Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Speak” might be fairly considered Wright’s ars poetica, a creative expression of his philosophy of poetic form and theory. It contains the central themes and approaches regularly found in his work: the outcast and tragic characters who are so often his subject; the search for meaning and redemption inside a blighted landscape; and the poet’s role within this world, as he or she tries to find a commensurate language and emotion to at least face if not overcome its challenges. Wright, like many of the poets influenced by the new critical style of the 1940’s and 1950’s, knew how to use the accentual-syllabic tradition to write lyric poetry of love and inevitable loss.

He also knew that the world he had grown up in—filled with factories, poverty, pollution, and the people of industrial river towns—deserved its place within the body of English poetry. He would be the people’s champion, speaking in a “flat voice” of what would often be their wasted lives, their “flat defeat.” In talking about them, he raised them up as tragic heroes.

Like the romantics before him, Wright affirms what is ultimately good within each person. One critic described Wright’s work as a clash between a “romantic’s world vision and a classicist’s aesthetics.” What makes this poem and the body of Wright’s poetry worthy of careful attention has its roots in this clash. In elegant, lovely, and compassionate language the poet asks the reader to identify with, and thus understand more completely, the failures of a modern world. By doing so people might come to a deeper understanding of themselves.