James (Arlington) Wright 1927–1980
American poet and translator.
Wright, who ranks among the most esteemed poets of his generation, was a significant contributor to the "deep image" school of poetry that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Reacting against the limits of traditional verse, the writers of the deep image school wrote emotional, subjective poetry and relied primarily on image to convey meaning. They called for an intimacy between the poem and the reader and a direct relationship between human experience and its poetic expression. Before becoming involved with this group, Wright wrote in the formalist tradition of such writers as John Crowe Ransom. His poetry in this early period was characterized by formal construction and by a precise use of rhythm, meter, and rhyme. Wright's first two volumes of verse, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), were written in this mode and were well received by critics. The Green Wall won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1957. Wright's writing nevertheless underwent a drastic change.
In the early 1960s, while writing and teaching English at universities in Minnesota, Wright became influenced by his contemporary, Robert Bly. Through Bly, Wright became aware of the highly subjective, surrealist poetry of Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and others. The Branch Will Not Break (1963), Wright's third volume, is the first to be written in this later style. This collection displays both a relaxing of his previous formal control and a change from the exalted visions of his earlier work. Wright became more concerned with contemporary society, and his poems were often marked by despair. Prostitutes, murderers, and social outcasts peopled his writing. Whether Wright was expressing joy found in the mundane—one poem, for instance, celebrates the beauty of a sewage drain—or anguishing over the encroachment of technology and the spoiling of landscape, his hometown of Martin's Ferry, Ohio, often provided the backdrop.
When Wright died, he had completed the manuscript for This Journey (1982), a collection of poems concerned with his journey through life and his contemplations of death. An acutely emotional poet, Wright wrote with compassion about human suffering and helped bring about the heightened immediacy and impact of deep image poetry, which is the basis for his importance to contemporary poetry.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, Vols. 97-100 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
For example, Mr. Wright uses as an epigraph to [The Green Wall] the well-known medieval carol "Adam Lay Ibounden." It is as impossible to imagine a poet of the twentieth-century writing this as to imagine a fifteenth-century poet writing … lines by Mr. Wright…. (p. 43)
A modern poet might perfectly well be a Catholic, believing in the divine plan for human redemption of which the medieval carol sings, but his consciousness of historical earthly time is so different that he could never strike the same note of naive joy in the present; should he attempt it, the note struck would almost certainly be false, expressing not Christian hope but a sort of Rotarian optimism. (p. 44)
One way of perceiving the characteristics of an age is to raise certain fundamental questions which human beings have always asked and then see how the poets of that age answer them, such questions, for example, as: "What is the essential difference between man and all the other creatures, animal, vegetable, and mineral?" "What is the nature and human significance of time?" "What qualities are proper to the hero or sacred person who can inspire poets to celebrate him and what is lacking in the churl or profane person whom poetry ignores?" A man in the Middle Ages would have said that the difference between man and other creatures is that only man has an immortal soul eternally related to God. He has, therefore, a goal, salvation or damnation, but this goal is not in time nor is reaching it a matter of time. A baby who has been baptized and an old man who repents after a lifetime of crime die and both are saved; their ages are irrelevant.
On the other hand, so far as his temporal existence, individual or social, was concerned, like anyone who lives in a predominantly rural culture without machinery, he would be conscious of little difference between himself and other creatures, that is to say, he would be mainly aware of their common subjection to biological time, the endless cycle of birth, growth, and decay. Of man as creating irreversible historical time so that the next generation is never a repetition of the last, he would be scarcely, if at all, conscious. But to a modern man, whether or not he believes in an immortal soul, this is the great difference, that he and his society have a self-made history while the rest of nature does not. He is anxious by necessity because at every moment he has to choose to become himself. His typical feelings about nature, therefore, are feelings of estrangement and nostalgia. In "A Fit against the Country" Mr. Wright sees nature as a temptation to try and escape human responsibility by imitating her...
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Despite [the faults of his poetry], it is clear James Wright is an amazingly good poet. His lines are not stiff like sticks, but flexible like a living branch. Some emotion, rising very close to the surface, always seems to keep the words alive. In thought, his words, underneath, are in touch with something infinite. Another way of saying this is to say that his personality as a man drives forward, disregarding the consequences. Deep in his personality is the plower who does not look back. Everyone recognizes this in his work instinctively, and it is probably one reason for the great affection people have for his work. His instinct is to push everything to extremes, to twist away and go farther. It is obvious that out of devotion to poetry, he would leave any job in the world, with no notice, or live in any way. Men like Whittemore or Nemerov can never write anything new because they are on-the-other-hand men. If you say, "The Christian Church is corrupt," they would say, "On the other hand…." If you say, "John Foster Dulles was as close to being crazy as most statesmen get," they would say.
"On the other hand…." Wright's tendency is the opposite—to follow an idea until it flies, or turns back into a fish. What he admires about the Chinese poets is their ability to get drunk without remorse, to write short poems for a whole lifetime without apology, to ride out of a gate into the desert without looking back.
