Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2528
Wright proceeded through three rather distinct phases in his poetic career, in all of which he produced work so commendable that he is considered one of the half-dozen best poets of his generation. He is also one of a few poets to have gathered a kind of popular following. For several years after his death, a group of devotees met annually in Martins Ferry on the anniversary to hold a memorial reading and reminisce about Wright’s life and work.
His first phase persists through the early volumes The Green Wall and Saint Judas. The poems of this period are very much in the style fashionable at the mid-twentieth century: composed in strict formal patterns, witty and ironic in tone, integrating a battery of rhetorical devices into a fused, weighty whole. The poems have substance; they are made objects, conspicuous for the fineness of their finish.
In keeping with the dictum that the poet should incorporate as much of his poetic heritage as he could, they reflect, draw on, and add to the long, unbroken line of English poetry. Wright’s background and education suited him well for this kind of work. In the middle of the twentieth century, American sympathies were stridently pro-British; the United States had fought two wars that rescued and preserved the British cultural heritage.
Furthermore, although Wright came from a working-class background, his education reinforced traditional British values. Kenyon College sponsored The Kenyon Review, one of the most influential literary quarterlies of the time—and one particularly associated with the dissemination of the New Criticism, which emphasized the idea of the poem as a cultural object. Further, Wright had earned a Ph.D. in English literature, his dissertation on Charles Dickens. He was steeped in British culture.
Thus, many of these poems are conventional. Yet this does not mean that they are negligible; several are among the finest of the period. “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends,” for example, is so good as to be almost timeless. For a variety of reasons, however, Wright came to feel that this approach to poetry was limited; intellectualism and formalism had not cornered the market.
This opened his second phase, which appears full-blown in The Branch Will Not Break. The change is much less thematic than stylistic. Wright’s characteristic attitudes and motifs persist. He remains the poet of the downtrodden in mind and body, the castaways of society, the commonplace victims trapped in the poor streets. The subjects—the natural and human victims of a vicious society—remain constant, but the difference of orientation makes them seem more personal. Wright had always concerned himself with loneliness, despair, and death, but he had seemed to escape from them in his poems. The new poems make the loss felt.
In this respect, he shares the capacity of Walt Whitman for sympathizing with the multitudes; he seems uniquely able to tune in to the secret loneliness, the inward emptiness, the gut-filling sense of loss that allow all of humanity to relate to the concept of the Everyman and his fate. Yet, Wright’s formal strategy has been transformed. In place of the highly wrought verbal textures and patterns of his earlier verse, Wright turns to a poetry that speaks simply, in relaxed breaths, from the heart. If the earlier poems were perceptions turned to elegant filigree and lace, these are states of feeling just finding their first stage of articulation into words and images.
One celebrated poem that reveals this is “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In it, Wright brilliantly contrasts the empty lives of three kinds of fathers with the superficially highlighted ones of their adolescent sons. The lives of the fathers are over; all that is left for them is to dream about the heroism they have become too old to enact. At the same time, their football-player sons sacrifice their bodies in the vain—or at best temporary—quest for athletic glory. The conjunction is a compounding of futility; yet this is the best that can be hoped for in these degenerate times. In this poem, Wright creates a delicate equilibrium between the objective and the subjective, the head and the heart.
Wright’s next volume, Shall We Gather at the River, carries the negativism of his new vision to extreme points, opening up a third phase. It seems almost as if once the poet began listening to the murmurs of his heart, he found it impossible to exercise restraint. The book, as a result, is a gallery of monologues and portraits of people broken by the world. In “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store,” for example, he creates the state of mind of a derelict standing on the street staring at a cashier and manager in a store filled with merchandise completely irrelevant to his state of need. They ignore him, of course; worse than negligible in their world, he feels their glances pass through him, as if he were dead.
