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The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith. Christopher Schmidt. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp xiv + 224. $90.00 (cloth).

Christopher Schmidt’s The Poetics of Waste: Queer Excess in Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith brilliantly connects queer theory with recent work in “waste studies,” offering a Wunderkammer of insights regarding poetry’s preoccupation with waste in both its literal and metaphorical forms. Contributions to the field of waste studies have tended to reductively align trash aesthetics with radical politics. One such study, Maurizia Boscagli’s Stuff Theory: Everyday [End Page 263] Objects, Radical Materialism, opens with the author announcing her intention to “foreground junk as a limit to categorizing, and thus focus on its capacity to signify the redundant, the wasted, the irredeemably out of place,” averring that artistic entanglements with waste enact “a radical critique of the myths of pleasure and progress of industrial and consumer society.”1 The Poetics of Waste, however, deftly avoids overstating the revolutionary possibilities of waste. Instead, Schmidt asks: “can poetry suggest a ‘corrective’ that might make the genre—if not a form of resistance—at least an incisive measure of capitalist damage and waste?” (159). The book’s central premise is that Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Goldsmith, and others “have developed a waste management poetics in response to ideologies that phobically associate mass culture—and its ‘tainting’ or corruption of high modernist values—with female and queer bodies” (5). In doing so, Schmidt builds on a strand of queer theory that conceptualizes queerness as subversively rewriting the “narrative coherence” of reproductive futurism. To be queer is to be non-(re)productive; consequently, queerness is often figured as excess or waste.2 Schmidt maps his figures’ formally excessive, disorderly poetry onto their queer politics, starting with Gertrude Stein.

Chapter 1 proposes that Stein’s work was informed by Taylorist principles of efficiency and waste elimination along with Taylorism’s dietary offshoot, Fletcherism. Writing in dialogue with Kathryn R. Kent’s work on Stein’s queer economy of poetic plenitude, Schmidt explores how Stein’s aesthetics serve “as a model of inefficiency and queer errancy, while at the same time responding obediently to capitalist values of productivity and regularity” (11). Schmidt ingeniously draws together materialist and theoretical approaches, reading Stein’s love letters to Alice B. Toklas alongside Tender Buttons, The Making of Americans, and other, lesser-known works. The chapter connects Stein’s abstruse language experiments to her interest in the texture of domestic life and unravels the queer dimensions of her concern with Toklas’s defecatory productivity.

Chapter 2 turns to Cold War containment culture and the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s (when homosexuality was perceived as a threat to national security) and identifies their imprint on John Ashbery’s poetry. Schmidt focuses on Ashbery’s 1975 “scrapbook” The Vermont Notebook, in which Ashbery litters the lyric form and pastoral genre with “consumerist, excremental, and sexual” waste (90). Herein lie the book’s strongest moments: Schmidt’s fascinating analysis posits that Ashbery’s poetic excess critiques ideologies of purity and homophobia inherent in the romantic conception of nature, which he characterizes as an “elitist escape into the wilderness of the West, from the feminized, racialized, and queer wastes of the city” (62). Schmidt ventures an important political reading of Ashbery’s aesthetics, homing in on The Vermont Notebook’s quotation of an article about artificial reefs and islands created from debris by the U.S. government in Mexico, demonstrating that the poem critiques the environmentalism of the poor through its “references to Mexico as a container for America’s trash” (70).

Chapter 3 focuses on New York School poet James Schuyler’s languid catalogues of his bodily wastes, consumerist excesses, and prolific food consumption. Capitalizing upon Andrew Ross’s conception of camp as the recycling of cultural discards, Schmidt argues that camp performance dramatizes concerns about consumerism and economic instability by “performing on the body the consumption and waste-making that constitute the structuring conditions of postwar consumer culture” (115). Intriguingly, Schmidt invokes the abandonment of the Gold Standard as a context for Schuyler’s use of camp. Though the linking of camp performance to economic conditions is striking and novel, the chapter might have benefited from further probing the class politics of Schuyler’s time-wasting and decadent poetic pacing.

Chapter 4 unpicks the politics of conceptual poetry through the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, best known for his conceptual art project of printing out the entire internet. Schmidt incisively engages with Goldsmith’s pretensions to apolitical formalism, critiquing him on the grounds that his privilege as a white male writer allows him to dismiss identity politics (144). He reads Goldsmith’s fixation on anal-digital eroticism alongside conceptual poetry’s “exclusions of sentimentality [End Page 264] and other markers of a homosexual aesthetics [to] defend against the contaminating effeminization of their program” (156). Though The Poetics of Waste impressively marshals an array of critical fields and theorists, Schmidt’s approach is often dizzyingly desultory.

The vast wasteland of the internet and its ramifications for artistic originality and recycling deserve further exploration; so too does Schmidt’s compelling suggestion that Goldsmith, “in his conjoining the digital and the analog, and in the incoherences that result, reveal[s] the digital realm to be as wasteful as the analog” (156).

Besides theoretical overcrowding, The Poetics of Waste also suffers from Schmidt’s positioning of the poets under discussion in stark opposition to what he describes as the modernist aesthetics of waste reduction and purification, propounded in the Imagist Manifesto, for example, with its directive to use “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” Schmidt argues that such stylistic injunctions arose from a homophobic hostility to sentiment and ornament; in the book’s formulation Stein, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Goldsmith react against modernist writers and celebrate queerness by “embracing devalued kitsch and mass cultural forms and materials, and incorporating them into their own detrital, messy, cross-genre productions” (13). But this agenda could equally be ascribed to modernism’s most self-consciously trashy poem, The Waste Land, which references music hall songs, and Schmidt’s reading of modernist aesthetics relies on an outdated conception of modernism’s relationship with popular culture. Though he concedes that Pound’s rhetoric was rarely realized in his sprawling poetry, many of Schmidt’s readings hinge on this simplistic version of modernism. For instance, he declares that:

While Stein shares with her modernist peers an interest in refreshing language dulled through overuse, unlike Pound or Williams, Stein does so through multiplicity and semiotic excess, resisting positivist classification and purification. Program and totality are deprecated in Stein’s work in favor of breakage and repair. For Stein, fragmentation is an opportunity for reparation, not a crisis.


This argument recurs throughout: Schmidt identifies a “marked difference between the modernist phobia of waste and the postmillennial manipulation of it” when discussing Goldsmith and suggests that “one of the ways that conceptual writing brings forward unfortunate modernist legacies is in its pursuit of a formalism free from lyric egoism and sentimentality” (126, 135). Rather than flattening out the nuances of modernism’s engagement with waste and mass culture, one cannot help but wish Schmidt had instead questioned why writers like Goldsmith continue to define their work in opposition to a straw-man image of modernism. This flaw aside, Schmidt’s study is dazzlingly ambitious and erudite, and it represents an invaluable contribution to the growing heap of work in waste studies.

Stephanie Lambert
University of York


1. Maurizia Boscagli, Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 230.

2. Judith Halberstam, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” ed. Elizabeth Freeman, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 13.2–3 (2007): 182. See also: Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). [End Page 265]