This essay explores how ordinary objects and substances are given agency to become, in Jane Bennett’s words, ‘agential actants’. I review the importance of Bennett’s work in vital materialism where she rethinks the value of inanimate objects and our relationship to them. Then, drawing on the work of selected poets including Simon Armitage, Kathleen Jamie, Luke Kennard, Judith Wright, John Kinsella and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, I explore how these poets deploy humble, inanimate objects and substances (plastic; dust, industrial, chemical and green waste) as ‘vibrant matter’ to intensify, subvert and foreground the ecological meaning and being of objects in their poems.
I show that while certain poetic explorations of rubbish and waste predate the rise of vital materialist theory, such theory provides new ecological ethical frameworks for re-thinking inanimate forms in poetry. I finally suggest that vital materialist ideas facilitate urgent creative and critical re-evaluations of poetic ‘objecthood’ within poetries of the ‘so-called’ natural world. To that end, poems from Kinsella, Reilly, Armitage, Kennard and Jamie arise as provocations to idealised and romantic portrayals of nature in which figures of waste and rubbish have mostly been elided. This essay therefore participates in current posthuman thinking which casts remaindered objects and substances as ecologies of lively matter alongside the human.