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I have been worrying the bone of this essay for days because, in an issue of Ironwood honoring James Wright, I want to say some things against his poems. The first of his books that I read was The Branch Will Not Break. It is supposed to have broken ground by translating the imagery of surrealist and expressionist poetics into American verse. That was not what I responded to. What mattered to me in those poems was that their lean, clear, plain language had the absolute freshness of sensibility. They made sensibility into something as lucid and alert as intelligence…. I can give you an example from Shall We Gather at the River:
Along the sprawled body of the derailed
Great Northern freight car,
I strike a match slowly and lift it slowly.
Beyond town, three heavy white horses
Wade all the way to their shoulders
In a silo shadow.
Suddenly the freight car lurches.
The door slams back, a man with a flashlight
Calls me good evening.
I nod as I write good evening, lonely
And sick for home.
Those last two lines are what I mean. They were not written by the poet who is lonely and sick for home, they were written by the man who noticed that the poet, sitting in his room alone, recalling a scene outside Fargo, North Dakota, nods when he writes down the greeting of his imagined yardman, and catches in that moment not the poet's loneliness but a gesture that reveals the aboriginal loneliness of being—of the being of the freight cars, silos, horses, shadows, matches, poets, flashlights. And that man, the man who wrote those lines, is not lonely. At least that is not quite the word for it. There is a poem by Basho that gets at this:
Not my human
but your solitary cry.
The cuckoo, or hototogisu, is the nightingale of Japanese poetry. Its evening song has all the automatic associations with loneliness and beauty, and Basho is correcting that tradition. He is not, he says, talking about our plangent human loneliness but about the solitariness of being, of beings going about their business. The business of singing, if you are a bird, of feeling lonely, if you are a human. This is a distinction and it is the function of intelligence to make distinctions, but this one has been felt toward, with an absolute clarity of feeling, and that is what I mean by sensibility. It is a quality that flashes out from time to time in Wright's poems and it made The Branch Will Not Break an enormously important book for me. So I should probably rephrase my first sentence in the manner of Two Citizens: I want to say some things against James Wright's poems, which I love. (pp. 196-97)
Someone has calculated that the words dark, darkness, and darkening appear over forty times in the twenty-six pages The Branch Will Not Break occupies in the Collected Poems. Green must appear at least as often. And the book is full of those Wordsworthian words that no one is supposed to be able to get away with: lovely, terrible, beautiful, body, and lonely run like a threnody through all his books. I don't care how often James Wright uses any word, but I do care how he uses them and why. The early poems have helped me to think about this, particularly "On Minding One's Own Business" in Saint Judas…. The poem ends, like many of Wright's poems, with a prayer:
From prudes and muddying fools,
Kind Aphrodite, spare
All hunted criminals,
Hoboes, and whip-poor-wills,
And girls with rumpled hair,
All, all of whom might hide
Within that darkening shack.
Lovers may live, and abide.
Maybe the worst thing about American puritanism is the position it forces its opponents into. If the puritan can't distinguish a hobo from a hunted criminal, a little nighthawk from a girl who does the sorts of things that rumple hair, the poet won't. Hunted criminal, in fact, equals hobo equals bird equals girl. The puritan can't tell one from another and knows they are all bad; the poet can't tell either, only he knows they belong to the dark and are good. When he agrees to disagree with the puritan on his own terms, he gives away will, force, power, weight because they are bad American qualities and he settles for passivity and darkness. This explains why the grown man's dream is the beginning of a dark hair under an illiterate girl's ear. (pp. 199-200)
Wright has often been praised, to use the curious language of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, for his "compassionate interest in social outcasts." That has never seemed to me to be the way to say it. What has always been a remarkable, almost singular, fact about his poetry is the way in which the suffering of other people, particularly the lost and the derelict, is actually a part of his own emotional life. It is what he writes from, not what he writes about. He has a feeling in his own bones for what a cold and unforgiving place the social world is. More than that, he has a feeling, almost Calvinist, for how unforgiving the universe is…. He is fascinated by defeat the way some men are fascinated by money, as the intelligible currency of our lives. His poems return and return to this theme, to the unformed hopes growing in the warm dark and the cold dark to which they return, until loneliness and death seem like the price exacted for living. (pp. 200-01)
Over and over again in American writing, [we find the] theme or discovery, that the inner life has no place, that it makes outlaws of us. Whether it is Huck deciding to go to hell or the hell of West's Miss Lonelyhearts, or Gatsby thinking the rich with their good teeth and fast cars can transform the ugly midwestern body of the world or poor Clyde Griffith, who rises from the squalor of his childhood when he glimpses velvet curtains in a Kansas City hotel, or Robinson's loyalty to Luke Havergal and the boozy moon, there is always this sense of a radical division between the inner and outer worlds and the hunger for a magic which will heal it, a sanctification or election. It gives a kind of drama to Wright's search for a style, but it also gives me the uneasy feeling that the way of posing the problem is the problem.
