James Wright Essay - Wright, James (Vol. 3)

Wright, James (Vol. 3)

Wright, James 1927–

Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet and author of verse translations.

James Wright began as a purveyor of elaborately wrought rhymes and rhetoric so polished and elegant, so complexly tuned, that you were sorely pressed to sort them from decorated-Easter-egg rhymes and rhetoric by the latest imitator of Richard Wilbur or Howard Nemerov, James Merrill or early-phase Robert Lowell. After The Green Wall and Saint Judas, however, he reoriented his directions, thinned and stepped down his meters, and with The Branch Will Not Break purveyed a talk so casual and low-keyed that you were sorely pressed to sort it from artless talk by the latest imitator of Robert Bly or John Haines. Nearly everyone "knows," out of the latter collection, such pieces as "In Fear of Harvests," "Beginning," "Two Horses Playing in the Orchard," "Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry," "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," "A Blessing," "Milkweed," "Arriving in the Country Again," "Eisenhower's Visit to Franco, 1959," and (most famous) "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." Sparrows were no longer "pitiful dupes of old illusion," as Mr. Wright had once termed them in an unfortunate moment of weakness. Instead, they were now called … sparrows: there they were, named openly on the page, without ornate periphrasis. Mr. Wright's latest volume, Shall We Gather at the River, shows him as still exploiting his "later" mode …; and I must confess immediately that I do not sense myself cut to the quick by any of the work that it contains (which is scarcely to argue that its author should therefore resume his "earlier" mode). It isn't that his flat, rather lazy diction and syntax can't wrap themselves around slight but memorable emotions. They can; they do: I cherish several of these recent pieces, particularly "Three Sentences for a Dead Swan," "The Small Blue Heron," and "Poems to a Brown Cricket." The nagging drawback, to my mind, is that Mr. Wright remains too firmly and too obviously under the tutelage of his professed masters (especially Mr. Bly, the modern Spanish poets, Chinese and Japanese verse, and ancient Greek lyric fragments), too deeply and too obviously bent upon re-conjuring vistas and situations already visited in The Branch Will Not Break. Once you have gone through that book you will perceive tedious repetition, instead of consolidation and advancement, within Shall We Gather at the River.

Robert Stilwell, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1969, p. 281.

James Wright is … beautiful in his way but, in spite of his sensibility and fine intelligence, and in spite of the fact that his poems develop and improve throughout the collected volume, he never quite breaks the sound barrier. The early ones are Frostian, though with other influences, notably Yeats…. Then there come Spanish influences—there are some scrupulous translations from Jimenez, Neruda, Vallejo, and others, as well as from the German of Georg Trakl.

Stephen Spender, "The Last Ditch," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), July 22, 1971, pp. 3-4.

Like many of his contemporaries, James Wright began as a gifted if derivative formalist, and has become a kind of Wordsworthian questioner, relentlessly distinguishing the "poetic" part of poems from all that serves extraneous ends. Thus he seems to seek vulnerability and openness. Why, he asks, should poets avoid the melodious and ideogrammatic word "lovely"—if it comes readily—in favor of a cold and banal itemization? Why should a true image be hidden in the line like a trap, or managed by rhetoric and tone, rather than flash into the mind?… And why should basic human loyalties have to be objectified or merely implied, solely out of the fear of sentimentality?…

Poetry like this is not easy to judge in its own time. In transitional poems from The Branch Will Not Break, there is sometimes an unbecoming air of contrivance about the wild images and the faux-naif tone. But once James Wright has possessed his style, the flaws that still occur—the monotony and flatness of the syntactic devices, the melodrama of the sentiments—are so intimately related to his essential challenge as to perplex….

I have dwelt on James Wright's linguistic boldness; but he is equally unusual for his human intensity and scope. His themes are almost obsessively constant, from his earliest work: his is a "profound poetry of the poor and of the dead", to quote Stevens; a strength of misery in love, and an equally strong desire to transcend the bodily self into a delicacy intuited from animals, stones, dreams. James Wright is a mythopoeic poet, the sole owner and proprietor of names and, especially, places…. As one reads through the book [Collected Poems] Wright's places come to seem, like Winesburg or Yoknapatawpha, less the accidents of one life than the necessary epiphanies of the whole American experience. For all these reasons, he remains, for me, with the exception of Gary Snyder, the most interesting, and still promising, of his contemporaries.

Alan Williamson, "Pity for the Clear World," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), February, 1972, pp. 296-300.

