Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5983
Readers who come to James Wright’s poetry from a traditional or even a modernist orientation are likely to be struck by a distinctive blend of despair, compassion, and self-revelation. Even in a century characterized by anxiety in poetry, a century in which the most influential single poem would be called The Waste Land (1922), Wright’s vision seems unusually bleak. The pessimism is, however, balanced by a profound compassion for all mortal beings, which is at the heart of Wright’s work. Whereas such great modernists as Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Robert Frost sought objectivity through wit, irony, and rhetorical discontinuity, Wright has written directly of his anguished compassion for his fellow creatures.
“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”
The tone of many of Wright’s memorable poems borders on the depressive side. The famous “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” exemplifies the quality and intention of Wright’s poetry of despair. At first, the charming and lengthy title, reminiscent of the chapter titles of the nineteenth century novels Wright loved so much, invites the reader to expect a witty poem celebrating the beauty of nature. Indeed, the poem is carefully built from a series of images that the viewer in such a hammock would be likely to perceive, and all these images initially fulfill the pastoral expectation created by the title. A bronze butterfly gently blows in the wind and the sound of cowbells evokes a rustic placidity. Even horse droppings are invested with elegance, as they “Blaze up into golden stones,” and a chicken hawk floats on the air above. The final line is a shocking reversal: “I have wasted my life.” Critics are divided on the effect of this line. Some find it too sudden, and the turn to desolation unearned or contrived. Others hold that the line has a periodic effect and that its devastating contrast leads the reader to examine the images again for a principle of structure. To reexamine these contrasts is to discover that there is a carefully crafted intention at work. The images of the poem become progressively ominous, and the attitude they express has that ambiguous quality that Wright appreciated in Frost’s poems. Upon this review, one notices that the butterfly is asleep, so its motion is in fact under the control of an outside force, the wind. The pastoral, auditory richness of the cowbells is balanced by a “movement into the distances of the afternoon.” The pivotal image, the horse droppings, now carries a new ominous quality, for their transformation into golden stones is after all a matter of individual human perception. The hawk is not merely floating; it is “looking for home.” The pessimism of the poem is not, therefore, arbitrary. Things in nature that appear to be or can be perceived as beautiful by humans are in fact part of a process of decay and alienation. Nature speaks to human beings, but the message of nature can be a shocking or a depressing revelation.
Not all of Wright’s poems move readers to despair; a few can even be called poems of joy. Several are love poems, and “A Sequence of Love Poems” forms the center of Saint Judas. Love poems also are a very important component of Two Citizens and This Journey. These poems speak of the necessity as well as the rewards of human love, yet they are not simple, for they evoke a sense of separateness that not even love can transcend. In the elegant “Vision Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains,” Wright’s speaker discovers that even lovers must have secrets that cannot be shared. His beloved’s secret separates them, as does a memory he cannot share even with his wife. He transforms this unpleasant thought into a genuine celebration of the very separateness of the lovers: “I love your secret. By God I will never violate the wings/ Of snow you found rising in the wind.” The compounding of the contemporary curse with the traditional oath (“By God”) emphasizes the determination of the poet to respect the secret of the beloved as an expression of the love he feels. All the love poems deal with and ultimately rejoice in the final individuality of lovers. His poems in Two Citizens are “an expression of my patriotism, of my love and discovery of my native place. I never knew or loved my America so well, and I began the book as a savage attack upon it. Then I discovered it.” The poet did not sentimentalize America, but his critical and judgmental stance came into balance with an appreciation of natural beauty, human kindness, and the blessings of human love. The pessimism of his most influential poetry would be balanced by an awareness of human and natural beauty.
