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James Wright 1927-1980

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(Full name James Arlington Wright) American poet and translator.

Wright is regarded as one of the finest poets in a generation of many first-rate poets, yet his career was shaped by his doubts about his poetic identity that simultaneously nurtured and tortured him. Recognized for his brilliant execution of the kind of poetry promoted and esteemed by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics—a poetry characterized by rationality and irony, wit and precision, complexity and detachment, impersonality and formality—Wright rebelled against his own accomplishments, publicly denigrating them. He began to write a poetry that drew on images spontaneously arising from the unconscious, dedicated to expressing a sincerity of outlook so thorough and subjective that some reviewers found it occassionally verging on sentimentality. Wright refused to define or impose an objective order by means of poetic structures and devices, but using the evolving form of the poem, as determined by the interaction of his consciousness and the content which confronted it, he sought to discover and reveal a subjective perception of the order of the world, and he produced, according to many critics, a poetry of exquisite lyricism and profound humanity.

Biographical Information

As in his poetry, so, too, in Wright's life, the fundamental theme was the conflicting presence of opposing possibilities. Martins Ferry, Ohio, Wright’s birthplace, was a region that combined the beauty of the natural landscape with the industrial destruction of that land. Wright's mother was a laundress; his father worked for fifty years in the Hazel-Atlas Glass factory. At sixteen, Wright suffered a nervous breakdown. Attached though Wright was, throughout his life, to the region of his youth, it was a place he was determined to get free of. With that in mind, he joined the army in 1946 in order to be able to go to college under the G.I. Bill, which he did after returning from Japan where he served as a clerk typist with the U.S. occupation forces. At Kenyon College, Wright studied with John Crowe Ransom, published his first poems, and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952. That year, too, he won the Robert Frost Poetry Prize. After graduation, Wright married Liberty Kardules, his high school sweetheart, and traveled with her on a Fulbright Fellowship to Austria for two years to study the poetry of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. Wright later published translations of works by these poets, as well as by Pablo Neruda, Herman Hesse, Cesar Vallejo, and Rene Char. Upon his return to the United States, Wright went to graduate school at the University of Washington, where he studied with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. In 1957, his first book of poetry, The Green Wall was published in the Yale Younger Poets series. His first teaching job was at the University of Minnesota from 1957 until 1964, when he was denied tenure because of problems caused by his alcoholism. In his last years there, too, his first marriage dissolved. One of the most significant events in his career as a poet was meeting, in 1959, the poet, editor, and social activist Robert Bly. Bly helped Wright through a period of gloom and doubt and encouraged his transition from what Wright called the “old” poetry of formal metrics, in which he had begun to feel trapped, to a poetry of common speech, depth imagery, intuitive connection, and personal involvement. After two years of teaching at Macalaster College, he accepted a position at Hunter College of the City University of New York, in 1966, and taught there until his death. In 1967 he married the sculptor Edith Anne Runk. Wright died of cancer at the age of fifty-two.

Major Works

Each of Wright's books may be considered a major work. The Green Wall, his first book of poetry, introduced a poet of great formal and technical skill, who fashioned lyrics chronicling the courses of nature and the lives of socially outcast people living with various insults and injuries. His 1963 collection, The Branch Will Not Break, signaled his change in poetic direction away from the formal academic poetry he felt achieved a facility of craft at the expense of an honest humanity, and toward a poetry of subjective imagery and verse freed from metrical constraints. His last volume, This Journey, published in 1982, combined verse and prose poetry. Using simple images from nature, Wright reveals in these poems an illuminated acceptance of himself and of his death. Many of Wright's individual poems, among them “A Blessing,”—which ends with the epiphany “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.—“Saint Judas,”—which postulates the existential humanity of Judas Iscariot—and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”—which concludes with the admission that he with the has wasted his life.—have become standard anthology pieces.

Critical Reception

Despite his own torment about his poetry and its value, or the judgement of a few critics that Wright's poetry had become indulgently self-pitying, the critical response to Wright's poetry has always been overwhelmingly positive both from critics and from colleagues. Throughout his career, whether he was writing metrically structured verse, or working in freer forms, he was esteemed for his musicality, imagery, and humanity. Among his many honors, Wright was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1964 and 1978, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature in 1959, an Academy of American Poets fellowship in 1971, the Melville Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1972, and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1972.

Principal Works

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The Green Wall 1957

Two Citizens 1957

Saint Judas 1959

The Branch Will Not Break 1963

Shall We Gather at the River 1968

Collected Poems 1971

To a Blossoming Pear Tree 1977

This Journey 1982

Above the River: The Complete Poems of James Wright 1990

J.E. Palmer (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: J.E. Palmer, “The Poetry of James Wright: A First Collection,” in James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 26-33.

[In the following essay, first published in 1957, Palmer reviews Wright's first collection of poetry and characterizes him as a “mature and accomplished poet.”]

From its occasional appearance in such journals as the Sewanee Review the poetry of James Wright was beginning to be known and respected before the publication of this first collection [The Green Wall]. Now with these forty poems brought together our hopeful notions are confirmed—as for instance with such other first collections as Robert Lowell's Land of Unlikeness and Richard Wilbur's The Beautiful Changes: here is one of the elect, a young poet of great gifts by whose labors the living body of poetry will be sustained.

Whatever of the fumbling and tentative there might have been in Mr. Wright's apprenticeship cannot be guessed at from these examples; what we have here is the work of a mature and accomplished poet who speaks consistently in his own voice and who is entirely at ease in his craft. Not that there is any attempt to disguise the youthfulness of the performer; indeed this is the most common dramatic determinant, the condition that operates directly in the majority of these poems and only slightly below the dramatic surface in the others. In this respect they are conventional enough: a young man recollects his childhood, regards his wife and son, and contemplates old age—all modest and seemly and unexceptionable. But operating from this comfortable base Mr. Wright provides us a good many surprises.

In “The Horse,” for example, the subject is the question of attitude to be adopted toward the lingering remnants and reminders of primitive awe in our safe modernities. There was that long-ago day when “Some young foolhardy dweller of the barrows” leaped from a tree astride and rode out his exultant moment of speed and power.

The flesh was free, the sky was rockless, clear,
The road beneath the feet was pure, the soul
Spun naked to the air
And lanced against a solitary pole
Of cumulus, to curve and roll
With the heave that disdains
Death in the body, stupor in the brains.

Now we have “coddled the gods away”; but there is still the horse “as a remembrancer of wild arenas we avoid.” And so to the focal incident:

One day a stallion whirled my riding wife,
Whose saddle rocked her as a cradled child,
Gentle to the swell of water; yet her life
Poised perilously as on a shattered skiff.
The fear she rode, reminded of the void
That flung the ancient rider to the cold,
Dropped her down. I tossed my reins,
I ran to her with breath to make her rise,
And brought her back. Across my arms
She fumbled for the sunlight with her eyes.
I knew that she would never rest again,
For the colts of the dusk rear back their hooves
And paw us down. …

And then the conclusion, which in my reading does not take quite the easy turn anticipated:

Here it is not enough to pray that loves
Draw grass over our childhood's lake of slime.
Run to the rocks where horses cannot climb,
Stable the daemon back to the shaken earth,
Warm your hands at the comfortable fire,
Cough in a dish beside a wrinkled bed.

(So: in taming the world and reducing the arenas of the fearful and unpredictable we have packed away our gods and very nearly lost our capacities for ecstasy. What we have gained in return is unheroic—not much more than simple safety. This way is not pretty or exciting; it has its seamy aspects. But inasmuch as this safety holds you, my love, within its keeping I choose it over the old contingencies.) Having quoted and paraphrased at this length I shall not labor the point, which I hope I have rendered self-evident: In this poem of fifty lines Mr. Wright has maneuvered with a lively grace through a difficult thematic problem and emerges at the end with our sympathies entirely engaged. And especially for that rejection of our sympathy in the last line, one of those good conclusions of good poems which provide a surprising but valid qualification of all that has gone before.

There are more accomplished poems in this collection, and a few that fall off. For quality I would consider “The Horse” a good representative average. There is here no poem, however, that can adequately represent Mr. Wright's sense of occasion; as he moves through life it would seem that any sight or sound can start a poem to working—the mark of the authentic poetic consciousness, but a habit which could as well lead to whimsical irrelevance as to fruitful development except for the application of such a discriminating critical sense as this poet clearly possesses. Here are some of these occasions, for an indication of their variety: He disarranges a dog's skeleton, the too-neat and unfairly pathetic evidence of this “collapse of fur and bone” (“On the Skeleton of a Hound”):

The earth knows how to handle the great dead
Who lived the body out, and broke its laws,
Knocked down a fence, tore up a field of clover.

A child sees his face reflected in a window, wonderfully confused with the wintry scene beyond, and experiences for a moment the mystery of transfiguration before someone builds up the fire behind his back, the image fades, and he returns to the warm familiar world (“Elegy in a Firelit Room”). A girl in a mental hospital lingers in the trees, enjoying her moment of separation and liberty before she is summoned to bed (“She Hid in the Trees from the Nurses”)—in which we have this touching detail:

Minutes away a nurse will come
Across the lawn and call for her;
The starlight calls the robin home,
The swans retire beneath their wings.

And so on through the collection—oddness of occasion and obliquity of perspective in very nearly every instance, but for the most part turned to respectable and legitimate ends—the oddities not paraded for their own sake, but rather for their functioning to illuminate the way to the central poetic objective.

On only a few occasions do these very pronounced of Mr. Wright's qualities seem to me to get out of control; but since they suggest the only serious threat I can see to his poetic future, perhaps I had best not let them go unremarked. There is the minor instance of “The Ungathered Apples”: The speaker has attempted to gather two ripe apples left on the tree after harvest; he fails to reach them, the bough supporting him breaks, and he is flung to the ground, where he lies without anger, contemplating the fruit he has been unable to touch. So far it is all sufficiently convincing—we believe that it all happened, or certainly might well have happened, in just this way; and it's important that we feel so disposed, because so far this is a poem that requires this measure of acceptance of its reasonableness for its effect. But then in the last stanza Mr. Wright goes into one of his moments of wry hyperbole, and wrong things happen:

Surrendering, I lifted overhead
My quiet hands in hopeless prayer
For all the gathered apples of the dead
Hidden in cellars when the boughs are bare.

We know very well that he did no such thing, and it is likely that he doesn't expect us to believe that he quite means it. But in this poem we cannot be sure; it offers a mixture of modes improperly controlled and leading to confusion, rather than to enrichment. A small matter indeed, and I am perhaps lingering too long over it. My only excuse is that we are dealing here with the first collected work of a young poet of great talent, whose failure to recognize such flaws as this could lead to serious consequences—one such flaw can spoil an otherwise good poem, and if such lapses should become a habit they could add up to the barrier that would hold him back from major achievement.

In “The Angel” and “The Assignation” other kinds of difficulty are evident. The angel of the Resurrection is followed about the neighborhood of Jerusalem as he awaits the moment of his appointed tasks, and becomes humanly involved:

Tossing aside the worry of the place,
As someone threw an apple core across
A wall I walked beside, I sought delight
Pebble by pebble, song by song, and light
By light, singly, among the river boats.
Down to the river at the end I came.
But then a girl appeared, to wash her hair.
Struck stupid by her face,
I stood there, sick to love her, sick of sky.
The child, the beetle, chestnut fires, the song
Of girl and dove
Shuddered along my wings and arms.
She slipped her bodice off, and a last wave
Of shadow oiled her shoulder till it shone;
Lifting her arms to loosen the soft braids
She looked across the water. I looked down
And felt my wings waving aside the air,
Furious to fly. For I could never bear
Belly and breast and thigh against the ground. …

This it seems to me is whimsical irony, a treacherous business at best and when compounded as here with a failure of tact profoundly objectionable. The fact that before he is finished Mr. Wright very nearly succeeds in salvaging this poem is a testimony to his basic right instincts and his skill in executing their dictates; it could only be wished here that they had gone earlier into operation. In “The Assignation” the trouble is plain old-fashioned sentimentality: A female ghost reproaches her lover for his failure to keep a rendezvous promised her on her deathbed; after eighty lines of reminiscent self-pity, she concludes as follows:

You sat beside the bed, you took my hands;
And when I lay beyond all speech, you said,
You swore to love me after I was dead,
To meet me in a grove and love me still,
Love the white air, the shadow where it lay.
Dear love, I called your name in air today,
I saw the picnic vanish down the hill,
And waved the moon awake, with empty hands.

This is tedious and wasteful. Happily there is nothing else like it in the collection, and therefore we can hope that it will appear in the light of Mr. Wright's future work as a unique aberration.

From worst to best: For perfection within its form, for delight unmarred by any failures of tone or tact worth mentioning, “The Quail” seems to me to show this talent in its most accomplished performance. It's a small love-poem of thirty-seven lines—five stanzas of six lines and a final one of seven; the theme is standard—the poignancy of separation and the joy of reunion; all very simple and quiet and modest. But it is redeemed from the commonplace and made memorable by the particularly fine play of those qualities which have been earlier remarked as distinguishing this work in general: the concreteness and fully exploitable richness of its interesting occasion, the human rightness of the experience related, the justice of the emotional responses invited; all properly interdependent and interrelated, and all tied in also to the management of the verse as it moves through its slight irregularities to make its own contribution to the excitement of the occasion.

Lost in the brush, bound by the other path
To find the house,
You let me know how many voices,
How many shifting bodies you possessed,
How you could flit away to follow birds,
And yet be near.
A quail implored the hollow for a home,
A covey of dark to lie in under stars;
And, when it sang, you left my hand
To voyage how softly down the even grass. …

Alone, he savors for a moment his sense of his desertion and his jealousy for the distraction. She calls to him across the darkness, and he is reestablished; the quail calls again, and again he has lost.

I could have called the simple dark to fade,
To find the house,
And left you standing silent;
But stained away by maple leaves, and led
From tree to tree by wands of luring ghosts,
You knew my love,
You knew my feet would never turn away
From any forest where your body was,
Though vanished up the disembodied dark.
And when I found you laughing under trees,
The quail began to trill and flute away,
As far away as hands that reach for hands;
But, when it sang, you kissed me out of sound.

A tiny and delicate crisis indeed—one misstep and the whole fragile edifice would crumble. But the handling is appropriately exact, so that lover and beloved and bird play out their little drama of pursuit and frustration to its happy ending without an instant's awkwardness, and it's a pleasure to behold.

James Wright has reported that he has taken Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost for his masters, and has attempted as a working principle to “say something humanly important instead of just showing off with language.” With such a choice of masters one could hardly quarrel, and he has followed them wisely—he approaches the human scene with something of Robinson's warmth and charity, and has something of Robinson's gift of narrative economy, with little of his embarrassing reluctance to turn loose of an effect before he has worked it to exhaustion. With Frost he finds some of his most fruitful occasions in the natural scene, which he can regard like Frost with accuracy and sympathy and without too much in the way of sentimentality—and also without so far very much of that archness which Frost can affect in his playful moods. These qualities of course are not peculiar to Robinson and Frost, and I am not sure that if Mr. Wright had not acknowledged their influence I would have thought it sufficiently pronounced to bring them into the discussion. Here they are, however, and in my opinion Mr. Wright need not feel too unworthy to share their company. Needless to say I would not claim for him on the basis of this one volume an equal stature; but I would claim for him, with more years and more poems behind him, the distinct possibility of arriving at this level of accomplishment, and even of going beyond—particularly if he relaxes his avowed belligerence toward linguistic effect, and shows in his own practice a bit more of an awareness that no great poem was ever written that does not exhibit some measure of deliberate linguistic splendor.

Anthony Hecht (essay date 1959-60)

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SOURCE: “From ‘The Anguish of the Spirit and the Letter,”’ in The Hudson Review, Vol. XII, No. 4, Winter, 1959-60, pp. 46-48.

[In the following essay, Hecht praises Wright for his success at integrating “event and commentary” in “a poetry of wisdom.”]

James Wright is a gifted young poet who is trying to write the most difficult kind of poetry: the poetry of wisdom. He has said of his new book [St. Judas]: “I have tried to shape these poems, singly and as a group, in order to ask some moral questions: Exactly what is a good and humane action? And, even if one knows what such an action is, then exactly why should he perform it?” This is an ambitious program, though one would suppose it was an unlikely way to go about composing a poem. But Mr. Wright is very nearly as good as his word, and I feel in his work a double stress: an attempt to realize the common dramatic occasion, and an attempt to evaluate it. These two factors sometimes present themselves in sequence, as if the poet had said to himself, “Here is what happened; what am I to think of it?” The peculiar temptations of such an approach ought to be clear, and one of them is to regard the event as no more than the occasion for meditation. This sort of imbalance between his twin effects happens more than once in Mr. Wright's books, most decisively to his disadvantage in “At the Slackening of the Tide.” This poem of seven stanzas begins,

Today I saw a woman wrapped in rags
Leaping along the beach to curse the sea.
Her child lay floating in the oil, away
From oarlocks, gunwale, and the blades of oars.
The skinny lifeguard, raging at the sky,
Vomited sea, and fainted on the sand.

But as if a strict contemplation of this scene were too much to bear, the poem removes itself to commentary, and not even direct commentary: a self-interested, philosophic calm pervades almost all the rest of the stanzas until we come upon the wonderful last lines,

I bowed my head, and heard the sea far off
Washing its hands.

If this is one of the dangers Mr. Wright exposes himself to, there is another that goes along with it as a kind of corollary. His moral attitudes, when thus encountered in isolation, are sometimes a trifle self-conscious, and incline to draw attention to his fine sense of tact or his winning humility. And we cannot help feeling that behind this posture lies a very strong sense of pride.

I have begun by noticing these defects only because Mr. Wright is such a good poet that his work not only demands our most ruthless examination, but at its best triumphs over our last and most exacting scruples. He knows as well as any poet now writing, and better than most, that life proposes its beautiful or terrible conditions which must be met and managed in exhausting human terms before they ever get into poetry at all. If he is too young to be called “wise,” he at least knows that his poetry must come from what wisdom he can command, and his book represents a good deal more than mere ambition. At its best there is no visible distinction between event and commentary; the event is seen with such clarity and complexity as to define a whole moral universe by implication. He is well past the beginning of wisdom in even desiring and attempting poetry of this kind: it calls for the commitment and the ultimate integration of the whole man, not merely a development and exhibition of his particular gifts for verbal music or wit or startling images. To show him at his best would require quoting at length, and space is lacking; but rather than not quote at all, let me offer one example, necessarily abridged and therefore crucially deformed: here are the first and last stanzas of “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard's Shack.”

Near the dry river's water-mark we found
                    Your brother Minnegan,
Flopped like a fish against the muddy ground.
Beany, the kid whose yellow hair turns green,
Told me to find you, even in the rain,
                    And tell you he was drowned.
Beany went home, and I got sick and ran,
                    You old son of a bitch.
You better hurry down to Minnegan;
He's drunk or dying now, I don't know which,
Rolled in the roots and garbage like a fish,
                    The poor old man.

Daniel G. Hoffman (essay date 1960)

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SOURCE: “From ‘Between New Voice and Old Master,”’ in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXVIII, No. 4, October-December, 1960, pp. 43-45.

[In the following essay, Hoffman finds in Wright's attention to defeated people in his poetry the answer to the poet's questions: “What is good and humane action, and why perform it?”]

The condemned, the lost, the disfigured, the loved, the guilty Americans in James Wright's poems move through his stanzas as presences who make the poet speak and in speaking define himself by his reactions to them. The questions which summoned them to him, he tells us, are moral ones: “I have tried to shape these poems … in order to ask … Exactly what is a good and humane action? And, even if one knows what such an action is, then exactly why should he perform it?” Recalling Mr. Wright's admiration for Robert Frost, one thinks of Frost's apothegm about where poems begin and end; if Mr. Wright's questions are indeed the points of origin for his verse aren't the poems headed in the wrong direction? Whatever the sequence of moral concern and poem in Mr. Wright's mind, these questions and his attempts to answer them do in fact animate Mr. Wright's poetry where they might all too readily have vitiated it. For they do not ordinarily obtrude as questions to be worried but rather assert themselves in actions demanding unequivocal responses. Mr. Wright calls up his hapless ghosts in order that he may find words to describe them, pity them, love them. Many of his poems succeed because in them these separable actions are in fact made so interdependent as to seem inseparable; insofar as his moral questions are answered in those poems the answers are discovered, rather than proclaimed:

If I were given a blind god's power
To turn your daylight on again,
I would not raise you smooth and pure:
I would bare to heaven your uncommon pain,
Your scar I had a right to hold,
To look on, for the pain was yours.
Now you are dead, and I grow old,
And the doves cackle out of doors,
And lovers, flicking on the lights,
Turn to behold each lovely other.
Let them remember fair delights.
How can I ever love another?
You had no right to banish me
From that scarred truth of wretchedness,
Your face, that I shall never see
Again, though I search every place.

One who writes this well requires that we measure his work by standards no less high than those his best poems make it needless to invoke. Mr. Wright has been quoted as wishing to write in the tradition of Frost and Robinson, and he has in fact built on something like Robinson's stanzaic movement and muted irony, and Frost's meditative and conversational manner. His sensibility, however, seems less to resemble the baffled transcendental idealism of the one or the pastoral individualism of the other than it does Sherwood Anderson's compassionate discovery of the dignity of the defeated. Perhaps I think of this because Mr. Wright's evocations of smalltown Ohio have the poignance of an irretrievable Winesburg, a personal world in which the haunting complexities seem those of knowing the self in a society which still appeared simple and explicable, however cruel to those who would not accept its rule.

Such a vein of compassionating nostalgia has its limitations. One danger is a tendency somewhat to sentimentalize the objects for which one feels such pity, and even to see them not as themselves but as objects of compassion (as in “All the Beautiful Are Blameless,” “At the Slackening of the Tide,” and a poem to Caryl Chessman). Most of the time, however, Mr. Wright's tact and skill prevail against such temptations and compel the reader to accept his vision with gratitude. Most of the poems in Saint Judas are skilled variations on this theme; the other day, just as I was wondering how far Mr. Wright would extend his skein, I picked up a recent issue of The Fifties and found a ringing proclamation that he now intends “to abandon what he calls ‘nineteenth century poetry’” (a term he is said to have applied to the present book). Two poems in his “new manner” do throw Frost-Robinson-Wright away for a phrasal-line, imagistic rendering of ritualized nature poetry, a theme he seemed hitherto to spurn. Wherever such experiments lead him, one can bet a solid dollar that Mr. Wright will settle for nothing less good than what he has already written in his old style. Despite his remark in The Fifties, that old style is certainly not old hat; its felicities are genuine.

William B. Toole, III (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: “Wright's ‘At the Slackening of the Tide,’” in The Explicator, Vol. XXII, No. 4, December, 1963, p. 29.

[In the following essay, Toole discusses the conflict between scientific knowledge and spiritual meaning awakened in the poet after he has seen a drowning.]

At first reading, one immediately realizes that James Wright's “At the Slackening of the Tide” is a poem of disillusionment. The narrator, apparently a poet, came to the beach to enjoy the beauty of nature and to compose; but the accidental drowning which he witnessed brought to his mind the lurking horror which is at the center of things and robbed him of the ability to take pleasure in the beauty which may be found at the surface of life. Though he has been aware of the implications of his dark suspicion that life is a result of a blind collocation of atoms, he had allowed them to drift deep into his consciousness until the shock of the sight of the floating body, the leaping woman, and the vomiting, impotent lifeguard had set his mind in philosophical motion, the ineluctable destination of which was the emotional and intellectual dead end of scientific determinism.

The element which provides the tension in the poem is the implicit conflict between the Christian and scientific conceptions of the origin and meaning of life. The poem has been patterned into stanzas arranged out of chronological order so that the implications of this conflict do not become apparent until the final stanza. The full force of the narrator's reaction to the incident which motivated the poem becomes evident in the fourth stanza where we learn of his contemplation of suicide. The fifth and sixth stanzas draw the picture into more clearly defined philosophical focus. It is not merely the horror of sudden death which wrings his mind but the shattering impression that there is nothing at all at the center of existence. How in the face of such a suspicion can one enjoy beauty? Hence the brutally raw sarcasm of “What did I do to kill my time today … Sit there, admiring sunlight on a shell?” The narrator, it seems, cannot endure the notion of a spiritual vacuum; beauty in a world without meaning is perhaps more horrible than ugliness: the relation of the search for the “whorl and coil that pretty up the earth” has, at the beginning of the final stanza, been transformed into the description of the narrator's staring at the sea, “abstract with terror of the shell,” terror of the emptiness in beauty.

What really anchors his despair, however, and accounts for the violence of his disillusionment is his perception of a more hopeful view of life, a view which he has had to abandon—reluctantly, we may assume,—and which, consequently, embitters his perspective. The irony which draws the poem to its conclusion becomes overt with “… God brooded for the living all one day.” This line obviously suggests Genesis—but with some important modifications. The duality of brooded seems theologically appropriate: Ideas of creation and solicitude—one thinks of Milton's “Dovelike sat'st brooding. …” in Paradise Lost—are evoked. But the line concludes with the subtle and searching diminution of “all one day,” and the field is given over to the scientists. Bowing his head, the narrator had hoped for some intuition of a sympathetic force in life—something to blur the image of horror which had imprinted itself on his mind—only to hear the coldly impersonal sea, like Pontius Pilate, absolve itself of guilt. With such a culmination other intimations in the poem assume meaning. The skinny lifeguard, the ironic symbol of Christ, grandly “rose up from the waves,” but this suggestion of baptismal resurrection was quickly deflated by the all-conquering scientific motif of “Like a sea-lizard with the scales washed off?” And one remembers that the lifeguard had, after bursting forth from the water, raged at the sky, vomited sea, and fainted on the sand.

His anguished impulse toward belief stifled, the narrator found everything around him reinforcing his perception of the dominance of a death rather than a life force: the cold simplicity of evening, the sagging sea which stretched indifferently on its side, and the hungry dog which announced what he had known all along—that one cannot believe in weeping naiads, for there is nothing in or outside of nature which has sympathy or concern for the living.

Geoffrey H. Hartman (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: “Beyond the Middle Style,” in James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 141-43.

[In the following excerpt, Hartman, while maintaining Wright's hold on his poetic talent, judges The Branch Will Not Break to be only a sketch book, and the free verse poems in it to be “straining for relaxation.”]

The spirit of Thoreau is abroad again. It is, on the whole, a benificent spirit, kindly disposed to heifers and horses, and dangerous only to moralizers. “The moral aspect of nature,” we read in Thoreau's Journals, “is a jaundice reflected from man.” And, “Farewell, dear heifer! … There was a whole bucolic in her snuff. … And as she took the apple from my hand, I caught the apple of her eye. She smelled as sweet as the clethra blossom.” Something has driven that mood out of New England to the Midwest, and there to James Wright “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” as the title of a poem generously informs us:

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

The last line is a challenge, not a moralism. It is meant to be one impression among others: we have images and we have thoughts; here is a thought. The poet has not subdued it to image because, unlike the imagists, he is relaxed in the presence of ideas and entertains them without stylistic repression. As for his thought itself, it is quietly ironic. The idler goes to nature and learns that idleness can be a good and that his ant-like urban worrying about it has wasted his life. A nature which turns dung into gold is surely a generous country and near that Golden Age every true poet would restore.

As soon as we put Wright's poetry in the company of the nostalgic Pastoral, difficulties of judgment begin. There is, in this collection, nothing to compare with Keats's “Ode to Autumn,” Heine's “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” (which the poet quotes on the title page), or even with Thoreau's prose. As a new note (in concert with Robert Bly) in contemporary American poetry, it is certainly healthy and purgative: we have had too many of what Salinger's Franny calls “syntaxy droppings.” The Branch Will Not Break is at most, however, a sketch-book of verses, a new beginning which wants to be criticized, rather than a consummation. This may perhaps excuse the following harsh opinions.

Though all poems but one are unrhymed, in free verse, and quite casual, there is too much rhetoric. One feels the poet straining for relaxation. There is a basic difficulty of mode, a wavering between what used to be thought of as Vergilian (artificial) and Theocritan (native) pastoral. If Wright's diction, rhythm, and verse are native, the imagery of locusts, jewels, and moons is artificial, even if the locusts are home-bred. The diction too is often strangely mannered, a new sort of Poetic Diction: “the tall ashes of loneliness,” “A great harvest of convicts,” “a blind horse / Of gentleness.” The very distrust of rhetoric has left the poet open to the echoing of many rhetorics. The problem assumes an extreme form in Wright because in denying artifice he is so inevitably exposed, as a modern poet, to rival traditions of denial. To force us to read silences and disjunctions has always been a compelling virtue of poetry, yet how are we to determine the tradition of silence operative in the following “twilights”?

The big stones of the cistern behind the barn
Are soaked in whitewash.
My grandmother's face is a small maple leaf
Pressed in a secret box.
Locusts are climbing down into the dark green crevices
Of my childhood. Latches click softly in the trees. Your hair is gray.
The arbors of the cities are withered.
Far off, the shopping centers empty and darken.
A red shadow of steel mills.

Expressionistic montage, imagism, Zen, haiku discreetness—it seems to be a little of everything. The mind does not know whether to press against the poem or to become wisely passive before it. The problem is not lack of meaning but too much meaning: the absence of one controlled type of continuity. It is just possible, of course, that the theme of mutability is here extended into the very images used, which decay as if they had a half or quarter life. Even rhythms and single words (“cistern” “locusts”) are decayed out of the Bible (its Book of Mutability, Ecclesiastes). But is it the poem I admire, or is it the ingenious interpretation?

Let me hold fast to the good in James Wright. His earlier abilities have not deserted him. In some poems there is an approach to the genuine bucolic snuff. We feel Marvell's “I, easy philosopher, / Among the trees and birds confer.” Wright begins, at least, to resubmit his mind to the work of seeing and hearing. The politics of sun and wheat are, as in Thoreau, set against the artificial national cycle of slaving and spending. It is therefore poetic justice that one of the effective poems in this volume should be outrightly political in character. In “Eisenhower's visit to Franco, 1959,” Wright's blatant imagery of dark and light links the deadening abstraction of photographs to a (one hopes) dying mentality of innocence that saw everything political in terms of black and white.

Ronald Moran and George Lensing (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5386

SOURCE: “The Emotive Imagination: A New Departure in American Poetry,” in The Southern Review, Vol III, New Series, No. 1, January, 1967, pp. 51-67.

[In the following essay, Moran and Lensing welcome a new poetry of “emotive imagination” and the poets, among them Wright, who employ that style.]


In the last decade and a half, a new movement in American poetry, which we choose to call the emotive imagination, has gained sufficient momentum and import to justify definition and analysis. William Stafford, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and Robert Bly are its central figures.1 Their work represents a new departure from a poetry that since World War II has wrestled with the antipodal schools of the academic and the beat, both outgrowths of an affluent society. It is indebted neither to these schools nor to those which dominated American poetry between the wars; it is, in a word, meaningfully new.

Briefly but intelligently in his perceptive introduction to Contemporary American Poetry, Donald Hall calls attention to this direction in which he sees working a colloquial vocabulary, a simple language, and a “profound subjectivity.” Hall understands that this newness is based on the way in which the imagination is used: “This new imagination reveals through images a subjective life which is general, and which corresponds to an old objective life of shared experience and knowledge.” But Hall is not willing to make the commitment that this poetry is either a school or a clique; he prefers to call it “a way of seeing and a way of feeling.”

The validity of Hall's observations has been questioned by Cleanth Brooks in The Southern Review.2 Brooks, who oversimplifies, explains the technique of this new usage of imagination thus: “The poet does no more than put one substance beside the other and leave the combustion to occur, or not to occur, in the reader's imagination.” For Brooks the combustion does not occur. If what Hall claims concerning the relationship of the subjective life to “an objective life of shared experience and knowledge” is true, he continues, then the “prospect is exciting” in terms of reestablishing “a rapport with nature” and of restoring “the community of values, the loss of which wasted the land.” But Brooks concludes: “I remain skeptical.” Even so, excitement is being generated by the newness Brooks so abruptly dismisses. His reaction only underscores the real need for critical readjustment to the unique qualities of the emotive imagination at work. This need is given expression in “Postscript,” the closing poem of Stafford's West of Your City:

You reading this page, this trial—
shall we portion out the fault?
You call with your eyes for fodder,
demand bright frosting on your bread,
want the secret handclasp of jokes,
the nudges of innuendo.
And we both like ranting, swearing,
maybe calling of names:
can we meet this side of anger
somewhere in the band of mild sorrow?—
though many of our tastes have vanished,
and we depend on spice?—
Not you, not I—but something—
pales out in this trying for too much
and has brought us, wrong, together.
It is long since we've been lonely
and my track looking for Crusoe
could make you look up, calling, “Friday!”

All of us would like to look up and call “Friday.” Now, finally, we can.

The poetry of the emotive imagination does not lend itself easily to the New Critical method of intricate analysis, in which paradox, irony, and multiple layers of ambiguity are valued, at times, as ends in themselves. The emotive imagination leads the reader to understanding through feeling rather than through chartered and structured intellectuality. Its basic techniques are timing, leaps, and muted shock, all of which work together, so that the reader, if he is not what John Ciardi calls “unbuzzable,” experiences the imaginative interplay between subject and attitude; he feels and is rewarded.

In order to draw the reader into the mind of the poem, exact timing is a necessity. This is all the more imperative in poems of this movement since the diction is restrained (anti-rhetorical), the rhythms calm and colloquial, and the subject matter generally nonviolent. Many of Simpson's short poems, such as “In the Suburbs,” “Birch,” and “American Poetry,” are timed with an uncanny sense of precision. However, it is in Stafford's “Fall Wind” that timing finds no equal in the emotive imagination:

Pods of summer crowd around the door;
I take them in the autumn of my hands.
Last night I heard the first cold wind outside;
the wind blew soft, and yet I shiver twice:
Once for thin walls, once for the sound of time.

Here also is the intense subjectivity so frequently marking this new imagination.

The leap at the end of “Fall Wind” and the leaps in the poems of the movement in general are structured emotionally, not rationally. Calmly presented, the statement of shock through which the irrational leaps are made demands from the reader something similar to what Coleridge meant by “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” Take, for example, Stafford's “Late at Night,” in which the speaker talks of listening to “the hailstone yelps of geese” one night. He then puts a question to the reader, after which the leap occurs and the muted shock is achieved:

Were they lost up there in the night?
They always knew the way, we thought.
You looked at me across the room:—
We live in a terrible season.

The first fifteen lines of Wright's “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” describe in particular detail what the poet is observing, things such as a bronze butterfly, flowers, and a chicken hawk. Without a step by step progression, the leap occurs which both intensely personalizes the poem and exemplifies the emotive imagination at work: “I have wasted my life.” And Bly's “Sunday in Glastonbury” clicks through muted shock:

It is out in the flimsy suburbs,
Where the light seems to shine through the walls.
My black shoes stand on the floor
Like two open graves.
The curtains do not know what to hope for,
But they are obedient.
How strange to think of India!
Wealth is nothing but lack of people.

In the better poems of this movement, the reader is confronted with the unexpected, but yet inevitable. And herein lies much of his pleasure. This is the case in Simpson's “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.” An indictment of an America that has failed to fulfill its promise, the poem ends with this remarkable stanza:

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras,
The bay mists clearing.
And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,
Dances like Italy, imagining red.

Compare this poem with Wright's “The Blessing,” in which the speaker (probably Wright himself—these poets are not addicted to employing personae) and a friend cross over a barbed wire fence into a pasture, where “the eyes of two Indian ponies / Darken with kindness.” After a rapport is established between the speaker and one of the ponies, “The Blessing” concludes:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Wright communicates here by what, on the surface, appears to be unreasonable and slightly, if not completely, absurd. But his timing is perfect and the richness of the image lies in its emotional suggestions. The reader is shocked by the irrationality of the image, yet he is not offended; he is enriched, as the speaker has been, by the experience.


It is necessary to call attention to the excesses to which poetry of the emotive imagination is subject. There are instances in which the leaps cannot be justified on an emotional basis. Occasionally, the juxtaposition of images at the end of the poem is too dissociated in the light of what precedes it, with the subsequent result that understanding through feeling is simply lost. Bly's “September Night with an Old Horse” is an instance in point:


Tonight I rode through the cornfield in the moonlight!
The dying grass is still, waiting for winter,
And the dark weeds are waiting, as if under water …


In Arabia, the horses live in the tents,
Near dark gold, and water, and tombs.


How beautiful to walk out at midnight in the moonlight
Dreaming of animals.

Apart from understanding through feeling, the poetic ends of Stafford, Wright, Simpson, and Bly vary, a matter to be taken up later; nonetheless, there is a technical similarity which occurs with differing degrees of consistency throughout their works. With Wright and Simpson, the use of the emotive imagination and of a technique peculiar to this movement appears with increasing regularity in their later poems; Stafford and Bly are consistent in these uses.

One of the most significant tendencies in this poetry is a conscious attempt to be colloquial and matter of fact. There is no rhetorical extravagance, no preciosity, and no substitution of matter for mind. Quotations cited throughout this essay testify to the quality of naturalness in the language of these four poets. Their poetry is often one of statement, not in the didactic sense, but in the direction of the straightforward. Statement is nicely balanced by a fresh use of personifications which are generally metaphoric in nature. In these the reader is given a new perspective on the natural world; he is forced to bend to the movement of the poem, and he may experience slight jolts of adjustment. All of these help to prepare him emotionally for the new use of imagination evidenced so frequently at the end of the poem, for making the leaps and receiving the muted shock. Wright's “Beginning” provides a fine example of this method:

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon's young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breath
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

Most of Wright's personifications are drawn from the rural: “Silos creep away toward the West”; and “The wind tiptoes between poplars. / The silver maple leaves squint / Toward the ground.” Similarly, Bly draws subjects indigenous to the farm: “The corn is wandering in dark corridors”; “And hear the leaves scrape their feet on the wind”; “The soybeans are breathing on all sides.” However, in a poem like “Thinking of Wallace Stevens on the First Snowy Day in December,” Bly employs an extended metaphorical personification:

This new snow seems to speak of virgins
With frail clothes made of gold,
Just as the old snow shall whisper
Of concierges in France.
The new dawn sings of beaches
Dazzling as sugar and clean as the clouds of Greece,
Just as the exhausted dusk shall sing
Of the waves on the western shore.
This new strength whispers of the darkness of death,
Of the frail skiff lost in a giant cave,
Just as in the boat nearing death you sang
Of feathers and white snow.

Although of the four poets Simpson seems least attracted to the personification method, his use of it is extremely effective. Take the following examples: “The barns like scarlet lungs are breathing in / Pneumonia”; “But all night long my window / sheds tears of light”; or “love is like the sighing of the sand.”

It is, however, with Stafford that this method finds its most frequent and richest expression. Perhaps, at first, a categorical listing of some of Stafford's self-contained personifications is in order: “and a lost road went climbing the slope like a ladder”; “Pioneers, for whom history was walking through dead grass”; “the wheat fields crouched”; “The sun stalks among these peaks to sight / the lake down aisles”; “and willows do tricks to find an exact place in the wind”; and “And all night those oil well engines / went talking into the dark.”

Stafford also uses this method to good effect in larger units within the poem, such as in “Found in a Storm” and “The Peters Family,” from which respectively the following two quotations come:

A storm that needed a mountain
met it where we were:
we woke up in a gale
that was reasoning with our tent,
and all the persuaded snow
streaked along, guessing the ground.
miles told the sunset that Kansas
would hardly ever end,
and that beyond the Cimarron crossing
and after the row-crop land
a lake would surprise the country
and sag with a million birds.

Despite the compelling similarities that exist between these four poets, it would be wrong to lump them together explicitly in terms of technique just for the sake of defining a movement in American poetry. Although they most certainly are colloquial, use the statement and personification methods, and, most importantly, actively work the emotive imagination, they do not employ form with exacting similitudes. For example, Stafford has a tough inner discipline, a lean, hard masculinity. Bly, on the other hand, is much looser; he does not have the “austere rhythmic control” Peter Viereck ascribes to Stafford. Bly and Wright (in his later poems) pay less attention to externally imposed stanzaic and line length regulations than do Stafford and Simpson. Just as these poets differ in this respect, so do they differ, in varying degrees, in the subjects about which they write and in their resulting motifs and attitudes.


The power of the emotive imagination rests with its capacity to transform subjects of lyric simplicity into a personal and subjective recoil of emotion. The result in most of these poems is a re-emergence of romanticism, but of a differing and refreshing kind. Stafford, Wright, Simpson, and Bly are alike in their utter honesty of expression; the privacy of the human spirit is opened up as a declaration of song. These poets openly profess allegiance, not to the intellectual puzzles of verse, but to those forces that are personally experienced in emotion. They say to their predecessors: why have you withheld from your readers the honesty and frankness of indiscriminate joy, wonder, and beauty, and their counterparts?

This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
There are good things in this world.

This is not to say that these poets give themselves over to lyricism with utter release, as Wright plainly implies by the reference to “dark thorns” in “Trying to Pray.” It is rather in their qualified affirmations that these writers are distinguished, and herein lies the newness of their romanticism. Their vision is untouched with false sentimentality or glassy illusion. It is noticeably free of the exotic, the escapist, or the allusionary. There is a hardness in their poetry that breathes the agony of world war as well as the corruption of the American Dream. What they propose as a source of reliability is a resilient and tough individualism that seeks out human compassion for its only consolation and stay.

Consider, for example, their attitudes toward their native land. These poets celebrate America with the eloquence and affection of Whitman, but not with his abandon. They have, to a large degree, rediscovered their land for American poetry; a surprising number of their poems are studded with place names of the American landscape. Of the four, Louis Simpson, a naturalized American, sees his country with the widest vision, and his is a view unimpaired by chauvinistic illusion. Consider his “Lines Written Near San Francisco”:

Whitman was wrong about the People,
But right about himself. The land is within.
At the end of the open road we come to ourselves.

For all his disenchantment, he still maintains in “Orpheus in America” that “The melancholy of the possible / Unmeasures me.” It is that “possible” Stafford clings to in “Bi-Focal”:

Sometimes up out of this land
a legend begins to move.
Is it a coming near
or something under love?

Bly is ostensibly lyrical and much of his work exhibits a temperament of moodiness, a whimsicality spilling over into his love for America. Bly's awareness of the America-motif in recent poetry is attested to by his editorship of an anthology for his Sixties Press, Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History. In “Driving Through Ohio,” he openly affirms:

I am full of love, and love this torpid land.
Some day I will go back, and inhabit again
The sleepy ground where Harding was born.

The same hardcore frankness, joined with fierce affection, Wright declares in his poem, “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas 1960”: “And I am lost in the beautiful white ruins / Of America.”

The affinity of these poets rests emphatically not with the forces of Wall Street and the moneyed lords of America. Their antagonism toward the representatives of capitalism, who they feel have perverted the dream America promised, is universal and, at times, vindictive. Even Stafford, who has the smallest axe to grind, finds cause to lament a civilization given over to mechanization and profit seekers. The grudge he and these poets carry is not against private individuals, but against those men who seek generally to cancel out the sacredness of the private personality and who have lost it themselves. Stafford so attests this in “A Visit Home”:

For calculation has exploded—
boom, war, oilwells, and, God!
the slow town-men eyes and blue-serge luck.

It is probably in this theme of disgust that these poets succumb most easily to excess. Simpson's “The Inner Part” concludes with a blanket condemnation of postwar America:

Priests, examining the entrails of birds,
Found the heart misplaced, and seeds
As black as death, emitting a strange odor.

It remains, nevertheless, that disgust is as much a component of honesty as joy. And joy is the dominant tone of Simpson's response to America. Asked in a recent interview if becoming an American had advanced his poetry, Simpson replied:

Oh yes. It may be that the things I say about America are foolish to one who was born here, but I'm fascinated with America. There are all sorts of things that haven't been written about. That's what's so exciting to me. I would like to write a poem that would make you say, “Boy, that's the first time anyone ever described a gas station!” I was writing it, but it didn't work out; another poem worked out instead. I was talking about a filling station at night when a whole town is closed down, and I wrote: “The lights of the filling station were quivering with emotion.” Now, that's what they were doing. All the other lights were out as you arrive in this strange town, and you see the white lights, the gas pump lights, quivering with emotion.3

These new voices in American poetry discover their kindred spirits with those Americans who are denied the ease of affluence. Wright's litany of preferences is catalogued in “On Minding One's Own Business”:

From prudes and muddying fools,
Kind Aphrodite, spare
All hunted criminals,
Hoboes and whip-poor-wills,
And girls with rumpled hair,
All, all of whom might hide
Within that darkening shack.
Lovers may live, and abide.

Bly echoes: “It is good also to be poor,” and Simpson: “I have the poor man's nerve-tic, irony.”

The frontier theme, long a dominant note in American literature, is picked up with renewed attention in this recent poetry. Both Stafford and Simpson now live on the West coast; Bly and Wright have strong Midwestern roots, and, in addition, a number of Stafford's poems treat the Midwest prairie of his youth. In reading through this poetry, one is struck by the insistency upon an enduring American integrity, never at hand, but always westward. Stafford's “The Move to California” recalls the source of his motivation in making the move: “the angel went by in the dark, / but left a summons: Try farther west.” That same angel reappears at the end of Simpson's “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” as the “angel in the gate” at San Francisco. The frontier remains ultimately personal and human; the territory is exhausted as it reaches on to the Pacific. Wright's “Stages on a Journey Westward” voices this frustration:

Plunged into the dark furrows
Of the sea again.

Simpson, too, experiences regret as he stands on the shores in “Lines Written Near San Francisco”:

Out there on the Pacific
There's no America but the Marines.

These poets celebrate the West with a fondness recalling that held by Robert Frost for his New England. The debt to Frost is perhaps inevitable in this poetry, and one notices, especially in Stafford, the parallels—even though Stafford goes beyond Frost in his use of imaginative interplays. “Something sent me out in these desert places” from “By the Snake River” is surely rooted in Frost's own “Desert Places,” and Frost's theme of returning to one's sources in “Directive” is sounded in Stafford's “Watching the Jet Planes Dive”:

We must go back and find a trail on the ground
back of the forest and mountains on the slow land; …
We must find something forgotten by everyone alive.

The word “wild” recurs with consistency throughout Stafford's poems. It is not that he despises tamed civilization or that he yearns for uninhibited primitivism; rather, his “wild” is what is natural, authentic, and untouched by the artificial. This is what Stafford sees as a salvation. He can envisage “a lost Cree” returning to set foot on “some new shore” to be a new chief. Yet the proposals of this wilderness are spiritual: “Our moccasins do not mark the ground.” This concluding line from “Returned to Say” evokes the jolt of the emotive imagination as a salutation to his faith in the frontier spirit.

The regionalism drawn upon in all these poems is never for its own sake. The focus of interest always resides within the poet's private and subjective responses. One is not surprised at the strong influence of family in these poems. With great simplicity, Simpson's “My Father in the Night Commanding No” reveals the complexity of his relationship with his father:

My father in the night commanding No
Has work to do. Smoke issues from his lips;
                    He reads in silence.
The frogs are croaking and the streetlamps glow.

The same distance of feeling toward his father is exposed by Wright in “The Revelation” where he muses “over time and space” upon his sternness, “the damning of his eye,” and which ends with this moving reconciliation:

And weeping in the nakedness
Of moonlight and of agony,
His blue eyes lost their barrenness
And bore a blossom out to me.
And as I ran to give it back,
The apple branches, dripping black,
Trembled across the lunar air
And dropped white petals on his hair.

Of these poets it is Stafford who is most haunted by memories of his father. He can evoke the comic imagination of his father in “Mouse Night: One of Our Games,” his unique eccentricity in “Parentage,” or his intuitive love for nature in “Listening.” But it is the firm bond of affection for his father that Stafford sings unabashedly, without fear of sophisticates or Freudians: “My father and I stood together while the storm went by.”

The ranges of Wright's subject matter are expansive and varied. The dead rise up in his poems to impinge upon his imagination; weaving in and out of his poems are figures from his past who continue to cross over into his sensibility. There is no morbidity here; there is an honest acquiescence in the enduring hold of dominant personalities. Victims of drownings make up a repetitive cast in Wright's poetry; condemned prisoners are his heroes. One notes, too, Wright's late successes centering around his fondness for horses. Love poems appear in quantity in all his volumes; even though they do not omit the sensual, he treats these subjects with delicacy and restraint. Describing a love affair in the autumn landscape in “Eleutheria,” he selects the surrounding details with the richness of the emotive imagination:

And far away I heard a window close,
A haying wagon heave and catch its wheels,
Some water slide and stumble and be still.
The dark began to climb the empty hill.

Stafford, Wright, Simpson, and Bly, whether describing the panorama of America or the privacy of family, relate a world vitally alive with a spirit of evanescence and the wonder of childhood. But the exaltations of these poets must be weighted by their disenchantment, and such a coexistence is a new phenomenon in American romanticism. They remain a displaced generation alienated in a land they love immensely.


In the last analysis, one further point remains to be weighed in relation to these poets. It is true that they are boldly fusing leaps of the imagination with a direct projection of emotion, making up what we consider to be a new and original poetic technique. Their poetry is incidental and subjective without being trivial and illusionary. They have established their own tradition of hard-nosed romanticism. One comes eventually to ask what these poets, for all their novelty, have to tell us about living our lives in the second half of the twentieth century, about fronting the pressing political, social, and religious doubts that underlie that age. In short, one asks about the “teaching” half of Horace's prescription that a poet should teach as well as delight, or, in another way, to ask about their participation in what Matthew Arnold called “high seriousness.”

These poets, it is obvious, are not standing on soap boxes; theirs is not a poetry of doctrine or of bombast. On the question of religious faith, the four are not homogeneous. Bly's poetry approaches a tone of bitterness in his impatience with all religious faith. In the poem, “At the Funeral of Great Aunt Mary,” for example, he responds to the promise of resurrection with “Impossible. No one believes it.” The acrimony of Bly gives way to a kind of frustration in Simpson in so far as the religion of churches is concerned. In “There Is” he confesses a futile search:

I seek the word. The word is not forthcoming.
O syllables of light … O dark cathedral. …

Almost as a direct rejoinder to this, Stafford affirms in “The Tillamook Burn,” “You can read His word down to the rock.” Stafford, of the four, is the most obviously rooted in Christian faith. There is an effusive tone of religion in all his poems, in his reverential love of nature and family as well as in his more direct statements of religious faith:

We weren't left religion exactly (the church
was ecumenical bricks), but a certain tall element:
a pulse beat still in the stilled rock
and in the buried sound along the buried mouth of the creek.

This “pulse beat” recognition of God (the above lines are from “Tornado”) is Stafford's source of religious faith. Wright's poem, “The Angel,” is clearly sympathetic to the crucified Christ, and he has written several poems from the point of view of Judas, always treating the betrayer of Christ with pity and sympathetic affection.

Without doubt, a strong theme in this poetry is a quiet and calm stoicism in the face of an earth they find predestined to self-destruction, and a heaven they can see only vaguely, if at all. They hold out almost with desperation a plea for human compassion. “We want real friends or none; / what's genuine will accompany every man,” says Stafford in “The Only Card I Got on My Birthday Was From an Insurance Man.” Stafford's technique frequently is to juxtapose two situations which are essentially in conflict; there is no outward moralizing, but the cleavage between the two situations becomes experienced by the reader himself as an emotional shock. “Traveling through the Dark” is the most obvious example, confronting the moral innocence of nature with the amoral mechanism of society. A doe, victim of a recent killing and warm only with the impossible life of her unborn fawn, is pushed over the bank by the poet as he stands beside his purring engine, fully and painfully aware of the irony inherent in his shameful commitment to this society. “Vacation,” an earlier poem, employs a similar technique:

One scene as I bow to pour her coffee:—
                    Three Indians in the scouring drouth
                    huddle at a grave scooped in the gravel,
                    lean to the wind as our train goes by.
                    Someone is gone.
                    There is dust on everything in Nevada.
I pour the cream.

A similar note of human pathos which results from social indifference and isolation reappears in many poems of this movement. Stafford is strong in his demands for involvement in the concerns of the human: “the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” Simpson, Wright, and Bly echo these demands in their own individual styles. In “Frogs,” Simpson, listening to the croaking of the animals, finds their sound “monstrous” but “filled with satisfaction”: “In the country I long for conversation— / Our happy croaking.” The threads of human compassion are evident in almost any of Wright's poems. It is clear from his poetry that personal tragedies have laid a heavy hand upon him, leading not to self pity, but to an outward concern for all the afflicted whom he encounters. “Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child” is such an example, from which this is taken:

He will learn pain. And, as for the bird,
It is always darkening when that comes out.
I will putter as though I had not heard,
And lift him into my arms and sing
Whether he hears my song or not.

The peace and security of human companionship is voiced by Bly, too, in “Late At Night During A Visit of Friends” when he exclaims: “The human face shines as it speaks of things / Near itself.”