For my taste, Wright's best later poems are not the anthology pieces, as full of crickets and grasshoppers as the early poems were of shadows and graves, but the likes of "As I Step Over A Puddle," "The Minneapolis Poem, "To The Muse," "Two Poems About President Harding"—poems which give radiant life to human creatures.

Wright's later style deliberately followed Pound's dictum about post-Whitman verse: "Now is a time for carving." Wright whittled rhetoric to a succession of intense perceptions, he no longer praised the rare word but "the pure clear word," he loosened his forms, he withdrew his uneasy emotions from Nature to get a more luminous sight of its hidden joy.

Laurence Goldstein, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer, 1972, p. 216.

James Wright's Collected Poems is an impressive book, if for no other reason than for its size—215 pages, some jammed with as many as three poems. When we remember that Mr. Wright published his first volume as recently as 1957, we cannot fail to be impressed by his energy and high seriousness. If his talents are lyric, his character is undeniably epic: the hero as poet.

But there is more to recommend this collection than mere length. All the poems are extraordinarily uniform in their quality, standing straight and tall like a regiment of Cossacks. If you wanted to attack them you could not find any segment of the line significantly weaker than the rest. Or stronger, for that matter….

[Selections] from The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959) yield themselves readily to the reader, and he is free to respond to the subtleties of texture without having first to grapple with any major structural difficulties. For people raised on the old poetry but attuned to the new, the early Wright is a perfect bridge; for his style, controlled yet trembling on the brink of chaos, reveals the requisite passion for irrational experience as contained in a universe ordered by consciousness….

If anyone takes a close look at American society in the 'sixties he will immediately understand just how appropriate this mode of poetic behavior is, how alive Mr. Wright became to the spirit of the times. It was, after all, a period characterized by an obsession with sensation, a rejection of reason in favor of passion, a love of rhetoric for its own sake; and as a result of the radicalization of these tendencies the world has been significantly altered, as Mr. Wright obviously recognized.

To those who have complained in review after review that his later poems "have no meaning" one can only reply that Mr. Wright knows precisely what he is doing in these well-tuned lyrics, just as "soul brother" Dylan Thomas knew what he was about in a wild puzzle like "The Long-legged Bait". The difficulty for the reader lies in the problem of whether he is to grapple with such poems the way he has been taught to grapple with the Four Quartets, whether he is to consider them as a return to the imagism of the earlier twentieth century, or whether he is to contemplate them as he would the mondo of a Zen Master.

Thomas H. Landess, in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of the South), Winter, 1973, pp. 153-57.

James Wright is one of our finest visionary poets, and his Collected Poems must be counted as one of the major literary events of the past few years. Nevertheless, I find the thirty-three new poems at the back of the Collected Poems something of a letdown. The real watershed in Wright's work was The Branch Will Not Break of 1963. In his first two volumes—The Green Wall [1957] and Saint Judas (1959)—Wright was a self-declared disciple of Robinson and Frost; he wrote regional poems characterized by their gentle irony, their sense of intrinsic human isolation, and a tender respect for the lives of ordinary people in ordinary places. His language is purposely flat, his rhyming stanzas modest and clean-cut. In the poems of the fifties, we find vignettes of eccentric Ohio townspeople like the homosexual "Sappho," a group of fairly bloodless love poems like "A Girl Walking into a Shadow," and elegiac lyrics about Wright's parents. There is much graveyard and nature imagery and a good deal of quiet moralizing somewhat in the vein of Robinson's "Eros Turannos."…

In "Stages of a Journey Westward," Wright begins, as he did in earlier poems, with a reference to his native Ohio, but here the settings are dream images rather than actual places…. These poems of sharp, terrifying, and unrelenting vision give Wright a central place in contemporary poetry. In his recent work, however, Wright returns to his earlier moralizing bent; he cannot resist the temptation to impose a profound meaning on incidents that cannot quite bear such weight….

Wright is at his best when he writes what we might call the "epiphany poem"—a brief lyric in which contemplation of the external landscape suddenly gives way to insight into the world beyond.

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Poetry Chronicle: 1970–71," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 97-131.

James Wright's achievement has been solidly recognized. Last year, his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize. But long before that, Wright had been acknowledged by a generation of poets as the artisan of a new language for poetry: a style of pastoral surrealism, built around strong images and a simple spoken rhetoric. Wright's art lay not in complex grammar, but in a stark structure of perceptions which became their own statement. The poems created a vision of elusive landscapes, as if the poet did not see the same world we saw….

