of the discourse of the “end of nature” and its implications for understanding biospheric relations. Pointing to the elegiac dimensions of this discourse, I read Juliana Spahr’s long poem “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” as an example of a literary exploration of the consequences of this conceptual absence. This chapter argues that the operations of elegy become the subject of sustained investigation in Spahr’s work, which finds its forms of closure to be unavailable. Instead, I claim that “Gentle Now” serves as a representative eco-elegy that dwells in melancholia rather than moving toward the completion of the mourning process. I close with an examination of Spahr’s recent reengagement with the central preoccupations of “Gentle Now” in another poem, co-written with Joshua Clover, called “#Misanthropocene: 24 Theses,” which investigates the affective and political limits of melancholy.

My final chapter turns to the contemporary mode of ecopoetics as an exploration of the problems of poiesis in a time of accelerating ecological destruction. Ecopoetics as a distinctive mode emerges in the post–Kyoto Protocol era, when the problem of how to respond to planetary environmental degradation—species extinction, global climate change, and other forms of biospheric instability—has become at once increasingly urgent and seemingly insoluble. The contemporary poems I discuss present an extended redescription of human capacities and aesthetic making in light of these generalized forms of anthropogenic crisis. These works meditate on remainders—material in a landfill, cast-off plastic goods—exploring whether and how the symbolic acts of discovery, disassembly and reconstruction these poems stage differ from larger imperatives to extract, consume, discard, and repurpose materials to generate further value. Their portrayals raise questions regarding the culpability for environmental destruction and the limits of human ingenuity to salvage or make new.

Our uncertain ecological present is perhaps best exemplified in the strange and turbulent weather we face, from floods and droughts to unnatural earthquakes and hurricanes of unprecedented force. My coda reads recent representations of storms and the wreckage they leave behind as vivid illustrations of the losses that have become central features of twenty-first-century Great Acceleration life. In their depictions of life-worlds undone by calamity, these works dwell in the devastation and bewilderment of scenes of aftermath. Such scenes underscore the larger ethos of this book, with its refusal of narratives of progress or resilience and its insistence on grappling with the distressing consequences of socioecological change. But these portrayals also point to the grounds for an emergent politics based in a recognition of the earthly commons we share. Such a politics, glimpsed across many of the texts in this study but finding material form in the burgeoning radical ecological movements of our time, discovers unexpected forms of solidarity amidst precarious conditions and elaborates vocabularies of mutuality alongside its language of loss.


1. Scientists and historians Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill argue that “the past 50 years have been a period of dramatic and unprecedented change in human history,” with increases in population, atmospheric CO2 concentration, urbanization, extinction rates, and other measures of anthropogenic environmental change.” Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (2011): 851.

2. On the new planetary boundary thresholds emerging in this period, see John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

3. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London: Routledge, 1994), 83. My inversion of Schumpeter’s term foregrounds the way these dynamics generate unforeseen ecological consequences.

4. Historian Donald Worster argues that this age began with a bang “on the New Mexican desert on July 16, 1945.” Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 339. For other key studies of the atomic age and environmental politics, see Martin Melosi, Atomic Age America (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012); Sarah Fox, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); and M. Jean-Claude Debeir, Jean-Paul Deleage, and Daniel Hemery, In the Servitude of Power (London: Zed Books, 1991).

5. Worster, Nature’s Economy, 339.

6. Samuel Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). For other useful environmental histories of this period, see Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (New York: Routledge, 2003); and J. R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: Norton, 2000).

7. J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 5. They claim that the Great Acceleration is a brief period within the longer durée of the Anthropocene: “One cannot say when the Great Acceleration will end, and one cannot say just how, but it is almost certainly a brief blip in human history, environmental history, and Earth history” (5).

8. See James O’Connor, “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism,” in Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), 158–177; Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015), 277–305; and Farshad Araghi, “Accumulation by Displacement: Global Enclosures, Food Crisis, and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 32.1 (2009): 113–146.

9. Robert Brenner, Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945–2005 (Verso: London, 2006).

10. Jason Moore argues that the development of the “waste frontier” sharply spikes in the latter half of the twentieth century, with “a series of sharp upticks after 1945, 1975, and 2008” (Capitalism in the Web of Life, 280). Moore extends the argument of world-systems theorist Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century, which argues that the most recent in a series of cycles of capital accumulation is centered in the United States after 1945, with postwar economic boom followed by persistent crisis.

11. On the cognitive experience and physical costs of these forms of acceleration, see Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013).