What the influence and final direction of the emotive imagination will be we do not venture to say. Certainly one of its major attributes is its accessibility to a widespread reading audience by means of its simplicity and calm lyricism. This in itself is cause for rejoicing in modern American poetry. Like all serious movements in poetry, it is not content with surface judgments: “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be,” says Stafford in “Vocation.” This perennial discovery is in a poetry which is to be felt as well as to be understood. Indeed, the whole process of the emotive imagination demands that comprehension is dependent upon emotion and that the “truth” of poetry goes beyond the rational. These poets, singing their country, their region, their family, themselves, are reasserting a romanticism in their works; it is a stance that posits no falsity or escapism. The emotive imagination, for all its leaping flights, is rooted in the hard realities of the present.

Stafford, Wright, Simpson, and Bly are not the only poets today who are taking new liberties with the ranges of the imagination; they do make up a representative collection of the emotive imagination at work in American poetry. We are convinced that the work of these men has already affected the direction of American poetry in the last decade and promises to enlarge its influence.


  1. Poems reproduced in whole or in part in this essay are included in the following volumes: Robert Bly, Silence in the Snowy Fields. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1962. Contemporary American Poetry, selected and introduced by Donald Hall. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962. Louis Simpson, A Dream of Governors. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959. Louis Simpson, At the End of the Open Road. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963. Louis Simpson, Selected Poems. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. William Stafford, West of Your City, Los Gatos, California: The Talisman Press, 1960. William Stafford, Traveling through the Dark, New York: Harper & Row, 1962. William Stafford, The Rescued Year. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. James Wright,The Green Wall. New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 1957. James Wright, Saint Judas. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959. James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.

  2. See “Poetry Since The Waste Land,” I, n.s. (Summer, 1965), 498-500.

  3. “An Interview with Louis Simpson, Part II,” Dust (Winter, 1965), p. 17.

James Wright with William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro (interview date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6933

SOURCE: “Something to Be Said for the Light: A Conversation with James Wright,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 134-53.

[In the following interview, which took place in 1970, Wright discusses some origins of his poetry, his evolving poetic style, his relationship to other poets, and his sense of the world around him.]

The following conversation with James Wright took place at the State University College, Brockport, New York on September 24, 1970. Discussing Wright's work with him are two widely published poets and critics of modern poetry, William Heyen (S. U. N. Y. at Brockport) and Jerome Mazzaro (S. U. N. Y. at Buffalo). At Heyen's request, Wright begins their discussion with a reading of his poem “To a Defeated Saviour” [Wright:]


Do you forget the shifting hole
Where the slow swimmer fell aground
And floundered for your fishing pole
Above the snarl of string and sound?
You never seem to turn your face
Directly toward the river side,
Or up the bridge, or anyplace
Near where the skinny swimmer died.
You stand all day and look at girls,
Or climb a tree, or change a tire;
But I have seen the colored swirls
Of water flow to livid fire
Across your sleeping nose and jaws,
Transfiguring both the bone and skin
To muddy banks and sliding shoals
You and the drowned kid tumble in.
You see his face, upturning, float
And bob across your wavering bed;
His wailing fingers call your boat,
His voice throws up the ruddy silt,
The bleary vision prays for light
In sky behind your frozen hands;
But sinking in the dark all night,
You charm the shore with bloomless wands.
The circling tow, the shadowy pool
Shift underneath us everywhere.
You would have raised him, flesh and soul,
Had you been strong enough to dare;
You would have lifted him to breathe,
Believing your good hands would keep
His body clear of your own death:
This dream, this drowning in your sleep.

[Heyen:] Mr. Wright, that poem is an early one, isn't it, from The Green Wall? I've noticed in reading the volumes following it that that same theme—the idea of a failed saviour—keeps reappearing. Some critics might almost call it an obsession. This is an impossible question, I suppose, but to what do you attribute the particular kind of compassion depicted in that poem? Could you explain it?

Well, I don't know if I would call it compassion. Maybe it's a sort of fear. I keep thinking, what good does it do in America, which is very much my country, to try to help someone else? It seems that all of our great ethical ideals always come to grief because, at least in part, our public figures take our language away from us, erode its meaning, so that we can't tell whether or not to trust other people when they make some public gesture in language. We're left sort of scrambling around in the dark, trying to help one another, and yet, being afraid to. As people are afraid to help one another on the streets.

[Heyen:] The main character of that poem then—if I can speak in fictional terms—is the observer, the speaker. He's not as much the defeated saviour as the man he's talking about. There's nothing he can do about the pain of the man's failure.

And it's a strange kind of pain to relate to. That poem really originated many years ago, when I was a boy. My brother had a small boat. He was fishing down on the Ohio River, and some kids were swimming right off-shore, and one of them got caught in what they call—a hideous Ohio phrase—a suck-hole. A whirlpool started where people had been dredging mud out of the river. My brother was just about twelve years old, and he wasn't a strong boy. And the kids on the bank kept yelling at him to jump in and save the boy who was drowning, and he didn't know what to do. He held his fishing pole out to the kid, and the kid tried to get hold of it but missed it, and sank.

[Mazzaro:] There's a similar sense of things captured in your second book, in the poem “At the Executed Murderer's Grave.”

[Heyen:] You create thieves and murders and similar kinds of characters in your poems; and you have a deep feeling for them. There's a real concern, it seems to me, for these sad people that are down-and-out. You return to them again and again.

Yes, and this is the sort of thing that's started to get on some people's nerves—and it's starting to get on my nerves too. I'd rather be happy.

[Mazzaro:] I think it shows in some of your later poems. They are much stronger in terms of the possibilities of rescuing.

Yes. You know, this last summer Annie and I were having breakfast in Paris. While we were drinking our café au lait, we could hear a young American talking to a lady. Among other things, he said to her, “only people who suffer complete despair are going to have any hope.” And as I overheard this snatch of conversation, I suddenly realized, yes, and how we love to wallow down there, in despair, don't we? It made me tired of many of my own writings, in a way.

[Mazzaro:] Tell me, when you came back from the army after World War II and went to Kenyon College, did you intend to become a poet then?

I had tried to write some things earlier. But it wasn't until I met John Crowe Ransom and some other teachers at Kenyon that I tried to put together poems more formally. I never took a course in writing as such. We read some great masters in English and a couple of languages other than English, and we had a good literary time. It was a very classical and disciplined kind of education.

[Heyen:] On the dust jacket of your first book, The Green Wall, I think, you said that you were trying very hard to write in the mode of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, that you wanted to say something humanly important instead of just showing off with language. Did you have in mind then primarily a thematic importance—I think of the “Defeated Saviour” theme in this regard—or were you concerned with the mode of expression, the language?

Well, during the few years after I left Kenyon, I was trying to learn how to write in what I call a classical way, and I wanted to subordinate whatever devices of language I could control to a single theme in each poem. Such a statement makes me sort of wince now. It sounds like what Howard Nemerov once said about such an aim: it's a little like being against sin; everyone would like to.

[Mazzaro:] But why would someone from Ohio, writing about things midwestern go to New England poets for his models?

Well, in the first place, Frost and Robinson are very much more than just New England poets. I like to think of Robinson as being one of the great poets of the dark side of American experience. And his language is very strict and clear.

[Mazzaro:] I mentioned this because it seems that as you treat Ohio more and more you tend to move away from Frost and Robinson in your poetry—as though you're finding a voice that is uniquely yours.

Maybe Ohio has its own rhythm. It's a strange place, Ohio. It's both northern and southern; it's eastern and western; all kinds of people live there. It's literally covered with good small colleges; and yet, the people who live in Ohio seem very uneducated, in many ways brutal. I like Ohioans very much.

[Heyen:] Could we return for a minute to that statement of yours in The Green Wall about wanting to make poems say something humanly important? Looking back, does it seem to you that you were a bit too insistent or perhaps shrill? I ask this because in your later works you seem more willing to let the poems speak for themselves.

That was a sort of Puritanical statement, wasn't it? There's a certain pompousness about it, it seems to me now.

[Heyen:] I suppose it's a young man's statement.

Like beating against the sand, or being virtuous. At any level one would like to be so if he only knew how.

[Heyen:] The Green Wall was dedicated to three Teds. I take it that one of the Teds was Theodore Roethke. Can we talk for a minute about his influence on you, both personal and literary?

Roethke was a very liberating teacher. His knowledge of English and American poetry was fantastic, and he believed very much in getting poems by heart in the oldfashioned way. I took only one course from him—it lasted just a semester—but I knew him for about four years there in Seattle. As a person he was very complex and, in many ways, very simple. In some ways even simpleminded. He was always stimulating, and he was such a genuine poet. He really couldn't have been anything else. He was one of the chosen ones, I think.

[Mazzaro:] There's a wonderful sense that you share with him and Goethe of being able to listen to nature and hear what it is saying. Rilke had it too.

That's a wonderful combination of poets; it's flattering to be joined to such a group.

[Heyen:] Knowing Roethke's work as you do, where do you think the major achievement resides? Is it in The Lost Son, as many critics have said? What do you think the best Roethke is?

I think you have to take him whole, entire, since he moved in so many directions. He would stumble on a way of writing during a certain period. In another period he would move in another direction. The significant thing was that he had not only the ability but the imaginative courage to chance moving in another stylistic direction to its very end, or as far as he could possibly go. There are so many things he tried to do. It's hard to single out the major achievement.

[Mazzaro:] You are one of several poets who radically altered their styles. Roethke did, Lowell did, and your poetry changed at one point from a more or less formal form to a freer one. I don't want to call it informal, because it isn't. Your recent work does have a kind of hidden form to it, but it's no longer the kind of form that we can block out.

Well, there wasn't a truly radical change taking place between the books Saint Judas and The Branch Will Not Break. But it was just that I hadn't previously tried to discipline, to subject myself to the discipline of writing real, good free verse. I thought it was about time to do that. I wanted to—and I continue to try to—listen to as many kinds of music in our language as I could. We have so many things available to us in ours. Ironically, this is one of the reasons why it is sometimes so difficult to write. When we open our ears to what's available we find that there's so much and that it is so very much alive. So many ways of writing and so many possibilities of combination. That's a very exciting fact, I think. And, in a way, it's a dangerous one too. In the American language we have not only the possibility of a really great poetry in terms of diction and rhythm. We also have the possibility of a terrible poetry—I mean, a really bad poetry. A great deal of it does get written and published. You know, the great possibilities of the American language affect all sorts of people in various ways. I think it's very interesting the way this Vice-President Agnew has been fooling around with it. He fancies himself the wonderful baroque prose stylist. One of these days the American language is going to strike back. He's going to give a speech some day and make a slip. He'll produce some unbelievable obscenity. He'll contribute a new obscenity to the language, the way Mayor Daley does. Now Daley has fooled around with the language for quite some time. And it gets even with him frequently. He's always saying things like, “the thing that keeps people apart is their inability to get together.” Suddenly the bottom drops out of the universe; you turn to someone and ask, “what did he say?” Or another, “the great city of Chicago will rise to ever-higher platitudes of achievement.” That's going to happen to Agnew some day.

[Mazzaro:] Speaking about the use of language, Lowell once said about younger poets that they're not risking enough, that they're very well pleased with fine melodies and polished techniques, but they're really not risking anything. Do you find that to be true?

From the work by young poets that I have seen, I think that they are taking greater risks, probably because of Lowell's own example. After all, Lord Weary's Castle is certainly one of the formal masterpieces, not only of American literature but of all poetry in the English language. And yet Lowell became dissatisfied with that and moved on to try something new; this is one of the things that makes him a great writer.

[Mazzaro:] That's what I like about your poetry. You take risks all the time. Any genuine poet does—any exciting poet. You never know, when picking up a James Wright poem, what you're going to find. There's always the sense of shock, of surprise, of pleasure.

[Heyen:] You began writing in formal modes to, as you said, discipline yourself. Do you think this ought to be generalized into a rule, or a strong suggestion, for aspiring young poets? Wouldn't it help the many young poets who begin with free verse and, unfortunately, never attempt anything else? Do you think it's true that a fellow ought to be able to paint an apple, or render something photographically, before he goes on to abstractions? It sounds like a conscious thing in your case. It seems as though, during those years you were writing the poems of The Green Wall and Saint Judas, you were consciously restraining yourself within particular forms. Why?

Well, I felt so many energies in the language that I wanted to approach them pretty carefully. I didn't want them to swallow me alive. They sometimes are rather savage things to turn loose; and yet, if one approaches these energies, whatever they are, with a certain patience and, indeed, with a sense of courtesy, they will then reveal themselves.

[Heyen:] Do you consider yourself a rebel like, say, Robert Bly? I think of Bly now because we once talked about aspects of formalism and Bly was saying, “Let's face it. Rhyme is boring. Rhyme is dead. No one wants to hear rhyme any more, today.”

That depends on who the rhymer is. I don't consider myself a rebel. I think of myself as being a very traditional writer; all of the formal devices in my later work are pretty plain.

[Mazzaro:] There are some words in your poetry that are somewhat recurrent, if we can talk about them—one of them being “dark.” And it has to do, I think, with your images. Would you care to comment on that?

I don't know, Jerry, what to say about it, except that most of the things that I've written about so far do have a certain darkness to them, an emotional darkness. But again, I'm getting sort of tired of the darkness.

[Mazzaro:] What I had in mind was—well, Robert Bly uses the word “dark” quite a bit. But he does it somehow differently from you. With Bly, I think he wants the dark to remain dark and mysterious. He does not mean to eliminate it.

I don't think that I would want to eliminate the darkness from human experience entirely. But there is something to be said for the light also, after all. Again, it's the danger we fall into in America, of perhaps wallowing in pain too much.

[Heyen:] I think, Jerry, Robert Bly is a poet we all admire, but wouldn't you say that to a certain extent his use of the word “dark” is almost an automatic thing? You simply expect it to be there in a Bly poem. I mean it's hard, maybe impossible, to find a Bly poem without the word “dark” in it. Sometimes the words “dark” and “darkness” come up four times in two lines.

[Mazzaro:] I was going to say, it's almost as cliché as the now “old” New Critics' uses of “old” and “ancient.”

This is the trouble with any poetry that tends toward realism, and it's the one very big difficulty. You can easily delude yourself into thinking that you're being very original. Maybe you're just repeating yourself or repeating someone else. The possibilities of triteness are very powerful.

[Heyen:] To go back to what Jerry was talking about before—this stylistic change that occurred between your second and third books. Wasn't it more than just a slight change? I recall a rather strong statement of yours, quoted on the dust jacket of The Branch Will Not Break; it was something like, “I'll never write again if I have to write in that old style.” Something to that effect. I'm still very curious as to why you felt this terrific compulsion to change your mode, to change your speech.

I don't know exactly. I felt that I'd gone as far as I could for the time being with the book Saint Judas, which is very strict and careful in its form. It seemed to me that, after it was finished, it seemed to leave out so much of life. I was then thinking of just exploring other possibilities.

[Heyen:] Would you read at this point my favorite from Saint Judas, “An Offering for Mr. Bluehart”?

Fine, but let me first tell you about the original Mr. Bluehart. Mr. Bluehart was a man who had a farm in southern Ohio. He had a sign on his fence. There was an orchard on the other side of the fence, and the sign said, “Pray as you enter—shotgun law.” I used to wonder, and I still wonder if he realized that this was a real invitation for small boys to climb the fence and steal the apples. He must have known that. If old Mr. Bluehart is listening, I enjoyed those apples very much.


That was a place, when I was young,
Where two or three good friends and I
Tested the fruit against the tongue
Or threw the withered windfalls by.
The sparrows, angry in the sky,
Denounced us from a broken bough.
They limp along the wind and die.
The apples all are eaten now.
Behind the orchard, past one hill
The lean satanic owner lay
And threatened us with murder till
We stole his riches all away.
He caught us in the act one day
And damned us to the laughing bone,
And fired his gun across the gray
Autumn where now his life is done.
Sorry for him, or any man
Who lost his labored wealth to thieves,
Today I mourn him, as I can,
By leaving in their golden leaves
Some luscious apples overhead.
Now may my abstinence restore
Peace to the orchard and the dead.
We shall not nag them any more.

[Mazzaro:] That's very fine. There's a fine connection there between nature and morality. It's a connection that I've also noted in the titles of your books. Your first book was called The Green Wall, and your second book took a religious or quasi-religious title, Saint Judas. The third book went back to nature with The Branch Will Not Break, and the fourth book, of course went back to the religious with Shall We Gather At The River.

I think that, looking back, there is a definite pattern; but I wasn't thinking of it as an overall pattern at the time.

[Mazzaro:] Mr. Bluehart's orchard is something like the Garden of Eden.

[Heyen:] And Mr. Bluehart is sort of a young boy's God that has gone away too. It's a very tender and touching poem, I think. I think also that in so far as the imagery is concerned it is reminiscent of the romantic imagery of your earlier work. But technically, in the way it moves and rhymes, “An Offering for Mr. Bluehart” also reminds one of Robert Frost, wouldn't you say?

Yes, I would say so.

[Heyen:] Could we move to a poem from the book following Saint Judas? Would you read a poem or two from The Branch Will Not Break?

Let me read a poem called “A Blessing.” This poem does not have any particular moral to it as far as I can tell. It's just a description.


Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

[Mazzaro:] I was just thinking while you were reading that, you are so much a midwestern poet, reacting to pastures and meadows and animals. Now, for the past couple of years, you have been living in New York City with your wife. I was wondering if you were finding the equivalent—in terms of the city—for those things that moved you in Minnesota and the Ohio countryside.

Well, I have written about the cities, in Saint Judas and Shall We Gather At The River. Since I have been living in New York, I have been able to write about city life somewhat. But it wasn't until this past summer, when we were in Paris and other European cities, that city poems started to arrange themselves in my mind. It was very liberating, to go to Paris. I had just finished a book and was tired of writing. I'm sure you know that feeling. The idea of writing something new is a very numbing one when you are waiting for the proofs of the book. But then, surprisingly, city poems and all sorts of poems began to appear in my mind.

[Heyen:] Hart Crane said on this subject that we damn sure better make the city and the machine a part of our poetics. We can't make that old division any more. It's escapism if we do.

Yes, that's true. We have our lives to deal with, and the city is so much a part of our lives.

[Heyen:] “A Blessing,” which you just read—I'd like to talk about it for a minute. It just happens that a couple of weeks ago I typed it out because I wanted to get the sense of its movement. It seems to me to be a perfect example of what Eliot meant when he said that no verse is ever really free. It's a very tight poem. I think that it is a perfect example of how the discipline you subjected yourself to in your early works became almost second nature to you. Because of that discipline you could deal with a form like that of “A Blessing.”

I think that is true—about discipline, I mean. I don't know how it would be with others. Some people have an instinctive sense of form. And of course, any poem is formal. There are different forms to choose from, but one thing a person tries to do is to discover the appropriate form for whatever he is trying to say or is saying. Writing so-called free verse is tremendously difficult because it is so easy for the language to fall apart, into banalities. It can also easily fall into bad prose.

[Mazzaro:] I know you translate European poetry; in fact, you just returned from a European conference of poets, didn't you? Is there anything special that American poets do learn, can learn, or should learn from European poets?

Well, it's important just to be in contact with them. For an American poet to be in contact with someone like Reverdy or Jacob is to force himself to get outside of the constricting American experience. Perhaps by translating or reading, by learning something about the literature of another language, one can gain new perspectives on his own. You know, we are, in a sense, so isolated in the United States; we have, in effect, only our one language.

[Mazzaro:] Auden once said that it was the vitality of American poetry that it went to Europe for so much of its inspiration. He felt that English poetry was dying because it did not look beyond the shores of England, because it was still imitating Tennyson instead of going on to the French poets.

[Heyen:] A short while ago I read that selection of Trakl's poems that you and Robert Bly translated. It was about 1952, wasn't it, that you were in Vienna and came into real contact with his work?


[Heyen:] Reading those selections, I was thinking that the lessons of Trakl—maybe that is a bad phrase—I mean his movements, his particular sensibilities didn't make themselves felt in your poetry until the time of The Branch Will Not Break.

Well, it's strange how an influence works on one's mind. One may come in contact with a tremendous critic and reader like Susini and be moved by him in some very deep way. It may take a long time for the movement of one's own emotion to come out and make sense.

[Mazzaro:] You are one of the poets who might have been influenced by the readings of Dylan Thomas, but I don't find in your poems that rhetoric which caught up so many poets of the time.

Maybe I was afraid of it and that is why I tried to be a classicist. It is a terrible thing to fall into. Thomas could get away with the high rhetoric; after all, he came from a tradition that featured high rhetoric. He knew how to handle it because he had been taught how to handle it by his own tradition. With the American language we can start off being very high-flown; the trouble is that very soon the language somehow seems to drift away from reality. Again, we see this in the various expressions of our public men. It is terribly difficult for someone in public life to say something serious. The members of the audience he is addressing are so used to the rhetoric that they wonder if he means what he is saying. If someone were to get on television and say, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear, there is an anthrax epidemic beginning,” we wouldn't rush to get ourselves innoculated. We would turn first and say to one another, “does he mean it or not?”

[Mazzaro:] I was just thinking. Pound said that it was the function of the poet to keep the language viable and alive; Ginsberg some years ago said in his Wichita Vortex Sutra that the Washington people were inferior magicians using the language to destroy language. Ginsberg quoted instances of double-think which had become so common: like, we have to wage war to establish peace, we have to let the prices go up before we can get them to go down. We hear this sort of stuff from Washington every day, and naturally it has become a preoccupation for poets. Denise Levertov's book, Relearning The Alphabet, and William Stafford's new book, Allegiances, both focus on the idea of language gone wrong.

Well, expressions of language in a context of power do have important consequences, always. And it seems to me just a matter of life and death for writers to pay special attention to this phenomenon and at least try to think clearly and to keep the language in close contact with reality. With a statement like, we have to wage war to get peace, we have something terrifying. It is terrifying when someone says something like this publicly and has an army behind him. It is going to have consequences and the consequences are hideous.

[Heyen:] I don't know if I can put my finger on it exactly, but for some reason you, Robert Bly, and William Stafford are often talked about together. It seems to me that one of the things that unites this group's thrust is that the three of you are trying to get underneath the language of convention, the language gone rotten that William Carlos Williams was always very obstreperous about. What you are trying to do is, as William Stafford puts it, leave yourself loose enough to have the world come in upon you, so that the poem creates itself and is not directed by a kind of upper, conventionalized consciousness. Stafford mentions somewhere that William Blake wanted to reach out and follow that golden string of intuition or suggestion. It seems to me that the root impulse of this is a moral thing: to get underneath the political jargon we hear all the time to something very true and real.

It's partly that. In this kind of poetry there is involved a willingness on the part of the poet to trust the language a little more, and perhaps to trust nature, trust other living things. And yet it is literally difficult for human beings to trust one another right now. To go back to the example of the people in cities, this is surely one of the ghastly things about our own time. We walk through the city and see someone lying on the sidewalk, foaming at the mouth or whatever. Anyone in New York City would certainly think twice because you don't know what's going to happen—maybe he'll bite you. Or, maybe the real fear is that you'll bite him.

[Heyen:] This reminds me of your poem “Saint Judas.” Does my connection make any sense? I'm not sure, but the theme of the Samaritan is a peculiarly modern aspect of the kind of alienation we feel. I wonder if you'd read it and talk about it.

Well—this poem is called “Saint Judas” and it takes off from the biblical story of Judas, who placed himself beyond the moral pale, and he realized this. I've always been strongly moved by his hanging himself. Why did he do it? You would think he'd be a completely cold person. And yet, he couldn't have been to experience such complete despair. I tried to imagine what Judas was like.


When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

[Heyen:] Do you remember how you chose “Saint Judas” for the title poem of that volume?

I don't remember exactly. I had the poems arranged in a certain way and “Saint Judas” was the last. It's a short poem and sort of a summary, stylistically and thematically, of everything I was trying to do in the book. It's a book about desolation of the spirit, and so I thought that “Saint Judas” would bring everything into focus.

[Mazzaro:] May we talk about the upcoming Collected Poems for a second? You are going to, I believe, print in book form some of the poems from the years between Saint Judas and The Branch Will Not Break which appeared in magazines in the early sixties?

I'm not going to reprint those yet. What I'm doing presently is practically all The Green Wall, all of Saint Judas, and then there will be a section called “Some Translations.” I've gotten together about thirty-five translations from around the time after I'd finished Saint Judas. During that time I was searching around, trying to write something new; I stopped writing things of my own then for a while and tried some translations. For me this was a good exploration. It introduced me to a world I hadn't known before; I did many translations—a great many, out of which I've chosen about thirty-five to print. And then will come The Branch Will Not Break, then Shall We Gather At The River, and then some thirty new poems.

[Mazzaro:] I do know that one of your favorite authors is Dickens. But I have yet to catch a Dickensian spirit in your poetry. Is this coming?

One of these days, I hope. When we speak of the Dickensian spirit, first of all I guess we mean the tremendous spirit of laughter to be had. But, along with that laughter comes a tremendous understanding of the dark world and people who live on the other side of the billboard.

[Mazzaro:] You do have that sense of the Dickensian lower world in many of your poems. But the sense of Dickensian laughter is different from that in your poems. Dickens is more eccentric. His characters are a little bit more eccentric than Mr. Bluehart. Is this ability to capture the eccentric what makes Dickens' humor so memorable for you?

I certainly enjoy that aspect of life, and Dickens caught that better than anyone else: the complete nuttiness of people. Santayana said people who think Dickens exaggerated are people who just don't know how to pay attention. Dickens' people are rather strange, interesting creatures.

[Heyen:] I think real humor comes into your poetry with The Branch Will Not Break, but maybe it's a kind of sad humor. I'm thinking of titles like, “In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned,” from Shall We Gather At The River. And in The Branch Will Not Break, the one entitled “Depressed By A Book Of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward An Unused Pasture And Invite The Insects To Join Me.” Read that for us, would you?


Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment, and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

That literally happened. Someone asked me to review a certain anthology and the poems in it seemed to me to be so bad, so trite in their hysteria that I just got sick of them. I didn't want to expose my mind to those bone-crushing banalities anymore. I wanted to hear the cricket or something.

[Mazzaro:] The poem reminded me that there is a touch of the “absurd” in your whole approach. I was wondering how profound an influence, do you think, Albert Camus has had on the writers of your generation.

I don't know how profound an influence there is, but there certainly is one. He's affected so many people. One can't escape it, and one shouldn't. He's a serious man.

[Mazzaro:] Somehow your defeated saviors are like his Sisyphus.

What a terrible myth that is.

[Heyen:] Unless it's read happily.

Yes. Laurel and Hardy, it occurs to me, used the same thing in moving their piano. Remember, the film will begin and they're moving their piano again. You don't know why, but you join in. They'll deliver it, get it up the hill on this concrete outdoor stairway, and pause to wipe their brows. The piano comes thundering down, crashing through about three houses.

[Heyen:] If I might change the ground a bit. The translations of various poets that you've done, and the ones you've done with Robert Bly, may have been a very fertile influence on your own work, and on American poetry. People talk about the wonderful kind of imagery that we get from Trakl or from certain South American poets. Can you make a distinction between what the image is for, say, Trakl, as opposed to what it was for the English and American Imagists? What is this new imagery that Bly and Wright are talking about? How is it different?

I don't know that the really effective image in any poem is different from the effective image in another, at least artistically.

[Heyen:] Would it have something to do with the hard conjunctioning of images? I mean, reading your translations of Trakl, I see how one image sort of leaps in almost a shocking way, into a different kind of world. Another image will then open another world. The poems are less rounded than those of the Imagists. They visit more worlds than one. There's not that consistency that we get in those 1910 Imagist poems, not that circle.

Well, the world that Trakl lived and wrote in was the same world of the British and American Imagists, but he saw it differently. His experience was quite different. I think the crucial thing in his life was that he felt a war coming. I'm sure many people did, but he understood what it would be like. He understood that war in this century was not going to be like any other war, that there was going to be a kind of war that had no redeeming qualities at all. The machine guns and the bombs and so on.

[Mazzaro:] Many people have remarked that the world wars of our century along with automation and technology have made us less human. At least they have tended to increase our tolerance for brutality. You write poetry that tries to counter this, that tries to bring us back to humanity. Is that your deliberate purpose? Do you consciously pursue that goal?

I think it is conscious, Jerry, in that I know from my own experience that perpetual exposure to violence and the representations of violence have threatened my own capacity to feel. Often, through poetry, I've tried to find a way to restore that capacity, to keep it alive. I think that all of us are threatened not only by physical violence; our very emotional lives, our moral lives are threatened. The dreadful things that have happened in Southeast Asia, that are happening in the Middle East right now, are not felt as real by many people. They have been desensitized in regard to actual violence and brutality by the constant viewing of so-called imaginative television shows like Combat and the many World War II movies.

[Mazzaro:] This recalls a commercial for athlete's foot medication that I see on television. In it is a comic skit which may acclimatize many viewers to chemical warfare. It's a very sinister commercial.

[Heyen:] Would you elaborate on that, Jerry?

[Mazzaro:] Yes, that commercial captures exactly what I believe Mr. Wright is speaking of. In that cartoon commercial there are the figures Fungus, Itch, and so forth. They launch a campaign against a human foot, and soon swarm all over that foot, making it wiggle in discomfort. They are sprayed with the athlete's foot medication; they are foiled; and the figures quickly beat a retreat, carrying their dead. One figure reports this turn of events to the general—the head Itch or whatever—and in a mock-villainous way he says something like, “Unfair! They're using chemical warfare!” The whole thing is done with such nicety that a whole generation of children, at least, may more readily accept the “normality” of chemical warfare.

Yes, and did you ever see Hogan's Heroes? In that weekly show you have American troops in a prisoner of war camp during World War II. And the Nazi commandant is a jolly synthetic comic figure. Everything is very jolly for everyone involved. How far from reality can you get?

[Heyen:] Jerry, Mr. Wright, I'm afraid our time is up. Thank you both very much.

Charles Molesworth (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “James Wright and the Dissolving Self,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 222-33.

[In the following essay, Molesworth reflects on the poetic implications of Wright's movement from his early distanced, classic style to his later romantic, more personal one.]

Susan Sontag said that the two chief elements of the modern sensibility are “homosexual aesthetic irony and Jewish moral earnestness.” Perhaps the first qualifier in each triplet is excessive, but certainly most modern artists have traces of both qualities in some combination. In looking at his career, we can see that James Wright has moved from irony to earnestness. Because in his poetry the artist is still the suffering hero, because the outsider is still the seer, and most of all because the self is problematic even beyond the snares of the world, James Wright is modern. Because of the peculiar way these themes and subjects are articulated in his poetry, and through the course of his career, however, he might be more accurately considered a post-modern poet. But that may mean nothing more than Wright prefers the immersion of sentiment to the suspension of irony, in other words, that he acknowledges his own romanticism.

The problem of the self in the lyric poem, essentially a problem left over from the great English Romantics, animates Wright's poetry from its very beginnings. The problem can be simply stated, though seldom does Wright offer it, or resolve it, in simple terms. The lyric poem, as it approaches song as one of its aesthetic limits, threatens to dissolve the self in which it originates. Melody and pulse capture the discerning eye and the articulating voice and return them both to the status of natural forces. On the other hand, the lyric poem vindicates and justifies the self; its very structure is co-terminous with the discovery of the self which its very voicings make possible. Two loci classici epitomize the polar possibilities of this tension: where Keats, listening to the nightingale singing, says “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” and Shelley's command to the west wind, “Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” The voice that sings conjures a world, and that world may not have a place in it for the singer; then again, it may delight in pointing out that the world is the singer.

Whether the self is to be dissolved by its song or whether the song will dissolve the world into the singer: this unresolved problem remained to haunt the chief poets of the modern era. When Eliot says “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates,” we realize that he has come up with a radical solution to the problem. The ironic mode offers one way to deal with this set of concerns. By dividing the self over the possibilities of emotional evaporation and intellectual concentration, by choosing neither to lose the self in feelings nor to locate it in unequivocation, the poet both acknowleges the perennial depth of the problem as well as its existential fascination.

But when the Eliotic hegemony dissolved in the late '50's, the problem returned with a different set of possible resolutions. Williams reminded us that “the descent beckons,” and Roethke turned his words over to the wind. A new spirit of release, of abandonment, took over in American poetry. At one level, the new solution was a new subject matter; confessional poetry, often using irony as its dominant mode, sought to explore the “man who suffers.” But there was another way to descend into the self, as Williams also noted “A / world lost, a world unsuspected.” This other way traversed and released the buried memories of the preternatural, the mystical lost world which offered, in the wake of its discovery, a new man. But to re-discover this world, or more exactly the gnostic discipline that would open this world, the poet must immerse himself not simply in his own suffering, but in the principles of suffering itself; as he does so he must form for himself, not a tragic view, but a beatific one. As Juan Ramon Jiménez says, in Wright's translation:

And life begins to grow
within us, the delightful daylight
that cannot be switched off,
that is thinning, now, somewhere else.
                    Ah, how lovely, how lovely,
truth, even if it is not real, how lovely!

Wright begins his search, again using a poem from Jiménez, for a “divine plainness,” that will “pierce the familiar certainty,” and “place a new soul into whatever is real.”

This search leads Wright away from the irony so valued by Eliot and indulged in so often by his imitators, towards a poetry of sentiment, in which emotions are allowed freer play and the self is celebrated rather than divided. Yet such a celebration of the self takes place only when the self turns over its powers to its own emotions, its own consciousness, when, in other words, the soul is willing to dissolve the ground of its own being. Such dissolution, of course, some people identify simply as ecstasy. Wright's ecstasy, however, is not for ecstasy's sake, nor is it simply for the poem's sake. It is for Wright's own sake, it is the only way he has of realizing himself—realizing both in the sense of “becoming real” and “coming to know.” Again quoting Williams: “The descent / made up of despairs / and without accomplishment / realizes a new awakening: / which is a reversal / of despair.” This is the way Wright has chosen for himself. And in so choosing, he is willing to go “without accomplishment,” indeed, he is even willing to sacrifice an accomplishment very dear to him, the meticulous control and craft of his own verse.

If by style we mean the intersection of a peculiar temperament, syntax, and mode of perception, then Wright has become one of the most stylish of contemporary poets. His poetry has accrued to itself several various terms of description: deep image, Neo-Imagist, Jungian, American surrealist, etc. The first of these is the most natural term, since it appears in the Sixties magazine (once the Fifties, now, sporadically, the Seventies) where, with Robert Bly, Wright worked out much of his poetic. The term “deep image” connotes the nondiscursive, the archetypal. We are put in mind of Pound's description of the image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” For Pound the energy was stored in the tense but complementary relation between “complex” (the polysemous, the traditional, the ordered, “poetry as a criticism of life”) and “instant” (the concision, the sculptured edge, the “make it new” commandment). Wright accepts all this, but goes further, into the pre-conscious, if not the unconscious of the poet, beneath tradition, beyond orders of meaning into fields of light and fears of darkness.

He has been quoted as saying, with the publication of The Branch Will Not Break, that “whatever I write from now on will be different … I am finished with what I was doing.” Which is to say, he had left the aesthetic modes of the '50's behind him. But such Pauline fervor, such evangelistic absolutism is bred into Wright's midwestern sensibility from the very beginning. Even though he now teaches in New York City, we will see that his view of the metropolis still contains a wide border of Lutheran mistrust of deeds, along with a concomitant trust in redeemed, and redeeming, consciousness.

In his first book, The Green Wall (1957), a Yale Younger Poet selection chosen by W. H. Auden, Wright exhibits a consciousness, and a conscience, of an outsider, a harsh sentimentality that locates its most adequate objects in condemned prisoners and oppressed women. At least three of the poems have female personae, and Wright has spoken of his conscious imitation of Robert Frost. When the persona of a poem is male, the women presented are often shown to be insubstantial: “I sought, bewildered, for her face, / No more than splendid air, gone blind,” or “The blue dusk bore feathers beyond our eyes, / Dissolved all wings as you, your hair dissolved, / Your frame of bone blown hollow as a house …” The subtle articulation of sound effects in that last line, plus the controlled, and controlling simile, represent the dominant style of Wright's early work. Wright's control here is truly admirable, and his volume in the Yale series remains one of the best titles in what is almost bound to be a spotty list. The verse stays so polished, so delightful just as artifice, without ever becoming empty or facile, that one cannot help but wonder if Wright had not used up the dominant mode of the '50's with his very first book. But Wright's vigorously humane intelligence keeps the book from being more than a collection of set pieces.

It is no wonder that the poem that remains the sharpest, “Sappho,” is about a Lesbian relationship, spoken by the Lesbian as she laments the return of the other woman to her husband. The Lesbian in part accepts her social role as “sinner,” yet almost because of her being ostracized, her perceptions are clearer, and her emotions more authentic. By submitting she dominates. It's a moving poem, almost never anthologized, and besides demonstrating Wright's use of the outsider, it shows an extremely effective free verse line at work in the service of a psychological realism that manages to avoid stylization. Because of that, it forecasts what is to come for Wright. It is not the average ’50's poem, unless one considers that it ends in inanition.

With the publication of Saint Judas (1959) Wright began to demonstrate some of the less refined sentiment that marks his later work. This sentiment combined with a heightened rhetoric and a cultivated awe, through the use of open simple images that widened rather than defined the poems' emotional drifts. An abundant use of simple rhyme, archly phrased rhetoric, and a not-quite-relaxed colloquialism occasionally mar some of the poems. The book is, to me, less interesting than The Green Wall because it lacks a variety of personae, and its central existential “I” seems too theatrical (“I cannot live or die,” or “I looked behind me where my wings were gone”), though sometimes it has just the right mixture of boldness and disgust (“Order be damned, I do not want to die, / Even to keep Belaire, Ohio, safe.”).

Three poems deserve special mention in this volume, however. The best poems are “The Cold Divinities” and “At the Slackening of the Tide.” This is the last stanza of the former:

But slowly twilight gathered up the skiffs
Into its long gray arms; and though the sea
Grew kind as possible to wrack-splayed birds;
And though the sea like woman vaguely wept;
She could not hide her clear enduring face,
Her cold divinities of death and change.

Simple, emotional, not afraid to be vulnerable, this stanza presents the sea as perhaps only a midwesterner can see it. The religious feeling of “cold divinities” seems just right because it avoids piety and yet is both eternal (“enduring face”) and human (“like woman vaguely wept”). There is a beauty and a passiveness here, associated with the mythically feminine, which we will see again and again in the later two books as they celebrate “the mysterious lives / Of the unnamed poor.” The pervading feeling here forces on the poet, and us, a realization of the limitation of the self, as Wright verges on a total loss of self in the face of nature's unyielding immensities. Yet the effect of the emotion results from Wright's personification of the sea in such controlled and stirring terms. The self seems to both lose and find itself in the imputed hypostatis of the sea.

The third poem of continuing interest from this volume is “The Morality of Poetry,” whose very title signals a shift from the highly controlled, autotelic verse emulated by most of the then current theorizers. After saying “Before you let a single word escape, / Starve it in darkness; lash it to the shape / Of tense wing skimming on the sea alone …,” Wright describes his failure to formulate a poetics:

Woman or bird, she [the moon] plumes the ashening sound
Flaunting to nothingness the rules I made,
Scattering cinders, widening, over the sand
Her cold epistle falls. To plumb the fall
Of silver on ripple, evening ripple on wave,
Quick celebration where she lives for light,
I let all measures die.

The poet abandons measure, the principles of ordered utterance, in favor of the measure of things themselves, knowing both the beauty of moon-light and the regularity of nature will constitute his sacramental offering. This, I believe, is one of the central tenets of Wright's poetry, and it is through the unremitting adoption of this belief that Wright found his own later style. This movement from control and measure, from the strictures represented by verse, to the mysteries of self-less absorption in the reverberating patterns of nature marks a dangerous threat, as well as a wonderous promise, that Wright had been avoiding since The Green Wall and that continues to haunt him in the last poem of Shall We Gather At The River (“Come up to me, love / Out of the river, or I will? Come down to you.”) Here is the conclusion of “The Morality of Poetry”:

I send you shoreward echoes of my voice:
The dithyrambic gestures of the moon,
Sun-lost, the mind plumed, Dionysian,
A blue sea-poem, joy, moon-ripple on wave.

The poet discovers a reaffirmative poetic by emulating the release of Dionysus, by gaining a beatific vision of and through nature. Pausing a moment at the mid-way point of Wright's career, it is noteworthy that at least two things appear in both of Wright's first books: love is imaged as stone, and someone drowns. The hard measured emotions contrast sharply with the fluid rechannelings of the self; the cold light of the moon must be taken up by the changing sea.

Wright's next two books mark a decisive break from his previous mode, a break much debated and discussed, viewed as a significant step forward or, by some, as an abandonment of skill and intelligent balance. Both The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather At The River (1968) employ a kind of surrealism, at least a kind of surrealist succession of disparate images, whose very isolation constitutes the tissue of the poem's structure, as well as its affective texture. The peculiar emotional feel of these later Wright poems is what is distinctive about them. In places their virtual tonelessness seems to insist that they are “gestures of the moon,” cold, implacable, and yet somehow fragile. The by now famous “Lying In A Hammock …” poem, with its flat concluding statement, “I have wasted my life,” leaps out or falls limp in the reader's face, giving or taking little quarter with safe notions about poetic logic. Yet a close examination of “Lying In A Hammock” will reveal that the last line is not a surprise; if anything it has been over-prepared for, and that, I think, is really why it gets anthologized so often. With a few adjustments it can be assimilated into a sensibility that still prizes the ironic suspension of self among several possibilities. Only in its final statement does it collapse all these possibilities into an unequivocal admission. The “black trunk,” the “distances of the afternoon,” the horse manure that “blaze[s] up into golden stones” are all extremely poeticized images. The poem itself, however, doesn't cloy because its disjunctive syntax, its refusal to subordinate or balance the clauses, rejects the control of irony and distance for the sentiment of helpless, unexcused self-victimization.

One thing should be said about these later poems: occasionally some of the lines are badly written, however they might be sincerely felt. “Tonight, / The cancerous ghosts of old con men / Shed their leaves.” “A cop's palm / Is a roach dangling down the scorched fangs / Of a light bulb.” What is most striking about the lines out of context is how overwrought, emotionally speaking, the adjectives are, and yet poetically undercharged. “Cancerous,” “scorched,” and “dangling” are slack, hackneyed, and falsely plangent. The excess feeling also causes the metaphors to blur; in fact, we are back close to something like the “emotional slither” that Pound so castigated in late Victorian poetry. The problem for Wright is to find a mode, and a diction, that will allow him to break open his consciousness with affective suddenness without succumbing to mere pathos.

Here is a poem from Shall We Gather that will illustrate most of the features of the late, developed style:


Along the sprawled body of the derailed Great Northern freight
I strike a match slowly and lift it slowly.
No wind.
Beyond town, three heavy white horses
Wade all the way to their shoulders
In a silo shadow.
Suddenly the freight car lurches.
The door slams back, a man with a flashlight
Calls me good evening.
I nod as I write good evening, lonely
and sick for home.

The specific geographical location, the alienated landscape (“derailed”), the ordinary gesture overfraught with significance (lines 3-4), the sudden leap to another perspective in the second stanza (notice how the temporal dimension here is mythical, featureless, a kind of ablative absolute), the world of shadows and sudden disruptions, and finally the central consciousness of the poem completes (or destroys?) itself in the last, abrupt moment. A majority of those characteristics go to make up almost every poem in the last two books. One way to read this particular poem, and others like it, is to re-read it; that is, like a periodic sentence, the controlling action comes only at the end, and we must go back and re-evaluate all the relationships in the poem on that basis. Is this poem “really” about the interior life of the poet? If so, isn't its appropriation of all those external realities a selfish, egocentric act, rather than a selfless, ecstatic one? Are the horses there because the numinous, mythical aspects of nature are necessary to give the poem depth (why the number three, for example)? Keats said he hated poetry that “had designs” on him. Surely this is that kind of poem; surely what few “literary” effects it allows itself are all in the service of taking us in, rather than getting the poet out into, the mood of the poem.

These are certainly “shoreward echoes of [a] voice,” such faint emanations that even as the moment occurs in the poem (“Calls me good evening”) it becomes no more than a poetic gesture (“I write good evening”). Here the myth of the person is central. Again Keats can help, for he defines negative capability as being in doubts and uncertainties without “any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” and something like this is operating in Wright's poetry. But where is the joy of which Wright spoke? Instead he admits “I speak of flat defeat / In a flat voice.” When he begins a poem “My life was never so precious / To me as now,” the next line is flooded with self-consciousness: “I gaze unbelieving at those two lines.” Even as early as Saint Judas Wright's sense of himself as a writer (“I croon my tears at fifty cents a line”) has been fitful, serving by turns as his greatest burden and his only salvation (“I have nothing to ask a blessing for, / Except these words.”).

This central, personal myth—that the poet must lose himself in things, for only there will he find his tongue, the only agency of his true survival—lies pervasively installed in all of Wright's poetry. That is why images of birds (“I want to be lifted up / By some great white bird unknown to the police”), and animals and insects, recur constantly along with that sense of darkness, of a world hidden inside the seen world, which promises an inhuman illumination. The myth of the social outsider, the creature whose antinomian purity is a reservoir of hope, however distant and unrealizable, merges perfectly with this redemptive view of the poet. And the scene of the poet-outsider's redemption is more and more often the body in or by which the expanded consciousness and the re-discovered word is made articulate. As Wright says at the end of “Poems To A Brown Cricket”:

Here, I will stand by you, shadowless,
At the small golden door of your body till you wake
In a book that is shining.

He speaks “To The Poets In New York” and the message, of alienation, of loss of self, of re-birth, remains the same:

You strolled in the open, leisurely and alone,
Daydreaming of a beautiful human body
That had undressed quietly and slipped into the river
And become the river:
The proud body of an animal that would transform
The snaggled gears and pulleys
Into a plant that grows under water.

There is an awesome fear of the fallen human body here that reminds me of Thoreau, and an embracing of the mundane in order to transform it that clearly echoes William Carlos Williams. And there is an Orphic mythifying of nature that recalls Goethe and Emerson. But behind it all I hear most strongly, if not most clearly, the voice of Keats: “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts … the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the Spirit with a fine Suddenness.”

The mind coming on the spirit with a fine suddenness: this is just different enough from Pound's “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” to be very different indeed. Instead of sharp tension and ironic movement through the phrase (cf. Pound's “Franchise for circumcision” or “His true Penelope was Flaubert,” the mot juste), we have a different sort of movement, one which doesn't value the single line so much as the reverberations at the end of the stanza. But such prosodic speculation is only part of the story (see, for example, Robert Bly's polemic against “technique” in Naked Poetry); behind this shift is a change of heart, a transvaluation of value which has reached far beyond Eliot and Pound. It mixes anti-intellectualism, symbolic looseness, Shelleyan inflation, un-ironic theatricality, all at the same time it retains much of the rigor and clarity of the Imagist revolution of the first two decades of the 20th century.

In addition to his four previously published books, Wright includes thirty-three new poems and thirty translations in his Collected Poems (1971). The translations are from poets such as Trakl, Neruda, Vallejo, and Jiménez, whose short poems seem especially close to Wright's celebratory, non-ironic spirit. The new poems are uneven in quality, often self-indulgent (“Nobody else will follow / This poem but you, / But I don't care”), sometimes bathetic (“I don't even know where / My own grave is.”), and it is easy to see why Wright did not issue them as a separate volume. Many concerns and images reappear from the earlier books, though the scene of the poem is now as likely to be the city as the country. The self-doubt and self-laceration has intensified, and it insists that we, all of us, are implicated.

We can kill anything.
We can kill our own bodies.
Those deer on the hillside have no idea what in hell
We are except murderers.
They know that much, and don't think
They don't.
Man's heart is the rotten yolk of a blacksnake egg
Corroding, as it is just born, in a pile of dead
Horse dung.
I have no use for the human creature.
He subtly extracts pain awake in his own kind.
I am born one, out of an accidental hump of chemistry.
I have no use.

Even assuming “hump” is a misprint for “lump” and that some other typographical corrections might smooth out the syntax of the third-to-last line, this passage fails for a wide range of reasons, not the least of which is its use of “mangled figures of speech” which Wright laments in the “young poets of New York.” “The kind of poem I want to write is / The poetry of a grown man,” he pleads, but this doesn't seem to be it.

That last quote is from “Many Of Our Waters: Variations On a Poem By A Black Child,” the Phi Beta Kappa poem delivered at William and Mary in 1969. The longest of the new poems, it contains the worst and the best of Wright, that is, his best sentiments and his worst writing, a “scattering poem” by his own admission. These two stanzas illustrate the difficulties:

I know something about the pure clear word,
Though I am not yet a grown man.
And who is he?
The long body of his dream is the beginning of a dark
Hair under an illiterate
Girl's ear.

The “illiterate” lets us know Wright is a sentimental liberal; the syntactical elaboration of the metaphor demonstrates how involuted and indefineable his perceptions are; the modifiers “long” and “dark” signal that he wants to remain a simple, passionate poet; the assurance of the first assertion is balanced by the humility of the unadorned second line. But do we have here an example of the “pure, clear word,” or an elaborately ironic joke which is really at Wright's expense? Surely, he can't think that his comparison really illuminates anything except his own momentary illiteracy. Yet perhaps he wants that illiteracy to be what rescues the sentiment, rescues it by its dumb, insistent, yet beautiful earnestness. Read in the context of all of Wright's poems, we have to take the poem without irony, even if that makes the poem much less successful. When one becomes as deliberately vulnerable as Wright has become, ordinary strictures about emotional control and artistic clarity are beside the point.

If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.
Thank you.

Some poems seem only an exit for themselves, so they can only be left behind. We leave knowing what is meant, but we take no new meanings with us. When an ironic poem fails, it's because it's been too carefully suspended above its own feelings, but when a sentimental poem fails, it's because it merely immerses us in ourselves. The plainness of Wright's feelings threatens to bring a stop to the inventiveness of his words.

The risks involved in following out the dictates of his new style are considerable, and by his occasional, nervous self-consciousness Wright indicates that he is well aware of them. So far I think the rewards have been mixed for his poetry, whatever their effects on him personally. What is most challenging about the questions raised however, is that they must have made Wright, and they will surely make us, reconsider assumptions about the very nature of the self, especially as that nebulous and protean entity exist in poems. Is form itself a way of asserting and aggrandizing the self, or a way of turning the self over to larger forces? No simple talk about keeping the persona separate from the author, or extrapolating from an ironic distance, will suffice in clarifying these problems. For the reader as well as the writer the poem can be a “momentary stay against confusion,” but we take up poems and we lay them down in the exigent world. Whether we are enlarged or dissolved by them, or enlarged by being dissolved, depends in crucial ways on how and why their authors took them up in the first place. Finally, the dumbest, but most important, question we can ask of a poem is “Is it sincere?” The question is dumb because even when we can answer it, we haven't been told much. But it's something we must know.

Wright is, I believe, a sincere man, and when his poems are most successful, it's not simply because he has found a controlling form for his emotions. More inexactly, it's because the question of control has been put aside, for the voice that speaks uncovers and exhausts itself simultaneously. A good lyric poet—and Wright is that—understands that every divinity, especially the musically divine, controls and reveals itself in death and change.

William Matthews (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: “The Continuity of James Wright's Poems,” in The Ohio Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 44-57.

[In the following essay, Matthews argues against the accepted critical judgement that Wright's early, metrically formal poetry is more skillful than his later free verse.]

By now most everyone who cares about American poetry knows the story about James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963). But like the tale of Abner Doubleday and the invention of baseball, the story is more shapely than true, and its use has been primarily for polemicists. So because I think James Wright has already written a significant body of generous and beautiful poems, and because I think the story distracts us from noticing some of the more important things Wright has actually been doing in developing that body of poetry, I begin my essay-in-tribute by debunking it.

For Robert Bly, writing in The Sixties in 1966, The Branch Will Not Break signalled an escape. One kind of poetry, influenced by Eliot and Ransom, was a jail. The world is vast, various. “Yet the colleges still understand poetry as a climb into a walled garden.”

Writing in The Nation in 1963, L. D. Rubin, Jr., had argued—embodying the tunnel vision that drove Bly to distraction—that Wright's book “is a kind of willful refusal to enter into the business of interpreting experience.” Implicit in Rubin's diction is the idea of a poet as interpreter for hire. Perhaps the fatigue of writing criticism had so infused Rubin that he imagined in Wright a refusal that Rubin had not been able to make.

To other critics, technical differences were important. The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959) contained primarily poems written in rhyme, metrically regular. The Branch Will Not Break did not. Neither did Shall We Gather at the River (1968), so that in Alone with America (1969), Richard Howard could contend that Wright “had written four volumes of poetry, two in verse and two (it is tempting to say) inversely. …” And in an interesting appreciative article in The Georgia Review in 1973, James Seay says that after Wright's second book, “the poems … became less formal.”

But surely all poems are formal. They take shape. For them to take a shape relatively unlike the shape of other poems is not the same thing as it is to be informal or inverse.


Bly has written well of one important feature in Wright's early work. The themes for which Wright has been so widely praised since the presumed conversion marked by The Branch Will Not Break were present from the beginning. “He has more respect for those who break laws than those who keep them,” Bly wrote during our war in Vietnam. Wright is drawn to the dead, the drunk, the defeated. He is interested “not in a poetic grief, … but in an insupportable grief.”