These themes persist through all the later work: a poetry that aims at beauty of feeling, a continuous bone-aching loneliness, a continuous return to and caressing of the dark, a terror of the cold dark, a compassion for whoever suffers it, a desire to escape from the body. The new manner of The Branch Will Not Break doesn't signal a change in theme, but a different rhetorical strategy. The more relaxed rhythms, with pauses at line end, feel like a man taking a deep breath…. And the playfulness of the titles insists on the fact of imagination. So do the plain words from romantic poetry, lovely, beautiful, terrible, that don't describe anything but tell you that someone is feeling something. And the images let go of the known configurations so that they can look inward and try to name the agency of transformation…. This is the freshness of the book and it helps me to understand why I responded to it so deeply and why I end by gnashing my teeth over so many of the poems:
… Only two boys
Trailed by the shadow of rooted police,
Turn aimlessly in the lashing elderberries.
One cries for his father's death,
And the other, the silent one,
Listens into the hallway
Of a dark leaf.
The means, this style that is to make transformation possible, keeps wanting to be the end, the transformation itself, the beauty by which we are justified. There is no ground in these lines between the violent outer world and the kid listening poetically down the hallway of a dark leaf. There must be a Yiddish joke somewhere or a story by Peretz in which the poet appears before the recording angel who asks him what he's done and he says I listened down the hallway of a dark leaf or the long dream of my body was the beginning of a dark hair, etc. And one of the angels, maybe Raphael whom Rilke called the terrible one, says, this guy has got to be kidding.
Wright knows this most of the time, that the "one wing" of beauty...
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Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963) came out a year after [Robert Bly's] Silence in the Snowy Fields and resembles it too much for critical comfort. The poems in The Branch, although much more personal and forceful than Wright's earlier efforts, seemed to borrow not so much Bly's honesty as Bly's emotions and subjects. As in Silence, one found the love of mysticism, of abrupt leaps between apparently unconnected material, of solitude, of the instant of extraordinary perception, of playful, scene-setting titles ("As I Step Over a Puddle …"), of dusk and small plains towns, and of animals and nature. Occasionally, however, Wright's differences from Bly emerged and clashed with the Bly...
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[James Wright] was a poet of enormous verbal resources and skills engaged in a complex and deeply human quest to write—in his own terms—"the poetry of a grown man" in the style of "the pure clear word." He was one of our great poets of the lost and desolate, feeling his way emotionally into the lives of the cheated, the drunk, the lunatic. He was also a Horatian craftsman for whom craftsmanship was never itself enough, continually struggling for clarity and against glibness in his work, and somehow capable of revealing what Robert Hass calls "the aboriginal loneliness of being." But if Wright was an explorer of our specifically human social darkness, he was also a poet of lyric ecstasy and radiant natural light....
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I think it is fair to suggest that a poem like [the title poem of his collection This Journey] speaks of Wright's understanding of his situation, which is the mortal situation, common to all of us, of course, but mortal in the extraordinary sense of the word too, in the sense of his own imminent mortality, and the reconciliation of the poet that already-passed sentence of doom. It is also fair to observe about that poem that it contains not only some of the themes of this book, but also the echoes of much of Wright's past work too: a verbal reticence or quietness, a gentle kind of toughness, a patient tenderness and tender-heartedness, and a stoic strength….
Most of this book offers poems...
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Wright's stylistic odyssey is paradigmatic for his generation of American poets. His first two books, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), are the work of a 1950s formalist chafing against formal disciplines. Strained, high-flown diction only occasionally relaxes, as though with a sigh of relief, into the plainness of everyday speech. The syntax is extended, convoluted—a snare in which the poet thrashes, gamely but helplessly. More than once the reader may have the disconcerting experience of coming to the bottom of a page and thinking a poem is over, only to turn the page and discover another two or three stanzas yet to go. The movement of such poems is like the galvanism that keeps a...
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[Although James Wright] was an extraordinarily sophisticated and erudite poet, he kept plenty of room in his heart for the humble virtues. A concordance will show that he was never too lofty to make frequent use of good and bad—words that have become members of an endangered verbal species. Bad has come to mean good, while good has slipped down to the C-minus range, above fair but below excellent and other hyperbolic superlatives. (p. 612)
So when I say that James Wright was a good poet, I am using his characteristic vocabulary and saying two things about goodness: Wright was a good man and he wrote well.
Those nine monosyllables...
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[James Wright is] at least in part a representative man whose poetics demonstrate what we mean by contemporary as both an extension of and a rebellion against modernism….
We live in a time when critical theory has called into question not merely the function of art but the very existence of art. Theorists deny there can be an author. From Derrida to Culler to Fish, the talk is of the text, an impersonal object neither story nor poem. The desire of such criticism … is to bring to literature the objectivity of scientific inquiry; that is, to codify what and how literature knows. This is the direction and legacy of New Criticism in part, of modernist rebellion in part—but it...
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[James Wright] was a poet of emotional extremes. Certain of his feelings—his overflowing compassion, and his lifelong loving preoccupations with his working-class origins—appealed to readers so strongly as to rule out a purely aesthetic judgment. At the same time, Wright was an exceedingly private poet, whose impulse was often to protect the object of his feeling even against the intrusion of his own words…. He probably changed the possibilities of American poetry more than any other poet of his generation except Ashbery and Ginsberg. The style which he, and his friend Robert Bly, invented—at once emotionalist and secretive, with its simple sentences, forbidden nineteenth-century words like "lovely," and...
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