On Garbage Bags and Poetry

Every high school student should read this book.  Actually, everyone should read it, if only for the metaphor of the title.  A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag by Gordon Korman sounds utterly ridiculous–and it is.  It is a hysterical, hilarious, wonderful book.

My slightly battered, much-loved copy

But the title is actually remarkably profound.  It’s based on a one-scene reference (like To Kill a Mockingbird‘s title) when the main character describes a commercial for garbage bags.  The garbage bag is hooked up to a machine that keeps pumping in more and more pounds of pressure, and the smiling spokesman talks about how much pressure the bag is taking.  He keeps on cranking it up, while the poor bag is struggling to hold together.  Sound like high school to anyone?  Or life, for that matter?

The main character in the book is Raymond Jardine.  He has no luck.  Zero, zip, zilch.  His overriding dream is to somehow make it Theamelpos, an island in Greece which he is convinced grants extraordinary luck to all visitors.  Six students will be selected (methodology unknown) for a school trip this summer, and Jardine is determined to lie, steal, cheat, scheme, and connive his way into one of those six slots.

And that’s just the beginning of the story.  We’re guided through the book by the comparatively normal Sean Delancey, who is paired with Jardine for an English assignment.  Korman often takes the wise tactic of giving us someone relatively sane as a lead character, who can navigate us through the wild and wacky world of the book, where anything is possible.

Where it’s perfectly normal, for instance, for students to surf on trays down tables in the cafeteria–the temperature in the cafeteria is typically around 90 degrees, because the school is powered by the experimental SACGEN, which all the students know doesn’t work but which the school board is determined to insist is a great triumph.  That’s just one example of the world we find ourselves in.

The English assignment Sean and Jardine have to do together is a 30 page report on a poet of their choice.  Jardine is determined to pick a poet no one else will do (reasoning that if they pick a famous poet, another group will too, the teacher can compare the two reports, and his is bound to be worse).  Literally minutes before the deadline to choose a poet, Jardine selects Gavin Gunhold, the author of “Registration Day.”  They rave to their teacher about how much they love Gunhold’s work, and find out later that he never wrote anything else, having died in a freak accident shortly after writing his only poem.  Their solution is start writing their own poetry in Gunhold’s style, using for inspiration words they pick at random from the encyclopedia.

As to Gunhold’s one original poem:

On registration day at taxidermy school

I distinctly saw the eyes of the stuffed moose


I’m not usually a fan of poetry, and I have probably quoted Gavin Gunhold more often than almost any other poet.

A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag is packed with memorable characters, funny scenes, and even an explosion or two.  You will get your money’s worth in laughs out of this book.  And surely everyone can relate, at least a little, to how Jardine feels about that garbage bag?

Author’s website: www.gordonkorman.com

One thought on “On Garbage Bags and Poetry

  1. Diane

    Though I’m a long way from my high school days, your review is making me want to find this book and read it. I’m sure I could relate to it as a metaphor for life, not just the high school experience.

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