The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is a short poem in free verse, its one-dozen lines divided into three unequal stanzas, forming an argument with two premises and an inescapable conclusion. The title of the poem both identifies the poem’s locale and suggests the cyclical, seasonal, almost ritual quality of the football game which is the poem’s central focus. In the bleak industrial Midwest of James Wright’s poetry, the stylized violence of the gridiron takes the place of the traditional harvest festival celebrated by more peaceful, agrarian folk.
Wright wrote “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” in the first person, and it is typical of many poems that he wrote, not behind the mask of a fictional persona, but in his own passionate voice. Wright was an advocate for both the confessional style and the poetry of personality, which were in vogue in the 1960’s. It is quite logical, therefore, to identify the speaker of this poem with Wright himself, especially since Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, and grew up in that working-class community watching his father and others being brutalized by grueling factory work.
The first stanza of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” takes place in the Shreve High football stadium, where the first game of the season teases Wright “out of thought,” much as John Keats is put into a reverie by his famous Grecian urn. As he sits in the stadium and observes the men around him,...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In his first two books, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), Wright was composing clearly under the influence of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson. In The Branch Will Not Break, where “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” first appeared, Wright was turning away from the traditional verse forms represented by these mentors and embracing the poetic doctrines of Robert Bly and such foreign poets as Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Georg Trakl, all of whom Wright had been reading and translating. What he borrowed from these widely varied sources, as well as from a number of Chinese poets, was a more spontaneous and visionary approach to poetry and a firm commitment to William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum, “No ideas but in things.”
It is not surprising, then, that the two most important poetic strategies in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” are diction and imagery. The brevity of the poem is only possible because of the haiku-like precision of the language and details. While the poem is not without figurative language—for example, the moving simile, “Their women cluck like starved pullets”—it relies more heavily on the freshness of its simple, powerful, and precise diction. This spare language becomes nearly apocalyptic in the last stanza of the poem, where the sons “grow suicidally beautiful” and “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” The choice of a word such as...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Dougherty, David. James Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Dougherty, David. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Roberson, William. James Wright: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Smith, Dave. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Stein, Kevin. James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.
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