“The Seasonless” is a poem about the dispossessed from The Green Wall, written in octosyllabics in a recurring stanza (ABABCDEECD). The truth is, many of Wright's early poems in traditional forms are not particularly well written. Here is the first stanza of “The Seasonless”:

When snows begin to fill the park,
It is not hard to keep the eyes
Secure against the flickering dark,
Aware of summer ghosts that rise.
The blistered trellis seems to move
The memory toward root and rose,
The empty fountain fills the air
With spray that spangled women's hair;
And men who walk this park in love
May bide the time of falling snows.

This is not good writing. Adjectives like “flickering, summer, empty, spangled, falling,” all seem predictable, both for their becalmed tone and to fill out the slack sail of the metrics. Throughout the stanza the emotional distance between the speaker and poem is considerable, as emphasized by the verbs “begin, seems, may.” An indirect construction like “It is not hard” works similarly. Yet this emotional distance serves no purpose in the poem, which strives to be about the speaker's identification with these lonely men. Indeed, in the fourth stanza, “lonely underneath a heap / Of overcoat and crusted ice, / A man goes by, and looks for sleep.” I think this man is the speaker of the poem. “Nothing about his face revives / A longing to evade the cold.” Wright's distrust of consolation is one of the things I love most in his poems. But there is something too neat and summary about these two lines, as if they explained not something in the poem, but the poet's attitude toward the poem.

And after these two lines the poem closes with four more:

The night returns to keep him old,
And why should he, the lost and lulled,
Pray for the night of vanished lives,
The day of girls blown green and gold?

It is as if writing in a form that has been so well used by masters of English poetry makes it almost impossible for Wright not to load his lines with echoes, including those echoes of a general tone that produce a prettily blurred sound. “The night returns to keep him old” is noisily significant, but doesn't, actually, make sense. Can the night go away? Given that time goes on, can anyone be kept old or young? The specific echoes in the last line—of Housman, of Frost's “Nothing Gold Can Stay”—are so loud they constitute a failure of tact and proportion, and the line is difficult to read as anything but an echo.


I spend so much time on an early poem I don't like in order to suggest that Wright did not abandon, in a dramatic move similar to religious conversion, an early career as a glib poet in traditional forms. Like most young poets, he began in the currently accepted style. I think not only that he found it wanting, but also that it found him wanting. Comparing his early poems, let's say, to Richard Wilbur's, we see that Wright used traditional forms clumsily. To use a period style well, one has to fight its habits, which are often bad habits and are certainly bad in that they are the habits of others. And to find in a period style those elements that are genuinely and usefully traditional is a complex enterprise. I believe that Wright is a profoundly traditional poet, but that he discovered his personal uses for literary tradition through rhetorical forms, rather than through stanza forms or rhyming patterns.

Many of his rhetorical forms come from the King James Bible, both in its official and written form as Scripture, and in its unofficial and oral form as evangelists' spiels, florid persuasion. In these models the Word and the word are close. Another model is plain talk, which is direct, colloquial, confessional; here fancy language is a likely sign of insincerity, and Wright's declared use of E.A. Robinson and Frost as models makes sense as an attempt to reconcile his love and suspicion of rhetoric.

The poem “At The Executed Murderer's Grave,” from Saint Judas, exhibits as well as any poem from this stage of Wright's career the war between rhetorical and stanza models. The poem is in iambic pentameter, and its metrical pressures cause some bad mangles. Here are the first four lines:

My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.

The first line is fine, and gives us the sense, typical in Wright, that to be born is to die in order to be born again. “Infected” strikes a prophet's note (Isaiah, I guess, would be the prophet Wright reads most avidly). But the inversion in lines three and four is ugly and metrically awkward. It is rough-hewn enough to be sincere, if sincerity is measured by a certain retraction from glossy skill. But paying attention to roughing up the lines, on the one hand, and to the measure by which we judge them rough or smooth, on the other, reveals a divided attention. And Wright's urge is to be whole.

Earth is a door I cannot even face.
Order be damned, I do not want to die,
Even to keep Bellaire, Ohio, safe.

In a later poem, I think, Wright would have written “a door I cannot face.” The “even” is filler. But not “can't” for “cannot.” And these lines bring the poem close to a central imaginative problem for Wright. The earth is lovely and it lives by death. What can we do with such knowledge?


To say that Wright's language grows at once simpler and more successfully formal is to go upstream against the implications of Bly, Rubin, Howard, and Seay. To talk of prose style in such terms would surprise nobody. Dialogue in Hemingway is both “simple” and “formal,” and Nabokov's elaborately “formal” rendering of Lolita's simplicities is one of the glories of American fiction. But in reference to poetry, such terms are too often assumed to be contradictory. I don't understand why. To see a sonnet as more “formal” than a list in Whitman is to believe an ocelot more formal than a lizard. Neither am I interested to imagine which animal is more “organic.”

The poems in The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, and the poems in Wright's subsequent Two Citizens (1973), continue his characteristic themes. We see the faded, the defeated, the dead. And for everyone, a vast loneliness. In one poem Wright tells us that “the sea … once solved the whole loneliness / Of the midwest.” For loneliness to be both whole and soluble is a paradox central to Wright's imagination.

But Wright's style had changed, becoming both more plain and more formal. It reminds me as much of Sherwood Anderson's prose as it does of any poet. Here is a passage from a letter Anderson wrote to a son who was a young painter.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any clearness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for fifteen years before I produced anything with solidity to it.

For days, weeks, and months now I can't do it.

You saw me in Paris this winter. I was in a dead blank time. You have to live through such times all your life.

The thing, of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.

I'm reminded of these lines from “She's Awake,” in Two Citizens.

For God's sake, wake up, how in hell am I going to die?
It was easy.
All I had to do was delete the words lonely and shadow,
Dispose of the dactylic hexameters into amphibrachs
Gather your lonely life into my life,
And love your life.

Another poem in Two Citizens, “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martin's Ferry, Ohio,” ends:

I have loved you all this time
And didn't even know
I am alive.

I think that for Wright the object of art is to save yourself, and the point of being an artist is that you may live.


The passage from Anderson also reminds me of Wright because it is in the plain style. Anderson can write a sentence like “I was in a dead blank time” only by deleting the words lonely and shadow. Wright has worked hard to make such deletions. Bly complained, justifiably I think, that in The Branch Will Not Break, “even the ants are well read.” In that book we find lines like

Mother of roots, you have not seeded
The tall ashes of loneliness
For me. Therefore,
Now I go

The same poem (“Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium”) ends:

Look, I am nothing.
I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.

In Collected Poems (1971), Wright included a selection of his translations (from Jimenez, Guillen, Neruda, Trakl, Vallejo, Salinas and Goethe) between Saint Judas and The Branch Will Not Break. A translator can bring over into his own language the denotative level of a poem and its physical imagery. But tonal and textural peculiarities in the poem are in the language—we might almost say of the language—in which it was written. They can't be detached from it. The average translator stops here. Wright is a good translator, and invents for his English versions devices to produce an effect in the reader that feels something like the way the poem in the original felt to Wright. But even when a good translator is at work, his version is usually slightly less complicated, tonally and texturally, than the original poem. So that when Wright was working on these translations and producing English versions simpler than the poems in his own first two books, he may well have taken courage in his struggle for a plain style in his own poems. Certainly lines like

Look: I am nothing.
I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.

are better, cleaner, and embody clearer emotions, than almost any lines from the first two books.

Translating can influence a poet in other ways. In English we indicate whether a genitive construction is subjective or objective by word order; in Romance languages this is done by inflection. So in a Romance language a genitive can sometimes be ambiguous, either subjective or objective. To translate the phrase into colloquial English would require resolving the ambiguity. It would either be the roots' mother or a mother made of roots. To preserve the ambiguity a translator says “mother of roots.” Now, that phrase is Wright's own. But it was after he made many of his translations that he began to use the “of” construction frequently in his poems. Its effect is compression. The poem “Twilights” ends with a single line set off as a separate stanza:

A red shadow of steel mills.

In that line the compression and ambiguity are effective. But in “mother of roots” and “tall ashes of loneliness,” because the whole passage is not principally written to evoke a complicated mood or perception (as “a red shadow of steel mills” is), but in part to advance an argument, the ambiguity is an impediment.

There are passages in the translations included in Collected Poems that must have given Wright special excitement to translate, for they spoke, in their varying accents, in nearly the way he would come to speak in his own. Here is the end of Wright's version of Pedro Salinas' “Not in Marble Palaces”:

That's why our life
doesn't appear to be lived:
slippery, evasive,
it left behind neither wakes
nor footprints. If you want
to remember it, don't look
where you always look for traces
and recollections.
Don't look at your soul,
your shadow or your lips.
Look carefully into the palm
of your hand, it's empty.

I greatly prefer these lines to George Trakl's “Sleep,” in Wright's version:

Not your dark poisons again,
White sleep!
This fantastically strange garden
Of trees in deepening twilight
Fills up with serpents, nightmoths,
Spiders, bats.
Approaching the stranger! Your abandoned shadow
In the red of evening
Is a dark pirate ship
On the salty oceans of confusion.
White birds from the outskirts of the night
Flutter out over the shuddering cities
Of steel.

Everything in the poem smells, to me, of shopworn poetic grief. The garden isn't so fantastically strange, after all; it is made from Halloween props. And the “of” constructions are telling. The “salty oceans of confusion” is paraphrastic, and “the outskirts of the night” portentously poetic. The emotional tone of the poem should be fragile, but everything is crude, black or white, in heavy outline.

Trakl's influence, in the story about The Branch Will Not Break, liberated in Wright an ability to use images to refer directly to intense emotions, indeed to create those emotions in the reader rather than refer the reader to those emotions. But Trakl's influence, or whatever combination of Wright's instincts the phrase “Trakl's influence” points to, also provided Wright with a new form for struggling against his taste for fancy writing.

Here is “The Jewel,” from The Branch Will Not Break.

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

In an essay in Field in 1973, Wright says that while “the great poets write their books in secret, we discover their books openly.” I think he might say, as well, that we live our lives in secret, whether we are great poets or not poets at all, and that if we are lucky and generous a few people love us openly. So the first three lines of “The Jewel” are wonderful to me. Lines 1 and 3 play off a kind of speech I heard and spoke as a boy in Ohio. I can hear a boy's mock-defiance in “That nobody is going to touch,” and in the causal “There is this cave” I hear the off-handed beginning often used to introduce some important topic. The second line is strange. A cave is air shaped by walls, but this cave is shaped by air. This space, this solitude Wright speaks of, is palpable but immaterial.

But the last four lines of the poem are fancy writing. There is something heraldic about the cloister, the blossom of fire and the bones turned to dark emeralds. One almost expects a unicorn.

I think the poem is about whether or not its speaker is worthy to be loved, and that the cave serves both as a space to which he may retreat if unworthy, and also as an impediment to those forms of love—probably the only valuable forms—in which it is crucial not to hedge your bets. The poem puts the issue starkly, and the fancy writing of the last four lines is a way to turn away from that starkness and its challenge.


In Shall We Gather at the River Wright has a remarkable poem, a prayer, called “Speak.”

To speak in a flat voice
Is all that I can do.
I have gone every place
Asking for you.
Wondering where to turn
And how the search would end
And the last streetlight spin
Above me blind.
Then I returned rebuffed
And saw under the sun
The race not to the swift
Nor the battle won.
Liston dives in the tank,
Lord, in Lewiston, Maine,
And Ernie Doty's drunk
In hell again.
And Jenny, oh my Jenny
Whom I love, rhyme be damned,
Has broken her spare beauty
In a whorehouse old.
She left her new baby
In a bus-station can,
And sprightly danced away
Through Jacksontown.
Which is a place I know,
One where I got picked up
A few shrunk years ago
By a good cop.
Believe it, Lord, or not.
Don't ask me who he was.
I speak of flat defeat
in a flat voice.
I have gone forward with
Some, a few lonely some.
They have fallen to death.
I die with them.
Lord, I have loved Thy cursed,
The beauty of Thy house:
Come down. Come down. Why dost
Thou hide thy face?

Wright here associates a flat voice with defeat. So that a round voice, or a fancy style, is for the lies a man may tell himself if he should hope for victory, or justification. It is the voice a man uses to cheer himself, to tell himself that there is earthly justice (the race to the swift). But in this poem there is no earthly justice, no consolation, and what fancy writing there is consists in taking on the accents and rhythms of religious dialogue, because the language of prayer and the language of the King James Bible are plain and formal.


The plain style also turns out to be the language for rejoicing.

Two Citizens begins with a curse for America (just as Shall We Gather at the River, after a preface poem, begins with a curse for Minneapolis), and ends with ecstatic love poems. In the last of these Wright says,

No, I ain't much.
The one tongue I can write in
Is my Ohioan.

And the book's epigraph—a primary example of plain speech in writing—is from Hemingway's “The Killers.”

“Well, bright boy,” Max said, looking into the mirror, “why don't you say something?”

“What's it all about?”

“Hey, Al,” Max called, “bright boy wants to know what it's all about.”

“Why don't you tell him?” Al's voice came from the kitchen.

“What do you think it's all about?”

“I don't know.”

“What do you think?”

In “A Poem of Towers” Wright says “Wise and foolish / Both are gone.” The defeat in “Speak” has been by Two Citizens transformed into a cleared ground, a place to begin from, or just to walk around.

In Wright's earlier poems the midwest is whole and lonely because every citizen is alone (thus whole, in that diminished sense), and with no links between citizens there can be no body politic, and no real citizenship. Everyone is atomic.

In Two Citizens Wright uses the word alone in a new way, to mean two lovers by themselves. “And me there alone at last with my only love, / Waiting to begin.”


It's interesting to compare “The Young Good Man” from Two Citizens with “An Offering for Mr. Bluehart,” one of the best poems in Saint Judas.

Mr. Bluehart owned an orchard from which the poem's speaker and some friends stole fruit; he had driven them away with gunfire.

Sorry for him, or any man
Who lost his labored wealth to thieves,
Today I mourn him, as I can,
By leaving in their golden leaves
Some luscious apples overhead.
Now may my abstinence restore
Peace to the orchard and the dead.
We shall not nag them anymore.

Two stanzas precede this final one, but it isn't until four lines from the poem's end that we know what kind of fruit the boys stole. The terms are economic (“restore,” “lost his labored wealth to thieves”) and allegorical (“leaving in the golden leaves / Some luscious apples overhead”). The prayer is to reverse a fall: “Now may my abstinence restore / Peace to the orchard and the dead.”

But in “The Young Good Man,” a poem in three parts, whose second section I quote here, the speaker (Wright, himself, as the book insists) has been warned by “everybody I knew, loved and respected” that the wild crab apples “taste so bitter you pucker / Two days at least.”

I don't know why,
One evening in August something illuminated my body
And I got sick of laying my cold
Hands on myself.
I lied to my family I was going for a walk uptown.
When I got to that hill,
Which now, I hear, Bluehart has sold to the Hanna
Strip Mine Company, it was no trouble at all to me.
Within fifteen yards of that charged fence I found me
A wild crab apple.
I licked it all over.
You are going to believe this.
It tasted sweet.
I know what would have happened to my tongue
If I had bitten. The people who love me
Are sure as hell no fools.

Many of Wright's poems are about forgiveness, and many of his early poems are haunted by the possibility that none of us deserves love and we are therefore fools to love anyone. Throughout Two Citizens everyone is forgiven before the poems begin, even Wright himself. In a joyful passage from “The Streets Grow Young” he parodies the guilt-ridden man's willingness to seek crimes large enough to justify his guilt.

Okay. I accept your forgiveness.
I started the Reichstag fire.
I invented the ball-point pen.
I ate the British governor of Rhodesia.
(But that was a long time ago,
And I thought he was assorted fruits and chicken sauce.
Still, all the same.)
Okay now, hit the road, and leave me
And my girl alone.

A similar exalted giddiness makes the book's love poems wonderfully believable and light-hearted.

What have I got to do?
The sky is shattering,
The plain sky grows so blue.
Some day I have to die,
As everyone must do
Alone, alone, alone,
Peaceful as peaceful stone.
You are the earth's body.
I will die on the wing.
To me, you are everything
That matters, chickadee.
You live so much in me.
Chickadees sing in the snow.
I will die on the wing,
I love you so.

Even Wright's long-running feud with the dead is behind him in this book.

And in his 1973 essay in Field Wright talks about his relationship to poetic tradition. Bothered by some bad polemical writing on free verse (perhaps he has been bothered, too, by some versions of the story about The Branch Will Not Break), he complains that “the theory of our current free verse involves a complete rejection of the past.” Of course the practice of “free verse” does not, as Wright well knows.

I put “free verse” in quotes because I, too, am bothered by its similarity to a political slogan (Free Huey). Too much talk about poetics is really talk about politics in disguise. One bad polemic relishes William Carlos Williams' remark that the sonnet is a fascist form because it makes the words run on time. An opposite bad polemic equates traditional verse forms with established social, religious and political orders. Such discussion seems to me both stupid and confusing.

Wright is speaking, in his essay in Field, out of what he knows about how a poet learns to write better. Slowly, as Sherwood Anderson was right to say. I think that we work hard to learn what little we learn, and that we learn almost all of it from the past.

Wright recognizes that it is a long and intricate enterprise to forge a personal relationship to literary tradition. The triumph of Two Citizens is that he has done so. The opennes in that book and in the pieces he's published since has little to do, I'm sure, with open or closed forms, whatever they may be. It is a spiritual quality, which Wright learned to register in a language that is partly Ohioan, partly King James Bible and Billy Sunday, and partly a distillation from those poets in our literary tradition who mattered most personally to Wright.

Each of the books Wright has given us contains wonderful and memorable poems. We have no right to ask more of a poet, but our important poets ask more of themselves. It is such a vocation, such a calling, that I have tried to trace in these notes. I believe that Wright's great achievement so far has been to imagine the language in which he can make the simple assertions—though they are, since Wright is a religious poet, as basic as they are simple—of Two Citizens. It is as if, having made that language for himself, Wright wanted first to test it against the barest propositions: I love you, or It is a beautiful day. To expand the range and complexity of what he will say in his restored language will be, I expect, his next task, and it will be our privilege to watch him continue.

Stephen Yenser (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6568

SOURCE: “Open Secrets,” in Parnassus, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 125-42.

[In the following essay, Yenser reviews two collections by Wright, and explores the tension between order and adventure in his poetry.]

At least since The Branch Will Not Break (1963) James Wright's poetry has been pulled in two directions—or in one uncertain direction by two sometimes opposing forces. We might as well make them horses, especially since, as he reaffirms in Moments of the Italian Summer, Wright considers horses perhaps “the most beautiful of God's creatures.” One of them we could call David, after Robert Bly's sway-backed palomino who has appeared in several of Wright's poems. He is the older, the more reliable, the more steadily paced of the two—the likelier wheelhorse. He wants to keep the vehicle, if not in the ruts, at least on the road and headed toward home. On the other side there is Dewfall, also known as Nightrise and Basilica, all three of whose names, according to the riddling poem in To a Blossoming Pear Tree, were stolen by Napoleon from Spanish horses and later given to some heavenly swans. She is high-spirited and erratic. It is she who is always seeing something fascinating off to the side of the road and taking Wright out of his way. Sometimes she gets the bit between her teeth and tears off, and then neither David nor the driver can do much but go along until she winds herself.

Every writer knows some version of the situation, the tension between the impulses to give rein to “the imagination, that mysterious and frightening thing,” as Wright called it in a Paris Review interview in 1975, and to keep the work in hand, moving constantly to some end that will seem appointed. Wright sets them in historical perspective in “The Pretty Redhead, from the French of Apollinaire” [In the “New Poems” section of his Collected Poems.], where, addressing himself to the “long quarrel between tradition and imagination / Between order and adventure,” he sides with adventure:

You whose mouth is made in the image of God's mouth
Mouth which is order itself
Judge kindly when you compare us
With those who were the very perfection of order
We who are seeking everywhere for adventure …

The poem overlooks in the interest of polemic the fact that the two impulses are complexly interdependent for the individual poet, but its insistence on the “quarrel” suits a poetry distinguished by an obvious restlessness, a sometimes dramatic movement, whether among poems or within a given poem, back and forth between modes.

Wright's adventurousness, his extravagance, in the root sense resurrected by Thoreau, often declares itself in the “deep image” and in what some have understandably called surrealism. In “The Pretty Redhead” his party searches for “vast strange domains / Where mystery flowers into any hands that long for it” and where there are “A thousand fantasies difficult to make sense out of.” This search yields much that is whimsical, cryptic, uncanny, or weirdly beautiful. It is not always possible to decide which. To it we owe, for instance, this surprising detour in a love poem in Wright's last volume, Two Citizens (Wright has been recalling a walk with his wife in the Yugoslavian countryside):

The one thing that I most longed for to meet in the wildness
Here was a spider. I already know
My friends the spiders. They are mountains.
Every spider in America is the shadow
Of a beautiful woman.

Using “Here” instead of the expected “There” as his occasion, and slipping into the present tense, he swerves in a new direction, so that the “wildness” is no longer the natural setting for the walk but the very nature of the poem. We come around the corner of that first line into a strange domain indeed, as though Wright meant to show us how close to the neat, grammatical surface the imagination, “that mysterious and frightening thing,” is. For whatever dark purpose, the impulse to adventure asserts itself here in a characteristic manner.

Its steadier counterpart cannot be simply equated with Wright's “craft,” or “the active employment of the intelligence,” which he pairs with “imagination.” The preceding lines have their own craftiness; the long first line that suspends and intensifies the longing itself, the shrewd positioning of “Here,” the accentuation of the new tone by the iambic meter in lines two and three, and the light rhyme, for example, testify to certain “patient pains,” as Yeats called his complement to “passionate impulse.” What characterizes those lines is the excited plunge off into inscrutability. The other side of Wright's temperament not only resists such tangents but also urges him to speak as straightforwardly and plainly as possible. In addition to some dull or commonplace verse it fosters much taut, dramatic, moving poetry. When it exerts its influence in Two Citizens we get stanzas like these, which conclude “The Last Drunk”:

I sired a bitter son.
I have no daughter.
When I at last get done
I will die by water.
She, what she might have been,
Her shoulder's secret gold,
Thin as her mother is thin.
I could have grown old!

Anyone who has read much Wright will sense the tug of adventure in the second line of the last stanza, but that is partly because the word “secret” so often signals a veering into mystery—and partly because the passage as a whole is so direct.

This is the side of Wright that aspires to clarity, immediacy, even simplicity. He has denied the applicability of the term “surrealism” to his work on the grounds that it is used to label passages in which his “attempt to be clear has failed.” But it is precisely his extravagance that comes to mind when he contrasts the practice of some other poets with his own object in this well-known stanza from “Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child” (“New Poems”):

The kind of poetry I want to write is
                    The poetry of a grown man.
The young poets of New York come to me with
Their mangled figures of speech,
But they have little pity
For the pure clear word.

In effect, this stanza reprimands the speaker in “The Pretty Redhead,” with his enthusiasm for the enigmatic and the outré; it might even remind us of a poet whose work Wright surely considers more ordered than adventurous. T. S. Eliot is glossing a remark in one of D. H. Lawrence's letters:

This speaks to me of that at which I have long aimed, in writing poetry; to write poetry which should be essentially poetry, with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bare bones, or poetry so transparent … that in reading it we are intent on what the poem points at. … To get beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in his later works, strove to get beyond music.

Wright implies a similar desire in “Many of Our Waters”:

This is not a poem.
This is not an apology to the Muse.
This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire
To his brother and friend.

But of course the specificity of Wright's lines discloses the difference between his aim and Eliot's and suggests some of the risks his directness entails. What Eliot usually wants us to see through his words is either a scene or something like the truth of the matter. In Four Quartets his transparency derives largely from delicate distinction, exactness of diction, an exquisite circumspection—all those virtues at once defined and exemplified at the beginning of “Little Gidding, V.” Wright's transparency we begin to account for in terms of conversational overstatement, idiomatic language, a virtually physical presence. He means us to see through his lines to a momentary feeling. Yet the lines above, their clarity notwithstanding, consort oddly with “The poetry of a grown man,” since they try to reduce not only the distance between Wright and the reader but also that between himself and the motivating feeling. In other words, he has sometimes seemed to identify clarity with an unalloyed emotion. The result, as in the conclusion to “Ohio Valley Swains” in Two Citizens, can be a lax sentimentality:

You thought that was funny, didn't you, to mock a girl?
I loved her only in my dreams,
But my dreams meant something
And so did she,
You son of a bitch,
And if I ever see you again, so help me in the sight of God,
I'll kill you.

Either we must believe that the same James Wright who abhors capital punishment is ready to lynch a man who as a teen-ager molested a girl some forty years ago, regardless of what has become of him since; or we must suppose that the poem works up the simplest emotion for the sake of immediacy. One sees why Wright would be drawn to Catullus, whose ghost haunts the two new volumes. (We might take these lines as crudely ironic—in the vein of Wright's vow that Two Citizens was his last book: “God damn me if I ever write another”—but that seems as desperate a resort as wringing a pun from the first word of the title of “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” to justify that poem's famous last line.)

Wright commits such excesses in the name of “the pure clear word”; they measure his desire for transparency, not to say confrontation. It is all the more remarkable, then, that he has so cherished his extravagance. A few lines after scorning “mangled figures of speech” he can say of the “grown man” that “The long body of his dream is the beginning of a dark / Hair under an illiterate / Girl's ear.” One tries to imagine the expression on the face of the illiterate girl to whom these lines might be slowly read (with appropriate attention to rejet). Perhaps they demonstrate ironically the foregoing admission that he is “not yet a grown man”—but in context the metaphor looks less rueful than solemn. “The one tongue I can write in / Is my Ohioan,” he proclaims in Two Citizens, yet the volume is fraught with exotic locutions like this: “Somewhere in me there is a crystal that I cannot find / Alone, the wing that I used to think was a poor / Blindness I had to live with with the dead.” Evidently he means to have it both ways.

In Moments of the Italian Summer he does. This is a splendid little book, a chain of “brilliants,” to borrow one of Wright's charmed words. These fourteen prose poems, introduced by a poem by Annie Wright, are as transparent as anything he has written, and in the best of them directness and extravagance, order and adventure, cannot be told apart.

A note by Annie Wright, published earlier with some of these pieces in Michael Benedikt's anthology, The Prose Poem, confirms what one immediately suspects: they grew out of daily journal entries. Reading through this book, surely everyone will recall certain inspired jottings, written in the diary while the sun set behind some monumental ruin or scrawled on a paper napkin stained with cappuccino while the promenaders streamed by—jottings that somehow never came to anything more. The prose poem, with its evident tolerance for loose ends, its appetite for digression, in short its kinship with the journal entry, seems exactly the form to have shaped without warping them. But to think that mere acquaintance with this sequence would have made the difference is of course an illusion. One might as well depend upon a visit to Athens to produce a maid to write about. These prose poems are no less personal and earned than Wright's best verse, their beguiling capriciousness and clarity no more inherent in the genre than Brunello di Montalcino is in the grape.

They often begin like postcards, with a designation of setting that flaunts its artlessness: “I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona”; “It is a fresh morning of late August in Padova.” Then the warming up turns into something serious and exciting, as imagination and memory (if they are not the same thing) take over and the prose carries us on and on. A prose poem called “Young Don't Want to Be Born” in To a Blossoming Pear Tree puts into parable form what happens to the poet when “that mysterious and frightening thing” sweeps him away. The “you” is knocked off his feet by the riptide and comes up clinging to the tail of a giant stingray headed out to sea and destinations unknown. Something of that sort often occurs in these pieces, although the force that takes us out beyond our depth is more gentle. This passage, at the heart of “The City of Evenings,” might serve as a model:

Steamers, motorboats, trash-scows are moving past in large numbers, and gondolas are going home. In a little while we too will meet the twilight and move through it on a vaporetto toward the Lido, the seaward island with its long beach and its immense hotel, its memories of Aschenbach and his harrowing vision of perfection, of Byron on horseback in the moonlight, and the muted shadows of old Venetians drifting as silently as possible in flight from the barbarians, drifting as far away as the island of Torcello, taking refuge as Ruskin said like the Israelites of old, a refuge from the sword in the paths of the sea.

One thing leads to another as the reader drifts on in the current of association, sensing but hardly noticing that, as easily as the historical flows into the fictional, the Giudecca Canal merges with another body of water and that one is moving among shades other than those of the evening. It is all done “as silently as possible,” and as the elegiac overtones dissolve back into the tourist's language you are not sure you heard them at all. Here the fluent association has been delicately controlled, whether the impulse to order operated wholly consciously or not.

Progression by means of digression, toward a transformation of the present “moment,” provides the basic structure of most of these prose poems. In some cases the movement seems more desultory than in others, and one's impression is that the result is not a matter, as for Herrick's Julia, of contriving an alluring disorder, but rather of teasing a welter of material into a tenuous form. “A Lament for the Martyrs,” set in the Colosseum, meanders from Mussolini to God, thence to Horace and President Nixon, the barbarians and the Barberinis, the crooked politicians of the Ohio River Valley during Prohibition, a childhood essay on Howells, and so on, to conclude with reflections on the Christian martyrs. It seems at first an example of the journal entry insufficiently chastened. But then the archaeologist's work (“a careful revelation” of subterranean passages thronged with shadows and ghosts) corresponds to Wright's disclosure of his past (“the antiquities of my childhood: the beautiful river, that black ditch of horror …”), itself linked with the political history of the United States, and to his rediscovery of Roman history. If the “starved people” and “the hungry” animals blur together in the shadows along with beauty and horror, so do Roman and American, distant and recent history. For all its waywardness, the prose poem resembles the archaeologist's “intricate and intelligent series of ditches.”

Wright has said that Georg Trakl has influenced him as much as anyone, and he has described Trakl as “a poet who writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another.” Like “A Lament for the Martyrs,” “The Legions of Caesar” might be viewed as a domestication of Trakl's mode. While he watches some men fish for piccolini, Wright muses on the cessation of bombing in Cambodia, Catullus, Caesar's invasions of Britain, and the poet and composer William Barnes. These elements recur in new combinations, like weaving the sunlight in the shallows weave itself anew each moment. Here is the conclusion, where at first some boys are chasing a piccolino that has wriggled out of the bag:

They are serious, hurrying, before the little fish stops struggling back towards the water and turns to stone. I don't know what time it is in Cambodia. I wonder if there is ever any silence there. Where is it, hiding from the invaders? The sunlight once glinted off William Barnes's coffin. From a hill so far away it seemed the other side of the earth, his friend Thomas Hardy wrote down the sunlight as a signal. He knew his friend was opening a hand, saying goodbye.

The importance of the piccolini becomes apparent—perhaps too apparent—when the boys are called invaders; otherwise the conclusion leaves us to draw our own. Curiosity perhaps takes us back to Hardy's tough, touching poem “The Last Signal.” Before the lines that Wright's last two sentences paraphrase, Hardy wrote that he “knew what it meant— / The sudden shine sent from the livid east scene; / It meant the west mirrored by the coffin of my friend there.” One does not need to compare Hardy's poem to gather that Wright means the more recent “livid east scene” to parallel the Roman invasions, but it provokes us to contemplate a different twilight in the west, and its elegiac nature makes Wright's poem more resonant. It is interesting that Hardy says nothing of his hill's being “so far away it seemed the other side of the earth.” Wright invents the detail to coax out a parallel between himself and Hardy. Maybe we also hear echoes, because Catullus has come up earlier, of the elegy ending “ave atque vale,” since the brother for whom it was written died in the east. In any case, the same impulse that entails the loose connections and that makes the surface so casual also allows Wright to shape a response to a political situation that defies frontal assaults.

As these pieces range out from the moments at their centers they tend also to forsake the literal. They are imaginative flights, forms of transcendence. The movement is actual in the last part of “A Letter to Franz Wright,” where the poet tells us how he and his companions “drove up, and up, and around, and up, and around, and up again” until they arrived at San Gimignano, where the next morning they found themselves “poised hundreds of feet in the air” and “felt … strange in that presence, that city glistening there in the lucid Tuscan morning, like a perfectly cut little brilliant sparkling on the pinnacle of a stalagmite.” “Saying Dante Aloud,” the central and shortest piece, takes such an uplifting of spirit as its subject. This is the whole of it: “You can feel the muscles and veins rippling in widening and rising circles, like a bird in flight under your tongue.” One can feel the imagination itself moving in widening and rising circles in “Under the Canals,” in which an old man carrying a ladder and a net seems just to have emerged from a Venetian canal where he left behind him “a chimney, swept free, till this hour passes, of all the webs they weave so stoutly down there, the dark green spiders under the water who have more than all the time they need”; in the wonderfully serene “The Lambs on the Boulder”; and in “The Silent Angel.” In the latter a man with something in his hand, standing in “the vast petals of rose shadows” cast by the arena in Verona, becomes first a musician with a baton and then an ambiguous angel: “The wings of the smiling musician are folded. … my musician, who meant me no harm and only wanted to wave me away as gently as possible out of the beautiful space he guarded. … He may be fallen, as I am. But from a greater height, unless I miss my guess.”

What happens in such pieces is that the bud of the actual blossoms into the extravagant flower of vision. What is seen is seen through, and we are made aware of the strangeness and power, the potential centrality of any given moment. “The service of philosophy … toward the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect …—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.” Would Wright have been rereading The Renaissance during this stay in Italy? “But I care more now for the poetry of the present moment,” he admits in “Piccolini”; he entitles another piece “The Language of the Present Moment”; and in the concluding prose poem he celebrates not “the enduring fruits of five hundred years,” the paintings in an exhibit in Padua, but “The Fruits of the Season.” Pater exhorted us to “be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy”—and here is the last paragraph of “A Small Grove,” which begins with a description of the poet's wife standing in some trees:

She stands among them in her flowered green clothes. Her skin is darker gold than the olives in the morning sun. Two hours ago we got up and bathed in the lake. It was like swimming in a vein. Everything that can blossom is blossoming around her now. She is the eye of the grove, the eye of mimosa and willow. The cypress behind her catches fire.

In her “flowered green clothes” Annie Wright is, for the moment, that focus, the absolute and radiant center (she stands “among” the trees) of those vital forces. At that center, as the inspired choice of “eye” tells us, subject and object, sight and sight are one.

“A Small Grove” might be described either as a dilation of its central moment or as a penetration of it. The same is true of “The Secret of Light,” which is about the possibility of bringing to light the secret of the perceived object and the closely related possibility of bringing to the surface the beauty, the hidden light of the loved one. I take the following sentence to be its nucleus. Wright sees a woman sitting on a park bench in front of him:

Her hair is as black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.

“Secret of light … a secret light … that secret to light”: even as Wright circles his subject as though studying it (the whole prose poem repeats certain words like some prose canzone), he also makes the stroke he imagines. Unlike this “anxious and disciplined craftsman,” the poet never has only “one chance”—except in the sense that Pater stresses and that Wright mentions later, that he has “only one life”—but like him Wright has found in these pieces a “necessary balance.” Moving out from each moment, Wright moves in on it in order to make the moment and himself (as he says of the River Adige and himself) “both an open secret.” The phrase is appropriate not only because the prose poems are so open about the mysteries of insight but also because the craft that makes them so transparent itself remains virtually hidden.

Seven of these prose poems also appear in To a Blossoming Pear Tree, where some of them are considerably and wisely pruned. Like several of the prose poems, some of the other poems rely upon our intuition of unexplained parallelisms. Take “Redwings,” the subject of which is the redwing blackbirds whose increase has made them pests. (“It turns out / You can kill them,” Wright begins; “It turns out / You can make the earth absolutely clean.”) Like so many of his poems, this one understands the world to be divided into two camps. On our side, tenuously connected with one another, are those who are on nature's: the redwings, nameless “solitaries,” a “skinny girl” the poet once loved who now has five children (the prolific birds too “used to be willowy and thin”), a kindly derelict who slept by the river (either Wright has known more congenial bums than Kerouac or he has multiplied a few experiences like loaves), and of course the poet himself. On the other side, equally loosely associated, are the scientists who have figured out how to exterminate the redwings, the strip miner the skinny girl married (or at least his bosses), and those responsible for “the dead gorges / Of highway construction.” (Earth gougers have long been destined for one of the lower circles of Wright's Hell.) All of this is unobtrusively managed, but the poem arrives in its next-to-last stanza where Wright impulsively identifies himself (and all of us—the scientists are in an airplane, so here the dangerous and the threatened species converge) with the birds:

Together among the dead gorges
Of highway construction, we flare
Across highways and drive
Motorists crazy, we fly
Down home to the river.

The transitions into and from this stanza are also first-rate, but this is the crucial passage, with its simultaneous description and incorporation of the bird's startling movement. Here again extravagance is directness. At this juncture, the whole poem comes together.

Or almost the whole poem. Earlier, describing the Kokosing River from an airplane, Wright says it looks

Secret, it looks like the open
Scar turning gray on the small
Of your spine.
Can you hear me?

This is another sort of flaring across the highway, as the question seems to acknowledge. Whose spine is involved? Anyone's, as it were? But why then the peculiar specificity in “the small”? And what is an “open / Scar”—since a scar is a closed wound? Almost the only thing we can ascertain is that this passage is more “Secret” than “open.” I am concerned with it not because it especially damages a fine poem (it does not—it is at worst a small scar), but rather because it represents a return, after the pervasive inventions in the prose poems, to that puzzling local kinkiness of the earlier work. It is perhaps significant that such passages are often accompanied by the word “secret.” Thus in “Neruda” Wright tells us that “The leaves of the little / Secret trees are fallen” after he has discovered “The little leaves / That are trees in secret.” “One Last Look at the Adige: Verona in the Rain” begins and ends beautifully, but halfway through we find the poet

Alive in the friendly city
Of my body, my secret Verona,
Milky and green,
My moving jewel, the last
Pure vein left to me.

Perhaps I misunderstand these lines if I take them to convey a loneliness so extreme that it dotes on itself—but I do not see how else they might be taken.

Sometimes it is as though the impulse to adventure had been suppressed and were revenging itself—or as though Wright were determined to invoke certain enigmas as evidence of a rarefied sensibility. He seems to need to insinuate that a part of his experience is ineffable, that the best he can do is drop his depth charges into the reader's subconscious and hope that they jar loose something similar. He has put the case for what we might call the subjective correlative explicitly and persuasively in “A Letter to Franz Wright,” where he sends

these fragments of words I picked up on the hither side of my limits. I am sending them to you, because you will love them. Consequently, you will know to piece them together into a vision of your own design. Your imagination is not mine. How could it be? Who would want it to be? I wouldn't. You wouldn't. But I love both, so I trust yours. Here are some fragments of my hammer that broke against a wall of jewels.

Given the fact of publication, the “you” graciously extends itself, in part, to include any reader. And what reader, in view of such trust and in the face of such a generous supposition of his uniqueness and sensitivity, could fail to reciprocate—to grant Wright his license? Wouldn't to do so be to confess one's own shallowness? But I do not want to quarrel with this passage. It says quite eloquently what we have all felt when confronted with something “so appallingly beyond accounting for” as San Gimignano was for Wright, and in any case he later evokes the beauty of the place in terms that are faceted rather than fragmented. I suspect, however, that a form of the intense subjectivity embraced here at least justifies and perhaps necessitates the arcana that ornament his poems.

“What Does the Bobwhite Mean?” insists nearly belligerently on the essential secrecy of significant experiences. “I don't know / Yet,” the poem answers the question, which was evidently put by the man to whom it is dedicated: “Only you know.”

As for me, as for mine,
We have held each other's hands alone, each alone,
And felt the green dew turn dark gold, brilliants
In the darkness outside.
A town called Fiesole.
What can the name of Fiesole mean to you?
What does the bobwhite mean?

And so on: “What will your loneliness mean to me? / What does the bobwhite mean?” Perhaps unintentionally, the title comes to seem a mocking refrain, and the poem ends with a curt dismissal: “You know. / Go, listen”—as though to say that we are all poets and therefore have nothing to say to one another. We are “each alone,” like the “solitary armadillos” that appear at one point. Wright's telling sympathy for shelled creatures reappears in “With the Shell of a Hermit Crab.” Composed of tetrameter quatrains, each self-contained and fragile as the shell itself, it belongs to the tradition that began with Catullus' poem on the death of Lesbia's sparrow, whose opening line gives Wright his epigraph. But instead of Catullus' outcry against all-devouring death and his attention to Lesbia we have Wright's lament for the crab's former “loneliness” and a nearly reproachful allusion to his own:

Today, you happen to be gone.
I sit here in the raging hell,
The city of the dead, alone,
Holding a little empty shell.

The relationship between the two hermits is too close to be ignored. Even in this mournful poem, however, there is an undercurrent of satisfaction at being alone. As he sits contemplating the shell the poet recalls some quattrocento St. Jerome, alone by choice in the desert, gazing into the sockets of a death's-head.

As for the purportedly lonely crab, during his brief life he moved “How delicately no one knows.” Since no one knows, any degree of delicacy can be assigned. And just as we know nothing of the crab, so we are ignorant of “The snail's secret” in “By the Ruins of a Gun Emplacement: Saint-Benoît” (which alludes to “The Snail's Road” in Two Citizens):

I met a snail on a stone at Fleury,
Where, now, Max Jacob walks happily among the candles
Of his brothers, but I still do not know
The snail's secret.
I do not even know
What we shall do if the round moon comes down
The river and strolls up
Out of the Loire
To take once more your startling face up
Among his drowsed swans. …

I don't know what the round moon might portend, although I suspect from its earlier appearances, the setting of the poem, and the allusion to Jacob (who was arrested at Saint-Benoît and died in a concentration camp at Drancy) that it is meant to be at once ominous and seductive, a softly luminous skull with which (the diction and rhythms suggest) the poet is half in love. But then I wonder, since Wright's imagination is not mine, whether I have not pieced the eerily beautiful fragments together into a vision of my own design. I wonder too whether the mystery is not the essence of the poem, whether that is not the point of the lines on the snail, whether I am not being invited to go look at the moon and be sensitive myself.

Another poem that I want very much to admire goes out of its way to create a secret. “On a Phrase from Southern Ohio” recalls a childhood incident and reads for the most part like a sarcastic response to “Fern Hill”: “it is not / Maiden and morning on the way up that cliff. / Not where I come from.” Here the hill is a foothill, across the Ohio River from Steubenville, whose side has been jackhammered away and covered with concrete. Instead of princes of the apple towns, Wright and his friends are punks who steal a skiff to get over to that “Smooth dead / Face” so that they can climb it. Once on top they find instead of an idyllic orchard “a garden of bloodroots, tangled there, a vicious secret / Of trilliums” and two black boys, whom they beat up and chase off. Instead of Adam and Eden this is Cain and evil, and it is all done with a marvelous sense of the rawness and the sourness and the savagery of the summer life of boys growing up to become strip miners and jackhammer operators in a spoiled mid-American town. Then the poem ends:

And still in my dreams I sway like one fainting strand
Of spiderweb, glittering and vanishing and frail
Above the river.
What were those purple shadows doing
Under the ear
Of the woman who was weeping along the Ohio
River the woman?
Damned if you know;
I don't.

The first sentence suggests memories of a light-headedness after the incident, but that cannot be its sole purpose. In addition to his own “A Dream of Burial” (The Branch Will Not Break), Wright must want us to call up “A Noiseless Patient Spider” with its “gossamer thread” unanchored, so these lines might say something of his hopeless isolation. But the swaying sentence itself floats free of the poem and retains its mystery. Along with the odd personification and the superfluous question, it seems intended to bemuse, while the last sentence, which pugnaciously recasts the slang phrase in the second person, flatly dares us to make sense of any of this. One has the feeling that to do so would be somehow to demean the poem, to rob Wright of its experience. And then one remembers “The Jewel,” back in The Branch Will Not Break, with its bristling, defensive warning:

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.

Why, precisely: Wright's poems seem to embody, in respect to “the pure clear word,” what the psychologists call an approach-avoidance conflict—he wants to be open and direct, yet he seems to fear that in doing so he will lose that “blossom of fire,” his singular vision. Hence perhaps the retreats into shells, caves, and secrecy. The fainting strand of spiderweb, the moving jewel of the body, and so on—these images both prove his isolation and validate it.

It is true that in the absence of such vagaries Wright's poems can be breathtakingly plain. In “What Does the King of the Jungle Truly Do?”, a prose poem in praise of leonine purity that ends “Small wonder Jesus wept at a human city,” the sentiment is not even thinly disguised. “Simon,” which comes perilously close to “plain American which cats and dogs can read,” is little more than a schmaltzy tribute to Robert Bly's “huge gross” Airedale (“We slobber all over each other's faces”). Yet how nicely the simplicity of this poem sets off the tiny gem of adjectival wit, which in turn qualifies the sentiment, in the poem's last stanza. One has only to know that Simon was always picking up cockleburs in his long coat:

Where are you gone?
Some shaggy burdocks in Minnesota
Owe their lives to you,

The directness of “The First Days,” to continue moving up the scale, combines beautifully with a rough sensuality and a sudden, transfiguring allusion to Virgil. Wright remembers seeing “a huge golden bee ploughing / His burly right shoulder into the belly / Of a sleek yellow pear” and the pear falling to the ground with the bee inside. He knelt and (the image is almost obstetrical) sliced the pear to free him:

The bee shuddered, and returned.
Maybe I should have left him alone there,
Drowning in his own delight.
The best days are the first
To flee. …

The last clause translates Wright's epigraph and, since it is an abridged version of the Georgics, III, 66-67, it throws into relief the poem's conclusion, with its glance at the utterly changed landscape: “I let the bee go / Among the gasworks at the edge of Mantua.” These are small touches but perfect, and no less inventive than the fainting strand of spiderweb.

In “Hook” and in the middle part of “To a Blossoming Pear Tree,” both of which seem to owe something to “In Terror of Hospital Bills” (Shall We Gather at the River), Wright comes as close to “the bare bones of poetry” as anyone would want. “Hook” conveys a desolate scene in language so stark that even realism is spurned as frivolous embellishment. It has the economy of dream. The poem recounts a meeting years past on a street corner in Minneapolis with a Sioux man. The young poet is “in trouble / With a woman,” alone in the snow with hours to wait for a bus, when the Sioux looms out of the night. “What did they do / To your hand?” the poet asks when he sees the hook—and it turns out that the Sioux “had a bad time with a woman.” Then he puts sixty-five cents into Wright's “freezing hand” and the poem ends: “I took it. / It wasn't the money I needed. / But I took it.” The coins are a sort of viaticum, an irreducible symbol of bond and separateness. Cavafy could not have done it more cleanly.

The counterpart of this incident occurs in the title poem, where Wright remembers an old man who appeared out of another snowy night in Minneapolis. The man, “willing to take / Any love he could get,” rather like Wright in “Hook,” made an advance that the poet rejected. The poem makes what amends it can as it ends where it began, addressing in its richest language the self-sufficient pear tree that is as removed from such humbling experiences as Keats' “Cold Pastoral”:

Young tree, unburdened
By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms
And dew, the dark
Blood in my body drags me
Down with my brother.

The increasing burden of the consonants, the enjambment—but to talk about these lines is perhaps to fog with one's breath the glass we should just see through. The very directness of this poem is daring. And Wright's daring, whatever its sources and however it shows itself, makes him one of the most original and exciting poets we have. But that's no secret at all.

Walter Kalaidjian (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8097

SOURCE: “Many of Our Waters: The Poetry of James Wright,” in Boundary 2, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 101-21.

[In the following essay, Kalaidjian discusses the importance of water and river imagery in Wright's poetry.]

At first glance, the movement of James Wright's career away from the initial apprenticeship to traditional verse forms to his later postmodernist innovations, under the influence of Robert Bly's “deep image” poetry and Spanish surrealism, appears erratic and disjunctive, lacking in a common center of inspiration and unifying technique. His final quest from Shall We Gather at the River to To a Blossoming Pear Tree for a more personal style—a more authentic subjectivity cleared of the flamboyant eclecticism of image in his earlier volumes—on the surface also looks less creative and more destructive than I would like to argue it truly proves to be. To arrive at the underlying coherence and continuity of Wright's vision, which has remained a constant source of inspiration to his readers, one must penetrate beyond the surface of his experimental vagaries of style to the content and meaning of his art. Central to Wright's concerns as an American artist is native landscape, particularly the locales of water: estuaries, wetlands, lakes, oceans and rivers. Through the flux and fertility of this fluid source of American imagery, we can trace the continuous growth and unity of Wright's affirmative poetic message.

James Wright's poetic career illustrates the emergence of a progressive post-modern aesthetic, which reveals both the initial influences of modernism, and later more contemporary departures in style and technique. Wright's early two volumes, The Green Wall and Saint Judas, in their frequent reliance on dramatic monologue, verbal irony, traditional verse forms, strict rhythms and formal rhyme patterns, show the inheritance of a wide literary past including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. His subsequent books, The Branch Will Not Break, Shall We Gather at the River, Two Citizens, and his last work To a Blossoming Pear Tree, establish a radical break with the earlier, “objective” apprenticeship, and experiment with an innovative variety of verse styles ranging from the surrealism of poets like Georg Trakl, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Juan Ramon Jiménez, to the Jungian and Freudian formulations of Robert Bly's “subjective,” or “deep image,” poetry, as well as the American realism of such authors as Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters. Wright's final articulations have purged from his verse the nuances of precursor voices in favor of a more personal lyricism informed by a native Midwest vernacular. Underlying the fluxuations in Wright's practice is the constituting metaphor of water, which reveals the real continuity of his concerns as a poet, and his links to a uniquely American body of poets who sing their local riverscapes, waterways, estuaries and oceans.

Wright's intention in his first volume, The Green Wall, according to his Paris Review interview, was to express a post-modern version of the felix culpa, man's fate of experiencing in consciousness nature's fallen state: “… I tried to weave my way in and out through nature poems and people suffering in nature because they were conscious.”1 In a world where consciousness inhabits an absurd, or fallen vision, its protagonists, for Wright, are anti-heroic; misfits, mental patients, murderers, drunks, prisoners, prostitutes, fugitives, and exiles, what W. H. Auden has called Wright's “social outsiders,” people the early poems. In versifying his derelict personae in poems like “A Poem About George Doty in the Death House,” “To a Fugitive,” “Morning Hymn to a Dark Girl,” “Saphho,” etc., Wright took as models for his dark themes, the work of traditional American poets; particularly he tells us in the preface to The Green Wall, he had “tried very hard to write in the mode of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson.”2 Wright appreciated Frost's “profound, terrifying, and very tragic view of the universe” ([Paris Review; hereafter cited as] PR, p. 46), and found in Robinson, “one of the great poets of the dark side of American experience.”3 He also admired “the strict and clear” craft of these two poets, and in his first two volumes Wright adopted their use of iambic, accentual-syllabic metrics. Verbal irony and technical craft are two elements which characterize the early poems, and are qualities Wright inherited from “Fugitive Poets,” Ransom, Tate and Warren, during his years at Kenyon College after World War II. Critics were generally receptive both to Wright's style, and wisdom.4 Yet the craft and message of The Green Wall did not go without some corrective admonitions from critics like Dudley Fitts, who points out images in poems like “A Girl in a Window” which, while originally conceived and inventive, nevertheless fail to blend into the total organic form of individual poems. Fitts argues the artistic limitations of Wright's first endeavor, and claims his aesthetic inconsistency “becomes obtrusive, suggesting a basic inconclusiveness of design.”5

The impulse to “say something humanly important” in The Green Wall becomes a more dominant and sometimes obtrusive concern in Wright's next volume, Saint Judas. Anthony Hecht negatively criticizes the book's moralistic evaluations of dramatic situations, and disapproves of Wright's tendency “to regard the event as no more than an occasion for meditation.”6 Wright's anxiety of arriving at a mature style, which would reconcile moral vision and aesthetic form in an original and personal voice, is apparent in Saint Judas. “The Morality of Poetry,” which Ralph J. Mills, Jr., compares as an aesthetic document to Stevens's “The Idea of Order at Key West,”7 prefigured Wright's later abandonment of rigid verse forms for the more spontaneous and immediate energies, the “quick celebration,” and “mindless dance” of reality's “deepening and rifting swell.” In “The Morality of Poetry,” the poet must half-create and half-receive the shore's voices, which as the epigraph from Whitman affirms, is the “undulation of one wave.” Such moments of ecstatic participation in nature are rare in Saint Judas, for as Wright tells us in an interview, he had come in that second volume to a difficult realization: “I tried to come to terms in that book with what I felt to be the truth of my own life, which is that of a man who wants very much to be happy, but who is not happy” (PR, p. 47); Wright considered Saint Judas his last book at the time of its completion (PR, p. 48), even though he said that “it seemed to leave out so much of life” ([Southern Humanities Review; hereafter cited as] MI, p. 42). Wright utters dissatisfaction with his vocation of poetry in his return to the grave of George Doty, the death-row murderer of The Green Wall:

Doty, if I confess I do not love you,
Will you let me alone? I burn for my own lies.
The nights electrocute my fugitive,
My mind. I run like the bewildered mad
At St. Clair Sanitarium, who lurk,
Arch and cunning, under the maple trees,
Pleased to be playing guilty after dark.
Staring to bed, they croon self-lullabies.
Doty, you make me sick. I am not dead.
I croon my tears at fifty cents per line.

