Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175
It is not unusual for Wright to begin his poems with simple statements indicating place or person so that the reader knows exactly where or who the speaker is. (His poem “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” begins: “My name is James Wright, and I was born / Twenty-five miles from this infected grave / In Martins Ferry, Ohio….”) It is also not unusual for the poet to use real-life places and people in his more autobiographical poems, and that is the case here. In 1924, Martins Ferry High School was dedicated as the Charles R. Shreve School, and that was its name when Wright attended high school there in the early 1940s. The key to this opening line, however, is not just his mention of the school itself, but the football stadium in particular. As the rest of the poem will indicate, Wright sees football as a violent game that has become an American ritual—a much beloved one, at that—in spite of the barbarism and destructive nature it represents.
These three lines imply two separate but equally important notions about the narrator’s relationship to his surroundings. First, he sets himself up as a detached observer, someone who does not belong to the scene he is watching. What he observes is not the game on the field, but the people in the stands, the fathers who have come to watch their sons play. Secondly, Wright indicates his feelings about the local men and the lives they lead, using language that suggests both abhorrence and sympathy toward them. He thinks “of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville” (another nearby factory town), but the distasteful euphemism is not so much an ethnic slur as a recognition of the plight of so many immigrants who came to America. Whether their ancestors’ immigration was by choice or by force (“And the gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood”), many ethnic groups found themselves struggling to make a living and a home for their families in the United States. The night watchman in line 4, also a factory worker, is “ruptured” in more ways than one. On the literal level, we may assume he has a medical problem, but he is also torn and broken in a spiritual or emotional way. Like these men, Wright’s father worked hard for very little in return, and this is the life that the poet desperately avoided.
Wright ends the first stanza with three simple words that sum up the pathetic lives of the men he has described in the previous lines: they can only dream of what they have never been and will never be. The game of football, however, is a vehicle for their dreaming, and Wright will emphasize this point in the final stanza.
In line 6, the fathers encounter two opposing feelings. They are both “proud” and “ashamed.” This quick juxtaposition is indicative of the dual roles that Wright believes most of America’s working class has been forced to play. On the outside, the men are nearly beaten down by poverty, frustration, and a hopeless future. On the inside, they take pride in the strength and endurance of their sons who fight so bravely on the field. But for all the comfort they receive from their children, their wives evoke just the opposite. The “women cluck like starved pullets,” and this shames their husbands who feel at fault for “starving” them. The poet likens the wives to young hens clucking about the barnyard in search of food, painting a picture of lonely, fretful women who have no real communication, no real relationship with their husbands. But these wives are not starving for food— they are “Dying for love.” These three words that make up line 8 are actually more indicative of the men’s troubles than of the women’s. The line reflects their impotence, perhaps literally, but more likely emotionally. They have no ability to change their lives, to better their environments, or to provide a generous lifestyle for their families. Rather than confront the reality of home life, they stay away as much as possible. They drink for hours in local bars or go to sporting events while their wives grow lonelier and feel more unloved.
This one-word line is the link between the first two stanzas and the closing and serves to turn the poem into a type of syllogism. In this form of deductive reasoning, we have two propositions and a conclusion, such as in: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. Wright’s poem is not as simple and plain as this example, but “Therefore” does indicate a cause and effect relationship between what has been said before and what is to follow. The final three lines expose the “effect” of the rest of the poem.
Wright has already established that the fathers see their sons as heroic and that they derive a dreamlike pleasure from watching them play the game of football. We are not surprised, then, that the boys grow beautiful in line 10, but that they “grow suicidally beautiful” is somewhat of a shock. Interpretation of this adverb has generally fallen along two lines with critics over the years. On one hand, the sons are seen as victims of their fathers’ dreams, having to play out the violent roles that make them “heroes.” On the other hand, they are viewed as desperately willing to fight for their moment of glory even though it will be short-lived, if it comes about at all. In James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man, Kevin Stein notes that “Though the connection between the despair of the parents and the violent actions of the sons does not follow altogether logically, as the ‘therefore’ would suggest, still, the speaker’s syllogism achieves seamless closure. Having seen the ‘ruptured’ dream of their fathers and mothers, the sons passionately partake of their own ‘suicidally beautiful’ ritual of competition, each hoping he, unlike his father before him, will achieve momentary glory….” Critic David Dougherty views the ritual in a different way. In James Wright he states that “The youths train and sacrifice to live out the frustrated dreams of their fathers…. Their athletic skills and developed bodies are sources of beauty, but the controlled violence on the field is suicidal…. Community rituals have degenerated to episodes of institutionalized violence in which the sons are victims of their fathers’ aspirations, and the implication is that they will sire sons who will in turn sacrifice for them.”
Whether the boys are fighting for their own short-lived glory or simply playing the role of pawns for their fathers’ imaginations, the last two lines of the poem tell us that when football season rolls around each year, the sons will “gallop” like stampeding horses and play with fearless abandon. The image of their throwing themselves “terribly” against each other goes hand-in-hand with Wright’s overall portrait of desperate people helpless to exert any real control over their own lives.