The Branch Will Not Break was one of the key books of the early 1960s. Wright's imagery possessed a visionary quality which many poets felt to be an alternative to the elaborate, formal rhetoric of Wilbur and Lowell…. [His] mingling of pastoral with Gothic mystery recalls Roethke, but in a tighter, more contained manner. One senses the influence of Wright's work as a translator. The German poet Georg Trakl seems especially to have helped Wright to reshape his language toward the somber simplicity of these lines. Along with Robert Bly, Wright was in part responsible for popularizing poets like Trakl, Vallejo, and Neruda in America. At a time when American poets were casting about for new models, he was able to give an example of how poets foreign to English or American tradition could help us to establish new modes of language.

Wright's visionary landscapes were anchored in the American scene by a litany of place-names. But it is a spiritualized America, haunted by drunks, lost children, and dead Indians; an America short-circuited by despair, whose very forms breathe sleepily with the rhythms of nightmare….

The attempt to create a new religious idiom is underscored by the title of Wright's next book, Shall We Gather At The River. The title has a chilling irony in Wright's work. One imagines a group of hymn-singing settlers intimidated by the emptiness of the Midwestern sky, and the vast spaces of land stretching around them. They huddle together, and sing "shall we gather at the river." Their hymn is also a prayer, and there is defiance in their voices, for they believe that God is listening. In Wright's prayer-poems, the hymn is launched sadly, because there is no one listening. The title Shall We Gather At The River contains a genuine question. Perhaps it is no use to huddle together and sing. Perhaps (to quote Cesar Vallejo) "God is sick," or perhaps He is an alien presence, "a red spider," as Wright says. James Wright is haunted by "loneliness," by a wish to gather at the river in a community of singing, although he knows that such a gathering must fail.

By collecting his work into a single volume, a poet invites a different sort of reading than he has received previously. Poems ten and twenty years old are offered once more, not as experimental statements, but as works whose impact of surprise is long past, works that must now stand on their own, as they will stand in future anthologies. James Wright's Collected Poems surprised me in two ways. I was startled to see how dated his early poems now seem. The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959) are written in the stilted pre-Raphaelite style that was fashionable in the 1950s. Aside from an occasional line, in which Wright's gift for stark imagery makes itself felt, these poems are disappointing today, and I think it was a mistake to include so many of them in the present volume. Wright's early language was so thickly idealized, the poems were so elevated that one can only guess at the core of hurt and passion which they suggest…. The fact is that Wright never mastered the formal style of the 1950s, as Wilbur and Lowell did. When he broke free of it, to write The Branch Will Not Break, he shucked off a skin that had never fit.

On the other hand, I was surprised, too, at how uneven The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather At The River now seem, as volumes, although each contains a number of remarkable poems. Wright helped to create a new poetic language, but he himself was able to use it perfectly only now and then. All too often, his poems founder in repetitious imagery. The word "dark," for example, appears in almost every poem, as a code word for mystery and the spiritual unknown. It is not long before "dark" becomes what Raymond Queneau called a mot valise, a suitcase word: open it up, and toss in whatever comes to hand. Instead of sharpening perceptions, the mot valise confuses them, and it is not long before the word itself dies of vagueness….

Wright is very much a poet of the 1960s. His work is central to the experimental tradition of those years. A dozen or more of his poems must be ranked among the most beautiful to be written during the past decade. "Lying in a Hammock At William Duffy's Farm," "As I Step Over a Puddle," "A Blessing," "The Minneapolis Poem," "In Memory Of Leopardi," "To The Poets In New York," and especially the unbearably painful, haunting poem, "To The Muse," are my partial anthology of Wright's best poems. Like other poets of the period, he has so far given us a scattering of fine poems, but no sustained work in which the governing vision and the artistic achievement are adequate to each other.

Paul Zweig, "Making and Unmaking," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 269-73.

I am sure that before the appearance of James Wright's third collection of poems, The Branch Will Not Break (1963), I had read some of his previous poetry with appreciation—certainly the title poem from his second collection, Saint Judas (1959), and most probably "American Twilights, 1957," "At the Executed Murderer's Grave," and "An Offering for Mr. Bluehart"—but I cannot recall experiencing anything like that keen sense of discovery which I felt in reading The Branch Will Not Break. It was that sense of personal discovery which one knows is a result of antecedent discoveries that cost the poet more than fame or money or one's gratitude can ever repay and yet there are the poems in one's hands. What Wright offered in The Branch Will Not Break, as far as I could tell, was unlike anything being written in America at the time, and some five or six of the poems there seized upon my imagination like nothing I had read in a long time….