(p. 82)8

Gone in “At the Executed Murderer's Grave” is the pitying morality of The Green Wall and in its place is a harsher self-disgust and identification with what were once dramatic personae; the poet is implicated in the confessions he utters to the dead. A new insistence on the authenticity of colloquial speaking to render emotional tones underscores Wright's style of frank statement.

Wright has identified the theme of Saint Judas as “the desolation of the spirit” (MI, p. 49), and this despairing subject is reflected in the title piece “Saint Judas,” which the poet says stands as “sort of a summary stylistically and thematically of everything I was trying to do in the book (MI, p. 149). The form of the petrarchan sonnet that Wright uses to present the irony of Judas's spontaneous act of compassion, following on his planned betrayal of Christ, is derived from an earlier poem of the same form by Robinson: “How Annandale Went Out.” Robinson's poem is the dramatic monologue of a doctor's confession to having given euthanasia to the dying alcoholic, George Annandale” (PR, p. 44). Both monologues pose moral paradoxes, where whatever final judgement we pass upon the speakers, finally indicts only ourselves. The first eight lines of Wright's sonnet plunge us into the despairing situation of Judas on his way to suicide, burdened by the knowledge of “how I alone / Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.” In the final six lines the exiled disciple, “banished from heaven” for having bargained in human life, and more outrageously exploited divine love, nevertheless experiences a brief epiphany in comforting a brutalized victim of the Roman soldiers: “Dropping my robe / Aside I ran, ignored the uniforms.” Peter A. Stitt views Judas's instinctive human gesture as a redemptive act, which canonizes the one-time betrayer;9 however, this kind of happy resolution to Judas's denial of grace, letting it go as just another human mistake, to me, misreads both the ending tone of the poem and more importantly the tragic vision of Wright's final image: “Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten, / The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope, / I held the man for nothing in my arms.” Wright has called Judas “the ultimate lost betrayer” (PR, p. 46) and his final recognition of self: “Flayed without hope, / I held the man for nothing in my arms,” reinforces Judas's irrevocable position of distance from Christ. Judas, “flayed without hope,” remains eternally exiled to the fallen hell of human suffering; the final iconic image: “I held the man for nothing in my arms,” is a kind of pathetic pietà, haunted by the ominous “for nothing,” which infects his affirmative human gesture with the graver knowledge of a cosmic faithlessness. The title “Saint Judas” then becomes not a canonization of the one-time disciple, but an ironic reminder of his tragic fate of being a man, who, Wright says, “had placed himself beyond the moral pale, and he realized this” (MI, p. 148).

After the writing of Saint Judas, Wright entered a period of profound depression and considered his career as poet, at least in traditional verse forms, finished (PR, p. 48). It was at this time that his work in translating poets like Georg Trakl, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Juan Ramon Jiménez coincided with the parallel interests of Robert Bly. After corresponding with Bly, the two poets met and struck a professional and personal alliance, with Wright spending his weekends at Bly's farm in Madison, Minnesota. Of Bly's influence during the interim between Saint Judas and the new style of The Branch Will Not Break, Wright has said: “He [Bly] made it clear to me that the tradition of poetry, which I had tried to master, and in which I'd come to a dead end, was not the only one. He reminded me that poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling” (PR, p. 49). Robert Bly's criticism of Wright's dependence on iambic meter, which Bly said caused “the images to be stillborn,” and his rejection of Wright's “elaborate syntax” helped to inform the new technique which came to rely almost totally on free verse, natural speech rhythms, colloquial diction, and the unconscious contents of the “deep image.”10

While Wright rejected the label of surrealism attached to the method of The Branch Will Not Break, a more exact description of his technique can be derived from his own criticism of Trakl and Whitman, both of whom, he says, rely on an organic pattern of “parallelism” to accumulate striking juxtapositions of poetic contents: “Trakl is a poet who writes in parallelism, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another” (PR, p. 48). “From in Whitman is a principle of growth: one image or scene or sound grows out of another. The general device is parallelism, not of grammar but of action or some other meaning.”11 Evidence of this theory of organic parallelism can be seen in much of Wright's poetry in The Branch Will Not Break:

Under the water tower at the edge of town
A huge Airedale ponders a long ripple
In the grass fields beyond.
Miles off, a whole grove silently
Flies up into the darkness.
One light comes on in the sky,
One lamp on the prairie.

([Collected Poems; hereafter cited as] CP, p. 134)

In this first stanza of “To the Evening Star: Central Minnesota” the poem grows organically by a series of parallel contrasts between figure and motion: the water tower and Airedale stand out as Gestalt patterns against the distance of “the edge of town” and the movement of “a long ripple / In the grass fields beyond.” The increasing subjectivity of “a whole grove silently / Flies up into the darkness” compliments and contrasts the point of light in the sky and the lamp on the prairie, perceived and articulated by the private speaker.

The Branch Will Not Break is an ecstatic volume, which enthusiastically celebrates the new blend of subjective voice and native place, prefigured in “The Morality of Poetry.” Of the unexpected joy of his third volume, Wright has said: “At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about” (PR, p. 51). This exuberance though caused an overly aesthetic display of eclectic perspectives, where the controlling device of “parallelism” was compromised by a kaleidescopic imaginative mélange:

Two athletes
Are dancing in the cathedral
Of the wind.
A butterfly lights on the branch
Of your green voice.
Small antelopes
Fall asleep in the ashes
Of the moon.

(“Spring Images,” CP, p. 129)

Bly criticises these kinds of moments in Wright's new volume claiming that they are over wrought and meaningless ([The Sixties; hereafter cited as] TS, p. 74). Geoffrey Hartman in his review of The Branch Will Not Break, likewise, finds a tension between what he calls Wright's Vergilian pastoral mode (artificial), and Theocritan (native); Hartman calls attention to the clash between native speech patterns and exotic imagery and says that this blend results in “the absence of one controlled type of continuity.”12

The emphasis on autobiographic contents, private experience, and associative leaps of subjective vision allowed Wright to project expanded aesthetic dimensions onto the local landscape of his rural Ohio and Minnesota, Midwest settings. However, as poet, Wright recognized that his disjunctive presentation of two sensibilities and two languages necessitated a reconsideration of his aesthetic plan. Just as his poetic style had earlier demonstrated a steady evolution beyond the initial traditional meters, leaving behind the complex syllabic rhetoric and artiface of encompassing moral statement for a more colloquial, liberated verse line, so in his next volume, Shall We Gather At The River, Wright's technique ventured beyond the Jungian depth-psychology of Bly's emotive imagery.

In the next book Wright set out to discover an even more personal voice, a speaking balanced “between order and adventure,” where imagination would be tempered by a rigorous intelligence. In reassessing the direction of his poetic career, Wright abandoned the pastoral exuberance of The Branch Will Not Break and entered once again into a profound confrontation with the real despair, loneliness, and meaninglessness, which had informed his vision of America in Saint Judas. Of his ultimate purpose in writing Shall We Gather At the River, Wright has said: “I was trying to move from death to resurrection and death again, and challenge death finally” (PR, p. 52). The challenge was uttered in an outraged, and, at times, bitter language, whose austere edges harrowed the aesthetic claims of self-revelation: “I have gone forward with / Some, a few lonely some. / They have fallen to death. / I die with them.” As Wright realized, this kind of disillusioned confessionalism ran the risk of becoming at times stylistically indistinguishable from prose: “To speak in a flat voice / Is all I can do.” Yet such risks were necessary in translating the influence of Trakl, Neruda, Vallejo, and Bly into a crafted voice which would be Wright's alone. As he later recognized in “Many of Our Waters,” a work from the New Poems section of the Collected Poems, “All this time I've been slicking into my own words / The beautiful language of my friends. / I have to use my own, now.” Wright undertook the task of articulating the “poetry of a grown man … the pure clear work” through moments of illuminating self exposure, arrested by the sudden authenticity of an essential intelligence and wisdom:

My life was never so precious
To me as now.
I gape unbelieving at those two lines
Of my words, caught and frisked naked.
If they loomed secret and dim
On the wall of the drunk-tank,
Scraped there by a raw fingernail
In the trickling crusts of gray mold,
Surely the plainest thug who read them
Would cluck with the ancient pity.
Men have a right to thank God for their loneliness.
the Walls are hysterical with their dank messages.

(from “Inscription For The Tank,” CP, p. 142)

Here Wright's confessional opening of unadorned “words, caught and frisked naked” provides the access to a more encompassing meditation on the universal anxiety of everyman's loneliness.

In his search to arrive at an essential language, which would voice the desolated landscape and spiritual bankruptcy, which had become Wright's native country, he was charged by some critics with obscurity, sentimentatlity and melodramatic insincerity.13 Charles Molesworth, however accounts for Wright's new voice as part of a consistent movement toward a Romantic lyricism, and subjectivity as an alternative project to the objective, modern irony of the early work.14 David Ignatow finds a move American tradition evidenced in Wright's language of local realism, naming the poet as the “heir of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Edgar Lee Masters, men who have pierced through to the quality of American life.”15 Another key factor in Wright's aesthetic plan of exhausted utterance is the tragic presence of his muse, Jenny, who everywhere haunts this volume. Of his relation to his muse, Jenny, Wright has revealed: “Well if I must tell you, I was trying to write about a girl I was in love with who has been dead for a long time. I tried to sing with her in that book” (PR, p. 52). The song, though, often becomes a dirge to the muse who is only partially recoverable in memory and death; the verse often records the failed Orphic mission to lead Wright's one time soul-mate beyond the industrialized horror of Ohio, the Ohio which had been stripmined by Hanna Coal, and enslaved by Hazel-Atlas Glass. At extreme moments, realizing the futility of his goal, Wright in anger and anguish sacrifices his muse to an absurd reality, by lampooning his volume's leitmotif:

And Jenny, oh my Jenny
Whom I love, rhyme be damned,
Has broken her spare beauty
In a whorehouse old.
She left her new baby
In a bus-station can,
And sprightly danced away
Through Jacksontown.

(from “Speak,” CP, p. 149)

Two years after his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, Wright still extended his quarrel with America to the detriment, most critics charge, of his 1973 volume, Two Citizens. In the jacket notes to the poems Wright paradoxically says he came to affirm his love for America only through a cathartic release of hostility and frustration lodged as a “savage attack” on his native land: “Two Citizens is 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 begin the book with a savage attack upon it.” Disgust with the stupidity and meanness of his Ohio experience in poems like “Ars Poetica,” and “Ohio Valley Swains” underpins the whole of Two Citizens, and critics have objected to the book's overpowering and bullying rage. The epigraph from Hemingway's “The Killers” sets the precedent and tone for Wright's threatening displays of insistent illiteracy: “Hell, I ain't got nothing. / Ah, you bastards, / How I hate you.” There are some who find Wright's intentional rupturing of discourse with the violence of language as stylistically objectionable, and personally obnoxious;16 however, whether Wright manages to balance prosaic aggressiveness with verbal inventiveness is ultimately a matter of personal taste, for his volume does evidence a higher rhetoric in poems like “Names Scarred at the Entrance to Chartres”:

I have no way to go in
Except only
In the company of two vulgars,
Furies too dumb to remember
Death, our bodies' mother, whose genius it is
to remember our death on the wet
Roads of Chartres, America, and to forget
Our names. The wild strawberry leaf
does not need to bother with remembering
Its own name, and Doyle, Dolan and me.
All three Americans, drunk on our lonely women.
In our own way we hewed the town mayor
Among the several damned.
We sat up all night,
Rocking some frail accident of love who became
A secret of blossoms we had no business
To understand, only to remember.
Nameless builder of strawberry leaves,
So true to me in my lonely praying, so common
To the French builders who sing among lettuce
And proud tongue singing the clearest
Stone song.

(p. 46)17

Wright does show an unusual forbearance of the vulgarity, and vandalism of his age in entering the cathedral in the company of Doyle and Dolan, whose graffiti Wright allows a place within the anonymous signature of his own craft. In this poem the human responsibility to nurture life, not to comprehend or judge it, is asserted as an art as perfectly hewn as “the dearest / Stone song.”

To fully appreciate the value of Two Citizens's negative pronouncements on the myths of The United States, they must be weighed against both the book's positive moments, as well as the expanded perspective of Wright's total career. In an earlier essay. “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman,” Wright balances Whitman's rejection of the iambic rigidity of Longfellow's traditional measures with the creative innovations of Whitman's experimental prosody, and explains the metamorphosis of his verse style through Nietzsche's parable concerning the three stages of spirit's growth:

The spirit that truly grows, says Nietzsche, will first be a camel, a beast of burden, who labors to bear the forms of the past, whether in morality or art or anything else; then he will change into a lion, and destroy not merely what he hates but even what he loves and understands; and the result of this concerned and accurate destruction will be the spirit's emergence as a child, who is at last able to create clearly and powerfully from within his own imagination.18

His analysis of Whitman's career is also self-reflexive, and serves equally well to explain the change in Wright's initially conservative practice of laboring to bear the traditional forms of the past, leading to the later “savage attack” on the America Wright both loved and hated, and finally, arriving at the later reconciliation and optimism of To a Blossoming Pear Tree, the poet's last volume.

Coursing through these major stages of poetic metamorphosis is a recurrent landscape of images derived from the native places of Wright's American experience. The constituting metaphor of water, which comprises all of the major themes of the poetry under one encompassing plan, flows with and informs the shifting pattern of Wright's aesthetic growth. The poet variously portrays the senses of this characteristic domain as on the one hand a source which is fecund, nurturing, renewing, primal, and on the other as the scarred reminder of the engulfing, obliterating, and polluting history of America's industrial past.

At the center of the poet's world looms, like Poe's maelstrom, a nameless vacuum, an abyss of anonymity, against whose tide Wright struggles to shore poetic speaking. Wright's words surface as the surviving remnants of a profound endurance, a heroic weathering of reality's “cold divinities of death and change.” Drowning and death are the risks in venturing the redemptive, human act, which Wright links to the responsible use of language. In an early poem from The Green Wall, “To a Defeated Savior,” drowning returns as a nightmare of guilt from the failure to “dare” “the circling tow” of reality to rescue a life from a whirlpool of water:

The circling tow, the shadowy pool
Shift underneath us everywhere.
You would have raised him, flesh and soul,
Had you been strong enough to dare;
You would have lifted him to breathe,
Believing your good hands would keep
His body clear of your own death:
This dream, this drowning in your sleep.

(CP, p. 21)

In an interview Wright clarifies the meaning of “To a Defeated Savior” by linking the fear of human commitment to the misuse of language as political tool, which is omnipresent in our public life:

It seems that all of our great ethical ideals always come to grief because, at least in part, our public figures take our language away from us, erode its meaning, so that we can't tell whether or not to trust other people when they make some public gesture in language. We're left sort of scrambling around in the dark, trying to help one another, and yet, being afraid to. As people are afraid to help one another on the streets.19

This dark vision of a collective alienation through the loss of our language has dehumanizing consequences for the individual. The contemporary everyman becomes the casualty to an anonymous erasure of identity, which Wright translates into metaphor, using the Ohio vernacular of “suckhole”:

Under the enormous pier-shadow,
Hobie Johnson drowned in a suckhole.
I cannot even remember
His obliterated face.
Outside my window, now, Minneapolis
Drowns, dark.
It is dark.
I have no life.

(from “The River Down Home,” CP, pp. 164-5)

In “The Poor Washed Up by the Chicago Winter” and “The Minneapolis Poem” of Shall We Gather at the River Wright eulogizes the drowned suicides who, “frightened by namelessness,” have traded the contemporary wasteland of the city for the “warm grave” of “dark water”:

I wonder how many old men last winter
Hungry and frightened by namelessness prowled
The Mississippi shore
Lashed blind by the wind, dreaming
Of suicide in the river.
The police remove their cadavers by daybreak
And turn them in somewhere.
How does the city keep lists of its fathers
Who have no names?

(from “The Minneapolis Poem,” CP, pp. 139-40)

The loss of human community to urban anonymity is signified here by Wright's images of administrative efficiency, whose bureaucratic processing of cadavers is thwarted by the city's “lists of its fathers / who have no names.” In “Miners” from The Branch Will Not Break Wright mourns the drowned children of suburbia, for whom the police “are probing” “below the chemical riffles of the Ohio River.” In an ironic pattern of enjambment (“Grappling hooks, / Drag delicately about, between skiff hulks and sand shoals, / Until they clasp / Fingers.”) Wright personifies the mechanical products of a polluting society as being more animated than the dead fingers they “clasp.” Wright recognized that the disregard for native ecological systems demonstrates man's divorce from the primal rhythms of nature, as well as the historical information of cultural forms once rooted in local dwelling. The urbanization of native peoples like the Sioux Brave of Shall We Gather at the River is an obvious case of the detrimental psychological consequences rapid industrialization and sociological displacement have on man's traditional and mythic orientations:

He is just plain drunk.
He knows no more than I do
What true waters to mourn for
Or what kind of words to sing
When he dies.

(from “I am a Sioux Brave, He Said in Minneapolis,” CP, p. 144)

In “A Message Hidden in an Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw into a Gully of Maple Trees One Night at an Indecent Hour” anonymous women act out a contemporary ritual, which has been evacuated of any cultural form or meaning; lacking in the necessary continuity with history and nature, their dance like the poem's ravaged landscape is grotesque and fruitless: “Women are dancing around a fire / By a pond of creosote and waste water from the river / In the dank fog of Ohio. / They are dead.” Through a veil of dank, Ohio fog, Wright witnesses the Dionysian spectacle of the circling dead silhouetted by fire in a futile invocation of renewal. Like the celebrants, the poet too is located in hell among “The unwashed shadows / Of blast furnaces from Moundsville, West Virginia,” and shares in the fate of the blighted harvest he sings: “Come out, come out, I am dying / I am growing old. / An owl rises / From the cutter bar / Of a hayrake.”

The Ohio River often becomes the scene in Wright's work of the poet's ritual enactment of baptism, yet for Wright, this sacrament does not serve as the emergence into a redeemed realm, but is a further initiation into the knowledge of death. Wright's voyeuristic watching of the prostitutes of “In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned” is an instance of the failed passage across the “strange waters, the / Ohio River”:

I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.
I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?
For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.
And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

(CP, pp. 165-6)

The contrast of specific locale with the subjective vision of “the other shore” to which the drowned prostitutes transmigrate, sets up the expectation of an aesthetic redemption. The whores become angelic, contemporary nereids, who at a distance “climb up the other shore / Drying their wings.” Yet the poem explodes this proffered myth with the reintroduction of prosaic place geographically named (Bridgeport) and hence identified with the unregenerate landscape of Wheeling, Moundsville, Belaire, Martins Ferry, Steubenville, and the other Ohio Valley mill towns.

In such a landscape, radically alien to human aspiration and joy, Wright elects to undertake the task of reasserting a personal identity through the writer's craft; as poet he undergoes an Orphic quest beyond the shores of his knowing into the river realm where he must rescue the muse through authentic speaking:

I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:
You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.

(from “To The Muse,” CP, p. 168)

This vital responsibility to language to which Wright pledges his life (“Come up to me, love, / Out of the river, or I will / Come down to you.”) meant leaving the pastoral garden of high aesthetic expression for a more realistic presentation of the industrial locales along the Ohio and Mississippi.

In his review of Pablo Neruda's The Heights of Macchu Picchu, “I Come to Speak for Your Dead Mouths,” Wright says that “Great poetry folds personal death and general love into one dark blossom.” In his own poetry, Wright has risen beyond the demoralizing reality, the “personal death,” of the contemporary urban wasteland, through his art, which affirms the restorative power of American waters. That the craft of writing communicates the imaginative current beyond a poet's “personal death” to nurture the germinating vision of another artist is the gift Wright realizes in his poem dedicated to Miguel Hernández: “In Memory of a Spanish Poet”:

I see you strangling
Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
I dream of your slow voice, flying,
Planting the dark waters of the spirit
With lutes and seeds.
Here, in the American Midwest,
Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of my
They scatter out their wings a quiet farewell,
A greeting to my country.

(CP, pp. 122-3)

Though Hernández has suffered personal drowning beneath the “whitewashed walls” of a fascist regime, his poetic faith, the “dark blossom” of his vision lives on “here in the American Midwest,” as Wright claims “in the strange heaven of my skull.” Although the river world of the Midwest often became a latter-day Styx for Wright, it also led him beyond death through revealing the richness of its history and local beauty.

Wright records through the metaphor of water, the healing in memory of the loss of his muse, Jenny, whose death he had mourned in “To The Muse.” In “Rip” animals befriend the poet, and their dwelling of the river becomes Wright's own, leading to his reclaiming statement that “Close by a big river, I am alive in my own country, / I am home again.” It was only late in his career that Wright could make the return voyage upstream to the native meaning of place in his “own country.” His long poem “Many of Our Waters,” delivered as the Phi Beta Kappa poem to the College of William and Mary, devotes seven sections of verse to the celebration of “our waters in our native country.” Section two “to the Ohio” traces the etymology of place name back to the antithetical source of what the Ohio has now come to signify:

My rotted Ohio,
It was only a little while ago
That I learned the meaning of your name.
The Winnebago gave you your name, Ohio,
And Ohio means beautiful river.

(CP, p. 207)

Viewing the Adige River in “One Last Look at the Adige: Vienna in the Rain” from To a Blossoming Pear Tree sparks a correspondent recognition of what the Ohio might once have been:

The Ohio must have looked
Something like this
To the people who loved it
Long before I was born.
They called the three
Slim islands of willow and poplar
Above Steubenville,
They, they, they,
The three slim islands
Our Sisters.

(p. 5)20

The place names, which haunt the earlier poems like “In Memory of Leopardi,” the locales of “mill and smoke marrow,” return here with a redemptive grace purged of time's destruction. Wright's stuttering prosody reduplicates the sudden awakening to an unexpected arrival of historical vision completing the poet's partial knowledge of contemporary landscape.

In Wright's expansion of the meaning and significance of his water metaphor to include cultural history, and the primal dwelling, which all generations share, he joins in the broad tradition of American writers, who express through their sea and river imagery, the reality of our “native country” intersecting diachronic time, chance and personal circumstance.

Although Wright announces in “The Minneapolis Poem” that “The old man Walt Whitman our country man / is now in our country / Dead,” he returns Whitman's imaginative gaze out of the “floodtide” of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well these cities, loved well the stately and rapid river
The men and women I say were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I looked forward
to them.

Wright voices Whitman's vision of human sympathy, which spans the flow of generations, through the metaphor of the river and provides a contemporary rendering of the earlier anaphoric style:

Pity so old and alone, it is not alone, yours or mine,
The pity of rivers and children, the pity of brothers, the pity
Of our country, which is our lives.

(from “Many of Our Waters,” CP, p. 212)

Though Wright has found himself, like Eliot's Tiresias, disillusioned with love, on the profane banks of the Unreal City, he also echoes Eliot's later pronouncement in “The Dry Salvages” that “The river is within us, the sea is all about us.” As William Carlos Williams before him in Paterson, Wright implicitly insists that poetic immanence be rooted in native locale; incorporating the Winnebago into his own expressive wonder at the waterfall of Martins Ferry, the poet's birthplace, Wright implicitly insists that the writer's subject matter be rooted in native locale. Williams's sense of the importance of local community is particularly evident as Wright returns to ponder the significance of his native country in the last poem of his final volume: “Beautiful Ohio.” The poem attempts a reintegration of present reality with the original name of “beautiful river” given to the Ohio by the Winnebagos. Affirming that “Those old Winnebago men / Knew what they were singing,” Wright, through the power of revery, composes his own song of the Ohio's past as it rushes into present immanence. The final poem offers a paradoxical vision of the confluence of dual energies, the human reality cascading down into, yet “quickening” the flow of Ohio waters. Recollecting the figure of his youth sitting above a local sewer main, which “Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth,” the poet recalls the epiphany of how “Sixteen thousand and five hundred more or less people / In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country, / Quickened the river / With the speed of light.”:

And the light caught there
The solid speed of their lives
In the instant of that waterfall.
I know what we call it
Most of the time.
But I have my own song for it,
And sometimes, even today,
I call it beauty.

([To a Blossoming Pear Tree; hereafter cited as] PT, p. 62)

Channeled through a sewer main, the velocity of a collective human flux and identity reaches a profound stasis “in the instant of that waterfall,” its intersection with, its eternal return to a wider cycle of nature's flow. Because Wright as a man knows “what we call it / Most of the time,” the brackish “creosote and waste water” of our contemporary fall, as poet he is allowed a redeeming song, which he wills “even today” as a beauty that all of creation shares.

In both Wright and Williams's poetry the spaces of exterior reality and interior imagination interpenetrate and inform one another through the opposing tensions of a mutual reality. Running through the heart of both poets' environs is the river, which conveys the babble of person and place to the waterfall, whose energies are at once violently catastrophic and aesthetically redemptive:

… they coalesce now
glass-smooth with their swiftness,
quiet or seem to quiet as at the close
they leap to the conclusion and
fall, fall in air! as if
floating, relieved of their weight,
split apart, ribbons; dazed, drunk
with the catastrophe of the descent
floating unsupported
to hit the rocks: to a thunder,
as if lightening had struck

Like Williams, Wright's poetic universe is plummeting in its reality, fallen and threatened by the shock of an inevitable destination, yet through the articulate vision of his craft, he suspends that destruction allowing it to float before the reader as beauty. Like Whitman, Eliot, Williams, as well as Hart Crane, and Theodore Roethke, Wright variously explores the local coasts, shores and waterways of his native country to discover and sing the imaginative tides animating the people and landscapes of America.

In “Two Moments in Venice” from the final book, Wright prolongs the moment of aesthetic ecstasy in the face of death and time through prose poems, and rediscovers the sea, which earlier had “solved the whole loneliness / Of the Midwest”:

It is still too early for evening, and the smoke of early September is gathering on the waves of the Giudecca Canal outside my room. Steamers, motorboats, trash scows are moving past in large numbers, and gondolas are going home. In a little while we too will meet the twilight and move through it on a vaporetto toward the Lido, the seaward island with its long beach and its immense hotel, its memories of Aschenbach and his harrowing vision of perfection, of Byron on horseback in the moonlight, and the muted shadows of old Venetians drifting as silently as possible in flight from the barbarians, drifting as far away as the island of Torcello, taking refuge, as Ruskin said, like the Israelites of old, a refuge from the sword in the paths of the sea. Maybe Torcello was nothing much for the princess of the sea to find, but the old Venetians discovered the true shape of evening, and now it is almost evening.

The traffic of the Giudecca canal begins as a colorful touristic procession, yet as Wright's meditation deepens with the abandonment of the shore and the venturing out toward “Lido, the seaward island,” so too does the content of his historical subject. The seascape suddenly darkens with the remembrance that this present is also the locale of Mann's character of Death in Venice, “Aschenbach and his harrowing vision of perfection.” Wright approaches the intersecting immanence of culture and personal death by invoking historical figures of a literary past (Byron, Ruskin) to negotiate the mounting swell of reality. The poet transfigures his own moment of death, like Aschenbach, through aesthetic discourse, the rite of passage which leads him away from the barbarians to the “Israelites' ‘paths of the sea,’” and to the old Venetians who “discovered the true shape of evening.”

The waterworld is an open-ended metaphor in Wright's work and it accumulates a hoard of poetic associations out of the abundant diversity of its life, its otherness to our quotidian world. Beneath the artiface of Wright's constituting metaphor surges the foreign reality of the sea, whose dimensionless spaces and secret life often frustrates the probings of language. “Lifting Illegal Nets by Flashlight” finds the poet as transgressor on a covert venture to reclaim, under the illumination of human knowing, the hidden inhabitants of dark waters. The fishermen trawl for carp, who “are secrets of the creation,” the poachers' attention to their craft, which they pursue “with almost frightening care,” is an example to the poet of how to objectify his personal suffering through art. Yet something escapes their technology, and by breaking their nets, reasserts the power of nature to baffle man's attempts to exhaust its reservoirs of mystery:

What does my anguish
Matter? Something
The color
Of a puma has plunged through this net, and is gone.
This is the firmest
Net I ever saw, and yet something
Is gone lonely
Into the headwaters of the Minnesota.

(CP, p. 163)

This negative strength, which continually reintroduces a frontier to human consciousness, exists in Wright's poetry as an enveloping white space, with whose silent otherness Wright's lyric utterances seek to resonate. It is a complimentary zone, an infinite loneliness against whose virginal primacy wright measures the authenticity and purity of his language:

And still in my dreams I sway like one fainting strand
Of spiderweb, glittering and vanishing and frail
Above the river.
What were those purple shadows doing
Under the ear
Of the woman who was weeping along the Ohio
River the woman?
Damned if you know;
I don't.

(PT, p. 35)

“On a Phrase from Southern Ohio” demonstrates the wave-like delicacy of Wright's verse, whose varied line length generates a questioning ripple radiating between the fullness of revelation and the effacement of mystery. The stanza mimetically reproduces in its form the organic sway of “one fainting strand / Of spiderweb,” wavering against the flux of “the Ohio / River the woman.”

The presentation of this constituting metaphor reflects the lifelong ambivalence and final mystification Wright felt for his native country. The poet's vision of his waterworld is holistic, integrating America's extreme potential for ugliness, brutality, and mediocrity with its elusive grace moving out from headwaters beyond man's knowing. The local scene of contemporary America both disgusted and fascinated Wright, and his authentic rendering of its ironic colloquial truths, salvaged from a fallen, yet vital dwelling place, left him open to critical censure. His style was as experimental and as subject to quick metamorphosis as any American product, and the practice of his innovative craft made his career one of constant, but fruitful controversy. Yet his vision of his country, its landscape, people and history, remains the common foundation, which he celebrates along with a wide body of American water poets. This common reality of native rivers and seas, which Wright elects to articulate, is ultimately the unifying dimension of his experience, and the confluent knowledge he shares with other major American literary artists.


  1. Peter Stitt, “The Art of Poetry,” Paris Review, 16 (January 1975), p. 53 (hereafter cited as PR).

  2. Auden's comments appear in the preface to The Green Wall (New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 1957), p. xiii.

  3. Joseph R. McElrath, ed., “Something to be Said for the Light: A Conversation with James Wright,” Southern Humanities Review, 6, p. 137 (hereafter cited as MI).

  4. Louis Simpson in his review of The Green Wall, “Poets in Isolation,” claimed Wright's work contained “powerful reserves of pity and affection,” and that he might someday “justifiably hope to write as well as Frost or Robinson.” Hudson Review, X (Autumn, 1957), p. 461. Howard Nemerov found his poems “generally intelligent, elegiac, beautifully formed and finely spoken in their compound of colloquial ease and intensely developing metaphor.” “Younger Poets: The Lyric Difficulty,” Kenyon Review (Winter, 1958), p. 35.

  5. Dudley Fitts, “Five Young Poets,” Poetry, XCIV (August, 1959), p. 335.

  6. Anthony Hecht, “That Anguish of the Spirit and the Letter,” Hudson Review, XII (Winter, 1959-60), p. 599. Thom Gunn likewise notices the development of style as a moral instrument, but adds “at times it is done a bit too overtly for us to be really persuaded.” “Excellence and Variety,” Yale Review, XLIX (Winter, 1960), p. 297. More recently, William Saunders has called attention to Wright's awkward moral tags, and views the early work as “fettered by a strange and unhealthy pseudo-Christian ethic of sympathetic identification with the worst of sinners.” “Indignation Born of Love: James Wright's Ohio Poems,” The Old Northwest, 4, p. 358.

  7. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., “James Wright's Poetry: Introductory Notes,” Chicago Review, XVII, ii-iii (1964), p. 133.

  8. James Wright, Collected Poems (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1971) (hereafter cited as CP).

  9. Peter A. Stitt, “The Poetry of James Wright,” Minnesota Review, 11 (1972), p. 17.

  10. Crunk (pseudonym of Robert Bly), “The Work of James Wright,” The Sixties VII (1966), pp. 70, 72 (hereafter cited as TS).

  11. James Wright, “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman,” R. W. B. Lewis, ed., The Presence of Walt Whitman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1962), p. 181.

  12. Geoffrey Hartman, “Beyond the Middle Style,” Kenyon Review, XXV (Autumn, 1963), p. 752.

  13. The most cutting dissection of Wright's career is meted out by Edward Butscher: “The melodramatic incidents, however real, the deliberate use of a hymn structure, the Spartan language and paucity of metaphor, the arrogant humility and sentimental stereotypes, all contribute to an aura of insincerity.” “The Rise and Fall of James Wright,” Georgia Review, XXVIII (1974), p. 265. Although Laurence Lieberman says that Shall We Gather at the River is Wright's best book of poems to date, at the time of his review, Lieberman also adds that “Perhaps the most serious obstacle to the new life of spirit is brevity of form.” This brevity Lieberman finds “a handicap which impedes a full blossoming into the massive raw-boned jaggedness … in many of the short poems.” “A Confluence of Poets,” Poetry (April 1969), p. 41.

  14. For Molesworth, Wright justifies the problem of the self, like the great English Romantic poets, through exploring its dimensions in the lyric mode; the continuity of this direction in Wright's career vindicates the terse new utterances: “Yet perhaps he wants that illiteracy to be what rescues the sentiment, rescues it by its dumb, insistent, yet beautiful earnestness.” “James Wright and the Dissolving Self,” Salamagundi, XXII-XXIII (1973), p. 232.

  15. David Ignatow, “Shall We Gather at the River,N. Y. Times Book Review (March 9, 1969), p. 31.

  16. Calvin Benedict charges Wright with a “defiant, protective incoherency,” that he “refuses both the rigors and pacifications of wholeness” and “seems lodged in pugilistic, grudge bearing adolescence.” “Two Citizens,New York Times Book Review (August 11, 1974), p. 6. Edward Butscher has little use for Wright's outspoken criticism of America, claiming that “From the standpoint of artistic achievement, Two Citizens is an almost total failure.” “The Rise and Fall of James Wright,” p. 267. Charles Molesworth also recognizes the dangers of Wright's new style and notices that “The plainness of Wright's feelings threatens to bring a stop to the inventiveness of his words.” “James Wright and the Dissolving Self,” p. 262.

  17. James Wright, Two Citizens (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973) (hereafter cited as TC). 18

  18. Wright, The Presence of Walt Whitman, p. 173.

  19. James Wright, “I Come To Speak for Your Dead Mouths,” Poetry, CXII (June 1968), p. 191.

  20. James Wright, To a Blossoming Pear Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) (hereafter cited as PT).

Peter Serchuk (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1946

SOURCE: “On the Poet, James Wright,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2-3, 1981, pp. 85-90.

[In the following essay, Serchuk relates an encounter with Wright which showed him the link between Wright the man and Wright the poet, as well as the purpose of poetry for Wright.]

Although James Wright was making few campus visits in the spring of 1973, he agreed to visit our poetry workshop at the University of Illinois mostly as a favor to our instructor, Laurence Lieberman, whose poetry he admired and who'd written some of the best criticism to be found on Wright's work. There was only one stipulation: no formal readings. According to his agent, Wright had recently been too ill to handle any such tension or commotion. Instead, he would sit in on a few classes, perhaps recite a poem or two from memory if he pleased, but no formal readings. Lieberman quickly agreed.

No one could have been more disappointed at Wright not reading than I. While others were drawn to Strand or Merwin or Berryman or Lowell or any of the others we were studying, Wright was my poet. He, along with James Dickey and Theodore Roethke, occupied almost every spare moment of my reading time. For me, Wright's work was the embodiment of all that poetry could and should be. Simple. Direct. Understated. Visionary but shy. As formal as the imagination dictated without ever sacrificing cleanness or the natural rhythms of speech. Wright's poetry never bored me, and, more importantly, I believed him. Casting aside every last professional dictum concerning the separation of the artist from his specific creation, I believed Wright completely, unashamedly. For me, his poems were not merely convincing. As MacLeish's “Ars Poetica” demanded, they were.

As the day of his visit approached I kept hoping something would change. Somehow Wright would gather his frayed ends together and at the last moment schedule a reading. Although I'd never heard him read, in my mind I'd heard them all: “The Minneapolis Poem,” “Saint Judas,” “At The Executed Murderer's Grave,” “Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio,” “Northern Pike,” “To The Muse,” “At The Slackening Of Tide,” “Wille Lyons,” and on and on and on. Who cared what he looked like? It was that voice I wanted, that clear unmistakable crooning filled with the breath of so many other lives. There was no chance.

Lieberman called me at home the night before our class. He had met Wright at the airport. Wright was tired, tense, a man fighting back from the edge. Even the classes would have to be smooth and quiet. There'd be no surprises and no pushing. Lieberman was determined that Wright take it easy and be inconvenienced as little as possible. “He's too valuable.” And what person in his sober mind was going to dispute that?

The day of Wright's visit could not have been more beautiful. The sun rose early unmarred by clouds, and by afternoon the quadrangle was swarming with frisbees, stray dogs, and tight cut-off blue jeans. The classroom windows were half open. All the chair-desks had been set up in a circle. I walked into the room and there was Wright, middled-aged and rounded, fidgeting with a cigarette as he whispered something to Lieberman. His head was balding. His grey beard was sparse and cropped close to his face. His grey suit pants were dotted with ashes from his cigarette. I kept staring, secretly looking for the source of all those poems. He couldn't have shaken any more if he had been a new leaf hanging from one of the tall trees outside the window.

Lieberman began with some general questions about poetic form and music. Wright branched out into Mozart and Horace, his voice the same one I'd heard in my head, shy and hoarse, quickened by its next thought and tinged with that Ohio nasal. His sentences were like his poetry, heavily end-stopped but never diminished in energy. When there were pauses in between it was always in anticipation of something to come, a gathering of recollection, a parenthetical recharging. The discussion widened. Someone asked if he liked modern jazz. He did. Someone else asked if he believed Bob Dylan was truly a poet. He did. Wright was on his fourth cigarette and as best I could count, had crossed his legs eight times. I still hadn't found the poems. Where did he hide them?

“I'm a teacher by profession not a writer … in fact, I don't even teach poetry.” The discussion was wandering off into areas I didn't like. Wright was talking about theories of criticism and parallel developments in the historical structure of the novel and poem. Somehow his voice was no longer enough for me. In my daydream things were falling apart. The tone was becoming too academic, too many references to things found in books. He mentioned his doctorate, which I knew nothing about. My eyes picked up the ashes on his shoes then drifted to the greening trees outside. Was this really James Wright? Was this the same James Wright who grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio … whose father worked for Atlas Glass? My eyes raced around the room in search of something, in search of anything that would shout, “YES!”

Suddenly I caught the sound of my name in the air. Excuse me? Lieberman was asking if I had a question for Wright. A question? I felt like a dazzled Charlie Brown in a “Peanuts” comic strip. Yes, of course. My mind flapped its wings in circles. James Wright my beloved poet and James Wright the academic imposter were colliding dead center in my skull. My mouth opened. A rush of words toppled out on top of one another. “Mr. Wright, don't you think you're being a little presumptuous when you align yourself in your poetry with people whose lives couldn't be any more different from your own? Don't you think you're asking us as readers to buy an awful lot?”

If my question had been tied to a string I would have jerked it back fast. But no. It was too late. The question flew across the room and smacked Wright in the face. He puffed hard on his cigarette, brushed some stray ashes off his tie and aimed his stare between my eyes.

“Damn right,” he began. “It's presumptuous as hell. Anytime you claim someone else's life as part of your own you're setting yourself up for big trouble. And there's no getting around it. But what can you do? When it feels right and looks right on the paper you leave it alone.”

Wright took another hard puff on his cigarette. Should I nod in agreement, I wondered. No. Wright spoke up again. “If I may, I'd like to tell you a story that in some ways relates to this particular question. A few years ago I received a letter from a woman who lives in my home town of Martins Ferry, Ohio. She had read several of my books and was writing to say how nice she thought it was for someone from Martins Ferry to have become a well-known poet. She mentioned some of her favorite poems of mine but said there was one poem in particular—“At The Executed Murderer's Grave,”—which she could never understand. Do any of you know that poem?” Everyone in the class nodded. Only a week earlier we had discussed the poem at length in class and I knew most of it by heart.

The poem deals with George Doty, a convicted killer who was put to death in the electric chair by the state of Ohio. Standing at Doty's grave in the poem, Wright recalls the murderer and wonders what purpose was served in his execution. “Well,” Wright continued, “the woman said she could not accept this poem. Her words were something like, ‘I was a young girl then and I remember the Doty case quite well. It was vicious and sadistic. Not only did Doty murder the young woman, but he beat her so badly that her skull was cracked and half of her brain was scattered. Still, in your poem, you somehow find sympathy for Doty and question the morality of the society that ordered his death. Well, as far as I'm concerned, George Doty was a disgusting human being who got exactly what he deserved. Knowing the facts as you do, I can't understand how you could feel any differently.’”

“As you might guess,” Wright went on, “I thought about this woman's letter for a long while and I tried writing something back to her to clarify the poem. I must have written four or five separate letters but never mailed any of them. In the end I sent her a note thanking her for her letter without even mentioning the Doty poem. But in one of those letters which I never mailed I hit the nail right on the head.” Wright took another long breath from his cigarette. He was sweating from the forehead. The lines on the sides of his eyes were taut and puffed. The unhappy circle of his face seemed to be cast in grey steel. “I told her that as far as I was concerned there was no doubt that Doty, as she had put it, had gotten ‘exactly what he deserved.’ I was not trying to defend or excuse him. What the poem tries to say is simply this: I pray to God that I don't get exactly what I deserve.”

The room seemed to fold into its own silence. I kept my sights fixed on the man with the round face and ash-lined pants. This was James Wright the poet, undeniably and unmistakably. Whether or not he taught the history of the English novel was now unimportant. The connection between poet and poems in my mind, however naive, was once again intact. I had touched the source of those poems.

Wright's story had in one breath validated and reconfirmed everything I felt about his verse; namely, that poetry was indeed alive and viable, not merely as an art form but more importantly as a tool by which we learn how to better live our lives. Staring at Wright I was reminded of all the things his poetry had taught me and all the things I was yet to learn; that empathy, for example, whether it be for George Doty or James Wright, was meaningless without personal risk and that on the bottom line there were no wholly individual crimes. Likewise, there would be no individual salvation to save us from ourselves. I knew then that reading Wright's poetry had somehow made me a better human being, morally and otherwise, and that poetry, by his example, would remain a force by which individual lives could be altered and enriched one by one.

What exactly happened in the classroom afterwards I can't recall. I do know Wright never did give a formal reading during that visit. But I saw him again, for the last time, some two years later at a reading he gave in Hungry Charlie's bar in Ypsilanti, Michigan. That night he recited just about every poem any lover of his work could hope to hear. For my friends and me it seemed there'd be no end to our joy. From where I sat nursing my beer I can still see him, grey beard and ash-marked pants, almost singing the final lines to his poem, “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” For the sake of all of us now saddened, I'm going to believe that's exactly what happened.

Edward Lense (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “This Is What I Wanted: James Wright and the Other World,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1-2, 1982, pp. 19-32.

[In the following essay, Lense argues that Wright perceives the spirit of “the other world,” whether pastoral or painful, embedded in the common elements of this one.]

James Wright is not generally thought of as a visionary poet. The imagery of his poems has always been grounded in matter-of-fact realities, whether the plains and white houses of the Midwest in his earlier books or, more recently, factories and large cities. The poems are almost weighed down by physical details: Wright is careful to tell his readers which hand he uses to stroke a horse, what kind of tree he is standing under while he looks at a field. Nonetheless, in many of his best poems he is equally preoccupied with the spiritual world behind appearance; his best books, The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, begin in this world and end in the other world.

These books differ so greatly in imagery and tone that it is necessary to look at them separately, but they have one thing in common in that each embodies a traditional myth of the other world. The Branch Will Not Break contains many images of the Earthly Paradise, while Shall We Gather at the River builds up a counter-myth of the Ohio River as the river of the dead. The differences in tone and imagery flow from the differences between these two myths. In The Branch Will Not Break every object can be seen as holy if only the persona of the poems can gain the insight to look at things properly; at any moment he might encounter “delicate creatures / From the other world,”1 or his own body might “break into blossom.”2 But in the later book the other world is localized and cut off from such possibilities. It is on the other side of the Ohio River, the side that can be reached only by death. Because the spiritual world is no longer within the natural world, physical life in Shall We Gather at the River is unrelievedly grim, while the natural world of The Branch Will Not Break is essentially pastoral.

Wright announces this pastoral theme with the epigraph of The Branch Will Not Break, lines from Heine's “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” in which the poet longs for the sight of the “land of delight” he knows from dreams and from “old fairy-tales.”3 This land, the traditional Earthly Paradise, will free him from all pain and constraint, and let him be free and happy. Heine's poem ends with a bitter acknowledgement that this is only a dream that “dissolves like empty foam” in the morning, but Wright's poems work in the opposite direction. He often begins by portraying himself in a fit of depression or dread, or with a hangover, and ends by recovering himself through finding wholeness in the life of nature. “The life of nature” is the central quality of the Earthly Paradise, the informing myth of these poems. Although this paradise goes by many different names—Eden, the Fortunate Isles, Beulah, Tír na nÓg—every version is essentially the same, an unfallen world in which every object of ordinary experience is made perfect. There is no death, disease, old age or unhappiness in this other world, and to those who live in it or perceive it through visionary insight every natural thing is perfect.

The Earthly Paradise obviously has nothing to do with city life, so, following tradition, Wright makes rural Ohio look something like Vergil's Italy. His titles define this pastoral quality by themselves: “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me,” “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard,” “Arriving in the Country Again,” “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” “A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place.” The last of these poems is a good example of the tone and imagery of most of the book:

I renounce the blindness of the magazines.
I want to lie down under a tree.
This is the only duty that is not death.
This is the everlasting happiness
Of small winds.
A pheasant flutters, and I turn
Only to see him vanishing at the damp edge.
Of the road.(4)

Everything here is entirely conventional, but the poem communicates much more than the surface message that the country is much nicer than the “market place” of the city. Wright's persona is not necessarily much happier at the end of the poem than at the beginning—just as things seem to be getting under way, the poem ends abruptly with the disappearance of the pheasant. The longing for peace implicit in the title may or may not be gratified. The speaker of this poem may come to share in the “everlasting happiness / Of small winds,” or he may just as well drive back, disappointed, to St. Paul or Pittsburgh. Likewise, in the other poems I have listed, the speaker is an observer of nature rather than a participant in the life he sees around him; whether he is lying in a hammock at William Duffy's farm and feeling that he has wasted his life, or watching a bird through a window in “Two Hangovers,” he is not a part of what he sees.

Nonetheless there is a transforming power within the natural world, and these poems prepare for its appearance in the concluding poems of The Branch Will Not Break. These poems represent a breakthrough, a change from mere wistful observation of the countryside to sudden visionary insight that reveals the world of the numinous within nature; here Wright puts himself in the tradition of poets like Blake, who affirm that “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”5 Wright is neither extravagant nor very specific about his “other world,” but it is certainly present in “Milkweed,” perhaps the most famous of these poems. Here the speaker, again brooding and depressed at first, achieves an epiphany that makes him whole:

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world.(6)

The Midwestern setting could hardly be more ordinary, yet this farm and the milkweed growing in the field are charged with an emotional force that would be out of place if the poem were not about the other world as much as about the farm. As the poem begins, the speaker is cut off from the natural world: he is “in the open,” but at the same time “lost in himself.” He seems to have been brooding for some time, but has not resolved his problem, has not found what he has lost. Being lost in himself, he seems almost entirely unaware of anything close to him; for that matter, very few things that interest him are close to him. Wright is careful to stress the way he looks away from himself, at the rows of corn (not at individual cornstalks), another field with browsing animals, and a house still farther away. The effect is to make the speaker an insignificantly small figure lost in a vast flat field. The farm is not as comfortable as one might expect; it is a little frightening. But, when he looks down and forgets about his isolation, everything changes. The landscape suddenly focusses down to a milkweed pod. When he touches it he is freed from his failures of perception and can realize that both the natural and spiritual worlds are not remote, but stand in a close relationship with him.

It is never clear what he has lost, or thinks he has lost, and it doesn't matter. What does matter is his sense that he is lost in himself in a world that seems to recede almost infinitely from him. He is not seeing things properly because he imagines himself to be alone in the world that is indifferent to him, while in fact he is surrounded by love.

The emotional force of this experience is more than simple relief at escaping from the city or from his own undefined problems; it is his emotion that makes the other world visible to him as he watches the milkweed pod split open and scatter its seeds. It is hard to say just what that emotion is, but it is very intense, capable of transforming his perception of the world by its simple presence. The kind of experience Wright is presenting here is the traditional form of mystical illumination in which the presence of the other world is suddenly apparent through the agency of some trivial thing. The milkweed pod is like the gleam of light that inspired Yeats's “Stream and Sun at Glendalough” or the quiet garden surrounded by angels in Rilke's “Duino Elegies.”

The progression from anxiety to relief in “Milkweed” is, in outline, much the same as in “A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place,” but the image of “small dark eyes / Loving me in secret” sets this poem apart from simple pastorale. Wright uses the phrase “the other world” without defining it at all, but it is clear that he wants to suggest that there is a healing force, a sort of undirected but powerful love, within the natural world, and that it can be perceived in moments of vision. In such moments Wright's persona can see heaven in a wild flower, or even be transformed himself, as in “A Blessing.” In that poem, the speaker again reaches out of himself and touches a natural thing, this time a horse's ear; his delight in the horse leads him into a vision of change and growth:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.(7)

It is one thing, then, to stand on a country road and appreciate nature, but only through an intense concentration on some natural thing can the speakers of Wright's poems achieve their visionary insight. Further, human preoccupations, such as being depressed or fleeing from the market place, must also be put aside before the speakers can see creatures from the other world or “break into blossom.” In both “Milkweed” and “A Blessing” the undefined “love” that leads into vision is not human love but something residing in the natural world that is not forced or conditioned by human relationships but entirely simple and, apparently, always possible. It is not as complex, ambivalent or demanding as human love. Robert Bly, writing as “Crunk” in The Sixties, suggests that the difference between human and spiritual love is the crux of “Milkweed”:

“Milkweed” describes the realization that the longing to be loved, the demanding of love, the insistence that everyone around us show their love, was all wrong. All the time, the walker was being loved by something unknown, “the small dark eyes / loving me in secret.” The poem suggests that when we realize this, the world of saints and mystics becomes real and visible to us.8

The same things are true of “A Blessing,” and, in addition, Wright suggests that he can participate in the natural life represented by the horse.

This, then, is the essential pattern of Wright's poems about the other world in The Branch Will Not Break: a strong emotion, set off by some natural thing, transforms the speaker's perception of the world so that he is ready to enter a pure state of joy, the “Land der Wonne” of the epigraph. Only once, though, does he give any description of this state of joy, in “Today I Was So Happy, So I Made this Poem”:

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I Wanted.(9)

Again, as in “Milkweed” and “A Blessing,” there is no logical relationship between the natural objects Wright describes and the emotional weight they carry; the moon has no more to do with immortality than a milkweed pod does with love. Both, however, are sufficient to lead Wright into a sudden perception of the other world. Any natural thing will do as well for this as any other, since the Earthly Paradise is earthly and dwells in every natural object. The oak trees of heaven are in the same places as the oak trees of this world. It is only Wright's perception that changes during the moment of illumination he records in this poem: by putting himself in the eternal present of nature, in which each moment is static and unchanging, he moves out of the usual human preoccupation with time, change and death. Like the squirrel and the eagle, he is fully in harmony with his surroundings.

“Today I Was So Happy …” is the closest thing in The Branch Will Not Break to a complete escape from human life; in terms of visionary insight it is, as Richard Howard has called it, “the Summum Bonum of Wright's whole undertaking.”10 Nonetheless, its mood of pure joy is very short-lived; the imagery of the Earthly Paradise itself, however important to The Branch Will Not Break, disappears almost entirely in Wright's next book, Shall We Gather at the River. In this book the other world is no longer Eden or the Elysian Fields, but the other shore of the Ohio River, which is sometimes Kentucky and sometimes Hell. The dominant emotion is no longer joy at escape from the oppression of the world, but fear in the presence of death.

In Shall We Gather at the River love is not hidden in the natural world, only waiting to be found in a moment of vision, but, rather, it seems to have died with a girl who drowned in the Ohio River. Throughout the book, Wright pictures himself moving through a fallen world. This time his depression seems to be permanent, since there are no epiphanies to relieve his feeling that the world is indeed dead and his life meaningless. The book is a loose sequence of poems that starts in Minneapolis and takes Wright steadily closer to Ohio and, at the same time, back into his past, his childhood and family, and toward the other world. Ghosts multiply as he approaches the river, particularly the ghosts of failures and suicides. In the final poem, “To the Muse,” he reaches the suckhole where Jenny died long ago, and from which he tries to call her back to life. When Wright was asked in a recent interview what he meant to do in this sequence, he replied:

I was trying to move from death to resurrection and death again, and challenge death finally. Well, if I must tell you, I was trying to write about a girl I was in love with who has been dead for a long time. … I thought maybe I could come to terms with that feeling which has hung on in my heart for so long.11

This description makes the book sound much simpler and perhaps more positive than it really is, as if writing it was a sort of therapy to clear up morbid thoughts about the distant past. Wright's comment has a strongly “confessional” tone, but the book, while vaguely autobiographical, is built not so much around incidents in his life as around images of death and resurrection. The geography of his personal life is transformed into a symbolic landscape dominated by the river of the dead.