Images of nature
Several of the works other than love poems can be considered celebrations, but the celebration is usually mixed with an awareness of the potential for despair. “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me” treats the capability of art, or at least of inferior art, to produce depressing effects, but it celebrates the healing power of nature in the manner of William Wordsworth. A cricket’s song effectively cancels out the resonance of the bad poems. Wright’s deliberate quest for joy and the consolation of nature is most succinctly exemplified by “Today I Was So Happy, So I Made This Poem,” a work that should be read in conjunction with “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” In this poem, images from nature combine to grant the poet a temporary release from the pressure of mortality. Observing a plump squirrel and the shining moon leads the poet momentarily beyond his mortality, and he discovers that “Each moment of time is a mountain.” The joy is completed by the vision of an eagle rejoicing in the “oak trees of heaven,” and the cry of the eagle becomes the cry of the poet: “This is what I wanted.” The statement has both ethical and aesthetic implications. The celebration of a momentary escape from mortality and the ability to express that joy are desires of the highest order of artistic aspiration and of a recognition of the possibility of being at peace with the created world.
The Green Wall
In an extraordinarily prophetic introduction to Wright’s first volume, The Green Wall, W. H. Auden noted a tension that would, in the process of its resolution, lead to the development of Wright’s distinctive poetic style. Auden saw in Wright’s choice of material a particularly modern sensibility at work and observed that the persons with whom Wright chose to deal included lunatics, murderers, lesbians, and prostitutes. Even at the inception of Wright’s poetic career, Auden saw the alienation that would characterize his mature works. Wright’s characters “play no part in ruling the City nor is its history made by them, nor, even, are they romantic rebels against its injustices . . . they are the City’s passive victims.” This interest in the outcast created a dynamic tension, because Wright’s early poems have the traditional formal orthodoxy of his acknowledged masters, Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ransom. The force of Robinson’s and Ransom’s influence is especially apparent in the tension created by the use of traditional forms and meters to write about society’s misfits and outcasts.
Tension in poetry
In his first two volumes, Wright responded to this tension by aiming at a firm control through traditional prosody. Although he briefly gave up the writing of poems after the publication of Saint Judas because he felt he had reached a dead end, some critics have expressed preference for the control in these works over the expressive quality of his mature works. Paul Lacey praises “the power of sensitive spirit disciplined by a firm intellect and a craftsman’s skill.”
“To a Defeated Savior”
“To a Defeated Savior” handles the subjects of guilt and failure with the formal objectivity that characterizes the early poems. All four stanzas employ the traditional ballad form, alternately rhymed iambic tetrameter with end-stops reserved for the even-numbered lines. The poem addresses the guilt of a youth (Wright has said that an event that happened to his brother Paul inspired this work) who was unable to save a drowning swimmer. The poet’s real interest is in the lasting consequences of the failure; the point of the poem is that all men are defeated saviors. Unable in his daily pursuits to forget completely his moment of heroic action, the youth is haunted by the vision of the drowning swimmer. The speaker discovers that the ultimate failure is fear: “You would have raised him, flesh and soul,/ Had you been strong enough to dare. . . .” The guilt derives from an intention on which the savior was unable to act because he could not control his fear.
The critical point is the universality of the savior’s failure. This youth had a dramatic chance to reach out, to risk life for the love of his fellow human being. His failure is a synecdoche for the failure of all people at all times to risk enough for others: “The circling tow, the shadowy pool/ Shift underneath us everywhere.” The undertow that drowned the swimmer is a synecdoche for the forces that threaten all humanity, so the savior’s defeat, the inability to summon courage and strength adequate to the occasion, is universal. The voice of the poem is compassionate toward the savior, for all human beings must share his guilt. Still, the poem does not excuse this failure. It demands that the savior as well as the speaker come to terms with what might have been and by extension with the responsibility all human beings have to one another.