His next book, Shall We Gather at the River (1968), was everything that it should have been: a natural and skillful extension of those lines of approach he discovered in preparing for and writing the poems of The Branch Will Not Break and a continued assimilation of the foreign influences that, in large part, made possible those discoveries. It should be mentioned here that after Saint Judas Wright had indicated that what he wrote from then on would be entirely different. The radical change that was evident in both The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River was for the most part a result of the strong influence of the work of foreign poets such as Neruda, Vallejo, Guillén, and the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, all of whom Wright had been reading and translating…. Probably Wright felt that his earlier work, The Green Wall and Saint Judas, was too methodical in approach and lacked the visionary quality and sense of spontaneity that he wanted. Following the various examples of these foreign poets, he had in his own work begun concentrating on simplifying the individual line, sharpening the imagery within a given line, making it more obviously receptive to the irrational, and reducing exposition to a minimum. In this new spareness there was no room for rhetorical impulses. In general the imagery took on a more luminous nature and a dream-like fluidity. As for the development of the total poem, he gave himself more freedom to depart from a strictly "logical" progression and introduce the unexpected, the unpredictable. The poems also became less formal. For example, only some half-dozen of the eighty poems in The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River employ rhyme, whereas almost all of the early work is rhymed….

It seems to me that after Saint Judas Wright became concerned with the question of how the poetic revelation in its unfolding could more closely approximate the actual sequentiality of images and ideas that led the poet to a given conclusion. That is, assuming some of the truths we arrive at are not the results of logical reasoning, how the unfolding of a poetic revelation could approximate the fluid process of its own realization more closely than in a strictly "logical" ordering of images and ideas after the fact of the discovery. The difference is perhaps one of effect; that is, the poet may well have gone back and rearranged the experiential sequence, may in fact have added to or deleted, but the difference is between that of asking the reader to come along as the poet actually follows the leads of both his logical instincts and his illogical impulses and that of saying to the reader "I have made a discovery and here is an analytical representation of how I arrived at it."…

Most of what I have said so far deals with technique. As for theme, there are several concerns which have been manifest in Wright's poetry from the start. Probably his most abiding concern has been loneliness. It is the one abstract word that recurs most frequently in his work. In a sense the theme of loneliness gives rise to, or is somehow connected with, most of Wright's other thematic concerns. Death, for instance, figures significantly in a great number of the poems, and Wright sees in the experience of death the ultimate loneliness….

Another related theme has to do with Wright's compassion for what Auden, in his foreword to the first edition of The Green Wall, called "social outsiders"—criminals, prostitutes, drunks, and social outcasts in general. In Wright's poems these people are almost always lonely and damned. Some of them have had a vision of the final loneliness and stark terror of their condition….

In the new poems the focus of his attention in this particular thematic context has widened to include blacks and Indians. There is, however, a slight shift in his attitude in the new work. He seems less willing to give himself over so totally and subjectively to history's victims…. (In fact, in the new poems Wright has even found room for humor, which is a rarity in his work—one poem consists merely of the title "In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems" at the top of a blank page. It reveals a quality one has always suspected in Wright but never had proof of.)…

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that because of loneliness and thoughts of death and despairing humanity Wright is incapable of experiencing and expressing joy. Clearly, if the evidence of poems such as the widely-anthologized "A Blessing" is to be trusted, he is a poet with great capacity for joy. The sources of this joy are found primarily in the spiritual beauty of people whom the poet loves, especially women, and in experiences where there is a surrender of the Self to another living thing which the poet senses is in closer touch with the mystical forces of nature. This latter, too, can involve a woman, for women in several of Wright's poems possess powers that put them beyond human bounds….

There has always been in Wright's work [a] strong desire to find a closer union with the natural world—even a desire to escape corporal limitations and merge with some spirit that encompasses all nature, not just the human realm. In addition to women, horses appear frequently as possible intermediaries…. All of these references to women and horses as spiritual mediums are, of course, to be taken figuratively. Wright is simply communicating in a stylized way his desire for transcendence into a more intensely felt state of nature, and these are the experiences in which a realization of that state seemed somehow possible. [These] experiences usually involve a surrender of the Self to another living thing which the poet senses is in closer touch with the mystical forces of nature, a surrender that is motivated by the hope of sharing that state of being. Wright is not a mystic, however; his concern is finally with human activity at a level where most of us usually experience it—in our own bodies in or around places such as Wheeling, West Virginia; Fargo, North Dakota; New York City, or Nash's Grove, wherever that is, and with people such as Garnie Braxton, Lemoyne Crone, and Roberta Pugh (and the horse David) who possess the same capacities for joy and despair that we ourselves possess….