The first poem, “A Christmas Greeting,” establishes the tone of the book. The ironic “greeting” is addressed to a suicide who died

… because you could not bear to live,
Pitched off the bridge in Brookside, God knows why.
Well, don't remind me. I'm afraid to die,
It hurts to die, although the lucky do.(12)

These lines introduce the main theme of death by suicide in the river, and also the secondary theme of pain and self-pity. The speaker of the poems, whom Wright consistently presents as himself, is a connoisseur of pain, attuned equally to suffering and its futility. He misses few opportunities to remind the reader that bodily pain and deformity are terrible. In “A Christmas Greeting” he points out that “The kidneys do not pray, the kidneys drip,” and in “The Minneapolis Poem”

The Artificial Limbs Exchange is gutted
And sown with lime.
The whalebone crutches and hand-me-down trusses
Huddle together dreaming in desolation
Of dry groins.(13)

Imagery like this is not simply morbid, since dripping kidneys and dry groins are emblems of the pain of living. This pain is both physical and metaphysical: life is terrible, Wright insists, because there can be no escape from suffering, no comforting visions of the other world. Even the dead, having been failures in this world, are futile ghosts in the other world. In the first poems of the sequence, the speaker identifies himself with the poor and the outcasts who suffer constantly, who are “Lashed blind by the wind, dreaming / Of suicide in the river.”14 As the sequence continues, he identifies himself more and more with the ghosts of the failed dead. This shift in emphasis from the physical to the spiritual world is like that of The Branch Will Not Break, but this time the other world offers no relief.

On this side of the river there is nothing but pain and suffering, then, and no hope. On the other side is the mysterious world of the dead:

We have no kings
In this country,
They kept saying.
But we have one
Where the dead rise
On the other shore.
And they hear only
The cold owls throwing
Salt over
Their secret shoulders.(15)

This is not a very comforting other world. Clearly, the king is death, and the river is the Styx. (Another poem, “Old Age Compensation,” reinforces this image of the river as the Styx by introducing Charon: “All it will take is one old man trawling one oar.”16) Just as the myth of the Earthly Paradise carries with it the image of perfect life within nature, so this myth carries a definite picture of the dead: they are only shades who live without joy or hope of change. Any messengers who arrive from this other world are not likely to suggest that we are surrounded by love.

The bleakness of the other world is apparent in several poems; for example, in “Willy Lyons,” Wright pictures his mother mourning Willy, his uncle:

Willy was buried with nothing except a jacket
Stitched on his shoulder bones.
It is nothing to mourn for.
It is the other world.
She does not know how the roan horses, there,
Dead for a century,
Plod slowly.
Maybe they believe Willy's coffin, tangled heavily in moss,
Is a horse trough drifted to shore
Along that river under the willows and grass.(17)

These horses have nothing to do with the horses of “A Blessing,” or the many horses who run through the orchards and fields of Wright's early books. Rather they, along with the coffin, the moss, and the slow, choked movement of the river, suggest that death (particularly death in the river) is a sodden affair with no grace at all.

The sequence moves from death to resurrection, yet there are many suggestions that resurrection is futile, as in “The Life”:

And if I come back to my only country
With a white rose on my shoulder,
What is that to you?
It is the grave
In blossom.(18)

The Ohio, he says in “Three Sentences for a Dead Swan,” is “no tomb to / Rise from the dead / From.”19 In any case, this is the wrong myth for any kind of resurrection, since even Orpheus could not get Eurydice back across the Styx. The two shores are always separate, so the “challenge to death” Wright mentioned in his interview must inevitably fail.

The challenge comes in the last poem, “To the Muse.” This poem is the culmination of the sequence; the speaker has worked his way back to the Ohio, and is now trying to resurrect Jenny, the girl whose rebirth can, he seems to feel, bring love back into the world. He images that her body is still in the river after many years; this idea, combined with the image of the human body and its suffering that has been with him throughout the book, results in the fantasy that a terrible operation, performed by “Three lady doctors in Wheeling,” might bring her back to life. Because this poem combines the grotesque images of pain that characterize the book with Wright's most prolonged treatment of the river, it must be quoted in full:

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn't
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.
I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:
You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.
Three lady doctors in Wheeling open
Their offices at night.
I don't have to call them, they are always there.
But they only have to put the knife once
Under your breast.
Then they hang their contraption.
And you bear it.
It's awkward a while. Still, it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don't
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.
That way they only have to stab you
Once. Oh Jenny,
I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn't, I can't bear it
Either, I don't blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of black sand,
I don't blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.(20)

This is Wright's longest and most grisly treatment of physical suffering, and also the natural extension of his images of disease and decay. It is the last and most important of many deaths by water, which include the suicide of “Charlie” in “A Christmas Greeting,” the nameless old men in “The Minneapolis Poem,” the prostitutes in “In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned,” Hobie Johnson in “The River Down Home.” Death in the river is a constant in the sequence, but resurrection is not. The poems do move from death to resurrection, but the rebirth of “In Response to a Rumor” is ironic, the vision of the Earthly Paradise in “Poems to a Brown Cricket” is a dream, and the rebirth of Jenny in “To the Muse” is a nightmare. Jenny is, in effect, being invited to move from one world of death to another, since the living people in the book are all spiritually dead, like the crowds on London Bridge in “The Waste Land.”

Jenny's rebirth, then, is only an extension of the suffering that the living go through; Wright suggests strongly and repeatedly in this book that life is essentially a matter of walking around being drained by the world while waiting for it to “stab your heart.” Jenny's corpse, returned to an artificial life by the three lady doctors, would be as alive as anyone else in these poems. Her resurrection is meaningless: it is the grave in blossom again. She is in the same situation as the prostitutes of “In Response to a Rumor,” who rise from the dead only to find themselves in Bridgeport, Ohio.21

In The Branch Will Not Break, rebirth and vision are possible because the other world, while not often tangible, seems to be available when it is needed to counter despair. In Shall We Gather at the River, the other world is beyond reach. The best Wright's speaker can do is fantasize about leading Jenny “back to this world.” But his demands are impossible: surrounded by what he sees as an empty world, he demands that love should come out of the other world in the form of a dead woman. But such an idea, as Bly suggested about the speaker's despair in “Milkweed,” is all wrong. It is hardly surprising that the poem should end with a suicide threat, since the speaker of “To the Muse” can find no help either in this world or the other world. The poem is not really about resurrection, but rather about the futility of hope in resurrection, and the permanence of death. When Wright described the sequence as ending in a “challenge to death,” he was correct, but might have added that it is no more effective than any other such challenge.

It is this insistence on death, and the pain of life that drives Charlie, Jenny, and the rest to their deaths, that gives Shall We Gather at the River its air of morbidity. In, for example, “To the Muse,” he gives detail after detail of the operation in a completely unnecessary attempt to intensify the horror of his fantasy. Here, as in the picture of Willy Lyons floating down the river being nuzzled by ghostly horses, or the grotesque imagery of the Artificial Limbs Exchange, Wright nearly overwhelms his poems with bathos. His poems are most moving when they are not so insistent on their horrors. “To the Muse,” like other poems in the sequence, derives its real power not from the bizarre fantasy of three lady doctors but from the simple language of lines like “You come up after dark, you poise alone / With me on the shore.” Here, as in such poems as “Today I Was So Happy …,” the physical and spiritual world are balanced and united within the terms of the poem—and, just as importantly, Wright is able to say so in direct language.

There is the same balance and simplicity in “Poems to a Brown Cricket,” the next-to-last poem in Shall We Gather at the River. Here the other world is just a dream that will, as Heine said, dissolve like mist in the morning. Still, while it lasts, the dream restores the pastoral world of The Branch Will Not Break:

We shall waken again
When the courteous face of the old horse David
Appears at our window,
To snuffle and cough gently.
He, too, believes we may long for
One more dream of slow canters across the prairie
Before we come home to our strange bodies
And rise from the dead.(22)

The irony of “rising from the dead” into “strange bodies” marks this off from poems like “Milkweed,” as does the fact that the other world is a dream and “resurrection” is waking up. Nonetheless, while Wright is waking up on this particular morning he balances once more between the world of observation and the world of vision. It is from this point of balance that his best poetry comes.

In both of these books, and to a lesser extent in his earlier and more recent work, it is the presence of the other world, half-seen and undefined as it is, that gives force to his otherwise conventional poetry. The poems off The Branch Will Not Break achieve their effect through reticence: they affirm that the other world is real and accessible, but refuse to say much about it. The reader must understand the “Land der Wonne” for himself. Shall We Gather at the River develops its opposing myth more fully, through classical references and a complex set of related images, and thereby depends even more on the other world. In neither case can the reader ignore this elusive presence: whether the other world is dwelling within the objects of this world, or cut off by the river of the dead from a world that is itself half-dead, it gives Wright's commonplace images their power. Further, its presence places Wright in the tradition of Blake, Yeats, Rilke and other visionary poets for whom, as Yeats said, “The rivers of Eden are in the midst of our rivers.”23


  1. James Wright, Collected Poems (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), p. 136 (“Milkweed”).

  2. Collected Poems, p. 135 (“A Blessing”).

  3. From Lyrisches Intermezzo, 43. For a complete text, see Heinrich Heine, Historische-kritische Gesamtausgabe de Werke, I, i, Buch der Lieder, ed. Pierre Grappin (Hamburg: Hoffman und Campe, 1975), pp. 175-76.

  4. Collected Poems, pp. 132-33.

  5. David V. Erdman, ed., The Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 39.

  6. Collected Poems, pp. 135-36.

  7. Collected Poems, p. 135.

  8. Crunk, “The Work of James Wright,” The Sixties, 8 (Spring, 1966), 52-78.

  9. Collected Poems, p. 133.

  10. Richard Howard, Alone With America (New York: Atheneum, 1968), p. 584.

  11. Peter Stitt, “The Art of Poetry XIX: James Wright,” The Paris Review, 16, No. 62 (Summer 1975), 34-61.

  12. Collected Poems, p. 139.

  13. Collected Poems, pp. 140-41.

  14. Collected Poems, p. 140 (“The Minneapolis Poem”).

  15. Collected Poems, p. 146 (“An Elegy for the Poet Morgan Blum”).

  16. Collected Poems, p. 148.

  17. Collected Poems, pp. 158-59.

  18. Collected Poems, p. 155.

  19. Collected Poems, p. 156.

  20. Collected Poems, pp. 168-69.

  21. Collected Poems, pp. 165-66.

  22. Collected Poems, pp. 166-67.

  23. W. B. Yeats, Memoirs, Ed. Denis Donoghue (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 127.

John Martone (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3486

SOURCE: “‘I Would Break into Blossom’: Neediness and Transformation in the Poetry of James Wright,” in Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 64-75.

[In the following essay, an obituary tribute to Wright, Martone examines the theme of transformation in his poetry.]


It is difficult to speak retrospectively of James Wright's poetry, to think of it as a completed ouevre rather than as an ongoing body of work, for Wright's was very much a poetic of transformation. As Dave Smith puts it, “Wright insists that the most fundamental nature of poetry is in its affirmation of possibility.1 For Wright, transformation is implicit in the very notion of metaphor, in the figuring of one thing as another. The figurative process in poetry is kin to the processes of metamorphosis in nature. For Wright there is a vital bond between poetry and life in the fact that both are realms of change.

Transformation, though, most often means redemption in Wright's world—or restoration, or healing; and what needs to be healed is our humanity. The human figures of Wright's poetry, as William Heyen suggests, are always needy in an important way, are characteristically failures. His poems are inhabited by defeated saviours, bad poets, convicts, corrupt politicians, and drunks, and when the poet speaks in his own person, he most often speaks of moments of fear, laziness, or sorrow—of moments that can hardly be described as heroic.2 In his discussions of the art of poetry, too, Wright recognizes and affirms our human shortcomings again and again. One of his favorite passages from Dante, Wright tells us, is the poet's advice in the De volgare eloquentia that one not attempt to do more than is humanly possible, that a poet recognize the limits of his / her art.3 If Wright's is a poetic of transformation that is, at least in part, because his is also a poetic of modesty.

Wright sees that we are needy, and he knows that we have made ourselves needy by hybristically isolating ourselves from the rest of existence, by setting ourselves apart from the world around us. In the process of his poetry, Wright sees and responds to the spiritual petrification that R.D. Laing finds to be characteristics of our age and to the loneliness which Philip Slater says we're all pursuing.4 The recognition in Wright's poetry of our neediness leads, though, to the reaffirmation of a world beyond us; it always allows us to look through to the possibility of change.

This is, I think, where Wright's poetry takes on its particular significance for our time. The Greeks implicitly associated the arts of poetry and medicine by naming Apollo patron of both, and Wright, too, thinks of the arts of poetry and healing as related. In an interview with Dave Smith, Wright tells us that writing The Branch Will Not Break involved not just the search for a new poetic idiom but a personal process of spiritual healing and regeneration.5 In his translation of “Three Stanzas from Goethe,” the poet shows us that “the self seeker finds nothing” except his own disease. But he goes on to pray:6

O Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear might echo,
Then quicken his heart.

The recognition of our neediness gives us a chance to see beyond ourselves to a larger nature, a more complete harmony. For Wright, the human soul is healed, is quickened, only when it steps beyond itself into the world, only when the self-seeker begins to seek another. At its source, the process of figuration in Wright's poems, I want to suggest, always partakes of this impulse to look beyond the limited, human self. A version of the Romantic quest motif that Peter Stitt traces in The Branch Will Not Break is at work at the most basic level of the poesis of Wright's poems.7

There is a rich heritage in American poetry for Wright's transformational poetic and what Charles Molesworth calls his “dissolving self.”8 Ultimately, Wright's poetry looks back to Emerson's “Nature” and to the twenty-fourth section of Whitman's “Song of Myself” with its unfolding vision of the human body as the body of the world, but it also stands in the more recent lines of Jeffers and Roethke.9 In his preface to “The Women at Point Sur,” the former poet wrote:

 … “Humanity is the start of the race, the gate
                    break away from, the coal to kindle,
The blind mask crying to be slit with eye holes.(10)

Wright is a more generous poet than Jeffers, of course, and he never develops a harsh, quasi-evolutionary doctrine of Inhumanism. Wright, though, shares with Jeffers a belief that the human being is destined to give way to the natural and can only be fulfilled by doing so.

Wright probably hearkens back to Roethke more often than to any other poet, as especially to the Roethke of “The North American Sequence”:11

The lost self changes,
turning toward the sea,
A sea shape turning around,—
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.

In sequence after sequence, Roethke would make this loss of self a struggle and achievement of epic proportions, the heroic myth of our age. In Wright's poems, though, that same struggle and achievement are consciously reduced and redefined as the ordinary task, the task of the daily moment. Wright deliberately and firmly resists the temptation to the epic, and doing so is a mark of his faithfulness to his vision, a vision that moves between the modest and the miraculous.


The human being is redeemed through a metaphorphosis, a metamorphosis in which a limited, partial, human self is abandoned and a larger, natural world is embraced as a source of meaning. It is in this context of metaphorphosis, I think, that we find the significance of his use of the deep image, of a language that so often makes a landscape out of subjective states. Wright does not turn to the landscape, to the world around us, simply in order to illustrate subjective moods. He does not see nature simply as a collection of spiritual symbols or—as some of his readers have suggested—as a means of writing a Jungian allegory of the psyche.12 To be sure, Wright's landscape always has a richly symbolic content, but it is finally not so much an emblem of the soul as what the soul is destined to become. This transformative movement from the self to the world is apparent even in a poem as simple and unassuming as “I Was Afraid of Dying”:

I was afraid of dying
In a field of dry weeds.
But now,
All day long I have been walking among
damp fields,
Trying to keep still, listening
To insects that move patiently,
Perhaps they are sampling the fresh dew that
gathers slowly
In empty snail shells
And in the secret shelters of sparrow feathers fallen
on the earth.(13)

The poem depicts a spiritual change from the fear of death to the recognition of death as fullness, as the completion of life. The poem's straightforward, two-part structure reinforces that impression of change as we move from the short, clipped speech and past tense of “once” to the expansive rhythms and perfect tense of “now,” as we move from the barren dryness of the weeds to the lush dampness of the field. Most important, in this poem that deals with a change in spiritual state, is the attention which the speaker pays to the physical details of the new landscape. The poem clearly moves from the speaker's one-time mental conception of death as a “field of dry weeds” to his representation of an experience of an outer world. Whereas he once thought of death as a symbolic landscape, he now enters a living world.

He enters that world suddenly and inexplicably. In contrast to Ovid, for example, who often depicts his Metamorphoses step by step, and even to Whitman, who systematically unfolds the self to us in his poem, Wright most often moves immediately from a vision of the needy human being to a vision or intuition of the creature transformed. His poetry of leaping leaves something in mystery or silence; his poetry of leaping leaves us behind, leaves behind the fragmentary self and all it can understand. I think there is good reason for Wright's poetic strategy here: our neediness, he seems to be telling us, is finally a neediness of language; our neediness is our inability fully to speak of the world. The transformation that redeems the human being can only take place within an ordering of meanings, within a syntax, within a language beyond any we can understand. In a different context, Karl Jaspers tells us that the barrier between the self and Other can only be overcome, that we can only transcend ourselves “in an encounter with the world as cypher.” In such a meeting, “the world of phenomena becomes the cypher script of being.”14 We encounter, we state in wonder at the miraculous because we cannot decipher it.

“A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place” presents us with a sudden transformation. Appropriately, it is also a poem that alludes to the inadequacy of human language and the glyph-like character of the mysterious:15

I renounce the blindness of the magazines.
I want to lie down under a tree.
This is the only duty that is not death.
This is the everlasting happiness
Of small winds.
A pheasant flutters, and I turn
Only to see him vanishing at the damp edge
Of the road.

In the scarcely comprehended glimpse of the pheasant the speaker attains a new order of vision. That new order of vision is emphatically partial: he does not see the pheasant or the pheasant-flying-away so much as the world-as-liberation, as liberation even from seeing. Appropriately, the poem can take us to the edge of the road, to the limits of human language, but no further. The wondrous sight lies beyond this.

Peter Stitt rightly suggests that “Fear Is What Quickens Me” is a poem about “The predatory destructiveness of America.”16 It is important, I think, that the poem ends not by finding a solution to that destructiveness but by transforming the speaker into a natural victim of it:17

Many animals that our fathers killed in America
Had quick eyes.
They stared about wildly,
When the moon went dark.
The new moon falls into the freight yards
Of the cities in the south,
But the loss of the moon to the dark hands of Chicago
Does not matter to the deer
In this northern field.
What is that tall woman doing
There in the trees?
I can hear rabbits and mourning doves whispering together
In the dark grass, there
Under the trees.
I look about wildly.

Like “A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place,” this poem ends with an uncertain vision of wildness. The poet's inability in the previous poem to get a fix on the pheasant is complemented here by his inability to get a fix on his surroundings at all, indeed, by his inability even to get a fix on himself. The word “wildly” connotes the instinctual precision of the animals' quick (i.e. living) eyes; and the speaker's inability fully to understand the danger he is in leads him not simply to identify with but to give himself over to a larger, wilder, animal nature.18

Wright's most powerful poem is about the kinds of transformation we have been discussing:19

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no other loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

The poem is, of course, structured around the crossing of boundaries, of the road, of the barbed wire fence, of the speaker's human nature—it is a poem about “kindness” in its root meanings of “kin” and “kind.” Twilight is kin in its movement to horses; the horses' necks are kin in shape to the necks of those symboliste emblems of the poet, the monogamous swans. (And isn't the poem about the ultimate mono-gamy of all things!) The poet's touch mysteriously unites the human pulse of a girl's wrist with an animal's hearing. The poem's final, ecstatic moment may be—in the ease with which it draws together so many of these images—one of the most powerful intuitions of change in modern poetry.

The powerful simplicity of Wright's images contrasts, though, with the complexity of syntax and thought in the poem's final lines. To what extent, we naturally ask, is the poet's sudden realization literally a making-real? Why, we wonder, does the poet give us the emotionally most compelling moment of his poem in the form of a logical if-then construction, a construction which describes the relationship between something possible and something necessary? How, we finally ask and cannot know, is it possible to step out of the body in the first place? For this reader, the difficulty and miracle of Wright's poem lie not so much in the poem's final line, not so much in the figure of blossoming as in the ease with which the speaker can imagine stepping out of the body, in the fact that he can imagine it as an immediate possibility. The power of this poem lies in the speaker's imagining an ecstasy as possible. For him to imagine ecstasy is for him to be transformed.


In his posthumously published collection of poems, This Journey, Wright returns again and again to the theme of redemptive transformation. In “The Vestal in the Forum,” for example, he sees the processes of nature as artistic precisely insofar as they erode or un-do the work of man and lead us beyond the simply human:20

This morning I do not despair
For the impersonal hatred that the cold
Wind seems to feel
When it slips fingers into the flaws
Of lovely things men made,
The shoulders of a stone girl
Pitted by winter.
Not a spring passes but the roses
Grown stronger in their support of the wind,
And now they are conquerors,
Not garlands any more,
Of this one face:
Clearer to me than most living faces.
The slow wind and the slow roses
Are ruining an eyebrow here, a mole there.
But in this little while
Before she is gone, her very haggardness
Amazes me. A dissolving
Stone, she seems to change from stone to something
Frail, to someone I can know, someone
I can almost name.

It is easy, I think, to see another version of the Pygmalion myth here. In contrast to the classical myth, though, the speaker of Wright's poem falls in love with the statue because and as it dissolves, as it comes less and less to resemble a human face. The poem's final line has a powerful irony in these terms, for the speaker almost recognizes the sculpture precisely at the moment in which it is about to become only so much natural stone devoid of human significance. Indeed, as nature erodes the sculpted figure even before the speaker's eyes, his language too undergoes a sort of erosion; we could even say that the erosive process of nature has been internalized. The speaker's soul is redeemed (he feels hope and not despair) because his soul has been penetrated like the stone and broken down.

“The Vestal in the Forum” is a characteristic poem of Wright's last book, a book in which the poet consistently looks beyond his own role as poet to the universal, destructive artistry of nature. And “The Vestal in the Forum” is not the only poem in the collection to allude to the metmorphoses of classical mythology. The spider—always reminiscent of Ovid's Arachne—plays an important role throughout the book as a figure of the poet in his encounter with mortality and death. In the collection's magnificent title poem the poet bends down to rinse the dust of Tuscany from his face. He discovers a spiderweb covered with dust, and a spider. He meditates:21

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don't worry.

Whereas “The Blessing” culminated in an intuition of ecstasy, in a vision of the poet about to step out of himself, this poem ends with the world taking back its own. In her myth, Arachne is transformed into a spider by vengeful Pallas for too faithfully weaving the images of life. Wright longs for a similar transformation here, and indeed we see him being changed back into the earth out of which he was shaped in a veritable unmaking of the Genesis creation story. Wright is man (adamah) returning to the earth (adamah). The secret of the journey, Wright tells us, is to welcome that transformation, is simply not to hold on to the self.

Important, too, is the apostrophe of the poem's last line, is the fact that the poet finally turns his attention to us. It's appropriate for my paper to end here, with Wright's admonition, “don't worry.” That admonition involves us personally and immediately in the world of his poem, and in that way, it transforms us. Indeed, Wright seems almost to be consoling us.


  1. Dave Smith, “That Halting, Stammering Moment,” in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright (Urbana, 1982), p. 176.

  2. Joseph McElrath, “Something to Be Said for the Light: A Conversation with James Wright”, Southern Humanities Review, VI (1972), 135.

  3. See Wright's comment on poetics in Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey's The New Naked Poetry (Indianapolis, 1976), p. 478.

  4. For Slater, see The Pursuit of Loneliness (New York, 1970); for Laing, The Divided Self (New York, 1979).

  5. For the text of Smith's interview of Wright, see The Pure Clear Word, pp. 3-42. Smith notes that Wright “demanded the right to speak not as a persona or mask but as himself, a man in the midst of chaotic experience who means to achieve a cohesive view of the real.” Smith goes on to cite Wright's description of the poetic journey as “neither more nor less than the attempt to locate and reclaim those healing powers within oneself.” See The Pure Clear Word, pp. xix, xx-xxi.

  6. James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break (Middletown, 1959), p. 14.

  7. Stitt argues convincingly that The Branch Will Not Break is structured around the quest motif (in The Pure Clear Word, pp. 65-77) but has little to say about how the motif informs the structure of individual poems. This essay tries, in part, to build on Stitt's very helpful work.

  8. See “James Wright and the Dissolving Self,” Salmagundi, 22-23 (1973), 222-233.

  9. For a discussion of Wright's relationship to Jeffers see David Dougherty, “Themes in Jeffers and James Wright,” Robinson Jeffers Newsletter 33 (1972), 7-11.

  10. Robinson Jeffers, The Women at Point Sur and Other Poems (New York, 1977), p. 9.

  11. Theodore Roethke, Collected Poems (New York, 1975), p. 201.

  12. Dennis Haskell points to the use of a Jungian symbolism by all the deep image poets in “The Modern American Poetry of the Deep Image,” The Southern Review (Australia), 12 (1979), 139-66.

  13. James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break (Middletown, 1959), p. 56.

  14. Karl Jaspers, Truth and Symbol (New Haven, 1959), p. 12.

  15. Wright, The Branch Will Not Break, p. 51.

  16. Peter Stitt, “The Quest Motif in The Branch Will Not Break,” in The Pure Clear Word, p. 71.

  17. Wright, The Branch Will Not Break, p. 19.

  18. I think Wright goes beyond what Stitt calls “an identification with” the animals. See “The Quest Motif …,” p. 72.

  19. Wright, The Branch Will Not Break, p. 57.

  20. James Wright, This Journey (New York, 1982), p. 15. I first suggest this reading of the poem in my review of This Journey in World Literature Today, 57, 1 (Winter, 1983).

  21. James Wright, This Journey, pp. 30-31.

Jerome Mazzaro (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7613

SOURCE: “Dark Water: James Wright's Early Poetry,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 135-55.

[In the following essay, Mazzaro traces the aesthetic and ethical development of Wright's poetry.]

When James Wright came on the literary scene in the mid-fifties, he possessed what few other young poets had—command. This command could be felt in the ranges of his diction, line, and stanza as well as in the varied ways he handled subjects. His writing could move from the soft romanticism of “fumbled for the sunlight with her eyes” to the neoclassicism of “I mourn no soul but his.” It could also embrace a Shakespearean “fruits of summer in the fields of love.” Being a singer of human reality, Wright's inheritance and business was song. He knew that sung and unsung nature differed greatly and that what the poet chose to sing was often seen through previous handling. He was thus removed from the questioning sincerity that W. D. Snodgrass espoused in “Finding a Poem” (1959).


Wright's attitudes so coincided with “the acceptable” and the stances of previous poets that their work added authority to his own. In “Prayer to the Good Poet” (1973), Wright acknowledges the Latin writer Horace as “the good father” of his enterprise, and the senses of transience, the forms, and the emphases on friendship in The Green Wall (1957) attest to a Horatian tie. There is, in addition, something Horatian in the care that the poems take in expressing common, practical wisdom. In the description of a passage to afterlife, “Father” adds the presence of Vergil or Dante in the “tiny man” who awaits the boat, and Propertius and Catullus seem to lurk as other fathers in the collection's various ghosts and uses of magic. Readers may also find in the volume's songs an indebtedness to the lyrics of George Gascoigne and W. B. Yeats, and in the diction and themes of poems like “On the Skeleton of a Hound,” “Elegy in a Firelit Room,” “She Hid in the Trees from the Nurses,” “A Gesture by a Lady with an Assumed Name,” “Morning Hymn to a Dark Girl,” and “Erinna to Sappho,” they may name Theodore Roethke, Robert Frost, John Crowe Ransom, E. A. Robinson, Charles Baudelaire, and Rainer Maria Rilke as additional influences.

Less sharply defined and less immediately evident are the brooding, often darker views of ideological fathers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Matthew Arnold. From his study of Thomas Hardy, Wright seems to have hit upon Schopenhauer's presentation of the world as idea acted upon by will or spirit. Portions of Jude the Obscure (1895) are indebted to the German thinker, whose work Hardy read in the late 1880's and whose belief in man's diminished place in the universe reinforced Hardy's own pessimism. From “Dover Beach” (1851) and “Empedocles on Etna” (1852)—if not from Arnold's “The Study of Poetry” (1880)—Wright seems to have gained a sense of the present impossibility of Christian belief at the same time that its emotions were being preserved. Christian imagery and allusion function to remind rather than to relieve. In the absence of religious certitude, Arnold collapses religion into “its unconscious poetry” and demands of poetry that it be rigorously ethical. Existence's irrationality for both thinkers precedes and makes arbitrary any rational meaning man may later attach. The result, as critics of Arnold argue, is the triumph of what Soren Kierkegaard calls “aesthetic choice”: Decisions are made for the moment, and they are multifarious and entirely immediate. Poetry comes to be not so much a modernist insight into truth as the cosmetic of Robert Frost's “temporary stay against confusion.” In one's being true to one another, Arnold makes the important basis of art the I-thou juncture of humanism, and in a sense, Wright's view of the poet as singer who learns his trade from earlier singers continues this interpersonalism. Wright avoids, however, subordinating direct observation completely to acceptability, since direct observation keeps poetry from a remoteness that encourages mechanical echoes and uninteresting variation.

The presence of these various fathers in The Green Wall makes Wright's emergence as a serious, independent voice all the more unexpected. The skills with which he celebrates the timeless human conditions of “A Song for the Middle of the Night,” “On a Presentation of Two Birds to My Son,” and “Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child” allay any initial misgivings and assure readers of his inclusion in a roll of permanent minor writers. The first work evolves by way of explaining to a child Eustace Deschamps' curse that one who has no children is happy, “for babies bring nothing but crying and stench.” Wright chooses for his explanation a fixed refrain and strong ballad rhythms that are reminiscent of Yeats's late lyrics and modelled on enumeration and conclusion—first, second, third, therefore. The unexpected and quick admission of “crying and stench” gives way to the reassurance that all creatures are at one time infants, and readers are swept into agreement by the poem's sanity, energy, and wit. Using the simultaneity that lodges in contrast, “On a Presentation of Two Birds to My Son” establishes an immediate opposition of chicken and swift as part of a larger opposition of everyday dullness and ecstasy. The decisions not to rhyme and to execute a normally ornate canzone in a slow, practical, flat midwestern dialect support formally the contrast and the father's admission not to know why it should be joy “to leave the body beaten underfoot.” Joy is beyond his understanding. By again approaching a chronic condition through a contrasting dialogue, Wright turns the Yeatsian doubter and believer terms of “Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child” from immediate practical action to passive resignation. Imagination supplies advantages to situations that cannot be altered.

The Green Wall also shows Wright dissatisfied with conventions established by certain prevailing beliefs. Some of these dissatisfactions are themselves “conventional” and have long been concerns of poetry. “Sappho” and “Erinna to Sappho,” for instance, treat lesbian love, and “A Poem about George Doty in the Death House” and “To a Fugitive” show interest in criminals. “Crucifixion on Thursday” finds Wright fascinated by betrayal, and “Morning Hymn to a Dark Girl” celebrates the exotic, infernal pleasures of paid sex. Other dissatisfactions are personal and often less fully realized. They include “the rising dead” of “Morning Hymn to a Dark Girl,” who “fear the dark” and haunt “the upper world” of Martins Ferry. They also define the childhood “lake of slime” over which Wright prays in “The Horse” that love will “draw grass.” Responses in both cases depend on evocations generated by “underworld” and “slime” and “grass.” No objective reasons for the emotions occur. Nor is it clear why the younger brother of “Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake” must waste and break his life on hay. One must presume there are personality or social factors that remain undisclosed. Important details are also missing from the analogy of the failed rescuer and Christ in “To a Defeated Saviour.” “The Horse” moves toward one explanation in man's having “coddled the gods away,” and “On the Skeleton of a Hound” reinforces this explanation with “whispering men digging for gods” and awaiting like magi “another birth.” The suggestion is that the world of The Green Wall is without redemption. In contrast to the divine rescue of the medieval carol on which the book opens, the human rescues through love, art, singing, or personal effort which Wright describes are each insufficient to man's present condition. As in Arnold, they work to promote religious emotions independent of Christian belief.

The authority on which the volume rests gains much of its power from a comparative or mythic approach. The approach, as Nietzsche surmised, creates a semblance of greatness, as individuals echo familiar truths, appearing to speak coevally for themselves and for others, sidestepping sincerity and its usual opposition to convention. As in metaphor, the known or conventional works to control, order, and give a shape and a significance to the new, and Wright preserves a semblance of originality by avoiding in his comparisons conventional or literary expression. The language of so common and religiously resonant an image as “apples,” for instance, is kept fresh and changing. Readers have no doubt that Wright is personally familiar with the fruit when they read of its purple bruises (“A Fit against the Country”) or how human laughter tumbles “like a cider down [the] cheeks (“Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends”). Indeed, the familiarity is such that in “Sappho,” Wright can use the picking of an apple in an extended metaphor for the handling of a wife, and in “The Ungathered Apples,” he can work a parallel between two apples and a woman's breasts. Similarly, in the parody of Hades and the journey to afterlife that “Father” and “Morning Hymn to a Dark Girl” provide, readers are never let lose track of an actual Martins Ferry and the Ohio River. One effect of the approach is to cement interpersonalism by promoting a literal and personal level that is so believable that it speaks for the categorical and symbolical at the same time that it appears to owe its selection to fleshing out some permanent truth. A second effect is to impart to this interpersonalism and these categories and symbolic systems a notion of unchangeability that lends a metaphysical universality to what is often a temporal and, hence, changeable condition. Situations come to appear a lot more hopeless than they otherwise would.

The language of The Green Wall also stands removed from the strong emphasis on “composition of place” that marks the technique of John Donne and the revival of his methods by contemporary poets. For these poets, imagining oneself at a particular place and imaginatively making that place real for one's readers are essential ingredients of art. Robert Lowell, for example, begins “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” (1945) with “A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket” and “Christmas in Black Rock” (1946) with “Christ God's red shadow hangs upon the wall.” In both instances, “brackish” and “red” work to narrow focus to a specific time and object, and as in the case of Donne, they foster a persona. Similarly, in the work of Snodgrass, detail helps define “the depth of his sincerity” by delineating what he “cannot help thinking.” Wright, in contrast, is likely to focus less specifically and lend his responses less to a consistent, identifiable, or sincere voice. “A Fit against the Country” begins with an unplaced “stone” turning over slowly. “A Girl in a Window” offers a beginning comparably generalized to agree with the choice of indefinite articles for the title. “The Seasonless” chooses to reject time altogether. In the place of particular stances and contexts which give meaning to words, meaning exists for Wright independent of voice and place, and the ranges of style which in The Green Wall test these meanings may be intended as much as a rejection of romantic views of language as a novice's display of virtuosity. “On the Skeleton of a Hound” begins vividly with “Nightfall, that saw the morning-glories float / Tendril and string against the crumbling wall,” but the poem inclines toward narrative, and the vividness may be part of a narrative style that allows its speakers to be characterized.


In interviews Wright has emphasized his neoclassical leanings, and one suspects that, as in the case of language, in understanding much of his first book, readers may benefit from a view of art similar to that outlined in Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses (1797). Rather than approach experience directly and copy its irregularities and imperfections, a neoclassical artist like Wright perceives nature through rules provided by earlier artists. Reynolds cites Proclus' account of the sculptor Phidias who, in shaping his Jupiter, “did not copy any object ever presented to his sight; but contemplated only that image which he had conceived in his mind from Homer's description.” Such an approach would maintain that “nature methodized” was “nature still” and that nature embraced not merely what was without but also the patterns by which minds interiorized and organized. The rules and grandeur of ideas—replacing the ingenious imitation of “what is”—would improve audiences ethically by tracing an ongoing consensus. Ultimately such an approach rests on accepted concepts of a sublime which “impresses the mind at once with one great idea … so overpowering that it takes possession of the whole mind” and, as in Arnold's “Christian” emotion, prevents “attention to minute criticism.” For Wright, this sublime rests securely on an aesthetic equivalent to Kant's distinction between “what is” and “what is rationally knowable.” It generates an “optative” realm—“what should be” as opposed to “what is,” and its difference from “what is” gives rise to expression. Thus, in “Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake,” the discrepancy in the opportunities that the brother should have and the life that he lives prompts an outcry. Genuine, positive action should prevail for reasons of poetic, if not social, justice. Similarly, the differences between what love, marriage, and friendship “should be” and “are” provide the basis of “Three Speeches in a Sick Room.”

Still, to insist on Wright's consciously subscribing to Reynolds' or any other single ideology is as misleading as accepting Arnold's claims only to classicism. Avid readers and conservers of poetry like Wright and Arnold tend to be eclectic. They allow themselves access to many theories, but they work usually in reaction to the possibilities presented by a particular circumstance, leaving to chance, style, or the unconscious the coalescing of poems into a coherent system. Wright's responses are to events, conversations, and reading, and they take the forms of assent, extension, or disagreement. Often, the presence of recurrent words, images, and ideas signals what have been his “real” subjects. One has only to compare the treatment of betrayal in “Crucifixion on Thursday” to that described in Matthew (26:21, 46, 49) to see how Wright alters traditional matter. Ideologies like those of Schopenhauer and Arnold lend additional vehicles and clues for determining tenors and attitudes generated by individual poems and canons. They supply comparative or mythic overviews to the informing myths selected by the poet and constitute a second, larger prizing or misprizing of experience. As in most comparisons, distortions as well as clarifications occur. Reynolds and “classicism” assuredly do not show the same interest in “social outsiders” that Wright displays. One must go to other of Reynolds' contemporaries or to the Romantics for such concern. Similarly, one finds closer analogues to Wright's view of Christianity among late nineteenth-century thinkers and contemporary existentialists than among eighteenth-century artists. Nonetheless, there is enough sympathy in Wright's poetry for the normative, the rational, the enduring, the decorous, and the restrained to benefit from using several elements in Reynolds' talks.

Saint Judas (1959) continues a number of the attitudes, themes, and preoccupations of The Green Wall. The contexts of these poems, however, have become more concrete. Compositions of place are common, though by no means are they the rule. “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard's Shack,” for instance, begins as specifically as any Donne lyric: “Near the dry river's water-mark.” So, too, do “Devotions” and “American Twilights, 1957.” “At the Executed Murderer's Grave” consciously moves even into persona, as the poet announces, “My name is James A. Wright, and I was born / Twenty-five miles from this infected grave, / In Martins Ferry, Ohio.” One may account for their appearance in a general move of American poets toward “confessional” verse. Lowell's Life Studies and Snodgrass' Heart's Needle appeared as well in 1959. But the ethical intent Wright assigns to his volume adds another reason for character. He indicates that the poems seek to know “exactly what is a good and humane action” and “why an individual should perform such an act.” If, as Arnold supposed, religion had to depend on “its unconscious poetry” and, as Fedor Dostoevski speculated, “God did not exist,” then “everything would be permitted.” Man could choose any action since no value, pattern, or command legitimized his behavior. He became the measure of his future, and his choices—if not determined by faith in an exploded religion—were determined by instinct. In shaping his thought, Schopenhauer proposed malice, being instinctual and peculiar to man, as his starting point, and Wright cites Dostoevski's statement in Notes from the Underground (1864) that man's ability to curse or “verbal malice” is “the primary distinction between him and other animals.” Working through malice to compassion becomes one way of determining the need for “good and humane action.”

Irish writers insisted that the ability to curse was the special skill of poets, and figures like Yeats's Red Hanrahan cursed to pay back injury. “Crucifixion on Thursday” proposes that such injury and malice begin when individuals are excluded from the totems by which groups collect. In this instance, a life-sustaining “begging gesture” is denied, and such a sense of not-belonging may have haunted Wright's youth. Generalized, the exclusion reflects a primal denial, a “world curse” or “expulsion” from Eden, which, like the techniques of “What the Earth Asked Me,” may owe to Hardy but which, also, in the form of “separation from the mother” has been used by psycholinguists to explain the invention of language. “An Offering for Mr. Blueheart” adds a religious dimension in its mirroring of Augustine's theft of pears (Confessions 2:6). The un-Augustinian speaker suppresses the act of stealing rather than the temptation: The fruit remain “luscious” overhead. Self-denial seems as remote from him as ecstasy was from the father of “On a Presentation of Two Birds to My Son,” and so, too, Augustine might add, is redemption. “The Refusal” presents the effects of a continuing, mutual malice in an unexplained scorning of kin, and “Devotions” supplies an easy explanation of vengeful malice in “childhood embarrassment.” Once more, actions in the poems are described as ongoing. The reluctance of the volume to provide adequate “objective” reasons for the continuing actions strengthens the sense of an instinctual nature coevally as it allows Wright to defer handling what may remain painful issues of his growing up.

All the same, malice does not itself constitute “a good and humane action,” and readers must go to the murderer George Doty and the volume's title figure, Saint Judas, to discover how the book's “meaningless despair” and “dreams of wretchedness” resolve finally into compassion. Doty appears in The Green Wall first as the victim of exclusion. His being an outsider has spurred hopes for which no objective counterpart exists. His desperate need for love ends in rape and murder, and in “A Poem about George Doty in the Death House,” his imprisonment leads spectators to a classic illustration of malice. They come not to derive a moral lesson from his behavior but to witness deliberately and legally imposed suffering. Wright returns to Doty in “At the Executed Murderer's Grave” as a test of his own hopes and alienation. His departure from Martins Ferry offers contrasts first to his father's having become a “slave / To Hazel-Atlas Glass” and then to Doty's being caught and killed. For Wright, the town is imprisonment and death, and his desertion becomes a cowardly betrayal of dying—“the best / Of all the arts men learn”—for poetry and survival. One suspects that like so many of his betrayers, Wright, too, has committed “crimes” and may feel uneasy that he is yet to be punished. This uneasiness prompts his attraction to the failures of others and the creation of Saint Judas as his model for a world where God has ceased to exist. Having survived the death of Christ by betrayal, Judas consoles the victim of “a pack of hoodlums,” and rather than redemption, this consolation becomes the purpose of Wright's art. As in Arnold's “The Study of Poetry,” the collapse of religion leaves man relying increasingly on art to interpret, console, and sustain him.

Wright's understanding of this situation emerges in the contrasts that fill “The Morality of Poetry.” The poem examines the support given man by landscape and, hence, the poet's ability to write directly of the world and experience by “rhyming” them with nature. Will prevails in The Green Wall, and landscape seemed mainly “setting” or “idea.” Nature was the projection of various subjective states, colored in part by the poet's views of the role of the apple in man's fall from Eden and his own growing up. Nature enticed and seduced man into violence, love, waste, error, action, and freedom. It also identified those impositions from outside. “The Morality of Poetry” repeats these positions but with a difference. A clear sense of Schopenhauerian reality has settled. Underlying appearance, this reality narrows the gap between sung and unsung nature. Man and nature become part of a single will which declares its end instinctively to be good and casts about for means to survive: “Where the sea moves the word moves, where the sea / Subsides, the slow word fades with lunar tides.” On an immediate level, nature's “sheer outrage hammering itself to death” identifies a meaningless struggle for existence, and as in the writings of Augustine, this struggle of nature is cyclical and reversible. To the extent that man is part of nature, he participates in its cyclicism: Gulls “ensnare” the speaker, and the sun temporarily “charms [his] immense irrelevance away.” But the poem contains, too, the “human word” gathering “the tangled discords up to song,” and in this action, Wright posits man's clinging, too, to the unique and novel, irreversible “Christian” motion of history. By defining and sustaining the high destinies of man, this history provides a second, complementary, moral, independent level, different from the malice of Herbert Spencer's “survival of the fittest” and responsible for ideas of humaneness.

In turning away from the “lunar tide,” Wright rejects dream and insanity as ways of dealing with reality and discounts their uses by writers to promote optimism. The moves limit the kinds of consolation left open. The writer must heed Horace's warning against joining gratuitously “the neck of a horse to a human head,” overlaying “limbs gathered from anywhere and everywhere with varicolored plumage,” and making “what appears at the top a beautiful woman and below as a foul fish” (Epistles II.iii.1-4). Nor should he so lose contact with the sensible world that, as Sir Francis Bacon feared, working only with words, the writer brings forth endless “cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work, but of no substance or profit.” Rather, as John Ruskin maintained, poets must learn “to see” and to tell what they see in a plain way, since “to see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one.” For Wright as for Schopenhauer, optimism, when it occurs, requires a genuine, positive, and intellectually apprehendible purpose. Otherwise, it is negative and illusory. Since the positive purposes of the universe are found repeatedly to be irrational and aleatory, the poet must eventually address and annihilate whatever produce the illusions of rationality that act as barriers to truth. The momentary aesthetic choices which the machinery and illusions support must give way to a less attractive but more consistent system of ethical choice. In coming to question rationality, Wright must come to question as well the rational basis of neoclassical order, though not it seems its stress on species, since only through species does perpetuation occur. For the present, Wright is willing to further the guises of rational order and pattern by accepting suffering as life rather than allowing any direct acknowledgment of life's blind, primordial will.

Responses to the volumes identify Wright's faults and strengths. Readers who object to the poetry find ideology triumphing over intellect. In the face of unrelenting pessimism, they question why in some “very happiest intellection / A graceful error” does not correct “the cave.” Solutions must exist to which Wright, like the doubter of “Mutterings over the Crib of a Deaf Child,” is wilfully or constitutionally closed. These readers find the sameness of mood that pessimism generates oppressive, and they write of a fascination with death that outweighs Wright's interest in resolving matters. They anticipate and dismiss Lowell's characterization of the contemporary poet as the opposite of the politician and his “necessary optimistic stance.” These readers object as well to Wright's occasionally rapid shifts from malice to compassion, citing as example the title poem of Saint Judas. “It is, as one detractor notes, “as if a man were to claim he dug a hole for one day and [then] immediately [came] out of the other side of the earth.” Also attacked is Wright's failure to use his ghosts to deal with gaps or mysteries that might provide bridges between the rational and irrational. “My Grandmother's Ghost” suggests such a possibility in the face of Wright's general tendency in ghost poems to echo, vary, bask, and remain in the shadows of Propertius and Frost. Those readers who support Wright's efforts praise his writing for its “huge human compassion” and unusual technical skills. For them, Wright's wide scope, linguistic virtuosity, and ability to shape a world that nature might imitate generally offset any current limitations. Ideology to the extent it is perceived offers no difficulty.


The Branch Will Not Break (1963) represents significant improvements on and departures from the premises of these first two volumes. Fathers are still present in the figures of Goethe (“Three Stanzas for Goethe”), Frost (“Two Horses Playing in the Orchard”), and Miguel Hernandez (“In Memory of a Spanish Poet”), but they are now balanced by the book's new political figures. One has positively Po-Chu-i, “the balding old politician” of the volume's opening poem, and negatively, Presidents Warren Harding and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Their presence reflects Wright's beginning to see that the conditions producing some of man's suffering may be political and not metaphysical. Part of the perception may owe to the presence of John F. Kennedy in the White House and his invitation to correct social injustice by political action. Often what Wright objects to in politics is political dishonesty, divisiveness, militarism, false patriotism, atomic bomb testing, the falseness of old success myths, and a general American dis-ease with nature. His Harding, who wanted “to be helpful” and who looked so presidential, wants to be thought honest, despite ineptitude, political scandal, and a ridiculous, neglected tomb in Ohio. Po-Chu-i is questioned about unsolved problems of debilitating urban loneliness. Eisenhower, “the American hero,” secretly yearns for the lustrous dark egoism of military oppression, and radioactivity enters the growing bodies of children to destroy any future chances of success. Like the poor of Martins Ferry or William Wordsworth, they come quickly to see that death is their harmony with nature. Issues are broadly non-partisan, safe, and philosophically in tune with the compassion that Wright offered earlier. Identification with the sufferings of others remains the means for cancelling egoism and malice.

Some of the perceptions of political rather than metaphysical remedies for suffering derive, too, from Wright's increasing interest in nationalistic forms of expression and the social protest character of American work and folk song. In the middle and late fifties, these songs gained popularity with the successes of John and Alan Lomax at collecting and promoting them and the reissued and newly recorded performances of such figures as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), the Wobblies (I.W.W.), Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and the Kingston Trio. The intimacy of the music opposed efforts at depersonalization and tested the vitality of democratic beliefs. Lyrics brought to suburban middle America the sufferings of the poor and emotional responses to injustice. With their dreams of unionism, compassion, and fraternal solidarity, the out-of-work, the exploited, the excluded, the lonely, the forgotten, the fugitive, and the self-destructive became heroic. They presented lively and always fated oppositions to the outward conformity and other-directedness of an unstoppable, restrictive corporate force. From his growing up in Martins Ferry, Wright knew the importance of such songs and models to the outsiders he celebrated. In their approximations of sonata, song cycle, and theme-in-variation, the poetries of Roethke, Galway Kinnell, and John Logan had already begun to leave room for a downtrodden. Wright seemed as eager to use them to see what they and freer musical structures might do to offset the “dreams of wretchedness” and “meaningless despair” and sameness that critics had begun to complain of. By revealing an ongoing national purpose, the two might be a way of leaving tradition and collapsed religion and responding freshly to life issues.

The differences between “A Fit against the Country” and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” illustrate a number of the changes that occurred. “A Fit against the Country” follows the typical parataxis and divisions of medieval and renaissance song. Behind the parataxis is an imaginary or real melody to which each stanza could be sung and on which parallelism and division are based. The first stanza sets nature against the hand; the second, against the ear; the third, against the eye; the fourth, against organs of smell and taste; and the final stanza draws conclusions about differences between the body and intellect. Wright's choice of sensory rather than interpretative faculties allows for a generalizing that is consistent with his neoclassicism, however much the divisions and partition convey an almost medieval division of man and nature. The body's hope of holding its humor “away from the tempting tree, / The grass, the luring summer / That summon the flesh to fall” adds a modern realization of the body's being likewise part of nature, having climbed across the wall from “vacant paradise.” In contrast to this balance and partition, the divisions of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” are irregular and motivated not so much by coordinating parataxis as by diminution. Rather than make the subjects of the three stanzas equal, Wright zeros in. If music is intended as accompaniment, one suspects not so much a tune as a balladeer's sequence of regularly strummed chords against which words play freely. The landscape around the “Shreve High football stadium” is described: Polacks nurse long beers in Tiltonsville; Negroes work the furnaces at Benwood; and the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel dreams of heroes. The scene narrows to a home with fathers and mothers and ends within the stadium on sons who have grown “suicidally beautiful,” galloping “terribly against each other's bodies.”

Wright acknowledges the important efforts of Robert Bly in effecting many of the changes. Bly's belief in the presence of resilient, unifying images beneath appearances encourages Wright to seek something comparable below what had become brief, illusory, and unsatisfying rational surfaces. As in the poetry of Yeats, these images and the rhythms of their apprehension would foster interpersonalism by affecting identically the poet and his audience. Without necessarily accepting the racial memories of either Yeats or Bly, Wright works to reveal those elements of reality that transcend verification by refusing to submit their intrinsic or significant value to will. Wright begins by muting those elements of value he imposes through tradition, myth, rhyme, meter, stanza, and poem pattern, hoping by the muting to unlock the truths of his own feelings, experiences, and language and achieve illumination and valid poetic epiphany. The basis of this illumination and epiphany is ontological mystery—that immediacy defying the reduction of its elements to an object. In “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” Wright examples this mystery in allowing nature to persist without his imposing any reason. No amount of problem-solving or testing can explain its being, and he has wasted years of his life searching for some rational purpose. Paralleling his illumination, the poem's horse droppings “blaze up” alchemically “into golden stones.” By personifying nature, “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium” repeats this refusal to turn “other” into “it.” Wright's comparative and literary approach becomes immediate, observational, and widely embracing in its efforts to harmonize inner and outer experience.

A dialectic emerges which is rooted in vertical, upper and lower responses rather than in a divided horizontality like Yeats's rocks and rivers and trees and wind. This verticality opens Wright's poetry to psychological interpretation, though in keeping with Horace's advice, Wright continues to rely as much on disjunction as on primordial or excessively surreal images. Surreal images are unquestionably present in poems like “The Jewel,” “In the Face of Hatred,” “Two Poems about President Harding,” “The Undermining of the Defense Economy,” “Mary Bly,” and “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960.” One encounters bones turning “to dark emeralds,” “the hallway / Of a dark leaf,” “snowfall / Turned to white stallions,” “Girls the color of butterflies / That can't be sold,” infants “braiding the waters of air into the plaited manes / Of happy colts,” and nature “walking down hallways / Of a diamond.” But as often, one meets an expected leap or gap which, as in “In the Cold House,” forces one to explain why images appear to be at appropriate distances:

I slept a few minutes ago,
Even though the stove has been out for hours.
I am growing old.
A bird cries in bare elder trees.

Clearly the poem connects verbally. “Being out” of things is a common synonym for “sleep,” and “hours” and “elders” reinforce “minutes” and “old.” But there is something more than just word-play at work. A strategic ‘I” locates both outer images, one of which—the stove—is technological, the other of which—a bird—is natural. If technology echoes man, nature does not, for elder trees are not attributes of birds the same way that age is an attribute of the speaker. The deliberate exclusion of discursive reasoning which would give formal voice to this idea and fill the gaps between images—here as in other poems—accounts for the necessity of a long, explanatory title.