In Saint Judas, Wright continues to explore the tension between form and subject, and it is from this volume that the greatest number of Wright’s poems have been anthologized. The influence of Robinson and Frost is still apparent, but the voice of the poems becomes more directly personal, and Wright himself emerges as the subject of most of the lyrics. The author preferred this over any of his other collections, in part because it was a chronicle of his coming to terms with his own pain. By the logic of the synecdoche that informs all of Wright’s poems, this coming to terms with personal pain represents the struggle of humanity to come to terms with its existential anguish. “Saint Judas” is a sonnet, the form that has traditionally implied coherence in English poetry. Here the voice, in a book that has struggled toward direct lyrical expression, is that of Judas. Wright has admitted a primarily technical interest as the genesis of the poem. Moved by Robinson’s “How Annandale Went Out,” he set out to discover whether he too could write a genuine Petrarchan sonnet that would still be a dramatic monologue.
The traditional octave-sestet pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet offers Wright a form he can use for remarkable effects. The octave dramatizes Judas’s despair as he goes to take his own life. His chance encounter with the brutal treatment of another man causes Judas to forget for a moment the reprehensible crimes of his own immediate past. A human instinct takes over, and he rescues the victim. The sestet celebrates Judas’s sainthood as the instinctive charity of a man who is already damned and on his way to commit the unpardonable sin, yet who automatically comes to the aid of his fellow man. The final lines may be among the most moving in contemporary poetry: “Flayed without hope,/ I held the man for nothing in my arms.” Judas has nothing to gain from his act of charity, and for this reason the moment is profoundly moving.
Critics cannot agree on the discursive meaning of the phrase “for nothing.” Some, like John Ditsky, associate the term with “bootless action” and therefore see Judas’s role as one of whose “personal pointlessness he alone is aware. . . .” Ralph J. Mills, Jr., focusing on the ambiguity of human behavior, believes that the poem means that if a man can be at one moment treacherous and in despair and at another brave and heroic, then people should all be more merciful to their fellow man. Paul Lacey sees Judas not as a study in ethics or philosophy, but as the “supreme riddle, the man who will do evil for pay and good for nothing.” The diversity of these views indicates the richness of the poem. Surely Wright wants his readers to reconsider human nature, for even the worst of people in the worst of times is capable of ethical action in and for itself, without an eye for reward in this world or the next.
“An Offering for Mr. Bluehart”
“An Offering for Mr. Bluehart,” like “To a Defeated Savior,” employs the ballad form. It is a retrospective meditation on one of the poet’s own childhood pranks, stealing apples from the orchard of a neighborhood grouch. Wright makes ironic use of the Tom Sawyer tone his situation might imply and transforms that tone into an elegy that is at the same time an effort to deal with personal guilt. Each of the three stanzas moves to a periodic reminder of the mutability of all things. In the first, the recollection of the boys’ prank contrasts with sparrows that “Denounced us from the broken bough.” The mention of the broken bough marks a shift in point of view, and the elegiac tone intensifies as the sparrows “limp along the wind and die./ The apples are all eaten now.”
In the second stanza, the contrast between the laughing boys and Bluehart, the “lean satanic owner” who lay in wait for the pranksters, emphasizes the connotations of Eden inherent in the idyllic setting, and that set of contrasts is heightened by the poet’s retrospective awareness of both the seriousness of their trespass (“We stole his riches all away”) and the brutal futility of the old man’s response: “He damned us to the laughing bone,/ And fired his gun across the gray/ Autumn where his life is done.” With a sudden twist of his images, Wright moves from a merely crotchety old man to one whose rage provoked an attempt to kill his tormentors, and with a careful superimposition the old man’s act of violence blends with his own mortality.
The final stanza is Wright’s “offering” for Bluehart, a note of personal mourning such as characterizes many of his poems. The poet now mourns his old adversary by resisting the temptation to pick apples, and he prays, “Now may my abstinence restore/ Peace to the orchard and the dead.” This is at best an empty penance, and Wright knows that. His reversion to colloquial diction in the final line, “We shall not nag them anymore,” indicates his awareness of the inadequacy of such a gesture. There is at best the effort to make personal retribution for the sins of the past. In its compelling exploration of a trivial human guilt, this poem speaks to the need for all human beings to be aware of the consequences of their actions, for those actions will return in memory.
