James Wright Essay - Wright, James (Vol. 5)

Wright, James (Vol. 5)

Wright, James 1927–

An American poet and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and other awards, Wright is considered by many critics among the best poets of his generation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Not margins but centers, not edges but spaces, not contiguities but distances: the thematic insistence of this poet—who by forty had written four volumes of poetry, two in verse and two (it is tempting to say) inversely—is plain, indeed is plane: from Martins Ferry, Ohio to Stateline, Nevada, with significant stopovers in Minneapolis and in Fargo, North Dakota, it is a landlocked, borderless life whose terms are spread out, articulated by James Wright in a dialect of dispossession and deprival, "a vowel of longing" unique among his contemporaries for its final bleakness, singular in its ultimate solitude. (p. 575)

The point is to reach a point, literally, of no return, a true event which would be one that cannot recur—as Wallace Stevens calls it, "an escape from repetition, a happening in space and the self that touched them both at once and alike." For this escape, for this event the instruments of a convention are felt to be thereby not instruments but obstacles. Traditional versification, rhyme, the discourse which submits itself to an asymptotic norm sensed to govern the line however great the departures from it—these are, for James Wright's ultimate art, no means at all. Yet it is an art, not merely a compliance, not merely a rapture, which we are entitled to see as Wright's achievement. An art constituting itself out of what it gives away, and out of the very process of giving itself away. (p. 576)

It is not until Wright has made himself over, from The Branch Will Not Break (1963) onward, converted himself from an elegiast into an apocalypst, discovering the whole of nature not as a rhythmical series of sad events but as the singular content of a ceaseless human soma … that he can mount to the ecstasy so marvellously his own, momentarily given and not repeated but possibly followed by yet another, which is the achievement of his later poems.

Few poets, one may say, enable us to take the expression ground form so literally as James Wright enforces, implants the acceptation: the easy sorrows, the more difficult splendors of earth engender his utterance; the wrecked landscapes of the Ohio strip-mines and the ruined lives scattered upon them compel a recognition, once the enemy is discovered within rather than projected upon the surrounding sordor, that mortality is its own recompense. (pp. 578-79)

The recognition that one must be a naturalized inhabitant of the self in order to converse with love is crucial to Wright's persistence as a poet—"the main thing is not to get on in the world but to get home," Wright says of Theodore Storm, and of himself in that somatic landscape of his own discovery:

    Close by a big river, I am alive in my own country
    I am home again

When what you have always thought was outside yourself and therefore against you is found to be within and therefore with you, you can deal with its mortal as with its ecstatic consequences. For the creating mind, Wright has remarked of [René] Char, there is no such thing as irrelevancy—the corporeal and the chthonic are collected into "a single human word for love of air." (p. 579)

He wants his poetry to be a finding, an invention in the literal sense of the word, not a loss comforted by rite but a discovery, however brutal, made bearable by art. (p. 582)

In the third and fourth books, The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, James Wright reaches occasionally—but it is the occasions which justify the effort, which ransom the expense—beyond even such rectitude of desolation which is the self's first calisthenic in the achievement of recognition, or identity made ecstatic. And the guide to this final or at least fulfilling mode of his poetry is an elusive Virgil indeed, the "silence-haunted" Georg Trakl, whose poems Wright calls—and the relevance to his own enterprise is patent—"attempts to enter and to recognize one's very self." With Robert Bly, James Wright has translated twenty of Trakl's poems "from which all shrillness and clutter have been banished." and the still raptures of these interior landscapes, with their abrupt drops and ascents into the "merely personal" and beyond it, certainly qualify and prepare all that Wright creates in his own broken but incandescent later poems, generated from moments of beatitude like the one recorded in "Today I Was So Happy I Made This Poem" and concluding—it is the summum bonum of Wright's whole undertaking—with these lines:

        Each moment of time is a mountain.
        An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
        That is what I wanted.