Given the preoccupation with death and despair that sometimes makes Wright's poetry burdensome, I find this recent suggestion of additional spiritual possibilities in his poetic life tremendously heartening. It is not that I require a neat kind of balance between, say, negative and positive in a writer's work, for I know the poet has to be honest to his vision, whether it tends to focus only on that which defeats us or whether it tends toward a more expansive view. I find the implications of some of his new poems heartening because I think Wright's poetry is very special and important to the changing poetic temperament in America and, because of the promise his poetry holds, it is valuable to us when he finds new resources for extending the range of his poetic sensibility. What makes Wright's poetry special is not that he has any new philosophical insights into the problems of existence but that he has the gift of using language in a way that the human spirit is awakened and alerted to its own possibilities—both the possibility of diminishment and the hope of increase through participation in an existence outside his own.

James Seay, "A World Immeasurably Alive and Good: A Look at James Wright's Collected Poems," in The Georgia Review, Spring, 1973, pp. 71-81.

One moment [Wright] is like Wright Morris, giving us stretches of Nebraska or Iowa as practically no one thinks to do these days. ("Snow howls all around me, out of the abandoned prairies.") Another moment he is another Walker Percy, drawing upon Dostoevsky's underground man, wondering who we are—we make lists and draw distinctions and call others animals, and ourselves human beings: words are our great possession. His political position is all the more powerfully and persuasively maintained because he does not grab us by the collar, shout what we, anyway, have been saying to ourselves….

I suppose the price such a poet pays for going his own way is loneliness; it is the word Wright keeps using, and one is not at all tempted to doubt him, or charge him with yet another variant of the boundless egoism so many writers feel compelled to display…. In Wright's case the loneliness is casually remarked upon; often it comes across as natural, even a gift….

His "darkness" comes across in every book. One smiles and one loves, but plunder and murder go on, and sometimes we can do nothing but settle for ourselves—in this case, a poet who would like a lot to be different, but isn't inclined to preach to readers he suspects, anyway, are the converted. Still, however modest, worried, and realistically guarded about the future he is, there is the obligation to give the clearest emphasis possible to certain values.

Robert Coles, "James Wright: One of Those Messengers," in The American Poetry Review, August/September, 1973, pp. 36-7.

In The Branch Will Not Break (1963), to my mind his best book, James Wright beautifully adapted this visionary mode to his own purposes. His poems are shorter, quieter, gentler than Roethke's; they usually present the poet in a specific midwestern locale, contemplating a landscape which seems wholly alien until a sudden gesture or change in perspective momentarily unites poet and nature, self and other, in a muted epiphany….

Two Citizens contains a few … "epiphany poems," particularly "You and I Saw Hawks Exchanging the Prey," in which the contending hawks are gradually and subtly associated in the poet's mind with his turbulent love for his wife. But in most of Wright's new poems, transfiguration gives way to protestation: the poet seems to be straining to assert his sense of place, his myth of the small-town Ohio of his youth.

Marjorie G. Perloff, "Roots and Blossoms," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 16, 1973, pp. 6-7.

Many words have been said about how modern poetry was hampered so long by its straining after wit, paradox, a complexly intellectual manner of statement. But at the moment it's the poetry of openness, of liberation, the "naked poetry" of one recent anthology title, that deserves some ironic criticism. James Wright—who might figure along with Robert Bly, Mark Strand and others (like William Pitt Root) to stand for such receptive and humble openness toward experience—has produced, hard on the heels of his already collected poems, a new volume [Two Citizens], filled with questions like "What is going to happen when we both die?" or "What have I got to do" or "What are you going to do? Be kind? Kill?/Die?" The poet keeps confessing that he loves life and that other people should love their life too and that he is all ah shucks and just an ordinary guy…. As far as the music of poetry goes, to say nothing of the presence of interesting ideas about life and love and death, Wright's poetry … ain't much. He tries to get by on personality, on confessional verse that whether it's naive or mock-naive is in neither case arresting or disturbing. Maybe this is what The New York Times meant when they urged the Bollingen Prize awarders to look past Yale, out to the West where men are men and where more earthy poetry, in touch with life, gets written. But Wright's labored attempts to be natural only succeed in making him sound twice as artificial as the eastern university wit busily dialectizing out a clever sonnet.

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973, p. 581.