Identification with society’s enemies and the dramatic effects this produces on the structure of the poem form the nucleus of the two most powerful poems of Saint Judas, “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” and “Saint Judas.” The former may appear to express an almost perverse identification with George Doty, murderer, rapist, and thief, who had also been the subject of “A Poem about George Doty in the Death House,” in The Green Wall.
“At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”
In its total impact, “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave” is a profound study of the community of human guilt. The real subject of the poem is not Doty, but the killer’s inescapable impact on the speaker. This speaker is aggressively Wright himself, for the poem begins with a startling effort at self-definition: “My name is James A. Wright, and I was born/ Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,/ In Martins Ferry, Ohio. . . .” This assertion of the self by name as well as origin launches the poet on a tortured review of his own relationship with Doty.
They share an origin, but one became a murderer and the other a poet. One element in the abiding effect of the poem is Wright’s honest questioning of how far apart the two really are. Perhaps, Wright speculates, his own departure from Ohio allowed him to differ from Doty, because “Dying’s the best/ Of all the arts men learn in a dead place.” Yet the geographical distance between poet and murderer is in important ways an illusion. Doty remains at the center of the poet’s consciousness, a ghost to be exorcized at the terrible cost of coming to terms with his own humanity. He declares, in a deliberate echo of the biblical Pharisees, “Doty, if I confess I do not love you,/ Will you let me alone?” To propose such a limit on human compassion is, of course, to evade the issue, for Wright knows that the real challenge is not to escape from or excuse the actions of the killer, but to wrestle with the dread of recognizing that both are part of the human condition, and to discover a viable relationship between the self and the political entity that electrocuted Doty for his crimes. Doty’s actions were clearly reprehensible to Wright, yet he ponders the implications of the “eye for an eye” system that condemned the killer: “And yet, nobody had to kill him either.”
Even the obvious distinction, the choices the two men made, does not satisfy Wright. It could be argued that the choice to be a murderer and a rapist is to represent the worst in humanity, whereas to be a poet is to represent the best. Such a notion would be consoling, but Wright rejects the cliché of the heroism of artistic commitment. He says, “I croon my tears at fifty cents per line,” a cruel indictment of the professionalism of the poet who transforms his grief into words and receives literal as well as metaphorical compensation. The verb “croon” connotes popular music and therefore an evasion of reality. This censure is reinforced when both the drunks and the police “Can do without my widely printed sighing/ Over their pains with paid sincerity.” It is not enough, then, to invoke choice as a substantive difference between the self of the poet and the antithetical force, the murderer Doty.
Something about the killer will not let the poet forget their bond as men. He seems to reject uncritical compassion for humanity when he says of the bums and drunks of Ohio, “Christ may restore them whole, for all of me,” but ambiguity is at work here. There is an abdication of responsibility to God, yet the modifying clause “for all of me” implies that the poet’s own wholeness depends on Christ’s restoration of society’s outcasts. Doty is, however, not like the drunks. He is censured with Wright’s typical ambiguity: “Idiot, he demanded love from girls,/ And murdered one.” His action, brutal as it was, perverted an attempt to find love in a loveless world. In this, the worst of men, there is the same aspiration that animates Wright to be a poet, the need to discover an alternative to the passive acceptance of lovelessness.
This shared humanity cannot be escaped: “This grave’s gash festers.” It is a reminder of the emptiness of a world for which Ohio has become a synecdoche and of the vindictiveness of human justice. The poem speculates on the distinctions among Doty, the poet, and all human beings at the Last Judgment. Like the killer, “we dead stand undefended everywhere” and those transgressions that had been hidden successfully will stand before “God’s unpitying stars.” This possibility forces Wright to one of the most painful realizations in all his poems: “Staring politely, they will not mark my face/ From any murderer’s, buried in this place./ Why should they? We are nothing but a man.” At issue here is what in the eyes of God will distinguish those human beings who have not been guilty of crimes from those who have, and the discovery is that one cannot presume to know. Perhaps on the Day of Judgment, all human beings will have to acknowledge their shared humanity before God and affirm the human community in his presence.