The aphoristic resonance of this ("aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken," Bacon says), the elliptical sentences of some seraphic wanderer, suggest what Wright found in Trakl's mysterious verses, his statements of stillness. (pp. 583-84)

In "Milkweed," for example, the apocalypse is not only invoked, it is experienced, reminding us of Éluard's great discovery: "there is another world, but it is this one." Wright's ecstasy is earned by a tremendous renunciation, the abjuring of ritual—and in consequence his poems are not lovely, are not conveyed in a language of polished facets; rather they are splinters, jagged cleavages on which the sun, momentarily, explodes…. (p. 584)

Richard Howard, "James Wright," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 575-86.

James Wright [has] renounced … the opalescent visual style, with its incantatory grammatical clearness, which at the moment has won Wright more mediocre imitators even than Lowell. As Wright's use of imagery has become sparer, his grammar has become more complex, with unexpected tenses, shifting antecedents, and a general tendency to suggest multiple contexts…. Two Citizens is a book of direct statements, with ambiguous contexts, but with a very American downrightness, too. The emotional exclamatoriness that some have called sentimental in Wright is more prominent than ever; but I for one, have been led to a new insight about it. It is a part of the American speech that Wright … wants to speak: a vocal violence needed to break the macho barrier against uttering feeling at all in our culture. It has, for Wright, the beauty of the men who must always live roughly, yet can remain fundamentally gentle.

The criticism of myth, both patriotic and personal, is a large concern in Two Citizens. Jenny, the prostitute-saint and martyr of Shall We Gather At The River, here thins (if that is the word for so airy a translation) to a tree, a season, a half-self. The paradoxical St. Judas, the holy outcast, also goes, through a Blakean repudiation of the "good" and "evil" that made him necessary…. Having denounced America, Wright falls late and hard for the American love of a Europe which, lacking our myths of opportunity, also lacks our need for rootless and violent self-assertion. But Europe is finally less important than the discovery of an unsolipsistic loneliness, persisting even in love, which enables one to bear rootlessness and outward ugliness without myth. This discovery is set forth early, in the beautiful "Afternoon and Evening at Ohrid," and in the end it leads Wright back to America…. Two Citizens is a deeply moving book, and it establishes Wright's quest for integrity of statement, "the pure clear word," on an even firmer basis than his splendid earlier volumes did. (pp. 88-9)

Alan Williamson, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1974.

As is evident in ["At the Executed Murderer's Grave" and "American Twilights, 1957"], and in poems such as "My Grandmother's Ghost" and "A Poem about George Doty in the Death House" from The Green Wall, Wright envisions his creative role in dualistic terms of outcast and savior from the very beginning, familiar stances not too far removed from Pound's concept of the artist as hero in the Cantos. This enables him to wander freely beyond society's pale in search of themes and characters, evoking compassion for the inarticulate victims of our inequitable, anti-human institutions, while indulging a personal passion for the confessional voice, and the thematic freedom it entails. Like Diane Wakowski, a much better poet, he strives always to yoke private memory to surrealistic techniques.

Verging on the sentimental throughout, Wright usually manages to avoid complete capitulation in his next and best volume, The Branch Will Not Break (1963), only through a fierce neoclassical restraint, a restraint of style, not substance or feeling. It is this willingness to confront the unsaid, to appreciate and utilize selective silences and great white spaces, which lets him maintain the required distance between self and subject matter. More important, perhaps, it helps him introduce another notion of romantic oases into contemporary poetry's bleak terrain, a mission he seemingly deems fundamental.

For Wright, redemption is found in the old-fashioned verities of our pastoral past and its poets' Wordsworthian traditions, in crickets, owls, horses and wheat stalks, which are almost inevitably appealed to in climatic stanzas as significant means of flight from the depressing emotional inscape already established by previous stanzas…. Furthermore, their delightful gestures of being imply a cosmological harmony (with nature and themselves) which appears to guarantee human survival. The risk of sentimentality, unthinking sentimentality, remains, of course. (pp. 258-59)

The majority of poems in The Branch Will Not Break accomplish their moving (if modest) ends, and, in style and final poetic success, "Two Hangovers" can be viewed as a sort of prototype for the rest. The surface is confessional in its apparently personal, unheroic experience, or in its "deep subjective images," and in its valid attempt to seek an analogue for that experience. (p. 259)

