The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

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“At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” is composed of seventy-seven lines of freely rhymed iambic pentameter. The title expresses the subject. The poet is meditating on the grave of the convicted murderer George Doty, a taxi driver from Belaire, Ohio. Doty drove a girl out of town, made a pass at her, and, when she resisted, killed her. In an interview with Dave Smith (in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, 1982, edited by Smith), Wright explains, “Many people in that community thought [Doty] was terribly wicked, but he did not seem to be wicked. He was just a dumb guy who was suddenly thrust into the middle of the problem of evil.” Doty was executed in the electric chair.

Like many of Wright’s poems, this one is about the outcast. Part of his concern is the incapacity of some members of society to understand other members. The severing of communications between the living and the dead becomes, for him, the ultimate barrier to human connectedness. Kindness and vengeance, pity and loathing, empathy and fear are important contrasts in the poem.

The poem begins by showing Wright’s position to the killer: “I was born/ Twenty-five miles from this infected grave.” He says that his father “tried to teach me kindness,” that he once went to the grave (“I made my loud display”), that he is “Now sick of lies,” and that he will “add my easy grievance to the rest.”

It is no easy grievance, however, as the rest of the poem will show. In fact, Wright identifies himself with the insane, “Pleased to be playing guilty.” In an early version of the poem, he wrote, “I killed this man,/ This man who killed another,” for “Man’s wild blood has no heart to overcome/ Vengeance.” In the final version, he says truly, though still ironically, “I croon my tears at fifty cents per line.”

In stanza 3, after a list of Doty’s crimes, the poet’s disgust is expressed in the image of Doty as a dog, “Fitter for vomit than a kind man’s grief.” He also confesses no love for “the crying/ Drunks of Belaire,” brutalized by the police. “I do not pity the dead,” he says, “I pity the dying,” of which he is one.

In stanza 4, Wright focuses on three key issues: “If Belmont County killed him, what of me?/ His victims never loved him. Why should we?/ And yet, nobody had to kill him either.” In answer: “I kick the clods away.”

Stanza 5 is a key section. According to John 8:7, Jesus told the one among the accusers “without sin to throw the stone first.” Here the poet acknowledges “My sneaking crimes” and believes “the earth/ And its dead” shall be judged by “the princes of the sea.” In the short stanza that follows, he concludes that none will “mark my face/ From any murderer’s,” since “We are nothing but a man.”

In stanza 7, the final one, Wright realizes that “God knows, not I,” when “suicides will stop.” Doty “Sleeps in a ditch of fire,” like one of Dante’s souls, and Wright feels “fear, not grief.” He bids the ground to open, knowing Doty, “Dirt of my flesh,” is “defeated, underground.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

Despite iambic pentameter and end rhyme, the lines are not always dulcet, unlike many of Wright’s earlier efforts. The poet and his commentators, including Smith and poet and critic Donald Hall, see “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” as a “watershed poem,” dividing his earlier style from his more mature work.

Wright’s first book, The Green Wall (1957), contains “A Poem About George Doty in the Death House.” This precursor poem has six stanzas in trimeter verse with regular rhyme scheme and unobtrusive diction. Though scorned by community members for caring more about Doty than the murdered girl (“I mourn no soul but his”), his language is passionless, guarded, and devoid of commitment. The later poem, with its harsh colloquial language and candid utterance, is another case entirely.

What changed? Hall, in his introduction to Above the River (1990), quotes Wright describing himself as “a literary operator (and one of the slickest, cleverest, most charming’ concoctors of the do-it-yourselfverse).” Hall says Wright was thinking of quitting poetry altogether because it was not real to him anymore. Then he began this poem.

Though still producing a metric line, Wright’s use of diction creates a different kind of poetry. For one thing, proper nouns appear in abundance. By using his and Doty’s names and the place-names of his region, the poet acquires a direct voice. As a consequence, he stops using persona (speaking as though he were someone else, as in “Sappho,” for example, where he speaks as a barren woman). What is more, frank admissions (“To hell with them”) and strong language (“giggling muckers”) present a sharper, more nonliterary surface.

At times, the iambic pentameter is roughened up. The aforementioned last line of stanza 3 has an extra foot, and two lines of stanza 6 have an extra syllable. The eleventh line of stanza 7 requires an elision (“th’ Ohio grass”), setting off the imagery of sea and stars with near rhyme, “a tide of gray disastrousness.” In themselves, these are only mild aberrations. In stanza 7 alone, however, eleven of fifteen lines begin with a noniambic foot and the tenth line (the only line in the poem using parentheses and exclamation marks) begins in trochaic measure, to stark effect.

The greatest deviation from iambic pentameter occurs in stanza 5, the only part of the poem that speaks of the future otherworld. These ten lines are a study in metrical contrast and meaning. They contain two sentences, one very short and one very long. More interestingly, the perfect iambic pentameter sixth line (“To lay away their robes, to judge the earth”) is embedded in four irregular lines; and these, in turn, along with the sixth, are embedded in regular lines. The effect is to highlight the imagery of Judgment Day against “bodies” in Ohio—Wright’s, his father’s, Doty’s—which “Ridiculously kneel” under “God’s unpitying stars.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Dougherty, David. James Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Dougherty, David. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.

Roberson, William. James Wright: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Smith, Dave. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Stein, Kevin. James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.