Wright is finally able to resign himself to his community with Doty as “killer, imbecile and thief:/ Dirt of my flesh, defeated, underground.” Awareness of the evil of Doty’s actions blends with recognition of the bonds that unite poet and killer as part of human nature. “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” then, is not simply a poem about compassion for one of society’s enemies. Wright never excuses Doty, and he resists, in the dramatic tension created by the poem, the influence of the killer until he must resign himself to it after having considered the Last Judgment. This is a poem of sterner stuff, of coming to terms with the nature all people share with the very worst of their species.
That acceptance takes the form of a very different theme in “Saint Judas.” Like Robinson Jeffers thirty years before in “Dear Judas,” Wright has the daring to choose as the hero of his poem the archetypal betrayer and the figure associated in the collective mind of a Christian culture with the most contemptible crime in human history. Technically, the poem is the most interesting in Saint Judas, for Wright chafed against the limits of traditional form in “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” and broke rather sharply with that orthodoxy in the succeeding books.
From these poems on, Wright proceeded to discover a voice that was distinctively his own, exploring the implications of selfhood with increasing self-revelation, virtually abandoning traditional rhyme and metrical schemes, and expanding on the potential of the Deep Image poem, which works through surprise to capture a moment in the unconscious life of both reader and poet.
Paul Zweig has proposed that The Branch Will Not Break is one of the key books of the 1960’s because Wright’s articulation of a visionary style has appealed to younger poets as an alternative to the more formal and elaborate rhetoric of Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur, the pathfinders of the previous decade.
The title of the volume comes from “Two Hangovers,” a pair of poems that offer two opposing variations on the traditional motif of the morning hymn. In the first variation, all the images from nature are transformed, as a result of the poet’s condition, to disgust. The “old women beyond my window/ Are hunching toward the graveyard,” so there is a reminder of mortality. The life-giving sun has a “big stupid face” and offers no consolation as it “staggers in” upon the poet’s distorted consciousness. Even a sparrow’s song reminds Wright of the Hanna Coal Company, a frequent symbol in the Ohio poems for human rapacity and exploitation of nature. This morning produces disgust: “Ah, turn it off.” In the other variation, “I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again,” a single image leads to joy, just as the several images of the first led to despair. A blue jay moves up and down on a slender branch outside the window, and human and natural delight are fused in an exquisite synthesis: “I laugh, as I see him abandon himself/ To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do/ That the branch will not break.” This symbol expresses both an aesthetic and an ethical position. The world is filled with uncertainty, with occasions for delight and despair, all suggested by the vertical motion of the branch. What gives man the courage to continue and the joy to make that continuation worthwhile is the faith that progress through life, though perilous, is sustained by a connection with nature, a branch that will not break. The proper reaction to this faith is joy, and the best human reaction to the perils of life is delight in the process itself. The image has aesthetic implications, for the randomness of the bird’s motion is like the freedoms Wright will claim for his art; but there remains that sense of the connectedness of things, the branch with the tree and the poem with a new kind of organic formal control.
Joy is a note that is rare in Wright’s mature poems. Although faith in the ultimate harmony of human beings and nature persists, the distinctive poems explore through superimposition of images the inadequacy of individual or institutional reactions to this harmony.
“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”
“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” returns to the detached speaker of the early poems, but the superimposition of images builds a subtle cause-effect relationship. The poet, in a high school football stadium, thinks about three separate but related character types. He associates, without commentary, “Polacks nursing long beers,” the “gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace” of a steel mill, and the “ruptured night watchman” at yet another mill. Frustration is what the characters have in common, for all of them are “Dreaming of heroes.” These specific images are then generalized to represent “All the proud fathers” who, if proud, are also “ashamed to go home.” The disparity between the ordinariness of their daily lives and the aspiration of their dreams makes them afraid of their families and even sexually impotent, for their wives are “Dying for love.” The element of mortality surfaces again here, but the dominant effect is that the women, and by extension the entire families, are victims of the emptiness the husbands feel.