12. For an extended analysis of these various stratigraphic signals, see J. Zalasiewicz et al., “Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (March 2011): 1036–1055. Many critical works on the Anthropocene have appeared over the past five years. For a useful treatment of the time-scales, critical discourses, and historical implications of the Anthropocene, see Jeremy Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

13. Measures of post-1945 anthropogenic impact include the widespread use of new materials such as plastics and concrete, genetic modifications of large-scale crops like corn, vastly increased numbers of alien species on land and in oceans, sharp spikes in nitrogen and phosphorus in soil and CO2 in the atmosphere, and atomic fallout. See Anthony D. Barnosky, “Paleontological Evidence for Defining the Anthropocene,” in A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene, Geological Society of London Special Publication 395 (October 2013): 149–165.

14. Here I follow various theorists who have expressed unease with the concept of the Anthropocene as a means of understanding the complex entanglement of capitalism and nature that constitutes modern socioecological organization. For theorists such as Jason Moore and Andreas Malm, Anthropocene discourse mistakenly places explanatory power on an abstract concept of species rather than on the historical determinations of capitalism and its reorganizations of nature.

15. There are three particularly compelling recent ecocritical arguments in this vein to note: Teresa Shewry, Hope at Sea: Possible Ecologies in Oceanic Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 217–227; and Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). My argument, however, traces a different historical structure of feeling emerging in this period, one that resists the optimism of hope or makes it conditional on revolutionary change.

16. Brenda Hillman, Practical Water (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 84. “Practical Water,” “Sacramento Delta,” and “Hydrology of California” from Practical Water © 2009 by Brenda Hillman. Published by Wesleyan University Press. Used by permission.

17. Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 173. Excerpts from Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works © 2002 The Regents of the University of California. Published by University of California Press. Reprinted by permission.

18. Niedecker, Collected Works, 141–142.

19. Kaia Sand, “Tiny Arctic Ice,” in A Tale of Magicians Who Puffed Up Money That Lost Its Puff (Kaneone, HI: Tinfish Press, 2016), 26–33. © 2016 by Kaia Sand. Used by permission.

20. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014), 193–216.

21. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in Nature and Selected Essays (New York: Penguin, 1982), 35.

22. Ibid., 36.

23. Ibid., 42.

24. Ibid., 40.

25. Ibid., 41.

26. Carolyn Porter, “Method and Metaphysics in Emerson’s ‘Nature,’VQR 55.3 (Summer 1979): 517–530.

27. See Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), 67–85.

28. On environmental form in American poetry, see Jed Rasula, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002); Angus Fletcher, A New Theory for American Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015). Schuster’s work, in particular, offers a compelling modernist prehistory to this postwar archive, and argues for important distinctions between environmental and environmentalist writing in the modern period. Another recent book with topical overlap is Christopher Schmidt, The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), which explores the topos of waste in American poetry in relation to queer identity and conceptual form.

29. For a powerful formulation of these ideas with attention to various forms of postmodern art and literature, see Patricia Yaeger, “Editor’s Column: The Death of Nature and the Apotheosis of Trash, or, Rubbish Ecology,” PMLA 123.2 (March 2008): 327–339.

30. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1981), 879.

31. Theodor Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, in Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things beyond Resemblance: Collected Essays on Theodor Adorno (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 260.

32. Adorno describes this “radical natural-historical thought” as providing insight into the ways “everything existing transforms itself into ruins and fragments, into just such a charnel house where signification is discovered” (265).

33. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998), 179.

34. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 262, 264.

35. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 179.

36. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 65.

37. On this point, see Max Pensky, “Natural History: The Life and Afterlife of a Concept in Adorno,” Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 5.1 (2004): 235–236. Recent works by Andrew Biro and Deborah Cook also offer insight into the environmental approaches of Benjamin and Adorno. Andrew Biro, Denaturalizing Ecological Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005); Deborah Cook, Adorno on Nature (London: Routledge, 2014).

38. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural-History,” 260.