He likens himself to corpses picked over on a battlefield, an image that sums up the dominant feeling of the volume. Even when he works in regular stanzaic patterns, harking back to his beginnings, his vision remains desolate, inconsolable—as in “Two Postures Beside a Fire,” in which he returns to his boyhood home to spend an evening with his father and discovers that he brings nothing that can light up the life of the aged man.
The emotional desolation of the speakers of these poems is palpable, to the extent that the book has been referred to by several critics as painful, even unbearably so. The pain comes from Wright’s uncanny ability to create images of those broken by the ruthless strains of modern life—in his phrase, of “the poor washed up by the Chicago winter.” The book offers little respite from the unrelenting disclosure of suffering. It does, however, provide a kind of relief. These are powerful poems; Wright sometimes penetrates the heart of despair and catches the anguish residing there.
The Green Wall
First published: 1957
Type of work: Poetry
Wright’s first book of poems demonstrates sophisticated command of formal design, delicate phrasing, and evocative images, especially those of death and suffering.
A first book of poetry usually lays a mere foundation; with The Green Wall, James Wright built an entire structure for a poetic career. Moreover, as several of these poems continue to be anthologized half a century after composition, they continue to constitute a significant part of his achievement. In these poems, Wright displays an unusual sureness of touch, as if he had always known what his themes were going to be and had only waited for the right opportunity to state them.
“The Fishermen,” for example, juxtaposes the carefree carelessness of two young men drinking beer by the beach with the chronic, age-old sadness of old men fishing there. By bringing these images together, Wright manages to fuse them, to show their essential identity: They are two stages of the male experience. Then Wright extends the fusion; men have always been like this, and in drawing near the sea, they near their primordial roots. The sea is their end, the natural entity they will join after death, just as it had been their beginning.
This theme of the community of all living things in death permeates the book, of which “Three Steps to the Graveyard” could stand as its center. The “three steps” are actually three stages of visitation, three arcs that constitute a circle in life, all commemorating death. The speaker records three visits; one in the spring, one in summer, and one at the end of autumn. In spring, the boy’s father shelters him but then leaves him in darkness and “bare shade.” In autumn, everything, even the field mice, trembles in anticipation. The three steps span life, bringing it to death, as is fitting.
This theme culminates in “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends,” Wright’s most famous poem. In it, Wright dares to write about the death of children. In doing so, he creates a masterpiece. Moreover, he does it in exactly the way his seventeenth century predecessor Ben Jonson did—by so formalizing his treatment that the poem takes on the impersonal objectivity of a carving in stone. The restraint is managed so delicately that it turns personal grief into a tribute of felt beauty, the enduring note of this volume.
First published: 1959
Type of work: Poetry
In this collection, Wright consolidates the gains of his earlier work, expands into the region of love, and deepens his vision of the omnipresence of death.
The title figure of Saint Judas, the paradox of the consecrated villain, reflects much of the spirit of this book. The poems are arranged in three sections which, at first, do not seem to have much connection: “Lunar Changes,” “A Sequence of Love Poems,” and “The Part Nearest Home.” They ultimately disclose continuity, both internally and with Wright’s previous work. Formally and thematically, the links to the past are quite clear. Wright is still working primarily with traditional formal patterns, still approaching poetry as if it consisted of art objects carved carefully by the artist out of all the resources of language. His subjects remain death, loss, the suffering intrinsic to life, and the way these experiences bind all life into a single sheaf.
Near the end of “Lunar Changes,” one poem, “The Revelation,” provides a key. The speaker is meditating about his dead father, recalling how anger continues to divide the two of them. Even as he feels the anger rising again, a beam of moonlight illuminates a vision of his father weeping and reaching out to him. As they embrace, formerly barren apple boughs shed petals. Love can overcome even the separation of death; through love, death can be a solvent for life, unifying all living things in its embrace. Death may even be necessary for the existence of love.