This extension is fully realized in the causal connection of the final stanza. “Therefore” is reserved to a line by itself to emphasize the causal sequence, and the poem concludes with a devastating indictment of the brutality and beauty of modern institutional life. “Their sons grow suicidally beautiful” because the sons are under pressure to live out the frustrated, proud fathers’ dreams of heroism, so each autumn they “gallop terribly against each others’ bodies.” The pointlessness and disorder of the athletic contest are powerfully felt in this line. Although there is something insane and suicidal about this institutionalization of violence in which the sons are victims of their fathers’ aspirations, there is a terrible beauty in the athletic training, and even the sacrifice, of the youths themselves.
“Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959”
The censure of institutions as antithetical to the harmony of human beings and nature becomes overtly political in “Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959,” a parallel set of contrasts between light and darkness and between those who rule and those who are ruled. The American president and the Spanish dictator, caught in a ceremonious handshake, are illuminated by the glare of flashbulbs, the searchlights of “Clean new bombers from America,” and Franco’s polished escort of police. Franco’s promise that “all dark things/ Will be hunted down” and the lights of the American airplanes imply cooperation between the two nations to seek out the dark things in Spain.
The contrasting stanza identifies the poet Antonio Machado, a “cave of silent children,” and old men as the inhabitants of darkness. The epigraph from Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, “We die of cold, and not of darkness,” becomes critical here, because there is a cold, sterile quality about the scene at the airfield, whereas the darkness features a creative man who walks by moonlight and children, the hope of the future. Wine, with both Dionysian and Eucharistic implications, “darkens in stone jars” and “sleeps in the mouths of old men.” As wine darkens, it becomes richer. The political implication is that the life of the community rests with its ordinary citizens and creative outcasts, not in the leaders who conspire against them.
Franco has promised to “hunt down” the dark things, and the United States supplies the technology to implement that promise. The first two lines now become a terrifying thesis: “The American hero must triumph over/ The forces of darkness.” The American hero may learn from the dictator how to turn the harsh light of authority on the lifeblood of the community, the private citizens.
“The Minneapolis Poem”
The relation between the individual and the institutions that may challenge the integrity of the self is at the center of Wright’s most technically remarkable work, “The Minneapolis Poem.” In a series of stark images, Wright empathizes with the poor, the outcasts, and the hopeless of the city. Readers are reminded of Auden’s prophetic judgment, in the preface to The Green Wall, that Wright’s characters are “the City’s passive victims.” Now, however, Wright is no longer an advocate for the victims; he has identified himself completely with them. As the poem moves from one seemingly random portrait of outcasts to another, it becomes clear that Wright’s identification with the victims is also a profound questioning of the sociological and institutional ties that bind human beings into a community. The very fragmentary and seemingly random nature of “The Minneapolis Poem” expresses the central theme, the terror, violence, and indifference at the heart of the modern city. Wright laments the nameless and even numberless old men who committed suicide in the winter and wonders, “How does the city keep lists of its fathers/ Who have no names?” Their anonymity and the indifference of the City leaves them with only the community of death, and Wright, despite his wish to console them, can only “wish my brothers good luck/ And a warm grave” in contrast to the bad luck and cold winters they knew in Minneapolis.
