Wright proceeded through three rather distinct phases in his poetic career, in all of which he produced work so commendable that he is considered one of the half-dozen best poets of his generation. He is also one of a few poets to have gathered a kind of popular following. For several years after his death, a group of devotees met annually in Martins Ferry on the anniversary to hold a memorial reading and reminisce about Wright’s life and work.
His first phase persists through the early volumes The Green Wall and Saint Judas. The poems of this period are very much in the style fashionable at the mid-twentieth century: composed in strict formal patterns, witty and ironic in tone, integrating a battery of rhetorical devices into a fused, weighty whole. The poems have substance; they are made objects, conspicuous for the fineness of their finish.
In keeping with the dictum that the poet should incorporate as much of his poetic heritage as he could, they reflect, draw on, and add to the long, unbroken line of English poetry. Wright’s background and education suited him well for this kind of work. In the middle of the twentieth century, American sympathies were stridently pro-British; the United States had fought two wars that rescued and preserved the British cultural heritage.
Furthermore, although Wright came from a working-class background, his education reinforced traditional British values. Kenyon College sponsored The Kenyon Review, one of the most influential literary quarterlies of the time—and one particularly associated with the dissemination of the New Criticism, which emphasized the idea of the poem as a cultural object. Further, Wright had earned a Ph.D. in English literature, his dissertation on Charles Dickens. He was steeped in British culture.
Thus, many of these poems are conventional. Yet this does not mean that they are negligible; several are among the finest of the period. “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends,” for example, is so good as to be almost timeless. For a variety of reasons, however, Wright came to feel that this approach to poetry was limited; intellectualism and formalism had not cornered the market.
This opened his second phase, which appears full-blown in The Branch Will Not Break. The change is much less thematic than stylistic. Wright’s characteristic attitudes and motifs persist. He remains the poet of the downtrodden in mind and body, the castaways of society, the commonplace victims trapped in the poor streets. The subjects—the natural and human victims of a vicious society—remain constant, but the difference of orientation makes them seem more personal. Wright had always concerned himself with loneliness, despair, and death, but he had seemed to escape from them in his poems. The new poems make the loss felt.
In this respect, he shares the capacity of Walt Whitman for sympathizing with the multitudes; he seems uniquely able to tune in to the secret loneliness, the inward emptiness, the gut-filling sense of loss that allow all of humanity to relate to the concept of the Everyman and his fate. Yet, Wright’s formal strategy has been transformed. In place of the highly wrought verbal textures and patterns of his earlier verse, Wright turns to a poetry that speaks simply, in relaxed breaths, from the heart. If the earlier poems were perceptions turned to elegant filigree and lace, these are states of feeling just finding their first stage of articulation into words and images.
One celebrated poem that reveals this is “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In it, Wright brilliantly contrasts the empty lives of three kinds of fathers with the superficially highlighted ones of their adolescent sons. The lives of the fathers are over; all that is left for them is to dream about the heroism they have become too old to enact. At the same time, their football-player sons sacrifice their bodies in the vain—or at best temporary—quest for athletic glory. The conjunction is a compounding of futility; yet this is the best that can be hoped for in these degenerate times. In this poem, Wright creates a delicate equilibrium between the objective and the subjective, the head and the heart.
Wright’s next volume, Shall We Gather at the River, carries the negativism of his new vision to extreme points, opening up a third phase. It seems almost as if once the poet began listening to the murmurs of his heart, he found it impossible to exercise restraint. The book, as a result, is a gallery of monologues and portraits of people broken by the world. In “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store,” for example, he creates the state of mind of a derelict standing on the street staring at a cashier and manager in a store filled with merchandise completely irrelevant to his state of need. They ignore him, of course; worse than negligible in their world, he feels their glances pass through him, as if he were dead.
He likens himself to corpses picked over on a battlefield, an image that sums up the dominant feeling of the volume. Even when he works in regular stanzaic patterns, harking back to his beginnings, his vision remains desolate, inconsolable—as in “Two Postures Beside a Fire,” in which he returns to his boyhood home to spend an evening with his father and discovers that he brings nothing that can light up the life of the aged man.
The emotional desolation of the speakers of these poems is palpable, to the extent that the book has been referred to by several critics as painful, even unbearably so. The pain comes from Wright’s uncanny ability to create images of those broken by the ruthless strains of modern life—in his phrase, of “the poor washed up by the Chicago winter.” The book offers little respite from the unrelenting disclosure of suffering. It does, however, provide a kind of relief. These are powerful poems; Wright sometimes penetrates the heart of despair and catches the anguish residing there.
The Green Wall
First published: 1957
Type of work: Poetry
Wright’s first book of poems...
(The entire section is 2528 words.)