39. Anna Tsing calls these “capitalist ruins” in her remarkable anthropological study of the ecological entanglements, at various scales, of the matsutake mushroom. Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

40. The interdisciplinary materialist turn, from Bill Brown’s “thing theory” to the neovitalism of Jane Bennett, the object-oriented approaches of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, and the emerging field of material ecocriticism, has offered new frameworks for ecocritical engagement with various nonhuman entities. Such approaches share an interest in exploring how various forms of material phenomena, including waste, might allow for a complicating or unmaking of the subject-object divide, generating new conceptions of relationality and extended agency. My emphasis on remainders preserves a historical-materialist framework that differentiates this book’s perspective from the general tendencies of new materialist methods. A more proximate field is that of waste studies, which explores waste from socioecological and cultural angles. See, for example, Vinay Gidwani and Rajyashree Reddy, “The Afterlives of ‘Waste’: Notes from India for a Minor History of Capitalist Surplus,” Antipode 43.5 (2011): 1625–1658; and Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini, eds., Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

41. Niedecker, Collected Works, 41.

42. Ibid., 42.

43. These various “recastings” of her poem are described on her website,

44. Susan Stewart, “Notes on Distressed Genres,” Journal of American Folklore 104 (1991): 8.

45. Perloff’s criticism, in books such as Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1985); 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (London: Blackwell, 2002); and The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), has perhaps been most responsible for developing this critical paradigm of innovation, in its sustained attention to strategies adopted by modernist poets and carried forward by later practitioners.

46. A very partial list of these titles would include: Jed Rasula, Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004); Craig Dworkin, ed., The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics (New York: Roof Books, 2008); Maggie Sullivan, ed., Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK (London: Reality Street Books, 1996); Reginald Shepherd, ed., Lyric Postmodernisms: An Anthology of Contemporary Innovative Poetries (Denver: Counterpath Press, 2008); Thomas Fink and Judith Halden-Sullivan, eds., Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014); and Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue, eds., Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007).

47. Perloff writes, “In the visual arts, in musical composition, and especially in architecture, the notion of doing something else has been widely accepted,” a key legacy of the inventions of modernism (21st-Century Modernism, 163).

48. In their introduction to the section on “Avant-garde Anti-lyricism” in The Lyric Theory Reader, Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins detail how the oppositional definitions of lyric mobilized by avant-garde poets at the end of the twentieth century served as another chapter in the history of “lyricization.” Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, eds., The Lyric Theory Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 451–459. We might also see the ways anti-lyric readings generate a complementary normative category of innovation, with associated reading practices.

49. Poet and critic Charles Bernstein argues that poetic innovation is an essentially improvisational and nonprogrammatic stance, responsive rather than directive: it is a “means of keeping up with the present, grappling with the contemporary.” Charles Bernstein, “The Task of Poetics, the Fate of Innovation, and the Aesthetics of Criticism,” in The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics, ed. Craig Dworkin (New York: Roof Books, 2008), 40.

50. For example, Bernstein invokes Clayton Christiansen’s somewhat notorious idea of the “innovator’s dilemma” in his description of innovation in poetry, arguing that like innovators on the business model, poetic innovators “produce works that are disruptive of perceived ideas of quality” (43).

51. Jahan Ramazani writes, “By the twenty-first century, the novel’s readership had outstripped poetry’s by a ratio perhaps as high as ten to one in America according to a 2007 Associated Press poll, or of four to one according to a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Humanities.” Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 18–19. Ramazani blames, in part, the difficult qualities of modernist poetry for this steady decline in poetry’s fate.

52. For a particularly grim account of poetry’s cultural decline, according to some big-data calculations, see Christopher Ingraham, “Poetry Is Going Extinct, Government Data Show,” Washington Post, April 24, 2015,

53. See Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011); and Michael Chasar, Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

54. Modernist poets, particularly Pound and Eliot, made strong arguments for the literary and cultural centrality of poetry. See Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

55. See Eric Bennett, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015); Kamran Javadizadeh, “The Institutionalization of the Cold War Poet,” Modernism/Modernity 23.1 (January 2016): 113–139; and Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era and the Mostly White Room,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 20, 2015,

56. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 122.

57. In this regard, Jahan Ramazani’s concept of “dialogic poetry” in Poetry and Its Others, which examines modern and contemporary poetry’s relation to other genres and extraliterary forms, offers a rich template for understanding its “long-memoried and widely scattered genres, tropes, and linguistic inheritances” (62).

58. Michael Davidson, in a penetrating essay on Lorine Niedecker and critical regionalism, calls for larger “alternative postwar histories of postwar poetry written not around manifestos or schools but around marginal spaces—Charles Olson’s Gloucester, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Brownsville, James Wright’s Dakotas, Cherrie Moraga’s Central Valley” (18). Michael Davidson, “Lorine Niedecker and Critical Regionalism,” in Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), 18. My study turns to the marginal spaces of Niedecker and Brooks, but also points to the ways these spaces are framed, in their poetry, as bound up in larger historical dynamics of integration.