The pattern so prevalent in previous poems has again reasserted itself: despair and celebration, ritual damnation and ritual salvation, the agony of human existence miraculously made bearable by nature's endless eloquence. Although seemingly open to manifestations of the universe's mysterious design, Wright's poems are closed structures, circular staircases winding forever down towards a sensual basement paradise in which Darwinian rats are either ignored or explicitly refuted. Reminiscent, at times, of Emily Dickinson, he cannot or will not take his nature straight. It must always be transmuted into epistemological tableaus through the child's golden eye, with the observer's art becoming a primitive form of animism in the process, not in itself dangerous, but fraught with seductive potential for over-statements, as well as over-simplifications….

And yet, the poem does succeed, particularly in the second section, where Wright is operating inside the sparse anecdotal format he prefers. Its major flaws are all located in the first section, which is predicated upon favorite motifs of haunted recollections and blatant social protests, but Yeats's "cold eye" is notable by its absence. (p. 260)

Taken as a whole, the poem attains a high degree of lyric grace and manages to overcome Wright's almost innate sentimentality. A state of grace is what the poet is seeking, and his characters remain innocent in their miseries, as do nature's tokens of seasonal endurance. Religious or not, Wright has thus refused an irrational universe. The logical path chosen, from physical discomfit through terrible dreams and memories to the closing affirmation, presents an integrated world of balanced alternatives in which the state of grace, or innocent purgation, can forgive everyone everything. For all its coy simplicity, the artist's redemption does not strike false, though his descent into childish death images nearly upsets the coal cart. His art in "Two Hangovers" is a positive, healing act of will thrust upon a harsh reality.

Unhappily, with the publication of Shall We Gather at the River (1968), Wright's penchant for the sentimental finally overwhelmed his very real, if limited, talent. The book's title, a question without a question mark taken from the declarative line of a revival hymn, significantly indicates a preordained affirmation. It is this imposed affirmation, a religious one, which drags him and his frail aesthetic to earth. Without the probing doubt evident in his earlier volumes—despair remains and, indeed, appears to increase, but it is more hysterical than true—his poetry loses its necessary tension. The ultimate benevolence of God's entire creation has become a secret conviction that allows his sentimental inclinations to loom unchecked. On the surface, he often gives the impression of operating within the same lyric confines present in previous work, within a relaxed, conversational style, but the patterns of neo-classical restraint are now mere trappings as sentimental distortions slop over their sides like pea soup. Always a strong point, his metaphors suffer the most, frequently disappearing altogether. He is too often content with unquickened, untransfigured pathos, the pathos of a stark situation, as in "I Am a Sioux Brave, he said in Minneapolis" and "In Terror of Hospital Bills," which revolve around the plight of an American Indian trapped in a hostile culture. Even the collection's best piece, "A Christmas Greeting," which again utilizes Charlie, Wright's favorite representative for the down-trodden, stumbles, at the end, into inadequate soap opera. (pp. 263-64)

As is clear from references in "The Minneapolis Poem" and "Inscription for the Tank," Wright has come to regard himself as another Walt Whitman, singer of the common man. Alas, he possesses neither Whitman's eloquence nor his gigantic soul, and his particular perception of America is as narrow as his limited characters'. (p. 265)

The decline into mawkishness continues into The Collected Poems, which won the 1972 Pultizer Prize, reasserting that award's continued dedication to preserving mediocrity. Of the thirty-three new poems included, only two of them could be described as unqualified successes, and they, "To the August Fallen" and "Small Frogs Killed on the Highway," are substantially returns to the subjective-imagistic techniques of The Branch Will Not Break. Their modest rosaries of metaphors never preach or whine, are content to let their imaginative potentialities carry the burden of the poems to its logical summation. For instance, at the end of "Small Frogs Killed on the Highway," the image of tadpoles dancing "on the quarter thumbnail/ Of the moon" precisely reflects the speaker's earlier desire to leap "Into the light." Similarly, in "To the August Fallen," Wright's lament for generations of dead strangers finds a beautiful echo in the fall of insects into a pond, which, in turn, leads to memories of Chinese Tartars (historical) and a cyclical climax that returns the speaker to his perch (literary) above death.