The Ohio poems of the volume are among the most conservative. As in earlier books, the townspeople never make it beyond survival into man's higher destinies. They succumb to drink or dream or animalistic satisfactions (“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”); or they are consumed by fantasy and suicide or worn out or killed by work (“Miners” and the Ohio portions of “Two Hangovers”). In “A Message Hidden in an Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw into a Gulley of Maple Trees One Night at an Indecent Hour,” Wright joins these towns-people, having tried to escape their fate by moving to Seattle and then Minneapolis. Redemption remains as distant as it was in The Green Wall, though in the ghosts and mysteries and suggestions of a spiritual realm that “In Ohio” and “Twilights” contain, Wright leaves room in the imagination for a Saviour. The material world appears by the desertion of deity to be itself deserted. Malice continues in “Two Poems about President Harding”—“Whatever moon and rain may be, / The hearts of men are merciless”—as well as in the glimpse that “How My Fever Left” offers of his parents. His mother swears at her dishes and carries a basket “crooked with hatred.” Calling after her, the father brands her “the old bat.” In “Stages on a Journey Westward,” Wright softens this malice into gentleness as a preface to compassion, but the basic question surrounding the absence of divinity persists. In the absence of joy, love, light, certitude, peace, and help for pain, how can creatures be true to one another?

The volume's poems on Minnesota show a resolve to put past problems behind and wed poetry and present reality. The poems detail events immediate to the poet's life in and about Minneapolis, and in their locating correlatives for emotion in unsung nature, they continue the direction that “The Morality of Poetry” began. Some of the briefer pieces, like “In Fear of Harvest” and “The Jewel,” end impersonally in objects. Others, like “As I Step over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor,” “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium,” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” end in personal questions or evaluations: “Look: I am nothing. / I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.” At times, as in “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me,” a genuine rapport with nature occurs: “I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make. / Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins / In the maple trees.” But Wright is again no closer than he was in his earlier volumes to viewing natural phenomena as anything but idea. However much he seems to merge and interact with the objects he describes, he remains a poet of will, and this makes the places he composes and the specifics of his images arbitrary and, therefore, “aesthetic.” In a variation on Kierkegaard's definition of aesthetic choice as determinations made only for the moment and alterable in a next, Wright rhymes any emotion with any thing and at the next moment with something completely different. The effect is certainly one of novelty, variety, and possibility, but it is also one of confusion, and an astute reader may ask, what more lasting than chance or immediacy does the poetry aim for?

Positive responses to the volume come generally from readers who see Wright's abandonment of literary fathers and echoes and move toward direct observation as a breakthrough for his own voice and values. As one critic noted, “What prevented the natural speech from coming free was a nest of syntax in which the speech became hopelessly entangled.” By jettisoning this syntax and its “discursive reasoning,” the poet is now able to speak “honestly,” to remove the “cotton-wool” that not only made lines seem “literary” but also clouded images. Working from image to image by means of association, poems take on an immediate and particular active consciousness that is liberating and as autobiographical as detail in confessional poetry. A second critic, John Logan, noted the stylistic changes as symptomatic of the poet's growth, though he found Wright at times “actually tied too much to the outer world.” “Growth” in this instance, seems to equate to the poet's confidence and ease in dealing inventively with his own emotions and experiences. Still other readers found some reason to believe that in Wright's optimistic unions with nature, the pessimism of the early collections might be at an end. Peter Stitt, for example, takes heart in the “clear sound” of the grasshoppers in “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me.” For Stitt, who forgets “the dark cricket,” nature gives Wright “sustenance, acceptance, resurrection, [and] even pronounces a benediction upon him.” That this support is unpredictable and often momentary and might dissipate and open Wright to even deeper fits of depression seems for the moment not to be a consideration. Nor, too, is Wright's continued longing for “another birth.”


Shall We Gather at the River (1968) represents a consolidation of some of the changes that begin in The Branch Will Not Break as well as a return to the pessimism that dominated Saint Judas. In such works as “Poems to a Brown Cricket,” “The Small Blue Heron,” “The Minneapolis Poem,” “Three Sentences for a Dead Swan,” and “A Prayer to the Lord Ramakhrishna,” Wright continues his ventures into song and song cycle as well as into larger and freer musical forms. He also moves more deeply into politics and surrealism in pieces like “The Minneapolis Poem,” where “A cop's palm / Is a roach dangling down the scorched fangs / Of a light bulb.” Once again readers can expect to encounter sympathy for the plight of “the unnamed poor,” the un-unionized laborer, and the various social outsiders who submit to social, institutional, and legal judgment. The hearts of men remain “merciless,” and by his own admission, Wright acknowledges “flat defeat … in a flat voice.” Reasons for the defeat may be supplied in events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, public resistance to civil rights issues, the murders of activist blacks, urban rioting, and America's involvement in Vietnam. But there are also collapses in Wright's own life: the end of his first marriage, separation from his sons, illness, his being let go by the University of Minnesota, the death of Jenny, and a general inability to get his life reorganized and going again. In attaching his emotions to objects in The Branch Will Not Break, clearly Wright had not counted sufficiently on the effects of time. Unlike those “remembered things” that for Lowell become “rocklike, each in its place,” the objects that Wright chose withered or changed or went painfully slipping away, and with their departures, Wright's world was again unstable.

The “river” of the volume's title comes to convey not only “destructive” time and “consciousness” but variously the Ohio (“A Christmas Greeting”), the Mississippi (“The Minneapolis Poem”), the Red (“To Flood Stage Again”), the Jordan (“An Elegy for the Poet Morgan Blum”), the Styx (“In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned”), and either the East or Hudson (“To the Poets in New York”). It returns and erodes fixed objects as well as offers oblivion. By slipping into and becoming it, one can for a time abandon the desire for immortality and seek out the father of one's agony before a police come to remove the remains and, by daybreak, turn them in. From its suckholes, both Hobie Johnson, a friend of the poet's youth, and Jenny, the love of the volume, emerge. On its banks occurred “the old loneliness” that “Two Postures beside a Fire” binds to the poet's youth in Martins Ferry. Into its depths, Charlie pitches himself in the opening poem, “A Christmas Greeting,” and the poet threatens to dive in the closing “To the Muse.” Signalling an end of the American dream that echoes Arnold's collapse of religion, the rivers that have been part of the country's expansion and growth appear a far cry from the river of the hymn that Wright's title recalls. The “escape” that the Mississippi once allowed Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Jim is no longer possible. “Whitman our countryman / Is now in America our country / Dead,” and like the stalled Dante of the Commedia, Wright must await a superhuman or supernationalistic force to carry him farther:

I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives
Of the unnamed poor.

To reflect and offset the changing natures of the river, Wright turns the various and shifting speakers of Shall We Gather at the River into the most consistent of his personae. The nine poems following “A Christmas Greeting” identify the speaker—whatever their particular individual identities—as an outsider living close to bottom. The next nine poems record this outsider's efforts to escape his situation and supply in the process a summary of those events which brought him to where he is. By far, some of the scariest poems occur in the early section, as the speakers find themselves in a drunk tank (“Inscription for the Tank”), destitute (“In Terror of Hospital Bills”), desperately risking (“Gambling in Stateline, Nevada”). and fearing the desolation of old age (“Old Age Compensation”) or discovery (“Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store”). By the volume's close, some of the threat has subsided. Though still not particularly enamored of Martins Ferry, Wright finds his father supportive, “proud of [the poet], believing / [He has] done strong things among men and become a man / Of place among men of place in the large cities,” his face scarred by “the lines / Of an ugly age.” Again, compassion offers opposition to the book's malice and despair. The consistency of the persona is not, however, framed by the ability of ethical choice to choose consistently or even by an odd quirk of aesthetic choice: It is forced upon the speakers by the narrowness of their present possibilities; ethics becomes economic.

Despite its overall pessimism, the volume makes several inroads into positing and accepting deity. “An Elegy for the Poet Morgan Blum,” for instance, speaks of a King “Where the dead rise / On the other shore.” “Speak” addresses the Lord, saying that Wright has loved His “cursed, / The beauty of [His] house,” bidding deity to “Come down” and reveal himself. “The Light in the Hallway” records a second “longing / For the red spider who is God,” and “A Prayer to the Lord Ramakhrishna” speaks of “the anguish of a naked body” being “more terrible / To bear than God.” But it is a god whose order Wright still has trouble accepting and whose orthodox postures have been assumed by J. Edgar Hoover (“Confession to J. Edgar Hoover”) and a concentration camp truck driver (“The Small Blue Heron”). Wright's discovery in both “Inscription for the Tank” and “In Terror of Hospital Bills” that “Life was never so precious / To [him] as now” prompts, nonetheless, an assumption that, much as out of the existentialist decision not to commit suicide, out of this sense of preciousness will come a strengthening responsibility for his own and others' individuality. Exercising the freedom which characterizes responsibility makes “man like God,” and in rejecting blind will for the discovery of others in his projections of himself, coincidences of “what is” and “what should be” can occur. If one does not rediscover in these coincidences the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanity that existed in religion, then one may discover some basis for the loyalty that Arnold's “Dover Beach” makes his answer to the dreams, struggle, flight, and clashing, ignorant armies.

Peter Stitt (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7194

SOURCE: Peter Stitt, “James Wright: The Garden and the Grime,” The Kenyon Review, New Series VI, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 76-91.

[In the following essay, Stitt examines the importance of the quest motif in Wright's poetry, and identifies it as a quest for a death in which what is dark and burdensome is transformed into light.]

James Wright is perhaps the most “questing” of all contemporary poets; there is in his poems a general feeling of dissatisfaction with where he is at the present time and a corresponding desire to be somewhere else. This questing impulse is evident both within the work taken as a whole and within the separate volumes of poetry, where smaller and self-contained versions of the larger quest are undertaken. In this essay, I will discuss the overall pattern while concentrating on what happens in two individual volumes, Shall We Gather at the River (treated briefly) and This Journey (treated more fully). For a clue to understanding the larger quest in Wright's work, we might turn to the introduction he wrote in 1963 to Breathing New Life, a book of poems by Hy Sobiloff. At the time he wrote this, Wright had just published his own volume, The Branch Will Not Break, in which he sought a radically new way of writing. Thus when he defines the quest found in Sobiloff's work as a concept pursued by “the new poet,” we must recognize that Wright is describing the pattern of his own work as well—however indirectly, however unintentionally.

Wright begins by noticing that Sobiloff's primary theme is a quest nearly identical to that pursued earlier by William Wordsworth: “the search for the child within the self.”1 He goes on to give a more detailed, and more generalized, definition of this quest:

The new poet … tells us … what … he is struggling to learn: how to be true to his own self. … the struggle … involves a good deal more than the rediscovery of a childlike radiance and joy, though that rediscovery may lie at the end of the journey. The journey itself is a dark one. It is neither more nor less than the attempt to locate and reclaim those healing powers within one's self that are able to provide sufficient courage and literal physical strength for one to confront and overcome the agonies of the world which exists beyond the womb and which, for better or worse, does not happen to be shaped and arranged in a pattern identical with the orchards and rivers and meadows of that earliest garden, sunken now almost below memory and, whether wasted or redeemed, lost somewhere between the morning of dancing animals and the tousled dusk of sorrowing human faces. Beyond that garden we live a good deal of our death. … But there really seems to be a true path back to the lost paradise, back home to the true child in one's self, back to the source of healing strength—back to the Kingdom of God which, we have been told, is within us. If there really is a true path homeward, then it appears that certain heroic men found it dark, sometimes yawning with dreadful pits of fire, sometimes winding and confusing and heavy with the whispers of murderers, backbiters, and the unseemly contorted apparitions of our own vanity. In short, there have been heroes on the earth, whose heroism consisted in their willingness to face the facts of pain; and their motive, as far as I can grasp it, was the motive of Thoreau: to front life openly and to live it fully, and, if it proved to be mean, then to get the true and genuine meanness out of it. … the heroes open their arms to the world as it happens to have been arranged when they were flung down into it without their suspicion or desire.2

Generally speaking, a quest is linear in pattern and depends for its significance on the establishment of a polar opposition between two places or states of being—the quester attempts to progress from one of these poles (the place or state of being he occupies at the beginning) to the other (the place or state of being he wishes to occupy when his search is done). In the specific case encountered in James Wright's poems, the quest pattern seems to be more nearly circular than linear. The positive “pole” is located both at the beginning (as a “childlike radiance and joy”) and at the end (as “the Kingdom of God”) of man's life. As the quester—the generalized speaker of Wright's poems—moves from an idealized beginning to a garden-like end, he must pass through the vale of tears, the valley of the shadow of death, which he finds so prominent as components of everyday reality. The deepest goal of the quest undertaken in Wright's work is to regain nothing less than that paradise dimly remembered from before the speaker's birth. On the surface of his work, however, it often appears that what Wright is questing for is a time-bound, explicitly human, heroism—the heroism, that is, of the man who is strong enough to take all “the genuine meanness” that life has to offer and triumph over it, triumph simply by surviving. The two directions are, of course, essentially contrary to one another—though the contradiction is easy enough to explain. In Wright's view, a man has no choice but to live within and suffer through reality, no matter how passionately he may desire an escape into paradise. Thus, like the stoic tough guys in Ernest Hemingway's fiction, Wright's speaker is determined to ride out the storm however long it takes, determined “to do what a man's gotta do.”

Wright's thinking resembles, in certain important ways, that of Wordsworth, as expressed in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The revelant lines are well-known; having asked “Whither is fled the visionary gleam,” Wordsworth goes on to explain:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
                              Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                                        And cometh from afar:
                              Not in entire forgetfulness,
                              And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
                              From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
                              Upon the growing Boy
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
                              He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
                              Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
                              And by the vision splendid
                              Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

The soul enters human life directly from a realm of paradise, perhaps after having crossed over the river of forgetfulness, Lethe. The memory of paradise has not been completely erased, however; some remnants of it seem to linger into childhood, gradually fading as man matures. Although Wordsworth does not explicitly say so in his poem, his title does hint at the hope that, at death, man will return to the paradisal realm, perhaps by being ferried across the river Styx. Finally, both poets recognize that man has to live his life not within paradise but within the fallen, and tragic, world of reality. While Wordsworth's unhappiness over this fact is at worst rueful, Wright's unhappiness is often very strong. Thus his overall quest to escape from the burdens of reality into something at least resembling paradise is powerful, poignant, and multiform.

We can see the beginnings of both questing patterns in the first book of poems that Wright published, The Green Wall. The interrupted Wordsworthian search for the lost paradise is begun in a poem called “Father,” which describes the birth-voyage of its speaker:

In paradise I poised my foot above the boat and said:
Who prayed for me?
                                                                                          But only the dip of an oar
In water sounded; slowly fog from some cold shore
Circled in wreaths around my head.
                                                                                          … And the wind began,
Transfiguring my face from nothingness
To tiny weeping eyes

The mythic system alluded to in this poem is of course classical and pagan; that alluded to elsewhere in the book (as in its title) is Christian, referring to the myth of man's fortunate fall from the Garden of Eden. Robert Bly, in the first full-length essay written on Wright's work, commented on this pattern. He began by contrasting Wright to “almost all Americans at the time” (1957)—people who “imagined the writing of poetry as a climb” into the walled garden: “leaving the vicious, chaotic world behind, the poet finds himself abruptly in a walled enclosure with fairly tame animals as decoration. When people praised order in a poem, as they did much in those days, they were praising the ordered world possible to them only in a poem.”3 The direction taken in James Wright's early poetry, according to Bly, is the opposite of this: “In the first poem of The Green Wall, ‘A Fit Against the Country,’ Mr. Wright declares his intention to go to some other world:

Be glad of the green wall
You climbed across one day,
When winter stung with ice
That vacant paradise.

He immediately begins to introduce into poems the scarred and hated.”4 The “scarred and hated” in Wright's work represent fallen mankind, those heroes who live so resolutely within the real world, getting “the true and genuine meanness out of it.”

It is true that many of Wright's poems are defiantly, even triumphantly, set within an accepted, even desired, fallen world. However, it is impossible to overlook the anguished tone of so many of these works—a tone which results from the speaker's intense sense of separation—alienation—from God, from nature, from paradise. In his first two books, Wright expresses this feeling of separation elegiacally, in poems about persons he has loved but who have gone back over to the other world ahead of him. The sense of loneliness in poems like “The Assignation,” “Come Forth,” and “The Accusation” is extreme. In the face of such abandonment, the only positive force that Wright is able to recognize is love, which appears primarily as compassion. Often this sense of brotherly love is directed at people who are outcasts from human society, as is the case in “Saint Judas,” the title poem of Wright's second volume. It would be hard to imagine a more universally reviled man in the western world than Judas, Christ's betrayer—he is the archetypal moral outcast. Wright takes him up after he had both “Bargained the proper coins” and turned against himself, deciding to commit suicide.

The poet then creates a situation that will test Judas's humanity: “When I went out to kill myself, I caught / A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.” His instinctive reaction is to aid the man, and in the process he forgets his own troubles: “Running to spare his suffering, I forgot / My name, my number, how my day began. …” The poem concludes:

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

Judas is the down-and-outer par excellence, and has nothing to look forward to, in life or in death. With absolutely no possibility of gain for himself, in this world or the other, he makes the instinctively humane gesture and tries to protect the suffering man.

That is why Wright has chosen to canonize Judas—not because he has lived a pure life away from the harsh demands and temptations of reality, but because, a man like all men, he has redeemed his unspeakable act of betrayal through an act of love. In the vale of tears to which man is mostly condemned in Wright's poems, it is love that matters above all else, for it is only through love that men can overcome the unhappiness that is their natural lot in life. As Wright once said in an interview, speaking about poets who have been mostly forgotten by modern readers: “We do get a few people who understand the intensity and the true beauty of life in the face of death and pain. And what else have we got except love? We've got to have it because the only other thing there is is death and pain. That I take it is the meaning of that shocking statement, God is love.”5

Judas, who overcomes his sinfulness through love, is thus a kind of hero for Wright, representing the most that man can achieve (endurance and love) within the fallen world. We cannot overlook, however, the tone of this poem and many others similar to it. The tone is of despair—however hard a man may labor to make the most of this world, it is still a fallen world in which he is separated from that paradise within which he seems to have known an ideal kind of love. In The Branch Will Not Break, his third book of poems, Wright does manage briefly to reenter the paradisal garden lost at birth. The mini-quest of this volume takes Wright's speaker from the urban hostility encountered within the city of Minneapolis to a version of pastoral perfection, found on the farms and fields of western Minnesota. That this search for happiness is a success is indicated by the book's climactic poem, “A Blessing,” in which the speaker imagines his own brief entry into paradise, a result of his loving contact with two horses, two of those “fairly tame animals” Bly speaks of: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” This glimpse of happiness is short-lived, however, for in Wright's next book, Shall We Gather at the River, we once again see his speaker trapped in the city, alienated from nature, desperately longing to escape.

Like The Branch Will Not Break, this volume is also structured as a self-contained mini-quest, though one with a very different pattern. The search it undertakes is best understood if the book is divided into three parts, the quest into three stages. In the first part, we see Wright's speaker-protagonist once again trapped in a hostile urban environment. In the middle part of the book, he attempts to escape (also once again) to the western edge of Minnesota. This time, however, the pastoral world offers no solution; while he is composing a poem entitled “Outside Fargo, North Dakota,” the speaker seems to realize what he must do: “I nod as I write good evening, lonely / And sick for home.” The emerging third part of his quest, then, takes him back to the place he thinks of as home, to the river from which he started, the Ohio: “Murdered, I went, risen, / Where the murderers are, / That black ditch / Of river.” Throughout the book, the speaker orients himself to various rivers: in the first poem, we see him gazing into the Mississippi in Minneapolis, imagining “old men” who are “dreaming / Of suicide in the river”; in the middle of the book, he looks down into the Minnesota River: “This is the firmest / Net I ever saw, and yet something / Is gone lonely / Into the headwaters of the Minnesota.” The river of the title, however, is not one of these but the Ohio, goal of the speaker's quest and the river which he identifies so closely with Styx, the river of death.

In fact, the impulse that motivates the speaker of this book is a powerful death wish, always associated with the Ohio River. The poem which Wright has placed as a prologue to the body of the book, “A Christmas Greeting,” addresses a character named Charlie, who many years earlier had committed suicide in the river: “You died because you could not bear to live, / Pitched off the bridge in Brookside. …” The poem speaks not to the Charlie who is in his grave but to a Charlie who has risen from the dead: “lip by lip, / Affectionate, the snub-nosed demons kiss / And sting us back to such a world as this.” The poem is important because the position which Charlie occupies in it is precisely the position which Wright's speaker sees himself occupying throughout his quest; he is one of the living dead, a man so torturously unhappy that all he can do is fumble at the locks of graves, his own and those of others. The cause of his misery is the absence of love in his life. Then in an important poem in the middle of the volume, a prayer entitled “Speak,” he remembers Jenny, someone whom he had loved when he was young, but who had drowned in the river. Thus the speaker's quest finally takes him to the banks of the Ohio, river of death, across which he wishes to be ferried into paradise, or out of which he wishes to resurrect the only person who could save him, Jenny.

Although “Willy Lyons” is an elegy, it is still the only truly happy poem in this book; based upon the mythological framework I have just mentioned, it presents an image of what the speaker hopes for when he desires his own death. The poem begins: “My uncle, a craftsman of hammers and wood, / Is dead in Ohio. / And my mother cries she is angry.” In the speaker's answer to his mother's sorrow and anger we find a definition of the world that lies beyond death, on the other side of the river. Willy, it turns out, has floated over in his coffin:

It is nothing to mourn for.
It is the other world.
She does not know how the roan horses, there,
Dead for a century,
Plod slowly.
Maybe they believe Willy's brown coffin, tangled heavily in moss,
Is a horse trough drifted to shore
Along that river under the willows and grass. …
The long box is empty.
The horses turn back toward the river.
Willy planes limber trees by the waters,
Fitting his boat together.
We may as well let him go.
Nothing is left of Willy on this side. …

It is a world of peace and contentment with none of the agony experienced by those whom Willy has left behind, for example the speaker's mother, “Weeping with anger, afraid of winter.”

It is indicative that the most positive poem in the book deals not with the world of reality within which the speaker must live his life but with the mythological world of paradise to which he wishes to escape through death. The depth of his unhappiness is defined in the first several poems of the book, which portray him as an impoverished outcast encountering only coldness and hostility in the city. In “The Minneapolis Poem,” he complains that “There are men in this city who labor dawn after dawn / To sell me my death”; and in “Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store” we see just how deep is the alienation he feels:

The beautiful cashier's white face has risen once more
Behind a young manager's shoulder.
They whisper together, and stare
Straight into my face.
I feel like grabbing a stray child
Or a skinny old woman
And driving into a cellar, crouching
Under a stone bridge, praying myself sick,
Till the troops pass.

The speaker does pray often in this book, but never feels that he is listened to, much less answered. The world he inhabits is godless, a fact that adds powerfully to his sense of loneliness.

Knowing the pattern of The Branch Will Not Break, we would expect that the pastoral world of western Minnesota and North Dakota would provide some relief in the middle poems of Shall We Gather at the River. Unfortunately, the speaker's mood has changed significantly, rendering even nature empty of consolation for him. “Late November in a Field,” for example, begins: “Today I am walking alone in a bare place, / And winter is here.” Animals do appear in this world, but the idea of apotheosis does not. Instead, Wright creates images of animals in danger, images that mirror externally the inner state of the speaker. When he sees two squirrels dragging a branch towards a hiding place, his reaction is that they should quit fooling around; winter is coming, and “they ought to save acorns / Against the cold.” The poem ends with an image of the speaker's coldness, loneliness, and unhappiness:

The earth is hard now,
The soles of my shoes need repairs.
I have nothing to ask a blessing for,
Except these words.
I wish they were

A refugee from the city, the speaker finds that he is also unable to function in the country.

And so, in order to complete his quest, the speaker turns towards home, towards the river, and to thoughts of Jenny. But Jenny is dead, and the Ohio River is the river of death; we must therefore recognize that what the speaker is enacting in the process of this quest is his own powerful death wish. It is in a poem called “The Life” that the speaker reveals this truth by asking: “And if I come back to my only country / With a white rose on my shoulder, / What is that to you? / It is the grave / In blossom.” The placement of the rose upon his shoulder is not accidental; in many of these poems, Wright alludes to man's fallen state by mentioning his missing wings, his empty shoulder blades, his inability to fly. Because they have the power of flight, birds serve a positive, almost angelic, role within the cosmology of James Wright. In this book, their primary function is to act as guides to the dead, leading them across the waters of death to the other world. In “Old Age Compensation,” the speaker imagines what will happen after the old people die:

They'll be safe enough.
Their boats are moored there, among the cattails
And the night-herons' nests.
All they have to do now
Is to get one of those lazy birds awake long enough
To guide them across the river.

It is this pattern which explains the speaker's strange desire, expressed in “The Small Blue Heron”: “He is not the last one. / I wish he were.” The last heron for the speaker will be the one come to guide him across the waters; thus strong is his death wish.

The most poignant of the many poems about birds in this volume is “Three Sentences for a Dead Swan,” which seems to kill, along with the bird, the possibility of resurrection for the speaker. It is in the poem's last stanza that he consigns the swan back to its tomb:

Here, carry his splintered bones
Slowly, slowly
Back into the
Tar and chemical strangled tomb,
The strange water, the
Ohio river, that is no tomb to
Rise from the dead

It may even be that this bird represents Jenny, the lost love, whom it would be entirely appropriate for Wright to call “My black Ohioan swan.” The name Jenny appears alone on the dedication page of Shall We Gather at the River; she is the persistent ghost of the entire book, but makes her grandest and most heart-wrenching appearance only in the final poem, significantly titled “To the Muse.”

In Wright's first two books there are several poems spoken by a person who is living to someone who is dead; “To the Muse” is similar. In his loneliness, Wright's speaker has concocted a scheme whereby Jenny can be brought back from the dead to resume their courtship. The poem begins:

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn't
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.

The speaker seems to understand this process, especially its painfulness, from the inside, and we recall earlier poems in which he referred to himself as already dead, risen to return to the river. Mention of the snake reminds us as well of the “lost garden” of childhood, which Jenny and the speaker inhabited together so many years ago, and which is analogous in Wright's thinking to the mythological Garden.

As the poem continues, the speaker presses his suit by telling Jenny what he hopes to accomplish:

I would lie to you
If I could.
But the only way I can get you to come up
Out of the suckhole, the south face
Of the Powhatan pit, is to tell you
What you know:
You come up after dark, you poise alone
With me on the shore.
I lead you back to this world.

In the next two stanzas, the speaker goes into greater detail about the medical procedure he is fantasizing, which will be performed by “Three lady doctors in Wheeling” who “open / Their offices at night.” The images become increasingly bizarre, until finally the speaker comes to recognize that his desperation is verging upon insanity. It is at that moment that he unleashes, in an apostrophe addressed to Jenny, a cry of anguish from the depths of his soul:

                              Oh Jenny,
I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn't, I can't bear it
Either, I don't blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring
Muse of black sand,
I don't blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.

Love and death are intermingled in this book, as the speaker quests first for one, then for the other, and finally for both; the muse he loves and longs to please is dead, unreachable. It is ironic that these same two goals are the ones Wright will continue to quest for, successfully this time, throughout the rest of his work. The book that he published after Shall We Gather at the River is his Collected Poems, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. At the very beginning of that volume, again as a prologue, Wright placed a poem entitled “The Quest.” In each of this poem's four eight-line stanzas, the speaker is seen searching for something—love, a meaning to life—in four separate places. His first of three failures occurs in a grove of trees, where he comes upon a “gray nest” held in the tree “As in the arm of a dead girl / Crippled and torn and laid out bare.” In the second stanza, the speaker's search takes him to a “bare house,” where he finds only “gray hollows.” Outside once more, he reaches in the third stanza for a “nest / Of stars,” but comes away empty-handed. Finally in the fourth stanza he turns to the bed of a sleeping woman, his newly-found beloved, and there finds happiness:

So, as you sleep, I seek your bed
And lay my careful, quiet ear
Among the nestings of your hair,
Against your tenuous, fragile head,
And hear the birds beneath your eyes
Stirring for birth, and know the world
Immeasurably alive and good,
Though bare as rifted paradise.

The love which he finds here will sustain Wright's speaker throughout the rest of his work; perhaps the most moving testimony made to this woman comes at the end of “To the Creature of the Creation,” the poem which concludes the volume Two Citizens:

You are the earth's body.
I will die on the wing.
To me, you are everything
That matters, chickadee.
You live so much in me.
Chickadees sing in the snow.
I will die on the wing,
I love you so.

Even here, in a transcendently happy love poem, we see again the mingling of death and love so characteristic of Wright's work in general. The feeling of a successful resolution to the love quest is everywhere to be found in his last three books, Two Citizens, To a Blossoming Pear Tree, and This Journey. At this point in the overall span of his work, Wright seems to have found as much as he is going to, within the fallen world of everyday human reality. Wright's speaker has reached—to return to the geometrical figure introduced at the start of this essay—the bottom of the circle of his overall quest and is now on his way back to the original source of “childlike radiance and joy,” lost in earliest life but still waiting at the end of time.

Because the state of Ohio was literally James Wright's boyhood home, he thought of it as the goal of his quest for “home”—at least until the end of Shall We Gather at the River, when a new sense of its reality apparently began to emerge. The importance of the idea of home in Wright's thinking is indicated in comments he made when writing about two other writers; in 1964, before Shall We Gather at the River, he said of Theodor Storm that he “understood that the main thing … is not to get on in the world but to get home.”6 Six years later, after the publication of Shall We Gather at the River, Wright compiled a selection of poems by Hermann Hesse; in his introduction he explained: “All I wish to do is to offer a selection of Hesse's poems which deal with the single theme of homesickness. … That is what I think Hesse's poetry is about. He is homesick. But what is home?” Wright answers this question indirectly by quoting from Steppenwolf a passage in which the girl Hermine explains what it is that the sensitive man searches for in his life: “It is what I call eternity. The pious call it the kingdom of God. I say to myself: all we who ask too much and have a dimension too many could not contrive to live at all if there were not another air to breathe outside the air of this world, if there were not eternity at the back of time; and this is the kingdom of truth. The music of Mozart belongs there and the poetry of your great poets.”7

Having plumbed the depths of reality, having achieved the greatest degree of heroism available to him within the fallen world—a heroism based both on love and on a sense of stoic endurance of what hurts—Wright's speaker now begins to turn his attention back to the realm of eternity, to the “lost paradise” of childhood which is the “Kingdom of God,” as he describes it in the Sobiloff introduction. Of the final three volumes, it is This Journey that gives the most rounded, most fully-realized expression of both sides of this inherently pastoral quest, and it is to that book that I will devote my attention. There is an undeniable pastoral dimension to the poetry of James Wright. Among his earliest poems, those written when he was in high school and college, are dozens which are explicitly and traditionally pastoral, idylls and eclogues and country elegies. And yet many years later Wright said: “I'm antipastoral. I've worked on farms and I would never work on another one. I've got up at four o'clock in the morning and shovelled the cow manure out of the barn and bailed away the horse urine. The hell with it.”8

The criticism of pastoral poetry which Shakespeare made in As You Like It, and others have made elsewhere, was of its idealized, unrealistic portrayal of nature, as though one could live in the country without suffering discomfort, inconvenience, or devastation, from rodents, insects, hailstorms, manure, and aching backs. Wright goes in the opposite direction, rejecting an unpleasant realism in order to resurrect an idealized vision of the pastoral landscape and life. In order to accomplish this, he ended up having to reject the fake pastoralism of the Ohio of his boyhood. Much of Ohio is indeed a land of great pastoral beauty—gently rolling hills give way to verdant valleys with quietly gurgling streams; cows may be heard lowing in the fields while horses scamper among the trees; farms peopled by swains and maidens give way to nineteenth-century villages with their plump housewives, prosperous burghers, and hayseed children riding bicycles. “Isn't it pretty to think so?” James Wright apparently came to ask late in his life, echoing Jake Barnes. It was Wright's misfortune to have been raised in the Ohio River Valley, which can offer the appearance of country beauty, but is actually a suppurating wound on the face of the earth, kept open by industry, strip mines, pollution of water and air. It is this contrast between appearance and reality that comes to animate Wright's view of Ohio in his final three books.

“Ohioan Pastoral,” from This Journey, embodies Wright's fullest definition of the deceptiveness of this landscape:

On the other side
Of Salt Creek, along the road, the barns topple
And snag among the orange rinds,
Oil cans, cold balloons of lovers.
One barn there
Sags, sags and oozes
Down one side of the copperous gulley.
The limp whip of a sumac dangles
Gently against the body of a lost
Bathtub, while high in the flint-cracks
And the wild grimed trees, on the hill,
A buried gas main
Long ago tore a black gutter into the mines.
And now it hisses among the green rings
On fingers in coffins.

The poem is as misleading as the landscape it describes; it reproduces in the mind of the reader the same disillusionment experienced by the speaker. He begins by noting one of those gurgling streams, a road, and several barns. Then the barns in general begin to fall into a random collection of garbage, while one barn enters a toxic trench. The imagery at the end is almost apocalyptic, as the industrial poisoning is doubled (hissing gas invades an abandoned mine), attacking even the bodies of the dead.

The landscape of Ohio as presented in this book is not just blighted, wasted by industrial pollution, it is also distinctly murderous. Another general definition appears at the end of the poem “Chilblain,” where we are told that “Ohio is”:

Where violets last only a little.
Mill-smoke kills them halfway through spring,
And chilblain still stings
In June when earth smokes like slag.

Poisons carried by the air are especially prominent in such poems; another speaks of “The mill smoke that gets everything in the end.” As bad as this landscape, this airscape, is, it is not the only treacherous thing in Ohio. Increasingly in Wright's poetry, the people of the state appear murderous as well. In Two Citizens it is the “Ohio Valley Swains” who rape a young girl, friend of the speaker: “You thought that was funny, didn't you, to mock a girl? / … / … if I ever see you again, so help me in the sight of God, / I'll kill you.” And in This Journey, Wright speaks of his favorite season, which somehow is able to survive even in Ohio: “The still totally unbelievable spring beauty / That for some hidden reason nobody raped / To death in Ohio.”

Ohio is certainly no longer home for this speaker, though his quest for “home” goes on. Death is everywhere a felt presence in This Journey, a hidden and not so hidden topic. The poems seem to exist in a sort of twilight, and the reader often feels that the poet is close to anticipating his own death. Even the garden-like landscape of Europe is filled with intimations of morality; it contains many statues, all suffering decay, either from the polluted air—say of Venice, where “North of the city … factories / Murder the sun and what is left of the city”—or from the flowers which climb upon them. The statue of Leonardo in the poem “Wherever Home Is” is under attack from both these forces:

Leonardo da Vinci, haggard in basalt stone,
Will soon be gone,
A frivolous face lost in wisteria flowers.
They are turning gray and dying
All over his body.
Subtlest of all wanderers
Who live beautifully by living on other lives,
They cannot find a warm vein
In Leonardo, and Leonardo
Himself will soon
Be gone

Even the flowers in this passage are dying. In fact, the poem contains only one real sign of life: “One brief lizard / Lavishes on Leonardo and on me / The whole spring.” As the poem ends, the speaker defines the home of his title while anticipating his own death and creating a garden landscape for it:

I am going home with the lizard,
Wherever home is,
And lie beside him unguarded
In the clear sunlight.
We will lift our faces even if it rains.
We will both turn green.

Small creatures such as the lizard, but especially the lizard, play an important role in this book. In fact, we could say that it is here that Wright clearly and directly defines the function that they have always served in his work, a function which we saw indirectly expressed in The Branch Will Not Break and mentioned by Robert Bly. The central poem in this book, one of the best Wright ever wrote, is “The Journey,” which seems to answer one of the prayers uttered in Shall We Gather at the River: “I float among / Lonely animals, longing / For the red spider who is God.” In the opening stanza, the speaker tells how he and his companion “were swept out … by the wind,” “far up the mountain, behind the town” of Anghiari. The landscape is extremely dry: “Wind had been blowing across the hills / For days, and everything now was graying gold / With dust, everything we saw.” The omnipresent dust in this poem carries with it the usual connotations of mortality, but within that frame of reference the dust also becomes a source of sanctification. We see this when the speaker bends down in this completely arid landscape, no water anywhere, to wash with the dust “the dust from my face.” We also see it in the middle stanza, where he meets the spider, meets God:

I found the spider web there, whose hinges
Reeled heavily and crazily with the dust,
Whole mounds and cemeteries of it, sagging
And scattering shadows among shells and wings.
And then she stepped into the center of air
Slender and fastidious, the golden hair
Of daylight along her shoulders, she poised there,
While ruins crumbled on every side of her.
Free of the dust, as though a moment before
She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.

Like the speaker, in order to bathe herself “free of the dust” by stepping “inside the earth,” the spider would have to have washed with dust. Death is a positive force in this poem, a benediction, a natural process and a pathway, the final step on a journey the goal of which is described in the final stanza:

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don't worry.

We have indeed traveled a long way from The Green Wall, where the speaker was so terrified of death, so paralyzed by the effect of losing a few of his friends. Now death is “the heart of the light.” In fact, throughout the poem, as throughout this entire book, Wright plays upon both the word “light” and the idea which it represents.

I want to conclude by looking at one more poem, “Yes, But,” in which Wright speaks of his own death once again—envisioning an afterlife for himself, creating the garden he would like to rest in, populating it with the creatures he would like to rest with:

Even if it were true,
Even if I were dead and buried in Verona,
I believe I would come out and wash my face
In the chill spring.
I believe I would appear
Between noon and four, when nearly
Everybody else is asleep or making love,
And all the Germans turned down, the motorcycles
Muffled, chained, still.
Then the plump lizards along the Adige by San Giorgio
Come out and gaze,
Unpestered by temptation, across the water.
I would sit among them and join them in leaving
The golden mosquitoes alone.
Why should we sit by the Adige and destroy
Anything, even our enemies, even the prey
God caused to glitter for us
Defenseless in the sun?
We are not exhausted. We are not angry, or lonely,
Or sick at heart.
We are in love lightly, lightly. We know we are shining,
Though we cannot see one another.
The wind doesn't scatter us,
Because our very lungs have fallen and drifted
Away like leaves down the Adige,
Long ago.
We breathe light.

The action of this poem does not take place within reality, within the fallen world of human mortality. Instead, the speaker here reenters paradise, the garden lost in childhood, that Peaceable Kingdom in which the lamb can lie down with the lion. James Wright comes full circle in this poem, redeeming the promise left behind when he climbed over the green wall in his first book. In his introduction to Hy Sobiloff's book, Wright wrote of that glorious moment at the end of the poet's Wordsworthian quest when he would regain his childhood home: “the poet extends his hands to the child in the darkness; and, as poet and child embrace, they look about them to see that all has grown light again, it is the first dawn, the passing of time was only an evil dream, and the poet has come home to himself at last.”9 This is the point so gloriously reached by the poet, his speaker, and the reader at the end of the career of James Wright.


  1. James Wright, “Introduction: The Quest for the Child Within,” in Breathing of First Things by Hy Sobiloff (New York: The Dial Press, 1963), p. xix.

  2. Wright, “The Quest for the Child Within,” pp. xxii-xxiv.

  3. Robert Bly, “The Work of James Wright,” in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, ed. Dave Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), p. 78.

  4. Bly, p. 79.

  5. Peter Stitt, “The Art of Poetry XIX: James Wright,” The Paris Review, 62 (1975), p. 58.

  6. Wright, “Theodor Storm: Foreword,” in Collected Prose (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), pp. 75 & 76.

  7. Wright, “Translator's Note on Hermann Hesse,” in Collected Prose, pp. 88 & 90; p. 89.

  8. Wright, “The Pure Clear Word: An Interview with Dave Smith,” in Collected Prose, p. 199.

  9. Wright, “The Quest for the Child Within,” p. xxvii.

Randall Stiffler (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6842

SOURCE: “The Reconciled Vision of James Wright,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 77-92.

[In the following essay, Stiffler argues that Wright's main goal in his poetry was to reconcile “the possibility of epiphany with the reality of despair.”]


In 1958, James Wright received the following words of advice from his former teacher, Theodore Roethke:

Now to you. I hope you won't take it amiss: I worry, I worry my can off, practically. And I've spent nearly the whole of three sessions with my doctor yacking about you. Apparently you're more of an emotional symbol to me than I realized: a combination of student-young brother—something like that. (I even shed a tear or two.)

But the chief point now, as I see it, is you. I've been through all this before, through the wringer, bud, so please respect my advice. Once you become too hyper-active and lose too much sleep, you'll cross a threshold where chaos (and terror) ensues. And believe me, chum, it's always a chancey thing whether you get back or not. …1

Roethke wrote that before publication of Wright's second book, Saint Judas [hereafter cited as SJ], in 1959, and well before Wright went on to publish some of the most dazzling and memorable affirmations in recent American poetry. It would seem Wright listened to Roethke's warning, for how else could he have written such unsurpassable poems as “A Blessing”? Roethke worried, however, because the “hyper-activity” which gives rise to such epiphanies is answered in the poet's progress by chaos and terror.2 He knew that the epiphanies a poet like Wright stirs us with account for only part of his complete poetic vision. The other part of that vision necessarily includes the darker depths of despair. For this reason, Wright's affirmations need to be seen as the thesis to which his poems of despair are the emotional, if not logical, antithesis. The beautiful affirmations of poems like “A Blessing” should not be considered the goal and epitome of Wright's work. His central project was to move toward a synthesis of the oppositions of affirmation and negation, toward a reconciliation of the possibility of epiphany with the reality of despair.

In his earlier poetry, and by that I mean to include also the poems of The Branch Will Not Break [hereafter cited as TB] and Shall We Gather At The River [hereafter cited as SW], Wright quite deliberately segregates his experience of epiphany and despair in an effort to clarify and thus to control their disturbing opposition. At the same time, Wright presents the opposing emotions in poems of much the same form. The alternation of mood in Wright's poetry, therefore, is not nearly so prominent as it is in his friend Roethke's poetry. Roethke's alternations between the closed and the open form are obvious, and for some of these shifts Roethke was severely criticized. Perhaps Wright's awareness of that negative critical response motivated him all the more to render his broad range of emotion in a single poetic form which, after his stylistic breakthrough in The Branch Will Not Break, did not alter much thereafter. The form of Wright's poems did not change after The Branch Will Not Break, but his emotional outlook did. Wright indicates in the “New Poems” appended to his Collected Poems that he has discovered important connections between the contraries of epiphany and despair. In still later works, Wright continues his reconciliation of epiphany and despair by manipulating three sets of images he derives from the world of nature. With them, he tries to circumvent the despair aroused by fear of dying, and he begins to visualize death as but another segment in a larger process of an enduring creativity. In his last poems, Wright presents what might be termed an argument for physical resurrection of the body. While he eventually resigns himself to dying without despair, he bequeaths to the living his commitment to the immortality of inspiration.


Wright's poems which result in epiphany exist almost solely for the sake of their conclusions. Typically, such poems move from the facts of the everyday world to sudden and dramatic instants of revelation. These stand out like crystals in a coarse matrix. Just as Wright himself is seized and overwhelmed in the moment of epiphany, so too are we quieted by the beauty of the language he uses. Wright has more than aesthetic intentions, however. He wants to freeze the mortal moments he commemorates.

The argumentative thrust behind Wright's epiphanies is that miraculous events take place in real time and real space. Wright's moments occur in Martins Ferry, Ohio and in Rochester, Minnesota as well as in, more predictably, Venice and Verona. The titles of Wright's poems argue also for the ordinariness, the matter-of-factness, of epiphany. Wright rarely strains for mystique or for drama in a title. On the contrary, titles such as “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me” or “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” stress the occasionality of Wright's poetry.

The introductory lines of Wright's poems extend the tone their titles inaugurate. These are sets of lines chosen from the beginnings of three adjacent poems:

Today I am walking alone in a bare place,
And winter is here.(3)
The man on the radio mourns
That another endless American winter
Daybreak is beginning to fall
On Idaho, on the mountains.

(SW, 153)

Crouched down by a roadside windbreak
At the edge of the prairie,
I flinch under the baleful jangling of wind
Through the telephone wires, a wilderness of voices.

(SW, 153)

A notable thing about each of these introductions is that we as readers learn instantly, from the outset, what the place, the time, or the situation of the poem is to be. Wright insistently orients us to the context of the poem to follow. In this respect, his work is some of the most refreshingly accessible in contemporary poetry. Wright gains more than the reader's eye with these easy beginnings, however. He establishes an extremely ordinary context against which he can place the dramatic event. The overall effect of the contrast is that Wright stuns the reader by the end of the poem. Invited into the poem by the conversationality of its title, lulled into a false sense of security by the orienting first lines, the reader is rendered speechless when the coordinates established are suddenly revoked.

In “Speak,” Wright has written “I speak of flat defeat / In a flat voice” (SW, 150). Surely the first five lines of “A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place” are applications of that principle. This is the ash from which the phoenix rises: “I renounce the blindness of the magazines. / I want to lie down under a tree. / This is the only duty that is not death. / This is the everlasting happiness / Of small winds” (TB, 132). The plodding chronology of these introductory lines accelerates, however, and the quality of time in the poem changes significantly: “Suddenly, a pheasant flutters, and I turn / Only to see him vanishing at the damp edge / Of the road” (TB, 132-3). With the emergence of the pheasant, a change occurs in Wright's dolorous perspective. That is verified by the metamorphosis of his language. Repetitive verbs of being give way to active flutterings and turns. Where before we read statements, ostensibly of fact, now we see an image. The image does not last long, apparently, but its duration bears little relation to its impact. It serves to diminish the depressed situation of the poem's original occasion.

If we associate the pheasant with epiphany, and I think we must, then why doesn't the “vanishing” of the pheasant arouse Wright's despair? To conclude the poem on so dramatic a note, Wright makes the moment of epiphany a speciously completed moment. By giving this moment a tangible beginning and an apparent end, he more effectively closes the poem. Thus the moment of epiphany stands ready for comparison to that dismal context which gave birth to it. Wright is actually unwilling, however, to let this epiphany end. He eternalizes his glimpse of the pheasant by casting it into the present tense. Because it is always only “vanishing,” the pheasant in this poem will never disappear.

With Wright's epiphanies, we are introduced to events which reorganize the everyday world. They revolutionize time, space, and perspective. Though we glimpse such events in Wright's poems, he refuses to explain how they work. According to Wright, epiphany not only does but should remain mysterious. Thus he balks at recording the entire natural history of epiphany, and this betrays Wright's anxiety that such moments may never take place again.

“Lifting Illegal Nets By Flashlight” is a figure for Wright's protective attitude toward epiphany. It is crucial for the poem that the fish get through his net:

The carp are secrets
Of the creation: I do not
Know if they are lonely.
The poachers drift with an almost frightening
Care under the bridge.
Water is a luminous
Mirror of swallows' nests. The stars
Have gone down.
What does my anguish
Matter? Something
The color
Of a puma has plunged through this net, and is gone.
This is the firmest
Net I ever saw, and yet something
Is gone lonely
Into the headwaters of the Minnesota.

(SW, 163)

Of course we have excellent reason to think that what broke through the net was a carp. Wright mentions that fish at the outset of the poem, and since carp are in fact bronze, they resemble the puma's color. Wright refuses to identify the fish's name in the poem, however. He prefers the word “something,” which he uses twice. The only way for him to find out for certain what escaped the net, and the only way for him to join it (and thus to rescind his own and this “something's” loneliness), would be to follow the fish toward the headwaters. Wright is unwilling to do that, and he can only empathize with the ardor of the fish.

Of his first two volumes of poetry, James Wright remarked, “I have tried very hard to write in the mode of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost.”4 Wright's avowed indebtedness to Frost is germane to this poem. The fishermen of this poem fish without licenses. Their nets are “illegal.” In Frost's opinion, no doubt, James Wright's poem itself would constitute an “illegal net.” It is a poem without meter or rhyme and Frost likened such vers libre to playing tennis without a net. And yet few would deny that Wright's poem is a tight composition. It is a firm net. The two lines which strain it the most are the fourth, where the poachers venture most boldly toward their own peril, and the twelfth, where the “something” they hope to contain finally escapes. In this poem, Wright is commenting upon the ability of language to do justice to what it represents. Here, the inspiration for the poem successfully breaks through Wright's verbal net. Wright's words cannot capture that “something,” but this does not anger him. On the contrary, he rejoices. Wright assures the survival of the epiphany by acknowledging the failure of his poem to contain it.

For us as readers, it is the shock of being intrigued which is the epiphany. Wright awakens our sense of mystery but he refuses, consistently, to explain the mystery away. He conserves it by selecting very carefully what he must leave out of the poem. Wright cuts the epiphany away from directions it might possibly take and then, as it were, he cauterizes those wounds and conceals them. If Wright did not withhold as much as he reveals, if he dove into the “headwaters of the Minnesota” to learn more about the nature of epiphany, he would somehow have to build into the poem some measure of the epiphany's dissolution.

“Mary Bly” is a clear example of Wright's powers of selection and omission. In this poem, Wright is not elevated suddenly into a visionary moment as he is in other poems we have seen. He is gentled toward it by the breath of the child that lifts him from the weariness of his long winter. The child brings spring back to him, quietly, and with the beautiful image in the conclusion his vision seems secure:

I sit here, doing nothing, alone, worn out by long winter.
I feel the light breath of the newborn child.
Her face is smooth as the side of an apricot,
Eyes quick as her blond mother's hands.
She has full, soft, red hair, and as she lies quiet
In her tall mother's arms, her delicate hands
Weave back and forth.
I feel the seasons changing beneath me,
Under the floor.
She is braiding the waters of air into the plaited manes
Of happy colts.
They canter, without making a sound, along the shores
Of melting snow.

(TB, 133-4)

“Mary Bly” is a very nice poem, but it is vulnerable by virtue of its perfectedness. The moment of this poem is poised and impossible to surpass because doing that would mean allowing the entrance of the freeze of the next winter which the child is unwittingly preparing. Wright refuses to look that far ahead, however, and he does not develop the implication of the “seasons changing beneath me.” Carefully circumscribed as it is and cut away from the dreary implication, Wright can describe confidently the progress of “long winter” to “melting snow” without having to mix memory with his desire. A step further beyond the “melting snow” would destroy the affirmative moment of the poem.

The perilous balance Wright achieves and then will not topple is fairly typical of his epiphanies. “A Blessing” is probably Wright's finest and most famous poem, and yet in none other of Wright's works can we see so clearly the major limitation of the epiphany. The poem deserves endless repeating:

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more.
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

(TB, 135)

Were the triumphant phrasing of the epiphany in the conclusion enacted in the context of this poem, what would the next line be? We recall that the ponies are “munching the young tufts of spring in the / darkness.” Were Wright to step out of his body and be transformed, were he in fact to “blossom,” the ponies would munch that new blossom, too. Had Wright pushed the poem that small step further toward its consequence, the image which concludes it would explode. “A Blessing” would descend into despair and it would enter that much shadier realm where Wright's dark desire is to be consumed.

This is the major limitation of Wright's epiphanies: the vision afforded is partial. Wright's epiphanies are beautiful ones and affirmative ones but very much because of the strict limits within which they are composed. The very best of these poems stretch to the edge of those limitations where any further expansion would deflate them. To say that it is impossible to go beyond these limitations is correct in an important sense. Going beyond their confines would complicate the epiphany with its inevitable dissolution. At that point, epiphany would become despair. However, going beyond the epiphany in the dialectical sense, going beyond it toward reconciliation, would mean interweaving that dissolution within the poem's progress as it moves.

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is a particularly interesting poem in this respect because in it Wright shadows epiphany with despair. As a result, the poem supports two consistent readings, one affirmative and the other ominous. The two readings cannot intersect, however. They are mutually exclusive. This poem may be a study for a poem of reconciliation but it shows only the great proximity of epiphany and despair.

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in the green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distance of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

(TB, 114)

At least one thread of consistency moving through this poem connects the five things Wright notices: the butterfly, the cowbells, the droppings, the evening, the hawk. Each awareness is a vividly sensual one and even through the title of the poem implies a certain sloth or relaxation, Wright's senses are working hard. The concluding line of the poem, then, is uttered ironically much as if to say “this is the way to spend, to waste one's life,” alert to the world around.

That is the affirmative reading of the poem. It is possible also to trace a considerably more ominous significance through the imagery of the poem. The butterfly blows like a leaf, the house is empty, the cowbells disappear, droppings and not horses blaze, and Wright himself shares in this gradual dying. He leans back. Evening itself, the dying of the day, is the only thing in the poem that advances. Everything in the poem has passed its point of greatest vitality. The last line simply emphasizes this. Wright sees himself as yet another part of all that is diminishing. He speaks the last line not with satisfaction but with a sigh.

