The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)