The second section of “The Minneapolis Poem” is a tour de force. Four groups are mentioned, but there is no possibility of their ever getting together to reshape the fragmented city. Even within these groups either fear or some sinister purpose dominates. “The Chippewa young men/ Stab one another shrieking/ Jesus Christ.” America’s first citizens are outcasts in the heart of America, and they invoke the name of the conqueror’s god as a curse. Even their bond is violent; they take out their wrath and frustration on one another. In Wright’s depiction of another group with a common purpose, the “Split-lipped homosexuals limp in terror of assault.” Their common purpose is to avoid persecution by the heterosexual majority, but their injuries show how unsuccessful their subgroup has been. The middle class is represented when “High school backfields search under benches/ Near the Post Office.” For what do they search? The very lack of specificity implies a sinister purpose, and a harsh description reinforces this possibility: “Their faces are the rich/ Raw bacon without eyes.” The elite are here, too: “The Walker Art Center crowd stare/ At the Guthrie Theater.” Unlike the other groups, this one expresses no purpose, merely anonymous unity. Their response to one of America’s cultural landmarks is apathetic and pointless. It is clear that no organization of these groups into a single social unit is possible, and there is no creative force in any of them.
The poem notes other of the city’s outcasts and enemies, the “legless beggars” who are gone and the black prostitutes from Chicago who know the police officer who poses as a patron to entrap them. The only things at home in Minneapolis are automobiles, products of modern technology that “consent with a mutter of high good humor/ To take their two naps a day.” These autos, described by a felicity that ought to describe human behavior, speak to the impersonality and terror of modern urban life.
The terror turns inward as Wright, not identified with the poor and the nameless, claims that “There are men in this city who labor dawn after dawn/ To sell me my death.” Just who these men are is not made explicit, and the uncertain identification fits well with the attitudes of uncertainty, alienation, and dread that the poem has created. Like the beggars, Chippewas, and prostitutes, the dealers in death are nameless. Who they are is less important than what they are: the logical consequences of the human community, the city, gone wrong.
Dread leads Wright logically to a contemplation of death, something close to his mind since the introduction of the suicides in the first stanza. Now death is personal, individual, and related directly to life in the city. He chooses not “To allow my poor brother my body to die/ In Minneapolis” and prays that he not be buried there. At first glance, this may seem to be a morbid sentiment, but Wright intends to dramatize his rejection of the city in the tormented and fragmented form it has taken. He strategically invokes the patron of American poets: “The old man Walt Whitman our countryman/ Is now in America our country/ Dead.” This sudden movement is a reminder of the death of the great bard of American democracy, the spokesman of brotherhood who is now one with the suicides and legless beggars of this poem. A closer look at the syntax reveals that the America Whitman knew, loved, and created is also dead.
“The Minneapolis Poem” concludes with Wright’s wish not to be buried in the city, but “stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives/ Of the unnamed poor.” It is a jaded version of the return to nature of the Romantics. A community is asserted, and the image of the wheat suggests vitality in the United States among its citizens. As an alternative to the failed life of the city, the conclusion of “The Minneapolis Poem” is not intellectually satisfying, but as an expression of pain at the failure of a basic human institution to respond to human needs, the ending has a powerful emotional impact.
It is worth noting that “Hook,” one of the most memorable poems in To a Blossoming Pear Tree, records a moment of unexpected human warmth in the same city as in “The Minneapolis Poem.” A mutilated Sioux Indian gave a despairing Wright cab fare to go home, and the memory leads Wright to one of his understated moments of appreciation for the decency of his fellow man. The money the Sioux gave him symbolizes the capacity of society’s outcasts to care for one another.
Despite his preoccupation with death, despair, alienation, and anxiety, Wright sought to record moments of joy in his love for people and his reverence for nature. His “A Blessing,” a simple account of the delight caused by the greeting of the poet and a nameless friend by two ponies, reaches toward mysticism and shows that this poet, so aware of the pain of modern life, could occasionally articulate moments of rapture.
“A Reply to Matthew Arnold of My Fifth Day in Fano”
In his final volume, This Journey, Wright articulates in a prose poem called “A Reply to Matthew Arnold of My Fifth Day in Fano” the artistic and thematic credo to which his poems form a lasting moment: “Briefly in harmony with nature before I die, I welcome the old curse.” The curse is the many human failings and moral terrors his poems have documented. The attitude is vigorous welcome for humans and their companion, nature, a defiant celebration of the very fact of mortality.
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