The poem both suggests and supports both readings. Neither prevails because the Janus face of the concluding line points both to epiphany and to despair. Clearly Wright was not trying to present yet another epiphany here and he simply failed to provide a ringing last line. No, Wright undertook to swell the limits of epiphany by including the emotion of despair, but in this poem he did not achieve a reconciliation of the two antitheses. As a result, we as readers not only can but must split the two emotions apart to resolve the enigmatic tone of the concluding line.


The heights of ecstasy in James Wright's poetry are answered by the challenge of death and dying. Along with the beautiful poems of epiphany, we find frequent elegies, lamentations, ejaculations of an enduring loneliness, and terribly savage and bitter condemnations. Wright's despair leads in one of two directions: toward a stoicism from within which Wright waits, without hope, for intervention, or toward death itself, toward that drowning Wright flirts with throughout his work. By means of this second direction Wright moves toward reconciliation, but I want to focus first on the ordeals Wright endures because in poems re-enacting those we see the purest form of his despair.

I think it would be possible to convey the essential nature of Wright's despair simply by quoting extensively from poems in which that is the dominant mood. Such poems communicate stark and brutal emotion with a language nearly as reduced as is Wright's ability to alter his depressing circumstances. Like Wright's poems of epiphany, his poems of despair tend to silence the reader and repress comment, but through pain and not sudden beauty. Wright invites the reader into his despair in much the same way that he does in his poems of epiphany, but once past the title and the typically accessible introductory lines, nothing dramatically changes. Nothing intervenes to alter time or transform space. This bit of spleen, for example, is from an early poem, “At the Executed Murderer's Grave.”

Idiot, he demanded love from girls,
And murdered one. Also, he was a thief.
He left two women, and a ghost with child.
The hair, foul as a dog's upon his head,
Made such revolting Ohio animals
Fitter for vomit than a kind man's grief.
I waste no pity on the dead that stink.
And no love's lost between me and the crying
Drunks of Belaire, Ohio, where police
Kick at their kidneys till they die of drink.
Christ may restore them whole, for all of me.
Alive and dead, those giggling muckers who
Saddled nightmares thirty years ago
Can do without my widely printed sighing
Over their pains with paid sincerity.
I do not pity the dead, I pity the dying.

(SJ, 83)

No visionary moment suddenly intersects with the grim reality and the rapid movement of this present tense. The only thing that shifts in the poem is the target of Wright's venom. The murderer George Doty occasions the poem, but Wright's bitterness toward him widens as the poem grows to include the entire society in which Doty was raised and lived: “If Belmont County killed him, what of me? / His victims never loved him. Why should we? / And yet, nobody had to kill him either” (SJ, 83). Wright's outrage turns around eventually to include even himself and he adds, when “the princes of the sea come down / … to judge the earth / And its dead … / 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” (SJ, 84). Contempt for a killer blossoms in the conclusion to contempt for mankind in general.

When Wright thus turns his despair against others, it translates into a kind of misanthropy. When he turns it against himself, he considers how “suicide in the river” might transform his despair (SW, 140). Here, several people are caught in the baleful gaze of Wright's misanthropic despair:

The Chippewa young men
Stab one another shrieking
Jesus Christ.
Split-lipped homosexuals limp in terror of assault.
High school backfields search under benches
Near the Post Office. Their faces are the rich
Raw bacon without eyes.
The Walker Art Center crowd stare
At the Guthrie Theater.
Tall Negro girls from Chicago
Listen to light songs.
They know when the supposed patron
Is a plainclothesman.
A cop's palm
Is a roach dangling down the scorched fangs
Of a light bulb.
The soul of a cop's eyes
Is an eternity of Sunday daybreak in the suburbs
Of Juarez, Mexico.

(“The Minneapolis Poem,” SW, 140)

The recurrent verbs of being suggest that these lines contain facts as they were perceived. Wright's proven skill at constructing the image is here reduced by despair to the making of mere verbal equations. There is no doubt that he achieves a stark power with these metaphors, but the eyes we see through in this poem are so transparently angry that they see dimly. The people of these two sections of the poem are not rendered as individuals at all. They are stereotypes. If we are carried by the power of the verse, we may agree with those stereotypes. If we do not share Wright's obvious social sympathies, if we do not prefer his all-knowing prostitutes to his evil police, the reaction is to dismiss entirely this sordid affair. Oddly enough, this second reaction is what Wright would have us do, I think. More than pity for people, he would have us feel disgust. The poem becomes a short lesson on why to hate man. Such denial of mankind suddenly ranks us, then, with the blind people in the poem, with the “raw bacon” and the staring crowd. We enter that much more deeply into Wright's despair at this point because we learn with him how to hate ourselves.

It is true that “The Minneapolis Poem” concludes with what some will consider an epiphany. In the last lines, Wright presents a wish, but this desire for escape is not anywhere fulfilled by the poem:

I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives
Of the unnamed poor.

(SW, 141)

The desire Wright expresses in this conclusion is not for justice or fair housing or good food for the poor. He wants to be made anonymous. Despair turns inward and he asks for the destruction of the self.

Wright's sympathy for selected people in “The Minneapolis Poem” is social and political and, finally, rhetorical. In the last poem of Shall We Gather At The River that sympathy is intensely personal. Wright addresses the poem “To The Muse.” These are the first lines:

It is all right. All they do
Is go in by dividing
One rib from another. I wouldn't
Lie to you. It hurts
Like nothing I know. All they do
Is burn their way in with a wire.
It forks in and out a little like the tongue
Of that frightened garter snake we caught
At Cloverfield, you and me, Jenny
So long ago.

(SW, 168)

One of the dark beauties of this poem is that Wright sustains his direct and yet consolatory tone up to the point where even he cannot be convinced by his reassurances. His deliberate speech breaks down in the fifth verse paragraph when he says “Oh Jenny, / / I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy / And disastrous place. I / Didn't, I can't bear it / Either” (SW, 168-9). It is not only James Wright's suffering which surfaces in these lines, but the uninvited emergence of our own. By the conclusion of the poem, Wright has regained his composure and he refuses to remain utterly helpless. He refuses only to endure his ordeal of despair: “Come up to me, love, / Out of the river, or I will / Come down to you” (SW, 169). When we recall that this poem is the last one in Shall We Gather At The River, that these lines are what Wright left his readers with in 1968, the concluding lines seem somehow even more desperately suicidal. In fact, however, they point to the way that Wright resolves the problem of despair and dying. The desire for the dissolution of the self leads Wright to his reconciled vision.


The river is the significant figure in James Wright's poetry. It functions as the site for drownings, as a figure for the process of dying itself, and it functions also as the agent of regeneration. On the one hand, the river dissolves the individual, quite literally, and reduces identity to anonymity. On the other hand, it enacts a baptismal cleansing. The title of Wright's fourth volume, Shall We Gather At The River, combines both aspects of the river. The title celebrates the possibility of renewed life while it acknowledges also the darker implications of drowning and suicide. The river, then, holds the potential both for epiphany and for despair. It is too much to say, though, that the river signals reconciliation in Wright's poetry. The river itself must be cleansed and transformed before it can return to earth, in the form of rain, as the agent of reconciliation.

In certain of the earlier poems, Wright explores the affirmative and negative attributes of the river that I have outlined above, and it is possible to detect his attempt to blend together these two attributes in order to achieve a durable reconciliation. In none of these earlier poems does the focus of the poem rise entirely above the river, however. In these earlier poems, he concentrates upon the transformation persons undergo when they immerse themselves.

“In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned” concludes, of course, with considerable irony about both Wheeling and Bridgeport, Ohio, but the poem contains also Wright's admiration for those women who “poured down the street to the river / And into the river” (SW, 165). It is crucial to note, though, that Wright only observes this procession. He hides “upstream from the sewer main” as the women “drown every evening” downriver. He does not himself participate in the metamorphosis he describes with this question: “What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore, / Drying their wings?” (SW, 165). The answer, of course, is encased in the question. Wright's conviction that they emerged could not be firmer. He figures the ascent of the women from their night in the river as that of butterflies coming out of the chrysalis. The poem is an important one in Wright's evolution toward a reconciled vision because here for the first time he suggests that one can drown in the river and then ascend. Wright himself does not enter the river in this poem, however. “I will grieve alone” he remarks in the present tense at the outset, and the remainder of the poem is a remembrance.

In Two Citizens [hereafter cited as TC] and To A Blossoming Pear Tree [hereafter cited as PT], Wright accounts in a more complete way for resurrection from the river. Where before Wright broods upon the dissolving powers of the river rather than exulting at the possibility it offers for metamorphosis, in his last poems he works to lay an empirical foundation that will indicate and assure resurrection. This is most apparent in the way he transforms the figure of the river into that of the rain. In earlier poems, in “Living by the Red River” (SW, 151), for example, or in “A Prayer to the Lord Ramakrishna” (SW, 160), the rain is something to avoid. It is relentless, fearsome, and inevitable. Instead of reawakening life, rain wears the living down. It dissolves the dead. By the time of Two Citizens, however, rain has come to represent the return of the dead.

“The Snail's Road” is perhaps the best example of this. Though there is great potential for grisliness here (in the “snail on Max Jacob's grave / At Fleury-sur-Loire” Poe would have seen the “conqueror worm”), for Wright the snail represents the first step in a process that moves from death to resurrection. “The snail beneath the right foot, / The toe pointing toward thunderclouds” indicates how long it takes to complete the distance between the start and end of that process (TC, 49). Wright telescopes the time's length, however. “The Jerusalem of the Loire” is transformed into the “bronze Jew snail of the rain,” the two lovers themselves become creatures spinning the paths of their own “long journey,” and their hands intersect, “coil within coil,” like a snail's “tiny whorl of colors” (TC, 49). The transformation of the dead poet at whose grave the two lovers are standing, through the snail, the river, the rain, culminates in the love the two find: “We walked … both looking / For love Max Jacob in the rain. We found him. We found our hands” (TC, 49).

When the river, Ohio or Loire, collects the effluence of mountains, plains, and valleys, it carries that runoff into the greater anonymity of the sea. Water vapor arising in the course of this process is re-individuated into separate and identifiable drops. These fall as rain, eventually, as the river purified. When applied to the spiritual process implied by Wright's river and rain, the facts of the water cycle give an especially intelligible framework. One problem for Wright's imagery, however, is that the cycle continues perpetually. Rain falls, it rises, and it falls again. That facet of the analogy is not comforting when applied to the soul's progress. Wright is not blind to this difficulty. In “The Snail's Road,” he suspends the eternal return momentarily, and he has the rain stop. The sun comes out for “long enough, / And too late be damned” (TC, 49).

Though surely it is the most important in his poetry, the water imagery is not the only way Wright indicates his reconciliation with death. He develops a zoological and a geological motif as well as the meteorological. We have seen the zoological motif in “In Response to a Rumor that the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned” where the women are led out of the chrysalis, presumably, to become butterflies. They dry their “wings” beside the river. Wright's zoological motif is not restricted to the metamorphoses of insects, however. In “Poems to a Brown Cricket,” the horse, another of Wright's favorite figures, is joined with that of the wing. The result is this vision of Pegasean horses:

As for me, I have been listening,
For an hour or so, to the scampering ghosts
Of Sioux ponies, down the long road
Toward South Dakota.
They just brought me home, leaning forward, by both hands clinging
To the joists of the magnificent, dappled feathers
Under their wings.

(SW, 167)

Wright's image of the wing is less literally tied to the facts of the natural world, but he employs it because things endowed with wings, insects, birds, mythical horses, can fly. Even a “sycamore just / Outside Martins Ferry” inspired Wright for the first time, and he “rose” in the poem “Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains” (TC, 36). Though not joined to bird or beast, that branch functioned as a wing which lifted him.

Wright's third image to indicate his reconciliation with dying is an odd one, at first sight. Wright's water motif makes a certain kind of literal sense and his figure of the wing, though less convincing, also replicates the essential structure of Wright's idea of the move through death toward life. Jewels and crystals are beautiful and precious but hard and unyielding things. Yet, there are implications Wright derives from these images which fit very nicely with his other conceptions. Some jewels are embedded in the earth and they have to be exhumed from the darkness by mining; some, like the diamond, are metamorphic, and they have been refined by great pressure out of coal, itself the dross of dead plantlife. And Wright's favorite jewel, the emerald, is crystalline. It orders itself, molecule by molecule, from a solution. The main thing Wright likes about jewels, though, is that when faceted they are animated by refractions of the light.

In The Branch Will Not Break, the poem “The Jewel” stands out from all other poems in the volume because of the peculiarity of its dominant image. Wright inaugurates his image of the jewel in this poem, but this early in his career, he does not develop it. In this short poem, Wright uses the jewel simply as a way of proclaiming his identity. We should hear the pun embedded in the penultimate line.

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

(TB, 114)

The jewel emerges again in Two Citizens and this time it is joined to the image of the wing. The poem is “Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains.”

There is something in you that is able to discover the crystal.
Somewhere in me there is a crystal that I cannot find
Alone, the wing that I used to think was a poor
Blindness I had to live with with the dead.

(TC, 35)

And in “One Last Look at the Adige: Verona in the Rain,” as he observes the crumbling of his own body (“This is another river / I can still see flow by” [PT, 5]), he figures the jewel as the irreducible element of himself:

In the middle of my own life,
I woke up and found myself
Dying, fair enough, still
Alive in the friendly city
Of my body, my secret Verona,
Milky and green,
My moving jewel, the last
Pure vein left to me.

(PT, 6)

In these increasingly dense, reflective, and self-conscious poems, the immersion Wright courts and yet fears takes place. The river moves inside and Wright recognizes this. “Fair enough,” Wright says. He is reconciled to the dying that previously aroused such despair.

With this emotional foundation established, Wright looks forward to the time after his own death when his efforts will be continued by others. No longer isolated and alone, he imagines the others to whom will be passed his particular gifts of perception, even as he himself sinks down. In one of his most deliberate and self-conscious poems, in the prose piece “The Secret of Light,” Wright combines the geological image with that of the water cycle. He sees himself dispassionately, as if from another person's eyes, and he finds his own struggle for an enduring epiphany is itself part of a larger process:

Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is as black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.

While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose from her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man's secret face to light, as somebody brought mine. I am startled to discover that I am not afraid. I am free to give a blessing out of my silence into that woman's black hair. I trust her to go on living.

(PT, 38)

The incident is figured as the “one chance” for this “anxious and disciplined craftsman” and that chance is embodied in the lengthy second sentence of the first paragraph quoted. The sentence is a risk, stylistically, and as the reader moves through it without the benefits of punctuation, he senses the possibility that the sentence may flounder or trail off into incoherence. But the sentence does not fail. It triumphs as it ventures forth from the descriptive “inmost secret of light” only to return bringing “that secret to light.” When the woman, the object of the inspiration, moves off, Wright is not unsettled. There is no despair that the epiphany fades. He is satisfied that she appeared to him, he knows the strength of his own particular success, and he knows also that something larger than that will survive. The opportunity for such epiphany to devolve on other craftsmen endures, and that thought helps Wright to defeat the otherwise deranging spectre of his own death. He can say without despair, “it is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige” (PT, 39).

We should notice also that the appearance of the black-haired woman is proof of Wright's assertion about the immortality of inspiration. In fact, she is a reappearance, a revisitation. She is the “slenderer” of the two Indian ponies Wright touched in his poem, “A Blessing.” In that poem, Wright himself was given the blessing. In this poem, he returns it.


  1. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., ed., Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968), p. 220.

  2. Roethke's own experience of manic-depression is discussed in detail in Allan Seager's The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), and Neal Bowers has recently devoted an entire book to discussing the relation between Roethke's mysticism and manic-depression [Theodore Roethke: The Journey From I to Otherwise (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982)].

  3. James Wright, “Late November in a Field,” Collected Poems (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1972), p. 152.

    Documentation of Wright's poems is provided in parentheses in the text. Abbreviations used include: GW for The Green Wall (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), SJ for Saint Judas (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), TB for The Branch Will Not Break (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963), SW for Shall We Gather At the River (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), TC for Two Citizens (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), PT for To A Blossoming Pear Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).

    The first four volumes of Wright's poetry are most readily available in his Collected Poems. Pagination in this collection is continuous and I have followed that, but to help indicate the course of Wright's career, I have included in parentheses in the text the abbreviated title of the work in which the poem originally appeared.

  4. Richard Howard, Alone With America (New York: Atheneum, 1969), p. 580.

Ben Howard (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Another Shore,” in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 6, March, 1991, pp. 343-54.

[In the following essay, Howard reviews Wright's Complete Poems and a volume of critical essays about Wright, and concludes that Wright triumphs over his work's shortcomings because his best works show “imagistic luminosity, melodic purity, and emotional clarity.”]

Elegist, visionary, and bitter social critic, the late James Wright remains a vivid presence in contemporary American poetry. As Donald Hall remarks in introducing this definitive edition of Wright's poems, few American poets have been the subject of so many elegies. Few have been more revered—or more shamelessly imitated. The concurrent appearance of Peter Stitt's critical anthology, which includes astute appreciations by Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, William Matthews, and other fellow poets, attests to Wright's continuing influence, both as a technical innovator and as a model of integrity and compassion. Together, these volumes prompt a reassessment of a poet who once described himself as a jaded pastoralist, but who has been more accurately characterized by Stanley Plumly as “the great empathizer of our poetry.”

What emerges from these pages, amid recurrent images of darkness, light, drowning, Midwestern desolation, “Italian silences,” and urban squalor, is a sad but resilient figure—a sensitive outcast, afflicted by depression and haunted by the fear of death, who sought in his art a true relation to solitude, to the natural world, to social realities, and to his flickering images of God. From first to last, Wright portrayed himself as a man attempting to pray. And throughout his career he labored to articulate the “pure clear word,” to find the “forms of feeling,” and to forge, out of the diverse rhetorics of Frost, Robinson, Machado, Trakl, and others, an authentic and enabling style. Moving uneasily through the conventions of formalism and the vogue of the “deep image,” he came at last into a “poetry of the present moment” and the assurance of a colloquial style. That he approached his aesthetic and moral ideal, however briefly and belatedly, makes his life's work a limited triumph, his early death a grievous loss.

“I did not know nor understand,” the poet confesses, “the beauty of my lonely life.” Nor does Wright find much to celebrate in the condition of solitude. On rare occasions he recalls moments of solitary joy, and in “The Jewel” he defends the sanctity of the private self, that “cave / In the air behind [his] body,” which “nobody is going to touch.” But for the most part, Wright's vision of solitude is one of painful separation, a state to be lamented and endured. At their most literal, his complaints can lapse into self-pity:

Today I am walking alone in a bare place,
And winter is here. …
The soles of my shoes need repairs.
I have nothing to ask a blessing for,
Except these words.

“Late November in a Field”

Yet Wright also acknowledges that “everybody / Else is going / To die in a loneliness / I can't imagine and a pain / I don't know.” Reaching beyond his private experience, he finds kinship with other solitaries and outcasts, be they convicted murderers, a ninth-century Chinese governor, the goddess Diana (“true / To her own solitude”), or creatures in the natural world. And in one remarkable early poem, he ranges far beyond the literal, envisioning loneliness and homesickness in the afterlife:

In paradise I poised my foot above the boat and said:
Who prayed for me?
                                                                                          But only the dip of an oar
In water sounded; slowly fog from some cold shore
Circled in wreaths around my head.
But who is waiting?
                                                                                          And the wind began,
Transfiguring my face from nothingness
To tiny weeping eyes. And when my voice
Grew real, there was a place
Far, far below on earth. There was a tiny man—
It was my father wandering round the waters at the wharf.
Irritably he circled and he called
Out to the marine currents up and down,
But heard only a cold unmeaning cough,
And saw the oarsman in the mist enshawled.
He drew me from the boat. I was asleep.
And we went home together.


Anecdotal in character and formal in structure, this poem is of a piece with others in The Green Wall (1957), Wright's first collection. Here, however, the abstract dreamlike mode, the oblique depiction of isolation, dislocation, and reunion, lend an impersonal tone and grandeur. Loneliness seems less personal than existential.

In the natural world, Wright found temporary solace, a balm for his sense of isolation. “There is no loneliness like theirs,” he says of two Indian ponies in “A Blessing,” his well-known anthology piece. In the imagined loneliness of ponies, the “sorrow / Of escaping animals,” the labors of ants “carrying small white petals,” he found both consolation and a mirror for his emotions. Yet in Wright's relations with those “wild / arenas we avoid” one senses uneasiness as much as harmony, disjunction as well as communion. Robert Bly rightly remarks that Wright “assumes in animals a gentleness that is not there,” and Geoffrey Hartman sees, in the early nature poems, a search for an adequate rhetoric.

Certainly Wright's rhetoric and his perceptions of the natural world changed markedly over the years. Kevin Stein observes that in the poems after Saint Judas (1959), the poet becomes “an equal in a world of natural objects—his or her function is not to impose order but rather to perceive it.” And in the poems of To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977) and This Journey (1982), his last two collections, one finds a dichotomy between the human and natural worlds and a new respect for the otherness of natural phenomena. “To a Blossoming Pear Tree” contrasts the “pure delicate body” of the pear tree with the degradation of an old man who propositions the poet on the street. “Entering the Kingdom of the Moray Eel” pays homage to the sovereignty of an alien creature:

He is not going to visit his palaces
In my sight, he is not going to dance
Attention on the brief amazement of my life.
He is not going to surrender the splendid shadow
Of his throne. Not for my sake. Not even
To kill me.

This is a far cry from Wright's “deep images” of the natural world, in which an “owl's eyelids fall,” the poet dreams of “a crawdad's mouth,” and a boy “listens into the hallway / Of a dark leaf.” The near-transparency of Wright's later style, its freedom from preciosity and mannerism, bespeaks a truer, less proprietary, and less sentimental relationship to the flora and fauna. As Edward Hirsch remarks, This Journey is the testament of a poet “bringing himself into harmony with the natural world before his death.”

In his traffickings with the social world Wright achieved no such harmony. His relations were largely hostile. Wright's social criticism, contained mainly in the poems of Shall We Gather at the River (1968) and Two Citizens (1973), speaks indignantly of America, “that brutal and savage place I still love,” where girders “smash the kneecaps / Of dumb honyaks,” and “evil / Is an easy joke, forgotten / In a week.” Growing up in a working-class environment in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, Wright was well acquainted with “the great clanging cathedrals of rust and smoke”; and, as Robert Hass suggests, he had a “feeling in his own bones for what a cold and unforgiving place the social world is.” Yet here, as in his nature poems, Wright groped for the forms of feeling—the rhetoric and conventions by which to express his alienation. When Wright's social realism takes the form of flat statements and bald generalities, the results can be disheartening:

One afternoon in northern California,
Which is a Jack London nut house,
I almost found my own country.

“I Wish I May Never Hear of The United States Again”

But when his realism finds expression in stark images and luminous metaphors—Wright's strongest suits—his effects are often incisive:

I saw, down river
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.
I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?

“In Response To A Rumor That The Oldest Whorehouse In Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned”

Simarily, Wright's political sentiments, his sense of social injustice and his fear of military-industrial power, find their weakest expression in his social generalities. Observing spectators at a football game, he concludes that “All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. / Their women cluck like starved pullets”—an embarrassing statement from so sensitive a poet. By contrast, in a political poem about an unwholesome alliance, Wright presents potent images, boldly opposed:

The American hero must triumph over
The forces of darkness.
He has flown through the very light of heaven
And come down in the slow dusk
Of Spain. …
State police yawn in the prisons.
Antonio Machado follows the moon
Down a road of white dust,
To a cave of silent children
Under the Pyrenees.
Wine darkens in stone jars in villages.
Wine sleeps in the mouths of old men, it is a dark red color.

“Eisenhower's Visit To Franco, 1959”

Although Wright's political demonology, his polarities of darkness and light, vicious generals and virtuous poets, now seems simplistic and somewhat dated, this radiant moral vision transcends its historical context.

Fortunately, in the best of his social poems Wright is less the political editorialist than the regional elegist, who recalls, with gentle realism, scenes of redemptive joy and beauty. One of the most touching poems of his middle period remembers a “long gouge in the ground,” a WPA swimming pool in Martin's Ferry, where poverty-stricken families refreshed their spirits, and the poet himself found tender regard:

                    It is going to be hard
For you to believe; when I rose from that water,
A little girl who belonged to somebody else,
A face thin and haunted appeared
Over my left shoulder, and whispered, Take [care] now,
Be patient, and live.

“The Old WPA Swimming Pool In Martin's Ferry, Ohio”

Marvin Bell likens the power of this poem to that of Jarrell's “The Truth.” William S. Saunders suggests that Wright's goal “is to make us believe in a loveliness that is more impressive because it springs from ugliness”—a feat Wright accomplishes, with equal force, in other poems set in Ohio, particularly “Paul,” which praises a “fine young man … true to his true love,” and “Well, What Are You Going to Do?,” which commemorates the birth of a calf “Down in the cold / Autumn thorns,” near a pile of horse manure. As Bell remarks, Wright “finds his beauty where others might not, looks twice or more where others might not, gives us a chance where others would not neither care nor dare to.”

Wright found another kind of beauty in foreign places. After his marriage to Anne Wright in 1967, he traveled extensively in Italy and France. The comforts of a harmonious marriage and the warmth of Mediterranean sunlight permeate his last two books, where sadness mingles with joy, and indignant retrospection yields to contemplative calm. Wright's response to European iconography, statuary, and architectural ruins, framed alternately in lyric poems and prose meditations, ranges from awestruck celebration to elegiac sadness. Reverent before the Amphitheatre, dumbfounded by the light of Tuscany, or stilled before the “nameless” stones at Nîmes, Wright evokes a peace rarely to be found in his earlier writing. He also achieves an uncommon purity of style, at once fluid and lapidary, sculptural and supple. In the weaker of the early poems, self-conscious enjambments and improbable metaphors conspired to produce a stilted style:

Two athletes
Are dancing in the cathedral
Of the wind.
A butterfly lights on the branch
Of your green voice.

“Spring Images”

By contrast, the natural enjambments and uncluttered imagery of the late poems reflect a centered intelligence and a controlled intensity of feeling:

As long as this evening lasts,
I am going to walk all through and around
The Temple of Diana.
I hope to pay my reverence to the goddess there
Whom the young Romans loved.
Though they learned her name from the dark rock
Among bearded Greeks,
It was here in the south of Gaul they found her true
To her own solitude.
For here surely the young women of Gaul
Glanced back thoughtfully over their bare
White shoulders and hurried away
Out of sight and then rose, reappearing
As vines and the pale inner hands of sycamores
In the green places.

“Entering The Temple In Nîmes”

These are among Wright's most musical lines. His measured use of consonance (dark rock, Greeks), assonance (true, solitude; away, places), alliteration, and liquid consonants (solitude, surely, Gaul, glance, thoughtfully, shoulders), played off against a simple but expressive syntax, creates an effect of strong but channeled feeling, “I can hear a small waterfall,” Wright says elsewhere, “rippling antiphonally down over / The stones of my poem.” One hears similar melodies in these masterly lines.

Wright's travels brought him to many religious shrines, pagan and Christian. Sacred places stirred his spiritual longings while also focusing his doubts. Beneath the secular surfaces of Wright's poems Richard Howard detects an “enormous spiritual yearning”; and throughout Wright's work one finds gestures of supplication, which take forms as varied as a prayer “to escape the market place,” a mock-confession to J. Edgar Hoover, and a prayer to Horace on behalf of Wright's ailing father, who “loves Italians.” But in the late poems Wright's preoccupation with prayer grows more central and more literal, as he stands before Chartres Cathedral or lights a candle for Auden in a Viennese church. Wright cannot be said to have contributed substantially to the traditions of sacred poetry or the genre of devotional verse. His poems articulate no statement of belief, nor do they define a sceptic's position. What they do define and probe is the pathos of the nonbeliever—the spiritual loneliness and thwarted fervor of the modern agnostic, who is “afraid of [his] own prayers,” does not know what to pray for, and feels that if he prays he will “lose all meaning.” Shall we gather at the river? The question is poignant in a poet who speaks idiosyncratically, though not irreverently, of the “red spider who is God,” who subscribes to no orthodoxy and shares no communal belief, but who is moved nonetheless by “the cold / Christs with their suffering faces,” the “northwest / Angel who holds in her arms / Sunlight on sunlight.”

In “Lighting a Candle for W. H. Auden,” Wright's spiritual yearnings converge with two other matters of the heart—his sense of vocation and his abiding fear of mortality. It was Auden who selected The Green Wall for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets; and in his elegy for the “large master” and “good man” who helped launch Wright's career, the poet's gratitude and respect mingle with his inchoate religious feeling:

The poet kept his promise
To the earth before he died.
He sleeps now in Kirschstetten
Some twenty miles from here.
I did not go to mourn him,
Although I could have gone
And found him among beeches.
Best to leave him alone.
Maria am Gestade,
Mary on the shore,
The loud gouge of the subway
Scuttles my silences.
If I come here to laud a
Wise shadow, I restore
The first light in my hallway,
A strange forgiving grace.

Here Wright returns to the trimeter line, which he had used resourcefully in Saint Judas. But in contrast to the Yeatsian gravity and iambic thump of his early verse (“We will not land to bear / Our will upon that house, / Nor force on any place / Our dull offensive weight”), the lines for Auden are fluent and conversational:

I happen now to be
Within his twenty miles.
Kindly as Thomas Hardy
Whose dream the towpath fills,
The poet Auden lies down
His twenty miles from here.
His perfect love is limestone,
Maria on the shore.

The relaxed colloquial voice, here and elsewhere in the late poems, evokes a mood of receptivity rather than control. Yet here, as often in these poems, an underlying anxiety troubles the poet's apparent calm. “What have I got to do,” Wright asks, “with a kind poet's death?” The question is humbling, fearful, and premonitory.

Ten years after Wright's own death, it is not yet clear how his achievement might be measured against the likes of Auden's. The verdict is not yet in. The tenor of Peter Stitt's selection of reviews and essays is largely appreciative, but among the paeans to Wright's originality, boldness, and compassion, one finds serious reservations. Writing in 1973, Paul Zweig complains that the early poems, derived from Frost and Robinson, already seem dated; and Robert Bly, Wright's staunchest ally, remarks of the first two books that Wright tends “to make his own experience more literary that it really is.” Robert Stillwell, writing of Shall We Gather at the River, finds “copying and dilettantism at their most fruitless,” as does Thom Gunn, who also objects to Wright's “deliberate avoidance of anything resembling thought.” Alan Williamson and Robert Pinsky echo Gunn's objection, Williamson noting Wright's “exclusion of complex thought and resonant music,” and Pinsky remarking that in “The Best Days” Wright fails to “close the circuit” between a repeated theme from Vergil (“optima dies prima fugit”) and the depicted scene. “What is missing,” Pinsky bluntly declares, “is thought.”

Yet these reservations are more than balanced by the praise Wright has garnered, both from academic critics and from fellow poets. Donald Hall credits Wright with having “at his best … the best ear of his generation.” James Seay, among others, values Wright's technical achievement, which showed “how the unfolding of a poetic revelation could approximate the fluid process of its own realization more closely than in a strictly ‘logical’ ordering of images and ideas after the fact of the discovery.” Henry Taylor finds, throughout Wright's poems, a “strong thread spun of compassion and technical brilliance”; and Alan Williamson, writing three years after the poet's death, remarks that Wright “probably changed the possibilities of American poetry more than any other poet of his generation except Ashbery and Ginsberg.” For Stanley Plumly, Wright is “a master whose work as a whole had redefined the emotional life available to a poem.” His “gift to us,” suggests Plumly, “is his ability to identify and identify with the sources of emotion.” And Robert Hass, having chided Wright for his solipsism, decadence, and preciosity, concludes his exemplary essay with a sentiment shared by many of Wright's admirers: “You could even say that James Wright has mentality. And he is beautiful.”

You could also say that the reputation of James Wright has survived, and many survive for decades, not on the basis of major poems but on the strength of his exquisite lyrics. Wright never regarded himself as a major poet, nor does his work reflect a large ambition. Like Bishop's Complete Poems, Above the River contains no major dramatic, narrative, or meditative poem. There is no counterpart to Roethke's North American Sequence, Stevens's Notes, Berryman's Dream Songs, or Olson's Maximus Poems. Moreover, Wright's lyric writing, for all its visionary beauty is painfully uneven. The early poems often have the density and precision of fine woodcuts—

Be glad of the green wall
You climbed across one day,
When winter stung with ice
That vacant paradise.

“A Fit Against The Country”

but as often fall victim to the period style. His experiments in “deep” imagery, however daring, require a more than usual suspension of disbelief, a willingness to listen, with rapt attention, to a “dark cricket” in the maple leaves or to the poet “crying” in his own “dark thorns.” And Wright's political and social criticism, just or unjust, rises at its best to Swiftian indignation but sinks at its worst to rhythmical whining.

What triumphs, in the end, over these limitations and imperfections is the imagistic luminosity, the melodic purity, and the emotional clarity of Wright's finest work. Those qualities are most evident in a handful of poems, early and late—“The Cold Divinities,” “Saint Judas,” “The Minneapolis Poem,” “Northern Pike,” “Beautiful Ohio,” and “A Winter Daybreak above Vence,” to name only a few. They are particularly evident in “The Journey,” the most moving of Wright's late poems, which recalls a visit to the Tuscan village of Anghiari, where wind had blown gold dust over “everything we saw, even / Some small children scampering along a road.” In the wind and the dust Wright finds an emblem for his heightened sense of beauty, his tragic resignation, and his deepest fear:

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I have found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don't worry.

The fastidious reader might quarrel with Wright's insistent repetitions, his bullying “surely.” But such complaints seem churlish in view of this poem's emotional power. Reflecting a lifetime's labor and a poet's spiritual fulfillment, these lines are at once serene and piercing.

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Wright's Lyricism,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 438-64.

[In the following essay, Scott explores Wright's lyricism, especially in the late prose poems.]

Above the River, which collects all of James Wright's poetry, coming as it does more than a decade after his death, reminds us of the stubborn persistency with which much of the poetry lasts. It is more frequently than not the case that the literary art that becomes immovably a part of the furniture of one's mind and spirit wins its place of settlement by reason of a pleasure it affords through the brilliant suasiveness with which it conducts a certain kind of argument. But this is a particular pleasure—offered, say, amongst the people of his generation by a Richard Wilbur or an Anthony Hecht—that is rarely to be come by in Wright's poetry, so greatly did he yield to that poetics of the “deep image” which he was persuaded to embrace by his friend Robert Bly.

In the late fifties and sixties when Mr. Bly was laying out his program he never revealed any real talent for theoretical formulation, and yet his various manifestos in the journal he edited (successively called The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies), though consistently marked by a windy sort of vagueness, proved to be remarkably successful in giving many young American poets of the time a sense of deliverance from the hegemony of that traditionalist formalism which had become, under the influence of the New Criticism, the reigning orthodoxy. He wanted poems “in which everything is said by image, and nothing by direct statement at all. The poem,” as he said, “is the images, images touching all the senses, uniting the world beneath and the world above.” But precision of definition regarding just what a “deep image” is was hard to come by. True, Mr. Bly registered an emphatic disapproval of the kind of Imagism classically instanced in William Carlos Williams' famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which says simply:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Indeed, he declared the poetics of Imagism, as espoused at one or another point by such figures as Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, H.D., and Williams to be an affair of mere “picturism” which was calculated only to abort the true “poem in which the image is released from imprisonment among objects.” The deep image did not, in other words, posit a mimetic norm. But, beyond the proscription of any linear discursiveness and syntactical order, this new poetic of the sixties was highly nebulous and indeterminate. Paul Breslin is surely right in suggesting its hermeticism is little more than an attribution of “an inherent significance to a recurring symbolic vocabulary” and that learning to decipher the deep-image poem is “largely a matter of initiation into that vocabulary.”

Wright's poems, for example, are filled with ants, caterpillars, sparrows, finches, spiders, cicadas, roots, wings, stones, caves, bones, roots, darkness, the wind, and the moon. And it is with such an apparatus that deep-image poets—Bly and W. S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell and Charles Simic—have tended to work. But, of course, given their mistrust of the capacity of a rational poetic discourse to render, through regularity of meter, the rhythms of the collective unconscious, their procedure tends to be that of simply juxtaposing, say, stones and bones in the hope, as Cleanth Brooks remarked some years ago, that “the steel of the first will strike a spark from the flint of the second, and thus kindle the reader's imagination. But,” as Mr. Brooks said (in The Southern Review, Summer 1965), “my metaphor actually overstates the technique, for there is nothing in this poetry so violent as the striking of sparks. What is to happen is more nearly analogous to spontaneous combustion: the poet does no more than put one substance beside the other and leave the combustion to occur, or not to occur, in the reader's imagination”—as when Galway Kinnell in The Book of Nightmares bids us

                                                            to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones.

Wright's commitment to this mystique is clearly manifest, for example, in the kind of free-associational language employed in the Phi Beta Kappa poem which he read at the College of William and Mary in December of 1969:

The long body of his dream is the beginning of a dark
Hair under an illiterate
Girl's ear.

The first meeting between James Wright and Robert Bly did not occur, however, until the summer of 1958 by which time Wright's first collection of poems, The Green Wall, had already been issued by the Yale University Press in its Series of Younger Poets, and he had also then completed the manuscript of his second volume, Saint Judas, which was to be published by the Wesleyan University Press in 1959. He had happened to come upon the first issue of The Fifties, which Mr. Bly had begun to edit from his farm in Minnesota, and, as he said in an interview with Peter Stitt in the spring of 1972, by way of response he sent Robert Bly a sixteen-page letter to which the reply was but a single sentence—“Come on out to the farm.” Wright's journeying for their first encounter into the western part of the state from Minneapolis (where he was then teaching at the University of Minnesota) marked the beginning of one of the great friendships of his life.

Now the frequently reiterated view says that it was under Robert Bly's influence that Wright forsook the metrical regularities and rhymes and quasi-metaphysical intensities of the kind of poème bien fait to the pattern of which much of the work in The Green Wall and Saint Judas had been cut, and thus a radical change in the general tonality of his work is declared to have been signalized by his book of 1963, The Branch Will Not Break. This is an assessment which over-dramatizes the sort of development that this phase of his career underwent. For already such a poem as “At the Executed Murderer's Grave” in Saint Judas, as one looks at it from the perspective of his later years, presages Wright's movement toward the “surrealism” of the deep image. At the grave of an executed Ohio rapist and murderer, George Doty, he reflects on how, when “the princes of the sea come down / To lay away their robes, to judge the earth / And its dead, and we dead stand undefended everywhere, / … My sneaking crimes”—and yours!, hypocrite lecteur!, mon semblable!, mon frère!—will be found to be inseparably entangled with Doty's. His language, though rhymed and metrically ordered, is rough-cast and craggy, and then the final strophe says:

Doty, the rapist and the murderer,
Sleeps in a ditch of fire, and cannot hear;
And where, in earth or hell's unholy peace,
Men's suicides will stop, God knows, not I.
Angels and pebbles mock me under trees.
Earth is a door I cannot even face.
Order be damned, I do not want to die,
Even to keep Belaire, Ohio, safe.
The hackles on my neck are fear, not grief.
(Open, dungeon! Open, roof of the ground!)
I hear the last sea in the Ohio grass,
Heaving a tide of gray disastrousness.
Wrinkles of winter ditch the rotted face
Of Doty, killer, imbecile, and thief:
Dirt of my flesh, defeated, underground.

In lines such as these Wright begins to forswear expositional discourse, begins to abandon logical connectives between images and to rely simply on images themselves for the conveyance of his meanings. Or, again, it is a similar bravura, in an even extremer form, that one notices in “The Quail” in The Green Wall, where he says:

The blue dusk bore feathers beyond our eyes,
Dissolved all wings as you, your hair dissolved,
Your frame of bone blown hollow as a house
Beside the path, were borne away from me
Farther than birds for whom I did not care,
Commingled with the dark complaining air.

But, of course, by the time he issued The Branch Will Not Break, as a result of his tutelage under such poets as Juan Ramón Jiménez, Jorge Guillén, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and Georg Trakl and through the influence of Robert Bly, this tendency had been greatly radicalized, though he was surely not without justification in resisting the suggestion (as he did in an interview for the Southern Humanities Review in 1970) that there is an absolute break between the idioms of The Green Wall and Saint Judas and the books that followed.

What it may be most important to remark, however, is that, for all Wright's commitment to the poetics of the deep image, his immense compassion for the poor and the unlucky and the disprized and his obsession with certain aspects of the American landscape could never allow him to elect any sort of enclosure within the infinite subjectivity of his own inwardness or to regard the external world as a mere assemblage of stimuli for poetic reverie. In the seventh of the Duino Elegies Rilke says: “Nirgends, Geliebte, wird Welt sein als innen”—“Nowhere, beloved, will be world but within.” And this, in a way, is what the poetry of W. S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell and Mark Strand and Robert Bly says: that the locus of the real is to be found not in the realm of men and beasts and mountains and stars but in that invisible world of the soul's inwardness into which it is the vocation of the poet to gather the things and creatures of the visible world. Wright, however, in his best moments is preserved from that solipsism courted by the deep-image poets in their fealty to what Hegel in his Aesthetik denominated “absolute inwardness”—and what saves him is simply the sanity of a tough, commonsensical intelligence and the deep impress upon his sensibility of certain American places and human types to which he was so anchored as never to have been able to desert them merely for the sake of descending into the depths of the psyche.

The opening passage of “At the Executed Murderer's Grave” says:

My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.
He tried to teach me kindness. I return
Only in memory now, aloof, unhurried,
To dead Ohio, where I might lie buried,
Had I not run away before my time.

That region of southern Ohio which is separated from West Virginia by the Ohio River had so deeply formed his sense of the world that the meditations recorded by the poetry rarely veer away from it for long. Indeed, this valley in which he grew up in the 1930s and early '40s, with its grimy factories and polluted air and water and with its landscape fearfully bruised and blasted by rampant strip mining, appears to have become for him the very definition of hell itself:

… the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.
And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

“My rotted Ohio, / It was only a little while ago / That I learned the meaning of your name. / The Winnebago gave you your name, Ohio, / And Ohio means beautiful river.” But today, as he reminds us in “Three Sentences for a Dead Swan” in Shall We Gather at the River (1968), the Ohio River is in fact, like William Carlos Williams' “filthy Passaic,” a thing of slops and slime “that is no tomb to / Rise from the dead / From.” So he does not find it at all surprising that “the good men who lived along that shore” in Martins Ferry, sensing that the Ohio River was dying, should (under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration) have chosen to dig a swimming pool for their families—which gives him the anecdote that is recounted in the beautiful poem in Two Citizens (1973), “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio”:

                                                                                                                        Uncle Sherman,
Uncle Willie, Uncle Emerson, and my father
Helped dig that hole in the ground.
I had seen by that time two or three
Holes in the ground,
And you know what they were.
But this one was not the usual, cheap
Economics, it was not the solitary
Scar on a poor man's face, that respectable
Hole in the ground you used to be able to buy
After you died for seventy-five dollars and
Your wages tacked for six months by the Heslop
Brothers. …
No, this hole was filled with water,
And suddenly I flung myself into the water.
All I had on was a jockstrap my brother stole
From a miserable football team.
Oh never mind, Jesus Christ, my father
And my uncles dug a hole in the ground,
No grave for once. It is going to be hard
For you to believe; when I rose from that water,
A little girl who belonged to somebody else,
A face thin and haunted appeared
Over my left shoulder, and whispered, Take care now,
Be patient, and live.

So the poetry is to be found sometimes sadly sighing and sometimes ferociously declaring that Ohio is a “dead place,” and it presents a variety of people—waifs and outcasts of one sort or another—who in diverse ways have been twisted and broken by the desolation of this midwestern backwater. But, amongst the large gallery of portraits it presents, there are many which are devoted to those who front the surrounding deadness with a quiet heroism and an unshakable decency and generosity of spirit. In, for example, the moving prose poem included in To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62,” Wright remembers his Scoutmaster back in Martins Ferry, Ralph Neal, who

… knew all about the pain of the aching stones in our twelve-year-old groins, the lava swollen halfway between our peckers and our nuts that were still green and sour as half-ripe apples two full months before the football season began. …

I think Ralph Neal loved us for our scrawniness, our acne, our fear; but mostly for his knowledge of what would probably become of us. He was not a fool. He knew he would never himself get out of that slime hole of a river valley, and maybe he didn't want to. …

Some of us wanted to get out, and some of us wanted to and didn't. …

When I think of Ralph Neal's name, I feel some kind of ice breaking open in me. … I feel a rush of long fondness for that good man Ralph Neal, that good man who knew us dreadful and utterly vulnerable little bastards better than we knew ourselves, who took care of us better than we took care of ourselves, and who loved us, I reckon, because he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American.

Or, again, in the poem entitled simply “Paul” in Two Citizens Wright recalls the days of his boyhood in Martins Ferry:

Plenty of times
I ran around in the streets in that small
Place. I didn't know what in hell
Was happening to me.
I had a pretty good idea
It was hell.

He speaks of a day when he was picked up by a man named Paul, who drove a “cracked truck.” Paul said, “Come on, / Get in, and we drove down to Brookside.” He remembers the affectionate concern that Paul expressed when he got “a speck of coal” in his eye, and he says:

You were making less than twenty dollars a week.
You drove that cracked truck down to Brookside
                    lovelier and friendlier
Than Alcaeus loving Sappho.
You wouldn't even know what I'm talking about.
I wouldn't even know what you're talking about.
By God, I know this much:
When a fine young man is true to his true love
And can face out a fine deep shock on his jaw
(That scar so low off, that true scar of love),
And when a man can stand up in the middle of America
(That brutal and savage place whom I still love),
Never mind your harangues about religion.
Anybody could pick me up out of the street
Is good to me, I would like to be good
To you, too, good man.

Repeatedly, Wright elegized the steadfast gentleness and selfless beneficence of his father:

My father toiled fifty years
At Hazel-Atlas Glass,
Caught among girders that smash the kneecaps
Of dumb honyaks.
Did he shudder with hatred in the cold shadow of grease?
Maybe. But my brother and I do know
He came home as quiet as the evening.

But, though such figures are gratefully remembered as having graced his “native country” of southern Ohio, he, even at the end of his life—in the poem “A Flower Passage” in the posthumous volume This Journey (1982)—marveled “That for some hidden reason nobody raped / To death” in Martins Ferry “The still totally unbelievable spring beauty” that Maytime brought each year.

So asperities abound when Ohio is in view, for it makes Wright think

                              of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

Its men are so enervated by their hard, dehumanizing labor as cogs of the modern industrial machine that they

                                        are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

In the logic of his symbolism Ohio stands, in short, as a figura of all those bright promises held forth by the American Dream that have been broken, and thus he faces it with a fierce kind of reproachfulness and wrath.

But crabbedness and acerbity do not define the predominating tone and spirit of Wright's poetry, as we will be reminded, for example, by the beautiful poem in The Branch Will Not Break, “Today I Was Happy, So I Made This Poem”:

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I wanted.

Or one will think of another poem in the same volume, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”—to which one ought perhaps to bring some recollection of Hawthorne's story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” which concerns a young man, Owen Warland, who, in a difficult moment of his life, falls into the habit of chasing butterflies “through the woods and fields, and along the banks of streams. … There was something truly mysterious in the intentness with which he contemplated these living playthings, as they sported on the breeze.” But his sober, industrious neighbors were not pleased. “He wasted the sunshine, as people said. …” Which is the great line that, when summoned up in memory, will enable us properly to read Wright's poem:

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Some commentators on this poem have expressed a sense of shock at the suddenness with which a tranquil bucolic reverie is interrupted by what appears to be the harshest kind of self-accusation—“I have wasted my life”—which is felt to have no organic relation to all that precedes it. But they fail to notice the playful irony with which the poet speaks in the final line. To be sure, he is speaking confessionally, but not in a spirit of self-reproach. Like William Blake, he says in effect: “Damn braces, bless relaxes.” He suggests there is a certain ultimate dimension in the life of the human spirit in which strenuousness is of no avail, that true sanity of mind is not won by grabbing at this and that—and he confesses that he has chosen to “waste” his life (sometimes in a hammock), in something like the way Hawthorne's Owen Warland “wastes the sunshine.” He confesses he has chosen such an exigent discipline as is exacted by a truly intransitive attentiveness before the things and creatures of earth—butterflies asleep on a tree, cowbells following one another into the distances of the afternoon, the droppings of last year's horses blazed up into golden stones, or a chicken hawk floating over as it looks for home.

In Wright's own sense of his development it was to the Austrian poet Georg Trakl more than to anyone else that he was most deeply indebted for the discipline of opening one's eyes, of being silent and listening and waiting patiently, as he phrased it in a brief essay on Trakl, “for the inward bodies of things to emerge, for the inward voices to whisper.” By the early sixties The Branch Will Not Break made it clearly evident that his meditations were increasingly guided by such a discipline, and nowhere to more brilliant effect than in the great poem entitled “A Blessing”:

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I should like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

It is difficult to specify what makes this poem so deeply affecting: it may be the utter surprise we are made to feel at the strange way in which, beginning as it does, it ends where it does. The opening phrase is ever so casual and matter-of-fact—“Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota.” But, then, immediately the independent clause that follows plunges us into a world of wonder and enchantment, where “Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.” And the spell instantly cast is no doubt consequent upon the radicality with which the poem jettisons anything resembling a subject-object dualism. As the speaker and his friend step over the barbed wire and enter the pasture, the purity of attention that they bestow upon these two Indian ponies is so unmenacing that the ponies, despite their shyness, walk over to them, as if bidden unto a relationship of complete reciprocity. The speaker finds “the slenderer one” nuzzling his left hand. He caresses her long ear—“delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist”—and, suddenly, he knows that, were he to step out of his body, he would “break / Into blossom”: in this moment in which the frontier line between nature and the human order is wholly transcended the spirit of the visitor literally flowers, and the poem itself becomes, as James Breslin so aptly observes, “a corridor … that opens a passageway between self and world.”

This lambent, gentle lyricism—so characteristically expressed in such a poem as “A Blessing”—is very much to the fore in Wright's late work, in To a Blossoming Pear Tree and This Journey, but it is also shaping many of the poems in Shall We Gather at the River, his book of 1968. And, there, in such a poem as “Brush Fire,” one cannot but remark how reminiscent his accent is of his early mentor, Theodore Roethke, particularly in his devotion to what Roethke called “the small things” of the world:

In this field,
Where the small animals ran from a brush fire,
It is a voice
In burned weeds, saying
I love you.
Still, when I go there,
I find only two gray stones,
And, lying between them,
A dead bird the color of slate.
It lies askew in its wings,
Its throat bent back as if at the height of some joy too great
To bear to give.
And the lights are going out
In a farmhouse, evening
Stands, in a gray frock, silent, at the far side
Of a raccoon's grave.

But in one important particular the general perspective of the poet of Shall We Gather at the River differs very considerably from that of Roethke, for Roethke's “minimalism,” his responsiveness to “littles,” to weeds and worms and moles and snails, tends to shut out of his poetry the hard, tough, concrete social realities that belong to the common experience of the daily round—whereas these are never lost sight of in Wright's book of 1968, which makes us feel that he was constantly impelled to test, as it were, “the visionary gleam” (as Wordsworth spoke of it) against the intractable circumstances of life in the workaday world. So, for example, in “Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store” the speaker recounts his experience of humiliation in the credit office of a Minneapolis department store by his inability to clear up an indebtedness:

The beautiful cashier's white face has risen once more
Behind a young manager's shoulder.
They whisper together, and stare
Straight into my face.
I feel like grabbing a stray child
Or a skinny old woman
And driving into a cellar, crouching
Under a stone bridge, praying myself sick,
Till the troops pass.
Why should he care? He goes.
I slump deeper.
In my frayed coat, I am pinned down
By debt. He nods,
Commending my flesh to the pity of the daws of God.

Or, again, a similar experience in “In Terror of Hospital Bills”:

I still have some money
To eat with, alone
And frightened, knowing how soon
I will waken a poor man.
It snows freely and freely hardens
On the lawns of my hope, my secret
Hounded and flayed. I wonder
What words to beg money with. …
Soon I am sure to become so hungry
I will have to leap barefoot through gas-fire veils of shame,
I will have to stalk timid strangers
On the whorehouse corners. …
I will learn to scent the police,
And sit or go blind, stay mute, be taken for dead
For your sake, oh my secret,
My life.

In an interview with Michael André in 1972 Wright was asked if such poems had been “taken from life,” and he said:

The one in the drunk tank [“Inscription for the Tank”] and “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” yes, that's right. I didn't have enough money to pay a hospital bill, and it's very frightening. And the one about not being able to pay my bill at, what the Hell's the name of that department store in Minneapolis? Of course, I got out of that very easily, but I realized after their fish eye that there were a lot of people who weren't going to go back as a professor at a university. As Huck Finn's father said, “He was a professor at a college.” There are plenty of people who can't do that, and I just got a flash of that, in the moment. And it's no goddam joke, to have people look at you like that.

The admission of this gritty reality into such poems as “The Minneapolis Poem,” “Gambling in Stateline, Nevada,” “The Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter,” “Willy Lyons,” and “The River Down Home” gives a special power to Shall We Gather at the River, particularly as this strain feeds and wins incorporation into a lyricism that, though not unaware of what is stained and broken and scurvy in the human actuality, can yet take wing—as in the concluding strophe of “The Minneapolis Poem”:

I want to be lifted up
By some great white bird unknown to the police,
And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden
Modest and golden as one last corn grain,
Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives
Of the unnamed poor.

