The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” is composed of seventy-seven lines of freely rhymed iambic pentameter. The title expresses the subject. The poet is meditating on the grave of the convicted murderer George Doty, a taxi driver from Belaire, Ohio. Doty drove a girl out of town, made a pass at her, and, when she resisted, killed her. In an interview with Dave Smith (in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, 1982, edited by Smith), Wright explains, “Many people in that community thought [Doty] was terribly wicked, but he did not seem to be wicked. He was just a dumb guy who was suddenly thrust into the middle of the problem of evil.” Doty was executed in the electric chair.
Like many of Wright’s poems, this one is about the outcast. Part of his concern is the incapacity of some members of society to understand other members. The severing of communications between the living and the dead becomes, for him, the ultimate barrier to human connectedness. Kindness and vengeance, pity and loathing, empathy and fear are important contrasts in the poem.
The poem begins by showing Wright’s position to the killer: “I was born/ Twenty-five miles from this infected grave.” He says that his father “tried to teach me kindness,” that he once went to the grave (“I made my loud display”), that he is “Now sick of lies,” and that he will “add my easy grievance to the rest.”
It is no easy...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Despite iambic pentameter and end rhyme, the lines are not always dulcet, unlike many of Wright’s earlier efforts. The poet and his commentators, including Smith and poet and critic Donald Hall, see “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” as a “watershed poem,” dividing his earlier style from his more mature work.
Wright’s first book, The Green Wall (1957), contains “A Poem About George Doty in the Death House.” This precursor poem has six stanzas in trimeter verse with regular rhyme scheme and unobtrusive diction. Though scorned by community members for caring more about Doty than the murdered girl (“I mourn no soul but his”), his language is passionless, guarded, and devoid of commitment. The later poem, with its harsh colloquial language and candid utterance, is another case entirely.
What changed? Hall, in his introduction to Above the River (1990), quotes Wright describing himself as “a literary operator (and one of the slickest, cleverest, most charming’ concoctors of the do-it-yourselfverse).” Hall says Wright was thinking of quitting poetry altogether because it was not real to him anymore. Then he began this poem.
Though still producing a metric line, Wright’s use of diction creates a different kind of poetry. For one thing, proper nouns appear in abundance. By using his and Doty’s names and the place-names of his region, the poet acquires a direct voice. As a consequence, he...
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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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