Like many of James Wright’s poems, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is an autobiographical account of an occurrence in Wright’s hometown in southeastern Ohio. It was published in the 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break, a book which came to mark a turning point in the poet’s writing style, moving him from formal, rhyming patterns to a more lyrical free verse. This poem highlights a subject consistent in Wright’s work, namely the distressing and pitiable lives of many working class Americans who struggled through the Great Depression of the 1930s and whose descendants still struggle today.
The setting for “Autumn Begins” is a typical Friday night high school football game with most of the players’ fathers watching from the stands. The narrator of the poem, presumably Wright himself, concentrates more on the men than on the game, depicting them as miserable factory workers who drink too much and can only dream of the heroes they will never be. Their wives are described as “starved pullets / Dying for love,” essentially a comment on the husbands themselves who are incapable of or uninterested in intimacy. The brief mention of the boys playing football is also a reflection on the fathers. By watching the violent game, the men imagine that they too are virile and strong, but all the while, they must live their fantasy lives through the lives of their young sons.
This poem is both a portrayal of the way a depleted social environment can also diminish people’s spirits and an illustration of the crudeness and violence that Americans have come to think of as acceptable and normal. Throughout his life, James Wright experienced love-hate relationships with his hometown, his state, and his country. The poetry he wrote reflects heavily on those struggles, and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” captures a moment on the negative side.
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...
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