This bridges into “A Sequence of Love Poems,” which needs the title, because otherwise few readers would identify these as such. “In Shame and Humiliation,” for example, is overtly about the distinctly human act of cursing, especially the way in which males define themselves by that act. “A Breath of Air” similarly seems a lissome mood piece, but its connection to love seems tenuous. Eventually, Wright instills his point: These are love poems not because they celebrate love—though some do, in quite unconventional ways—but because they create the possibility of love. They record stages of self-awareness that must precede love. Thus “A Girl Walking into a Shadow” creates a sympathetic projection of a girl barely noticed in passing and shows that this act of imaginative identification is itself an act of love, one that further qualifies the speaker for loving.
“The Part Nearest Home” returns to the familiar territory of Wright’s home themes. It includes works on death-row inmates, funerals, visits to his father’s grave, all integrated under the signs of the community of the living and the dead. The sonnet “Saint Judas” acts as a centerpiece for the set. It is a stunning evocation of a ready-made image perfect for Wright: the villain in spite of himself, the man who betrays Christ because he is doing God a kindness. This Judas brings about the death of Christ, to be sure, but he does it as an act of love, because it will make salvation possible for humans, otherwise desolate.
Wright sets up a striking scenario to reveal this aspect of Judas and fit him into his vision of the relation of death and love. He presents Judas as on his way to killing himself when he finds a man being beaten by thieves. Immediately, he leaves his business to rescue the victim. Judas, in other words, becomes the Good Samaritan, the figure Christ himself set up as the ideal Christian. Yet—and this is thoroughly Wright—he also presents Judas as becoming aware that not even this act of charity can remove his guilt. The book is complex, but it deepens Wright’s vision.
The Branch Will Not Break
First published: 1963
Type of work: Poetry
In this volume, Wright turns to simpler, more personal forms and to a more uncompromising vision of the sufferings generated by human indifference.
The title of The Branch Will Not Break seems to disclose the spiritual and emotional state Wright had reached at the time it was written. He had been confronting the strains and stresses of modern life throughout his career. Now he was making a statement of his fitness: Whatever the pressure, he could stand up to it, as if determined to prove that his central theme of the coexistence of death and life, suffering and love, was more than just a pious hope.
Recognizing this has led many critics to misemphasize the impact of some aspects of these poems. By consensus, these works show the solidification of Wright’s despair before the absolute bleakness of his defining work, Shall We Gather at the River. There is, however, more wit, vitality, humor, and variety in this book than that judgment would indicate.
These poems are much less formal than Wright’s earlier work and much more personal and intimate. The voice speaks from within rather than assuming a public posture. There is less apparent artifice and polish, more spontaneity, more emphasis on the words of the heart. “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” for example, has nothing like the strict stanzaic forms characteristic of his previous poems. The lines are arbitrary, broken apparently according to whim; they suggest the almost inarticulate murmurings that proceed just beyond the range of conscious recognition.
They also re-create the scene in graphic detail, neatly conflating the dreams of two generations, the older people caught in the act of deflecting their hopes to their offspring, the younger ones oblivious of any frame of reference more encompassing than daily frivolity. Overriding all, however, is the idea that both generations are more profoundly interconnected than they realize, and that this interconnection foreshadows the path of salvation.
The volume contains several masterpieces, but “A Blessing” would outshine galaxies. In apparently effortless breath-units, Wright depicts an encounter between two travelers and two wild horses. The lines ripple, as if imitating the movements of the horses. Wright fuses the horses’ dancing, the excited breathing of the men, and the pacing of the lines into the same rhythm, so that all become part of the whole. The poem becomes an act of communion. Wright catches the rapt commingling of the speaker with the animals through direct description. It comes as no surprise when he likens the filly’s ear with the “skin over a girl’s wrist” or expresses his desire to embrace her. This merely anticipates the final transformation, which then appears simply natural: The poet offers to leave his body—which in the poem he has already done—and realizes that if he does, it will put forth blossoms. Wright has used this image before, to symbolize his reconciliation with his dead father; here, he signifies his fusion with the natural universe.
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