In spite of exceptional whole stanzas and individual lines, the rest of the new poems are almost embarrassing in their lack of sensitivity and basic poetic skill. Horror and despair are treated with such elementary sentimentality that they soon become grotesque…. Wright has obviously read Pablo Neruda, but he has been unable to penetrate or duplicate his surrealistic ethic, except at the most superficial level. (pp. 265-66)

And the few war protest poems included, such as "A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter" and "Echo for the Promise of Georg Trakl's Life," further convince me that the Vietnam folly, besides destroying countless innocent lives and compromising America's honor, has ruined a large number of our contemporary poets. Being a deliberate craftsman, and a sincere one, Wright occasionally pauses to defend his new aesthetic, claiming his task as the restoration of "the pure clear word" to poetry. But instead of bold metaphors and diamond hardness, which this kind of vision should provide, he can only offer cute tricks, such as a blank page entitled "In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems," or simplistic Hemingwayese, "The giant killer is/ A dirty little bastard," which will reach an absurd zenith in a poem called "Northern Pike."

Whatever the grave faults (pun intended) of the new poems in the collected edition, and a whine is unappealing in any form, none of them can approach the disasters of Wright's most recent volume, Two Citizens (1973)…. From the standpoint of artistic achievement, Two Citizens is an almost total failure. (pp. 266-67)

Without the despair and horror that pulsed in his earlier poems, Wright has nothing left to restrain his inordinate taste for sentimental resolutions of difficult problems. He has betrayed us and betrayed himself by refusing to accept the implications of his own gift, by insisting upon filtering all experience through the wringer of drunken emotions, regardless of their irrational narrowness. (p. 267)

Edward Butscher, "The Rise and Fall of James Wright," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by The University of Georgia), Summer, 1974, pp. 257-68.

James Wright started out in the fifties with a great bolt of visionary silk, which he cut, in the fashion of the day, to symmetrical patterns. His poems won prizes, but were so hard to believe, so safely and slickly "art," that they seemed only a vast closet of ceremonial robes to be taken out, worn as one bowed before the formal dignity of poetry, and returned, spotless.

It was toward the end of "Saint Judas," his second volume, that, with a slam, Wright walked out on high art. His voice suddenly sharpened:

      I waste no pity on the dead that stink,
      And no love's lost between me and the crying
      Drunks of Belaire, Ohio, where police
      Kick at their kidneys till they die of drink.

Of course, it was just because he did "waste" pity—on all the "cursed"—that Wright gave way to anger. In "The Branch Will Not Break" (1963), his best volume, and "Shall We Gather at the River" (1968), his poems became so wincingly resentful and chagrined that their wires seemed disengaged. Wright lost the heart for wholeness.

More, he nursed his subjects, spoiled them with pity. And this too unhitched the lines from discipline. For instance, from the terse Oriental delicacy of

              The black caterpillar
              Crawls out, what with one thing
              And another, across
              The wet road.

he could pass at once—shockingly—to "How lonely the dead must be." He had only a pennyworth of trust in the implicit. His adverbs and adjectives were crying towels. Even his happiness was too permissive:

     Suddenly I realize
     That if I stepped out of my body I would break
    Into blossom.

This conclusion to the well-known poem "A Blessing" belies the love for finite realities that, despite soft writing, gives the poem force. Besides, it is bumbling: circumlocutious and a mishmash of the corporeal and incorporeal. Only a writer who neglected, as it were, to read his own poems would have retained it.

But it is just out there, in the reader's place—that detached perspective, that point at which the poem becomes a limited "whole"—that Wright fears to be; for there, so it seems, lurk the causes of pain: the unpitying mind, business America, the police, "men," death. The truth of feeling is in the individual lines—stuffed there by the poet himself, a hoard. The result—more aggravated than ever in "Two Citizens"—is a defiant, protective incoherency. Wright refuses both the rigors and the pacifications of wholeness. He twists about in his poetry as if in a cocoon, but he doesn't want to break out, doesn't want "distance"—distance is cold, the truth hot.

