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First glance: Wright's poem deals with the primary topic of a convicted murderer, George Doty, and the speaker's own struggle with guilt, hate, and bad decisions. James Seay noted Wright's primary focus in his poetry as "loneliness" and this motif of loneliness connects with Wright's other interest, "'social outsider'-- criminals, prostitutes, drunks, and social outcasts in general" (qtd. in "James Wright Biography).
Stanza 1: Wright introduces the premise of the poem: Doty, an executed murderer, is dead, and Wright visits his grave in Ohio. Wright uses two contrasting images here at the beginning of the poem, that of his father, who "tried to teach [him] kindness" and the murderer Doty whose "skull rots empty." The stark contrast underscores Wright's need to air his "easy grievance," but the rest of the poem proves Wright's phrase as a huge understatement--there is nothing easy or simple about Wright's grievance.
Stanza 2: At the very beginning of this stanza, Wright addresses Doty as if he were speaking to the ghost; he asks to be left alone, as if he is haunted by reminders of Doty's crime. This stanza focuses on the pathology of Doty, the murderer and rapist, but takes the reader within the mind of the speaker, which he describes as being fugitive. With phrases like "Doty, you make me sick," Wright's tone is one of condemnation, but the stanza feels ironic to the reader, because even thought Wright seems disgusted by Doty, he compares his own mind to being "guilty" and a "fugitive."
Stanza 3: Wright's dark and bitter language in the third stanza finalize his feelings for Doty, who he characterizes as an idiot, a thief, and worse than a dog. Wright also brings in another pitiful image of wasted life, the "crying drunks of Bellaire, Ohio" which reinforces his focus on loneliness and social outcasts. Wright's imagery of the drunks being beaten up by the local police could be commentary on how society tends to kick someone (literally in this poem) when they are down. Again, like in the previous stanza, Wright repeats the idea of the sharp contrast between the dying and the dead.
Stanza 4: In this stanza, Wright calls into question the morality of the death pentalty: "And yet, nobody had to kill him either." Wright reasons that Doty died because nobody could love him, but Wright wonders about his own fate, if he too is also unloved.
Stanza 5: Stanza five introduces some religious allusions into the poem with the idea of the princes rising from the sea to judge the land and its dead. Again, Wright addresses his own guilt and "sneaking crimes," suggesting that all men find commonality in death and judgment.
*Reached maximum word limit, so I will post the last two stanzas separately.
Last two stanzas:
Stanza 6: Only three lines long, the brevity of stanza six makes the reader dwell on the significance of Wright's message, which again emphasizes man's common condition, that death is the great equalizer. Wright remarks that nothing, "no mark," will distinguish his long dead face from that of any murderer, so he compares himself to Doty again, reinforcing his theme of death and guilt as man's shared burden.
Stanza 7: The seventh stanza concludes the poem with Wright's final thoughts on death and his views on Doty. Wright's language almost feels frantic as he shifts from contrasting images of death. The speaker seems to channel Doty's final thoughts before dying "even to keep Bellaire, Ohio safe" and his final descriptions of "wrinkles of winter ditch the rotted face" and "tide of gray disastrousness" evoke images of decay and destruction. Wright uses Doty's crime and subsequent death as a manifestation for crime and punishment to further reflect on his themes of death, the social outsider, and guilt.
"James Wright Biography." Poetry Foundation. web. 29 Jul. 2012.
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