Reading the new Wright is, in consequence, an uncomfortable wriggle. You must go with the poem, and the poem doesn't know where it is going. Mostly it is shifting about for a place to feel satisfied with being James Wright. It forgets its own beginnings, indeed forgets where it is….

The pain is frank in the first poems, on the poet's childhood; covered over, yelling through, in the later poems of love. At first Wright licks and licks at the old thorn in his paw, to show what, as a lover of America, he had to overcome. But how he seems to relish the renewed tingle:

             Hell, I ain't got nothing.
             Ah, you bastards,
             How I hate you.

In truth, as always, he is too defeated to compel interest as a critic of American life. Instead of ruthlessly amassed evidence, or canny objectives, only pouts, whimpers, growls. Wright seems lodged in pugilistic, grudge-bearing adolescence….

Wright's unusual tenderness for animal and beaten human life, his suffering over the inability to wing upward, to embrace creation ("what are you going to do?"), makes his a moving, enlarging sensibility, but his relation to the poetic medium has always been misjudged. If his early poems carried a formal will like a knife between the teeth, the recent work is either too bitter or too painfully happy for its own self-possession: all wound. (p. 6)

Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 11, 1974.

James Wright is … lyrical and … purely imaginative; he is also … bent on vulnerability, on getting immediately to the essentially poetic material. He has turned to Georg Trakl, and to modern Spanish and Latin American poets, for models of such openness. He has sometimes been criticized for the foreign sound of his idioms; but (except in his earliest experiments) they seem to me as suited to his voice—and, consequently, enriching to the possibilities of English poetry—as comparable assimilations in Eliot and Auden.

Wright's themes have remained remarkably constant, from his earliest formalist work. There is the "profound poetry of the poor and of the dead"—to quote Stevens—and of the outcast (a category so comprehensively important as to include executed murderers, Swift's poetry, and Warren G. Harding). There is what I can only call a strength of misery in love; and an equally strong desire to transcend the bodily self into conditions of delicacy intuited from animals, stones, dreams. Like Goethe, Wright is drawn towards a double transcendence, pure creature and pure spirit; but oddly, his commitment to a style centered on bodily states makes his account of this tension one of the most precise and interesting in existence.

But Wright is also, unlike his contemporaries, a part of the American tradition of mythopoeic regionalism, a "sole owner and proprietor" of names and places. He names the important names in his private history with a confident insouciance that springs partly from the bardic role itself…. And perhaps the key is, finally, the knowledge of place: of the northern Great Plains, which remind Wright of "the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness / Of the Midwest"; but especially of his native southeastern Ohio, where the fate and exhaustion of Eastern Europe repeats itself in towns named for the super-corporations, beside the river that is at once Indian sacred place and "Tar and chemical strangled tomb." Like Winesburg or Yoknapatawpha, Wright's places seem less the accidents of one life than scenes the American experience itself has chosen for its agons. This quality sometimes seems to me to give a necessary larger importance to Wright's poetry of emotional daring; but I am not sure one can separate the two. (pp. 64-5)

Alan Williamson, "Language against Itself: The Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (copyright © 1974 by Alan Williamson), in American Poetry Since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, edited by Robert B. Shaw, Dufour, 1974, pp. 55-67.

[In] Two Citizens … [Wright] displays amazing mastery of a colloquial style he has been developing since before the widely discussed appearance in 1963 of The Branch Will Not Break. Two Citizens is alive with an honest energy which colloquial free verse can have only if it is strictly and knowledgeably controlled….

The power … does not spring from particularly fresh language; "I loved her only in my dreams," for example, seems to have appeared in countless song lyrics. But it is precisely by abandoning rhetoric at the right moments that Wright gains the authenticity of his tone, which comes not only from our previous knowledge of his strong traditional craftsmanship; abandoning rhetoric and writing bad poems is as easy for a good poet as it is for a bad one. What Wright retains of his earlier virtuosity is his clear view of how a whole poem must move in order to gain credibility. (pp. 93-4)

Henry Taylor, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Winter, 1975.