Among Wright's most impressive achievements are the thirty-one “New Poems” in his Collected Poems of 1971. In one, “Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child,” he says:

The kind of poetry I want to write is
                    The poetry of a grown man.
The young poets of New York come to me with
Their mangled figures of speech,
But they have little pity
For the pure clear word.
I know something about the pure clear word,
Though I am not yet a grown man.

It was indeed “the pure clear word” of which, by this stage in his career, Wright was beginning unmistakably to be in full command. One of the most poignant of the “New Poems”—“Small Frogs Killed on the Highway”—puts us in view of what Hank Lazer has remarked (in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1983) as a central motif in the late poetry:

I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
Of the dead never moved, but many
Of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets
Across the road, tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon. They can't see,
Not yet.

Increasingly evident, “light” was for Wright an image of the Sublime: he thought of it as a figura of Glory, what eye hath not seen nor ear heard, what the tongue can stammer only brokenly but which, in its splendor, overwhelms the heart. So great is its allurement that, when little frogs on a highway at night see light, they leap at it. The pity is that the light they are facing comes from oncoming automobiles by which they will be overrun. Yet, as the poet says, were I a frog, “I would leap too.”

Theodore Roethke exclaimed: “To have the whole air! / The light, the full sun. …” One imagines Wright also wanted to exclaim, “Oh, the light! the light!” In, for example, “A Letter to Franz Wright,” one of his prose poems addressed to his son, he speaks of having visited with his second wife Annie “a place in Tuscany in late autumn” that could be reached only by a very circuitous journey. Midway, they “finally found the sign” which they needed—San Gimignano. Then they “drove up, and up, and around, and up, and around, and up again, till we found ourselves picking our way in semi-darkness. … It was almost like being in Ohio, and I felt a momentary convulsion of homesickness”:

Then we emerged on a town square, not a very large one as piazzas go, and checked in at a hotel over in the corner. The town seemed pleasant enough. We were road-weary and hungry. We stepped a few doors down the street to a trattoria for a small late meal, and went back to bed.

The next morning Annie rose first, opened the curtained doors to bright sunlight, and went out on the balcony. I thought I heard her gasp. When she came back into the room again, she looked a little pale, and said, “I don't believe it.”

San Gimignano is poised hundreds of feet in the air. The city is comparatively small, and it is perfectly formed. We felt ourselves strange in that presence, that city glittering there in the lucid Tuscan morning, like a perfectly cut little brilliant sparkling on the pinnacle of a stalagmite.

Oh, the light! the light!

Another prose poem with an Italian setting, “The Turtle Overnight,” speaks of Wright's experience one evening of watching an old turtle taking “a pleasant bath in his natural altogether”:

When it began to rain, he appeared in his accustomed place and emerged from his accustomed place and emerged from his shell as far as he could reach—feet, legs, tail, head. He seemed to enjoy the rain, the sweet-tasting rain that blew all the way across lake water to him from the mountains, the Alto Adige. … All the legendary faces of broken old age disappeared from my mind, the thickened muscles under the chins, the nostrils brutal with hatred, the murdering eyes. He filled my mind with a sweet-tasting mountain rain, his youthfulness, his modesty as he washed himself all alone, his religious face.

Then the next morning Wright from his window watches the old turtle lying in the grass below, as he lifts his face toward the sun. “It is a raising of eyebrows toward the light, an almost imperceptible turning of the chin, an ancient pleasure, an eagerness.” But after a time the turtle leaves, and Wright cannot descry even the merest “footprint in the empty grass. So much air left, so much sunlight, and still he is gone.” Thus the poem ends, with something like a sigh of wonderment at the turtle's departure. Yet, while he lingered in the grass, he, as he lifted his face upward, made a perfect example of docile and reverent acceptance of the grace and glory that indwell the world.

Or, again, in one of the most beautiful poems in This Journey, the poem which is itself entitled “The Journey,” Wright says:

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling.

Recurrently in the late poems he discloses in various ways how ineluctably he was drawn to that mysterium tremendum et fascinans which was for him imaged forth in light. So committed was he to the deep image that Wright's poetry is rarely touched by systematic ideas, and thus the trance into which he can be quickly thrown by his intoxication with the Sublime is never conceptualized in terms that would allow its formal explication. No doubt this mystical strain in his sensibility is a type of “natural supernaturalism,” but his reticence makes it difficult to measure just what his religious vision entailed; yet one often feels Wright wanted to approximate the word of the seventeenth-century poet and mystic, Thomas Traherne, that “Eternity … [is] manifest in the light of the day.” Indeed, it would appear that the unconfessed assumption underlying much of the late poetry is expressed in Traherne's Centuries:

Your enjoyment of the World is never right, till you so esteem it, that everything in it is more your treasure than a King's exchequer full of Gold and Silver. …

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father's Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. …

Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it. … The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. …

The riches of the Light are the Works of God which are the portion and inheritance of His sons, to be seen and enjoyed in Heaven and Earth, the Sea, and all that is therein: the Light and the Day, great and fathomless in use and excellency, true, necessary, freely given. …

In the last decade of his life Wright fell deeply in love with Italy, and one important meditation prompted by his various Italian experiences is in Two Citizens, “Bologna: A Poem about Gold.” He recalls the hours in Bologna he spent gazing at Raphael's St. Cecilia. His attention was chiefly captivated not by St. Cecilia, for it strikes him that, in Raphael's rendering, she is one who simply stands “in the center of a blank wall,” “Smirking” and “Adoring / Herself.” No, it is Mary Magdalene, positioned at the far right of Raphael's canvas, by whom he was most deeply stirred. She, he says, “the lowly and richest of all women eyes / Me the beholder, with a knowing sympathy.” She is, of course, said to have been a prostitute, but St. Luke's Gospel tells us her many sins were forgiven, “for she loved much” (Luke 7:47), and she became one of Jesus's most steadfast followers. She was, though “lowly … [yet] richest of all women,” and Wright says:

She may look sorry to Cecilia
The right-hand saint on the tree,
She didn't look sorry to Raphael,
I bet she didn't look sorry to Jesus,
She doesn't look sorry to me.
(Who would?)
She doesn't look sorry to me.

Indeed, in the old church in which Raphael's great canvas hangs, he is moved to address an apostrophe to his beloved Horace: “Give me this time, my first and severe / Italian, a poem about gold, / … And the heavy wine …, / The glass that so many have drunk from.” In the idiom of the poem, Mary Magdalene was herself “gold,” pure gold, and she kept a great “love / For the golden body of the earth.” But the poem is also about the “White wine of Bologna” whose actual color is golden, and in this church it is natural for a man of Protestant background, forgetting that Catholics usually receive only the eucharistic wafer at the communion rail, to think of the chalices filled with the golden wine of Bologna “that so many have drunk from” over generations. (It is a pardonable mistake of one whose nurture in southern Ohio was Baptist!) And, moreover, quite apart from its use in the Missa Fidelium, his own private enheartening by the great local wine is for him a foremost fact of his time in the city:

I have brought my bottle back home every day
To the cool cave, and come forth
Golden on the left corner
Of a cathedral's wing. …

So it makes a splendid kind of sense for Wright to conclude this poem about gold, about how much Mary “looks like only the heavy deep gold,” by exclaiming:

Mary in Bologna, sunlight I gathered all morning
And pressed in my hands all afternoon
And drank all day with my golden-breasted
Love in my arms.

Gold was Mary Magdalene, gold is the wine of Bologna which may be used not only as one species of the Christian sacrament but also as a catalyst of erotic communion (“with my golden-breasted / Love”), gold is the sunlight which is the medium of theophany—which allows the poem to assert the essential coinherence of the sacred and the profane. This vision of the unsunderable unity of nature, man, and God informs and underlies the poems in Wright's last books, To a Blossoming Pear Tree and This Journey.

Among the “New Poems” included in the Collected Poems of 1971 there is one entitled “A Secret Gratitude” in the course of which Wright says:

Man's heart is the rotten yolk of a blacksnake egg
Corroding, as it is just born, in a pile of dead
Horse dung.
I have no use for the human creature.
He subtly extracts pain awake in his own kind.
I am born one, out of an accidental hump of chemistry.
I have no use.

But the kind of sour, black sentimentality expressed here, though it frequently disfigures his earlier work, rarely appears in Shall We Gather at the River and Two Citizens. In an essay on Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd Wright said of Hardy's protagonist Gabriel Oak: “… we find Oak a man of deep and serene feeling. He is always surrounded by things which fill him with inexorable affection, and with which, at last, he becomes miraculously identified: sheep, dogs, plants, trees. …” So it tends to be with the poet of To a Blossoming Pear Tree and This Journey. True, the world sometimes appears to him to be a very imperfect place—and yet, often when least expected, he finds things to be strangely suffused with light. In “Beautiful Ohio,” the final poem of Blossoming Pear Tree, he recalls how, as a boy, he would sit on a railroad tie above a sewer main. Earlier, the remembrance of what this great pipe disgorged into the Ohio River would have occasioned a savage indictment of an industrial society's pollution of the natural environment; he now considers the noisome discharge of that sewer main to have shone with “the speed of light,” since its way of quickening the river revealed something of what is primitively marvelous in that ceaseless flux that feeds and sustains the essential dynamism of the world. Indeed, as he thinks of the 16,500 people “more or less” who dwelt in his hometown, Martins Ferry, and, as he thinks of how that sewer pipe was lit up with radiance, he says:

And the light caught there
The solid speed of their lives
In the instant of that waterfall.
I know what we call it
Most of the time.
But I have my own song for it,
And sometimes, even today,
I call it beauty.

Or, again, the glory wherewith the world is charged flames out for Wright in his late phase in even the merest insect. In “To the Cicada” (This Journey) he remembers how on an Ohio field at twilight he listened to cicadas singing:

Still, now, I hear you, singing,
A lightness beginning among the dark crevices,
In the underbark of the locust, beyond me,
The other edge of the field.
A lightness,
You begin tuning up for your time,
Twilight, that belongs to you, deeper and cooler beyond
The barbed wire of this field, even beyond
The Ohio River twenty-five miles away,
Where the Holy Rollers rage all afternoon
And all evening among the mud cracks, …
But you, lightness,
Light flesh singing lightly,
Trembling in perfect balance on the underbark,
The locust tree of the southeast, you, friendly
To whatever sings in me as it climbs and holds on
Among the damp brambles:
You, lightness,
How were you born in this place, this heavy stone
Plummeting into the stars? …
You, lightness, kindlier than my human body,
Yet somehow friendly to the music in my body. …

But nell'ultima parte del cammin di sua vita Wright swayed and vibrated not merely with cicadas and spiders and lightning bugs and moor birds and turtles, for ever so much more frequently than in his earlier years he found his human neighbors also to be vessels and conduits of grace. One thinks of the prose poem, “The Silent Angel,” in Blossoming Pear Tree which speaks of Wright's having taken a bus out of Verona and having seen a man “standing in one of the pink marble arches at the base of the great Roman Arena”:

He smiled at me, a gesture of the utmost sweetness, such as a human face can rarely manage to shine with, even a beloved face that loves you in return.

He seemed dressed like a musician, as well he might have been, emerging for a moment into the sunlight from one of the secluded and cool rehearsal chambers of the upper tiers of the Arena.

As the bus driver powered his motor and drew us slowly around the great public square, the Piazza Bra, the man in the half-golden rose shadow of the Arena kept his gaze on my face. He waved goodbye to me, his knowing eyes never leaving me as long as he could still see any of me at all, though how long that was I don't precisely know.

He raised his hand at the last moment to wave me out of Verona as kindly as he could. …

The musician had not played me a single tune, he had not sung me a single song. He just waved me as gently as he could on the way out, the way that is my own, the lost way.

I suppose I asked for it. And he did his best, I suppose. He owns that heavenly city no more than I do. He may be fallen, as I am. But from a greater height, unless I miss my guess.

Precisely such experiences in his late years lead Wright toward the deeply affecting poem, “To a Blossoming Pear Tree.” He contemplates the splendid self-sufficiency of this blooming tree which, as it stands “without trembling,” appears to be “unburdened / By anything but … [its] beautiful natural blossoms,” and the very nonchalance of its self-containment prompts him to feel that it is quite “beyond my reach”:

How I envy you.
For if you could only listen,
I would tell you something,
Something human.

Here his story of graciousness concerns an encounter he had had years earlier, when an old homosexual, ashamed and hopeless, paused on a Minneapolis street and stroked his face, declaring in his desperation that he would “pay … anything.” “Both terrified, / We slunk away, / Each in his own way dodging / The cruel darts of the cold”:

… He was so near death
He was willing to take
Any love he could get,
Even at the risk
Of some mocking policeman
Or some cute young wiseacre
Smashing his dentures,
Perhaps leading him on
To a dark place and there
Kicking him in his dead groin
Just for the fun of it.

This young tree, of course, could not “possibly / Worry or bother or care / About the ashamed, hopeless / Old man,” for it knows nothing of the terrors and desolateness that win tenancy within the human heart, but, says Wright, “the dark / Blood in my body drags me / Down with my brother.” One's neighbor, whoever he or she may be, makes an unignorable claim on one's sympathy and understanding—to disregard which is to diminish one's own selfhood.

Despite what appears to be implied by “To a Blossoming Pear Tree,” Wright does not intend to posit absolute disjunction between the human order and the natural world. A pear tree may not be able to “listen” to a story of “something human,” but this is not to say that there is no point of union or contact between nature and the human spirit—which is what “A Blessing” and “Brush Fire” and “Milkweed” and numerous other poems want very much to insist upon. One will think, for example, of the late prose poem “A Reply to Matthew Arnold” which carries an epigraph drawn from Arnold's early sonnet, “In Harmony with Nature”: “‘In harmony with Nature?’ Restless fool … Nature and man can never be fast friends.” Wright wants to say that, notwithstanding Arnold's word of denigration, he is himself just such a fool. Wright describes preparing to leave the Italian coast town of Fano, after a happy visit of five days, when he brought a “wild chive flower down from a hill pasture” and, in the manner of a farewell salute, offered it to the Adriatic—as a “fast friend”:

I am not about to claim that the sea does not care. It has its own way of receiving seeds, and today the sea may as well have a flowering one, with a poppy to float above it, and the Venetian navy underneath. Goodbye to the living place, and all I ask it to do is to stay alive.

True, many think of the sea as a place of turbulence and perishing, as (in the words of Melville's Ishmael) “a fiend to its own off-spring; worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs,” says Ahab's young probationer, “so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it.” But though there is “the Venetian navy underneath,” Wright chooses not “to claim that the sea does not care.” “It has its own way of receiving seeds,” and it “may as well have a flowering one, with a poppy to float above it.” He speaks without any abeyance of the sympathy with which he regularly approaches the things of nature.

Such a pietas almost unintermittently informs Wright's late poems. Everywhere there is “light,” and, since things “shine,” he himself shines. In “Lightning Bugs Asleep in the Afternoon” (This Journey) he remarks these “fluttering jewels,” “this little circle of insects / Common as soot, clustering on dim stone, / Together with their warm secrets.” And then he says:

I think I am going to leave them folded And sleeping in their slight gray wings. I think I am going to climb back down And open my eyes and shine.

Or, again in the prose poem “The Secret of Light” (Blossoming Pear Tree), as he sits “alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige,” he turns his face toward this beloved river and thinks: “It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige.” In the closing poem of This Journey, “A Winter Daybreak above Vence,” he is at dawn looking down at the valley below, and he hears “the startled squawk / Of a rooster” and “The gumming snarl of some grouchy dog.” The “night still hangs on,” but the break of day is coming, so that here and there things below begin to take form. He hears “a bucket rattle or something, tinny, / No other stirring behind the dim face / Of the goatherd's house,” and he imagines that the herdsman's “goats are still sleeping, dreaming. …” But then, after a time, he finds himself “On top of the sunlight”:

I turn, and somehow
Impossibly hovering in the air over everything,
The Mediterranean, nearer to the moon
Than this mountain is,
Shines. A voice clearly
Tells me to snap out of it. Galway
Mutters out of the house and up the stone stairs
To start the motor. The moon and the stars
Suddenly flicker out, and the whole mountain
Appears, pale as a shell.
Look, the sea has not fallen and broken
Our heads. How can I feel so warm
Here in the dead center of January? I can
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is
The only life I have. I get up from the stone.
My body mumbles something unseemly
And follows me. Now we are all sitting here strangely
On top of the sunlight.

To be on “top of the sunlight” is, in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi, to call all creatures by the name of brother and to declare (with Thomas Traherne) that one is “pleased with all that God hath done.” James Wright, as he matured, increasingly found the world, often in even the unlikeliest places, to be suffused with “light.”

True, anger and despondency and despair appear in Wright's poetry and he sometimes seems to have lost the Good Place, but he sees time and again to that point of vantage from which he can discern that what is ultimately called for is a resounding affirmation that ours is a dispensation “immeasurably good.” As he said in the closing poem of Two Citizens, “… I ain't much. / The one tongue I can write in / Is my Ohioan.” His lyricism was never a thing of suave, easy mellifluousness. In “Among Sunflowers,” from This Journey, he says simply: “Any creature would be a fool to take the sun lightly,” and the song Wright always wants to sing is regularly rendered in such a plainspoken parlance. So capably does it carry its freight of naked feeling that for the young in the 1960s and 70s he spoke more persuasively and movingly than did perhaps any other American poet of the time.

It is this entire career that is wonderfully brought before us by the handsomely published new edition of his poems with a moving memoir-introduction by Donald Hall. Above the River collects not only all of the poetry but also Wright's many splendid translations of work by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Jorge Guillén and Pablo Neruda and Georg Trakl and numerous others. What asks now for happy acknowledgment is the perduring strength of his legacy. Few will refuse James Wright that.

Rodney Jones (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8265

SOURCE: “The Vision of a Practical Man,” in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 216-41.

[In the following essay, a review of Wright's Complete Poems, Jones traces Wright's development as a poet, the shifting influences on his style, and the strengths and weaknesses of his poetry.]


James Wright wrote with more heart than any other North American poet of the twentieth century. His flaws were so obvious that it is hardly useful to point them out. He was capable of a sentimentality so overblown that it can only be described as heroic, and a preciousness of diction that rivals Shelley's, but in poem after poem, he dug down into the emotional extremes of the inner life, opened the veins, gathered strength from his own misery and wonder, and lifted out poems whose intense gravity did not worry their supple and often playful surfaces. His essential gifts were a remarkable literary and experiential memory and a wonderful ear for the nuances of common American speech, and he was fortunate in his acquaintances and friendships. Still, the subject of poetry did not come easily to him, and he had to labor all of his life against glibness and mannerism. The effect of that labor was a poetry of more or less constant compassion tempered by an aesthetic sense that sometimes seemed to change within a single line.

His is perhaps the poetry that most poignantly suggests the crisis of a generation of scholarly poets who struggled to escape the cult of impersonality set in motion by the criticism of Eliot. It was this criticism on which Wright cut his teeth at Kenyon College, where his classmate the novelist E. L. Doctorow said, “We didn't write poetry. We played Destruction.” It was the game that Lowell and Jarrell played in Ransom's attic, arguing all night to reduce a century of poetry to five poems, then to one. If such a seemingly innocuous game placed an admirable emphasis on the poem rather than the poet, its pressures proved lethal for many of the poets. Certainly in Wright's case we cannot separate the crisis of the poetry from the crisis of the life, for the amanuensis of his poetry was his own cultivated and irrigated sensitivity.

Now, ten years after Wright's death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and University Press of New England have cooperated to issue Above the River: The Complete Poems of James Wright. It is a particularly welcome book. Because Wright searched his entire life for an ethically responsible style and was almost miraculously receptive to the influences and applied criticism of other poets, it is difficult to glean the whole motion from any single book. Nearly thirty years later, his most acclaimed book, The Branch Will Not Break, seems symptomatic of a number of period fascinations, most notably with that hybrid of surrealistic disjunction and Chinese minimalism crafted by Robert Bly and known as the deep image. Still, Wright's extraordinary evolution from the iambic and slightly antique poems of The Green Wall, his first volume, to the poetic prose and balanced lyrics of This Journey marks the formation of a poetic temperament and character so singular that it would be unthinkable to consider our poetry without them.

The public identity of a poet, limited as it may be in the United States, often depends upon a single catchword, which, once attached to the poet, has a profound impact on how the poet is read during his lifetime. For Wright, that word was vision, a word that we associate with religious transformation and slashing apocalyptic insight. He was taken, like Saul, for one who was struck blind and then saw, and his Damascus was his discovery of Trakl, Neruda, and free verse. In fact, he wrote poetry that we should care about, as well as slight or redundant poetry, at every stage of his career. His attempt throughout was to resolve the tension between theatrical performance—what he referred to as “showing off with words”—and emotional directness, saying something of human importance that grew out of a life and partook of its vital energies.

I would not argue, however, that there was no Damascus for Wright, for each of his first four books documents no less than a change of identity. So complete and continual were these transformations that it would seem unlikely that the same man wrote these lines, published in 1957:

Nightfall, that saw the morning-glories float
Tendril and string against the crumbling wall,
Nurses him now, his skeleton for grief,
His locks for comfort curled among the leaf.

(from “On the Skeleton of a Hound”)

and these lines, published in 1963:

Mother of roots, you have not seeded
The tall ashes of loneliness
For me. Therefore,
Now I go.

(from “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium”)

and these lines, published in 1971:

This is not a poem.
This is not an apology to the Muse.
This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire
To his brother and friend.

(from “Many of our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child”)

If there is a single crisis that loomed larger than others, it coincided with the publication of the last poems in Wright's Collected Poems, which appeared in 1971 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In retrospect, it was an untimely book, partly because a good selected poems was (and is still) needed, but also because the new poems that he placed at the end of the book signal the beginning of the second part of his life and career rather than the end of the first. In effect, believing that his earlier work had been too derivative and distrusting the ear that had led him to this end, Wright began to write against his own best manner. There had been numerous aesthetic crises up to this point, but each had been resolved with the adoption of a new set of literary fathers: Robinson and Frost had been replaced by Trakl, Neruda, and Bly; Eliot by Whitman. This new crisis amounted to a purge, and it was outlined most definitively in “Many of our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child,” which he appropriately delivered to the Phi Beta Kappas of William and Mary on December 5, 1969. I know of no other poem that more directly invokes the linguistic beauty and the power of the helpless. It contains, as well, a disavowal and a promise that Wright, for the most part, kept:

All this time I've been slicking into my own words
The beautiful language of my friends.
I have to use my own, now.

This was, of course, what Wright had meant to do from the beginning; and if many of the new poems were shaky, they exhibit an integrity lacking in the earlier work. His character, as well as his intelligence, necessitated continual experimentation, and his passionate concern to write in a way that would wake up readers to their own lives militated for a continual awaking of his own psyche. In contrast to the New Critics who had been his teachers at Kenyon, his prime conviction was that the force of the individual life gave form and resonance to poetry. The mutation of his language mirrored the identity that he sought to project and, frequently, to exorcise. In the first four books, he worked toward that identity through received forms. In the latter books, he developed a sense of form and a poetics that were more distinctively his own, but because he retained both the obsessive subject matter and melancholia of the old work in the new, there is a single thread: his desire to touch what he called, in “In Shame and Humiliation,” “A man's ultimate face: / The individual bone, that burns like ice.” It was that desire, more than talent or formal ambition, that made him an indispensable poet.


His first war was with the place where he was born, Martins Ferry, Ohio, and with what it did to the people around him. For a writer, that sort of war inevitably involves another place, read about frequently in childhood, imagined continuously. It is built from words and the old dream of escape, and, historically, it has taken many forms: the English meadow, the mist-enshrouded moor, the golden city, the great American West. It is the place from which the poet looks down on the factories, mines, and brothels of a Martins Ferry, and extends the terrible judgment of heaven. And occasionally, that literary country is arrived at in the flesh of a specific earthly place. The Italy of his last poetry and prose is very much like that place, yet his presence there is haunted by Ralph Neal, Dickey Beck, Dale Headley, Hub Snodgrass, and Mike Kottelos, those friends who did not escape Martins Ferry. To abandon the first world for the second would be to violate a principle that he articulated clearly in this Twain-like sentence from “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62”:

The Vedantas illustrate the most sublime of ethical ideals by describing a saint who, having endured through a thousand lives every half-assed mistake and unendurable suffering possible to humanity from birth to death, refused at the last moment to enter Nirvana because he realized that his scruffy dog, suppurating at the nostrils and half mad with rabies, could not accompany him into perfect peace.

And we find the same refusal of salvation at the end of “To the Muse,” when he addresses Jenny, that tragically imagined local woman whom Wright paints sometimes as a prostitute, sometimes as a muse. She has drowned in the Ohio River, and he says to her:

I don't blame you, I know
The place where you lie.
I admit everything. But look at me.
How can I live without you?
Come up to me, love,
Out of the river, or I will
Come down to you.

The nature of Wright's refusal writ large is complex and bewildering. It was a denial of the Romantic Self and the validity of the imagination as escape from a tragic existence, but it was also a refutation of an aesthetic and scholarly ideal of language, and a tactic that gave him space to expand his own dream of beauty and wholeness. Set firmly in that dream was a Wordsworthian sense of a rejuvenating Nature. As late as his last book, he was capable of writing in “Caprice,” “Whenever I get tired / Of human faces, / I look for trees.” And his earlier work abounds in Nature epiphanies, the most well known occurring in the conclusion of “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” In his greatest poetry, however, he tempered the wholeness of the epiphany, the perfect salvation of the blossom, with a vision that acknowledged the larger experience by fusing the beautiful and the tragic:

Beautiful natural blossoms,
Pure delicate body,
You stand without trembling.
Little mist of fallen starlight,
Perfect, beyond my reach,
How I envy you.
For if you could only listen,
I would tell you something,
Something human.
An old man
Appeared to me once
In the unendurable snow.
He had a singe of white
Beard on his face.
He paused on a street in Minneapolis
And stroked my face.
Give it to me, he begged.
I'll pay you anything.
I flinched. Both terrified,
We slunk away,
Each in his own way dodging
The cruel darts of the cold.
Beautiful natural blossoms,
How could you possibly
Worry or bother or care
About the ashamed, hopeless
Old man? He was so near death
He was willing to take
Any love he could get,
Even at the risk
Of some mocking policeman
Or some cute young wiseacre
Smashing his dentures,
Perhaps leading him on
To a dark place and there
Kicking him in his dead groin
Just for the fun of it.
Young tree, unburdened
By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms
And dew, the dark
Blood in my body drags me
Down with my brother.

(“To a Blossoming Pear Tree”)

Like his good friend Richard Hugo, Wright knew that he wrote to the beautiful and fortunate of that ugly and brutal life down by the river, but more than Hugo, he was a native, loyal in both speech and demeanor. His work brims with victims, but it also honors many heroic acts by local people. And there is another sense, although it never comes fully to the surface, that perhaps he should have stuck it out there in hell, and not sought Nirvana. That he is absent, except on the wall of the library in Martins Ferry, occasioned as much guilt as joy, for poetry is a privilege that Wright was never entirely happy with; and, from Saint Judas to his last book, he meant to find a voice that would speak not just of his experience, but of the experience of that river valley—a voice that its citizens might in fact have understood if they had read poetry. While no poet of mid- to late century, aside from Berryman and Lowell, wrote more poems that related to history and to the art of poetry, the scholarly nature of Wright's poetry is not italicized but held within the province of the speaking voice that he referred to as his “Ohioan.”

For Wright, Minnesota, the setting of many of his best poems, was a visitation of the ghost of Martins Ferry, and Italy the idealized anti-Martins Ferry. The home of Wright's poetry consisted of his impressions of places and characters as well as the rhythms of the literature that he admired, but most significantly, it was a way of talking that exhibited allegiance. If Williams and Pound had written in an American grain, Williams had often done so ironically and Pound mockingly. Wright wrote without those psychic quotation marks and knew better than most poets the aspirations and pretensions of his immediate audience:

I gather my Aunt Agnes
Into my veins.
I could tell you,
If you have read this far,
That the nut house in Cambridge
Where Agnes is dying
Is no more Harvard
Than you could ever be.

(from “Ars Poetica: Some Recent Criticism”)

Such language evidences a fierce interior battle between high literary eloquence and the colloquial muscle of a lower class. Like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, he could not surrender either mode entirely, and much of the earlier work shows him struggling, here with the syntax of the written word, there with that of the spoken. Keenly aware that even the choice of a single word meant both welcome and denial, he proceeded by feints and ironic queries of tone, a diplomatic representative of the working class to the courtly university. The peace he finally made, for better or worse, was to frame high eloquence in his “Ohioan,” and not simply to trammel its colloquialisms into poetry, but to level its fierce epithets and preacherly rhetoric from a geographical rather than a literary place.

Certainly, that is not true in The Green Wall, for the essential attitudes of these poems are often blurred by bookish syntax and diction. They call us less to the world than to the literary ghosts pulling their strings: Hardy with his gods, Yeats with his stoic poise, Robinson with his somber characters. Such curious alloys characterize the early poetry of Merwin, Rich, Simpson, Justice, Gunn, Hall, and others—all poets who later broke with the tradition that formed their early styles. The best poems in The Green Wall (“On the Skeleton of a Hound,” “Elegy in a Firelit Room,” “Lament for my Brother on a Hayrake,” “A Song for the Middle of the Night,” “To A Fugitive,” “Morning Hymn to a Dark Girl,” and “My Grandmother's Ghost”) lack the clear speaking voice that became Wright's trademark, but are among the finest American poems written during the period.

It was in Saint Judas, his second book, that Wright claimed the first part of his true addition to our poetry, which was not simply a free-ranging lyricism, but a subversive temperament, a mood that combined the directness of Frost with a postmodern self-consciousness, so that the speaker is implicated and characterized, even by the most casual description. It was no longer a matter of language serving Poetry, but of language embodying and emphasizing personality. This was a natural progression, for the engine of Wright's poetry had always been egalitarian and compassionate, but he had not been able to shed the siren call of his early fantasy of poetical diction. In truth, this fantasy of diction was always his calling card, and throughout his work he repeats words that he revered for their magical qualities: wings, face, secret, dark, and light; the verbs rise and gather. But these are the marks of his private mythology of diction, and only occasionally abused, as in The Branch Will Not Break when the word dark is a constant affectation. There are “dark emeralds,” a “dark leaf,” “dark grass,” a “dark vine,” “dark furrows of the sea,” a “dark church,” “dark green moss,” “dark elm trees,” “dark green crevices,” a “dark cricket,” “dark wheat,” “dark rivers and leaves,” “dark thorns,” “dark faces”—not to mention a “darkening stallion” and “darkening combers of the ground.”

Such diction does not communicate to a reader so much as it works with the entire physical body of the language to charm the poet into the spell; but if the poet does not take sufficient stock of the effect of that language, then the voice is enshrouded. It may be beautiful or clever as sound, but it fails to characterize a speaker that we could care about. James Dickey, in reviewing Donald Hall's New Poets of England and America in the Spring 1958 issue of The Sewanee Review, lumped Wright together with several other poets as members of “the school of charm” and wrote that their poetry did not “reach us where we live.” The criticism stung Wright badly, and he initially planned to refute the charge in a future issue of the review, only to decide that Dickey was right. Instead, he chose to answer in a poem dedicated to Dickey, “At the Executed Murderer's Grave.” The first section bears quoting in its entirety:

My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.
He tried to teach me kindness. I return
Only in memory now, aloof, unhurried,
To dead Ohio, where I might lie buried,
Had I not run away before my time.
Ohio caught George Doty. Clean as lime,
His skull rots empty here. Dying's the best
Of all the arts men learn in a dead place.
I walked here once. I made my loud display,
Leaning for language on a dead man's voice.
Now sick of lies, I turn to face the past.
I add my easy grievance to the rest …

Much has been written about Wright's association of himself, the poet who “croon[s] his tears at fifty cents per line,” with Doty, the rapist and murderer, and most of it is academic mischief. The truer and braver association was with Whitman, who like Wright put his own name and place on the line. That was the shrewdest risk of the poem—to invoke the whole glory and guilt of the self in a literature that had, since Eliot, mainly sought to deny the self except by inference. If Wright plunged where Whitman reared, the main intention was perhaps not that dissimilar. And, if we hear more Eliot—

When all are caught with what they had to do
In fear of love, when every man stands still
By the last sea,
And the princes of the sea come down
To lay away their robes, to judge the earth
And its dead …

(from “At the Executed Murderer's Grave”)

—then Whitman had begun to exert the greater force. The tentative ironies were being transformed into lines graven with the confidence of oaths:

What can a man do that a beast cannot,
A bird, a reptile, any fiercer thing?
                    He can amaze the ground
With anger never hissed in a snake's throat
                    Or past a bitch's fang,
Though, suffocate, he cannot make a sound.

(From “In Shame and Humiliation”)

For many readers, this transformation was achieved fully in his next book. The Branch Will Not Break was, like Lowell's Life Studies, which preceded it by five years, a book engendered by two notions: first, that the poetry he had written up to that point was antiquated in manner; and second, that the posture of the speaker was too narrowly literary. Lowell initially came off better because style and subject were more obsessively integrated. Wright, in contrast, fell back too heavily on the mannerisms of his friend Robert Bly, the Spanish surrealists, the Chinese poets, and the German poets Trakl and Rilke. The weakest poems, like “Spring Images,” are marred by stuff that might have been translated directly from Breton: “Small antelopes / Fall asleep in the ashes / Of the moon.” But some of the stronger poems, which have become standard anthology pieces, are also derivative in manner.

In perhaps the best-known poem from the book, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” Wright abruptly shifts from the discourse of imagistic lyricism to the discourse of abstract flat statement in the last line:

To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

It is as though Robert Bly had rounded a corner and collided head-on with Erma Bombeck bearing ninety dollars' worth of assorted toiletries. But the shift also echoes another, that of Rilke at the end of “Archaic Torso of Apollo” when he moves his focus from stone bust to living self and writes, “You must change your life.”

Even after thirty years, the energy of the risks that Wright took electrify the act of reading and make it difficult to grapple with the calculations beneath the risks. I must admit, however, that many of the risks fail, at least for me. I cannot, for instance, believe the language at the end of “A Blessing”—another poem that has become part of the modern canon. Wright wrote of a black-and-white horse, “the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.” I liked better the skin on the old woman's cheek in the first section of Roethke's “Meditations of an Old Woman.” And the very last movement (“Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”) seems too contrived to reflect the nature of a sudden insight.

What is occasionally and irreversibly Wright's own in The Branch Will Not Break is a rhetoric that directly authenticates the confrontation of imagination and experience. In order to achieve this, he reduced the elaborate syntax of his earlier books and began to write with a simple colloquial tone that rigged his poems with a sense of immediacy:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

(“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”)

This poem and several others (“As I Step over a Puddle at the End of Winter, I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor,” “The Jewel,” and “Milkweed”) are important exceptions in this largely derivative period, for they have no peers in the crowded arena of short imagistic poems.

It is to Wright's credit that he did not turn from the rhetorical accomplishments of The Branch Will Not Break, but fused them with the strengths of Saint Judas in Shall We Gather at the River, which reflects the whole fabric of his work better than any other. The themes here are less driven by personal despair than by the social need to find kinship in the face of suffering. And the question that Wright asks of the young manager who is trying to decide whether to cash a poor man's check in “Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store”—“Why should he care?”—resonates throughout. Given a vision as bleak as Wright's, in which “Chippewa young men / Stab one another shrieking / Jesus Christ,” why should anyone care? And yet Shall We Gather at the River, true to its title, is a book that revolves around the ghost of the Christian ideas of communion and rebirth.

The subject of the book is depression, in both the personal and economic sense, and yet it is also the book in which Wright began to see the liberating possibilities of absurdity and to trim his vision in order to accommodate laughter and the short attention span of modern belief. Wright's “vision” is often a “joke,” but it is sweet-humored and never used as a mark of identification with any literary gang. What charms us in poems like “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned” is that thoroughly “adult” subject confronted by a sensibility that retains a childish wonder and lightness. Wright only asks us to believe for a brief moment that “in early evening … the women / Poured down the long street to the river / And into the river.” Then he questions the fantasy: “I do not know how it was / They could drown every evening. / What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore, / Drying their wings?” Wright's work abounds in such brief, explosive visions, which sparkle like electric shorts, and then are grounded:

For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.
And nobody would commit suicide only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

The poet who asks the reader to believe as much as Wright does—and there are very few, if any, in this century—must counter the extreme emotion or the image that defies gravity with a realism of speech; for if we believe the authenticity of the language enough, if it possesses those practical attributes that characterize a speaker who can be trusted, we lend credence to the world that the language builds. Two of the finest poems in Shall We Gather at the River, “Inscription for the Tank” and “To the Muse,” leave us on initial readings with a sense of disbelief, yet already they have entered into our nervous systems and done their work. It is the extreme emotion that surprises us at the beginning of “Inscription for the Tank”: “My life was never so precious / To me as now.” With such a gesture, Wright required his readers to suspend belief in artifice itself and accept the poem as a mood of such primal force as not to be denied by intelligence. In “To the Muse,” he asked readers to believe even more: first, to consider the existence of such a questionable figure as the muse; second, to believe in an unheard-of operation and a contraption that would bring the dead back to life:

It's awkward a while. Still, it lets you
Walk about on tiptoe if you don't
Jiggle the needle.
It might stab your heart, you see.
The blade hangs in your lung and the tube
Keeps it draining.

If we are befuddled, it is an emotional rather than an intellectual confusion, for Wright walks that fine line between images that belong in an absurd joke and his essential sympathy for the dead woman, and keeps a straight face as he ups the ante:

I wish to God I had made this world, this scurvy
And disastrous place. I
Didn't, I can't bear it
Either, I don't blame you, sleeping down there
Face down in the unbelievable silk of spring,
Muse of black sand,

Wright's emotional territory might be defined clearly if we could graft the absurdity of a Kafka onto the pathos of a Keats. His poems defy the label “black humor” because they typically resolve with compassion rather than humor, but it is essential that readers of Wright get the joke, for it was the flavor that his early compassion needed, the laughter that makes the compassion of his later work heroic. At first, his tendency was to deny any asymmetry that broke the surface spell of his language, for he was and remained essentially a poet who aspired to a lyricism that would crystallize many instances into one song; but as he continued to write, he developed a counterpoise, a check for the excess of fluency that denied his tragic sense. When the realism of language, the compassion, and the humor come together, the result magnifies Stevens's conception of poetry as “a clear statement of mixed emotions,” for its achievement is to mix not only the emotions, but also the levels of discourse, and to confront the reader with an intimacy that threatens but does not destroy the lyrical spell:

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can't imagine and a pain
I don't know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,
For the little movements that we knew the crawdads were making under
For the right-hand wrist of my cousin who is a policeman.
We prayed for the game warden's blindness.
We prayed for the road home.
We ate the fish.
There must be something very beautiful in my body,
I am so happy.

(“Northern Pike”)


And yet it seems important to cross-examine James Wright's compassion in order to understand his later greatness, for while he writes about others frequently, it is difficult to find in his entire work a single character drawn with any real psychological depth. For the main part, others are observed or encountered briefly, and often they are simplified to represent a single human virtue or sin or to redeem a fragment of the lost past. His hoboes and homeless drifters seem emblems of some Christian hope gone sour or shills for the good Samaritan. Sometimes, as in the case of Jenny, the muse/prostitute/tragic love of the middle poems, the characters are tragic and mythically secret. His high regard for the secret is classically Appalachian, as is his habit of seeing others in terms of anecdotes. In a sense, his characters work less as harbingers of an actual world than as muses, fuel and foundry for the intense brooding that fired his lyrical imagination and powers.

Paradoxically, to read any of the later Wright is to experience palpably a multiple presence, a company that is well known. The definitive presence is Annie, his wife, and Wright writes less of her than from the experience of her companionship. At the same time, the language of the later poems is more inclusive, so that a single poem may refer to and “quote” the nuances of numerous speakers and emotional states without losing the conviction and timing of a single character. The large sentence, which had throttled the qualities of human speech in his earliest work, becomes the nest in which he gathers the slips and shreds of many different voices and literary styles and accomplishes community. This ability made him master of the short poetic prose pieces that distinguish his later work. A single stretch from “The Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle” shows him patching together evangelical rhetoric, English Romantic poetry, and the pioneering colloquialisms favored by the Southwestern Humorists:

Just as the Reverend Doctor Sunday was admonishing the congregation in congress assembled with his customary warning that they warn't no virtue in the clinking of shekels, a wicked sound; just as the Reverend Doctor was in full oratorical blossoming cry in praise of each silken soft certain rustle of one twenty-dollar bill against another in the wicker collection plate; just as the former semi-professional baseball player of the Lord God Almighty Lord of Hosts was advising how as “Bruthern, a twenty don't take up no more room in that plate than a wun”—it happened.

One of Doctor Sunday's locally hired ushers glided to the minister's side and with ghostly discretion reported to the evangelical ear that the cops from Pittsburgh had just left Weirton, West Virginia, and were hurtling down the West Virginia Route 40 in their Prohibition-style armored Cord cars, bound to catch Homer Rhodheaver in full song. He was wanted in Pittsburgh on a paternity charge.

The single attribute that this multiple presence depends upon is timing, and not just our usual sense of comedic or dramatic timing, which relies on a reader being caught off-guard, but the timing that Yeats referred to in “Adam's Curse” when he wrote that a line of poetry must seem “a moment's thought.” Wright frequently invokes both sorts of timing, as here in “The Secret of Light”:

Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.

While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose from her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. …

The overriding quality of the later work, however, has not to do with timing, but the more intimate and revealing aspect of temperament, for the engagement in the moment involves not just the cold eye and mindful language, but the emotion of the speaker as well. Often in the prose pieces, Wright sets the poem in a single scene and appears to write the poem on the spot, much as an impressionist painter would create a landscape. There is a delight and patience, even a frivolity. Clearly, Wright relishes the moment as much as he relishes the lyrical discoveries in his descriptive sentences, and the prose sentence—though who could call it prose?—seems to provide at least as much of a vacation for Wright as Italy. The impressionism that matters, however, is less concerned with scene than a projection of temperament and character. In this sense, he shares much with Plath and Roethke, though by definition, temperament cannot be borrowed, and in Wright's case, it could not be faked. The aesthetic distance is diminished, so we can sense the metal of the poems glowing and cooling before our eyes. And because one of Wright's most significant additions to our poetry is temperament, we should look closely at the poems in Two Citizens. It is Wright's most hot-tempered book, and everywhere it displays his prime virtues. There is a sense too—too often missing in our poetry—that the language cannot be taken back.

The moments of rage are highlighted, often at the ends of poems: “Ah, you bastards, / / How I hate you” in “Ars Poetica: Some Recent Criticism”; “You son of a bitch, / … I'll kill you” at the end of “Ohio Valley Swains”; “Damn your own son / And leave us go” in “Son of Judas,” where perhaps the sharpest edge is leveled midway through:

I was perfectly willing to accept your world,
Where Mark Hanna and every other plant
Gatherer of the grain and gouging son
Of a God whonks his doodle in the
United States government of his hand.

These extremes of rage are balanced by emphatic admissions of tenderness in other poems: “I have loved you all this time, / And didn't even know / I am alive” at the end of “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio”; “My loving teacher, whom I love, / It is almost too late to live” at the end of “In Memory of Charles Coffin”; “I love you best” at the end of “On the Liberation of Woman.” If there is more gentleness than rage, then rage is the spice that makes the mixture palatable. At the same time, I believe that Wright was only occasionally able to locate his anger definitively in the political sphere, for his extreme commitment to the individual lyrical stance denied him access. He does not name, for instance, Richard Nixon, or confront directly the carnage in Vietnam. The ostensible sources of his rage are instead events of specific cruelty on the part of his countrymen: young boys who stone a goat (“Ars Poetica: Some Recent Criticism”), young men who assault a woman (“Ohio Valley Swains”), an instance of racism (“Prayer to the Good Poet”), the insensitivity of a coal baron (“Son of Judas”).

The outward theme of Two Citizens is the resolution of Wright's anger and disappointment in the United States in a tenderness that he simultaneously expresses both for Annie and for Italy. Both had become his sanctuaries, the points of meditation that grounded his poems in a private and literary history and an immediate situation. But if the fulcrum had shifted from the Ohio River to the Adige and from Jenny to Annie, the weight to be lifted remained the validity of one life. His work now was to integrate the layers—Martins Ferry, Minneapolis, New York City, and Italy—into a single vision and to speak his poems in a way that would encompass both the vernacular and the formal. To do so, Wright invoked Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the poet of laziness and clarity, but he connected Horace to his father, who “knew, after all, how to love Italians. / Others said dagoes.” Such pragmatism is the keystone of Wright's vision, and one of the primary markers of that distance between Wright's introverted life and his extroverted poetry.

A common American folk legend has it that the antidote for snakebite is always to be found within a few feet of the place where the snake strikes. While that belief has never allowed me to walk with sanguine assurance through the blackberry patches, I have often equated it with the abrupt yet suavely confidential shifts in Wright's poetry, which often reverse a stance or effect that seem to be just on the verge of poisoning a poem. The “ashamed, hopeless / Old man” of “To a Blossoming Pear Tree” corrects the tonal extreme of the “Beautiful natural blossoms” that begin the poem. In one of Wright's most underrated poems from Two Citizens, “To You, Out There (Mars? Jupiter?),” when he addresses an extraterrestrial, he uses the language of Romanticism—“I believe I can appreciate the nobility of your dreams”—but grounds that tone when he writes of earthlings, “They are not all dining dreamily over minced hirsute puppy / And moo moo gai pan.” Then there is this surprising move:

They are standing for hours in a line, huddling
Alone in the griped cold, hopelessly longing
To pray to someone whose name
Is Streisand.

The slightly arch prayerfulness is salvaged by the contemporary name. And Wright is just as apt to salvage an utterly contemporary stance with the name of a master of the past, Horace or Giotto. If his poetry is threatened by rustic American imagery, he is likely to counter that with an urbane image or stance; and when his latter poems are threatened by the touristy images of Italy, he comes through with an Ohio aphorism. Though the poems are typically short, they rely on plot devices that are more frequently the property of the novelist. Not the least of these devices is one of the oldest: the ubiquitous promise to reveal in the near future a valuable secret.

If this thoroughly practical, savvy side of Wright has been written about less than his voice or vision, it is essential to an understanding of both the aggressiveness and insecurity of his imagination, for the emotional and stylistic risks on one side demanded exceptional control on the other. This is why his poems abound in comebacks, in sudden turns and desperate leaps. Granted, sometimes the leaps are playful, a skipping from stone to stone, but nearly always there is a sense of heightened attention, as we detect the proximity of the verge and the abyss. Frequently, it is as though Wright is shifting from one side of the brain to the other—the most torpid emotion indulging its own practical analysis, or vice versa. In To a Blossoming Pear Tree, he is at the apex of his transformative powers. In one of that volume's strongest poems, “Written on a Big Cheap Postcard from Verona,” he wrote:

I can buy this romantical junk for fifty lire
And send vulgarity home. Romeo, Giulietta,
How do you survive? Not even Shakespeare
Could kill you once and for all, lavishing
So much clear genius on his fierce cold play:
First, his thugs on the streets, held back
From cutting each other's throats only
By threats of a flat thwack on the skull;
Then families hating each other,
The trysts after dark,
One pointless murder after another,
The questionable marriage the world
Would have hushed up and broken anyway.
And the absolutely final death, ridiculous,
Brutal, a cheap loss, a death cruel
And stupid as yours or mine.

The patient and pointed deduction sets a tone of scholarly pragmatism, and yet the poet has earned a more intimate tone:

What chance do we have?
We are nothing but a poet's dream
Of lovers who chose to live.
Not a chance.
Oh, I know:
I know, I know, I know,
How can I forget?
This world is a mess,
A sinking menace of loveliness and danger.
Fumbling to touch hands in the dark,
Their hands fluttered into flames.
I know, and yet—
Just mention their names
To any stranger,
Anyone at all.
He will recall,
Not the strange menace of their loveliness,
But only the lovers.

Like much of Wright's poetry, To a Blossoming Pear Tree mixes complaint and homage, but its poems are driven less by moodiness and personal desperation than by gratitude and delight. The gait of his sentence becomes more a canter than a gallop, and the anger that characterized Two Citizens relaxes as he simultaneously seems to accept the tragic state of humankind and his own poetic limitations. When he does write in lines, the line endings are less emphatic, and the meter, which sometimes gave a jagged Lowellian effect in earlier poems, is subdued. Still, these are among Wright's most aesthetically compelling poems. The first few lines of “The First Days” typify his formal concerns:

The first thing I saw in the morning
Was a huge golden bee ploughing
His burly right shoulder into the belly
Of a sleek yellow pear
Low on a bough.

It is a gentle drifting of syllables, haunting repetition, tripping the wires of assonance and consonance, but never ringing the bell or beating the drum. And it is also present when he is not writing into that natural landscape that provides the ideal nomenclature for the usual heath-and-junkyard lyricist. Witness the off-rhymes and alliteration at the beginning of “Hook”:

I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and dead snow.

It is the glue of those “n” sounds and the pallet that he lays for the word trouble that mark his formal signature, which several critics, notably Hugh Kenner, either ignored or did not appreciate in their reviews of the book.

After The Branch Will Not Break, Wright was accosted by critics calling for his return to the iambic verse of the first two books, though he was just as frequently defended by those who pointed to the occasional even-metered or rhyming poem in the later work as evidence of his continuing formal mastery. Such concerns seem to me to be fussily pedantic, and understandably, such attention bothered Wright, for his interests as a poet were ever defined by the possibilities of musical attention, which included both dissonance and assonance. Nearly always, when he abandoned strict measure, he compensated in some other way, often with alliteration, often with a sophisticated use of variable measure. He was acutely attuned to the contrast between a traditionally musical subject and a dissonant form, but his primary impetus was the pleasure involved in creating a language of originality, beauty, and simplicity which threatened but did not subvert its colloquial base.

It is that pleasure of composition that distinguishes This Journey, the manuscript he delivered to Donald Hall from his deathbed. Such pleasure did not mask the intense meditation on mortality, but it colored his sense of personal tragedy with an enduring aesthetic, and allowed him to write several of his most perfectly realized poems. Yet it is also clear to me that This Journey could have used some judicious editing. There are poems such as “Come, Look Quietly,” “Sheep in the Rain,” “Dawn near an Old Battlefield, in a Time of Peace,” “In Memory of the Ottomans,” “Time,” and “At the End of Sirmione,” which I believe Wright would have removed from the manuscript had he lived longer, and there are numerous other poems that seem promising if essentially fragmentary. Strangely, these imperfections may work for our aesthetic sense of the whole book, for This Journey contains mostly poems about the moment of a single day; and because some of the seams show, the impression of fugitive thought is fortified.

These last poems teem with mutable ruins and immutable life, and so they seem, like the turtles and lizards that Wright loved, both ancient from inception and immediately at home in their environment. The finest of them seem to me to be “The Turtle Overnight,” “The Journey,” “To the Cicada,” “Lightning Bugs Asleep in the Afternoon,” “With the Gift of an Alabaster Tortoise,” “Entering the Kingdom of the Moray Eel,” and “Your Name in Arezzo.” Perhaps the definitive lyrical moment in all of Wright's work occurs in “The Journey,” when he suddenly focuses on a spider who ventures forth on its bedraggled and dust-ridden web:

And then she stepped into the center of air
Slender and fastidious, the golden hair
Of daylight along her shoulders, she poised there,
While ruins crumbled on every side of her.
Free of the dust, as though a moment before
She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.

Such a passage marks the fruition of Wright's search for that moment of language which would crystallize the immediate perception and the long-range vision. Certainly, that kind of moment is akin to both the marvelous possibility sought by the surrealists and the Romantic epiphany, but in Wright's case it was focused, casually courted, and thoroughly beholden to the facts of a natural world. Though he longed for the transforming lie, the lyrical palace, he was bound to the practical truths, the limitations of character and place, and firmly committed to a craft that reflected the practical nature of human intercourse.

Finally, perhaps, Wright should be remembered as one of our finest poets of description, for he has no peers in his ability to infuse description with the character of an individual and the heritage of vision. His best poems are so intimately exact and so loving in their intonation as to have no precedents in our poetry. A slimmer volume would show this central accomplishment more clearly than Above the River, while a thicker volume, including many poems that Wright published in magazines but had not seen fit to collect in published books, would be more useful to scholars, but this volume represents a compromise that I believe Wright would approve. At last, he had little hope for the endurance of his own or any art, but how elegantly is that hope stenciled:

Five years ago I gouged it after dark
Against a little crippled olive's bark.
Somebody there, four, three, two years since then
Scattered the olives back to earth again.
Last summer in the afternoon I took
One tine, and hollowed out your name in rock,
A little one someone had left behind
The Duomo at the mercy of the wind.
The wind, as always sensitive to prayer,
Listened to mine, and left my pebble there,
Lifted your glistening name to some great height
And polished it to nothing overnight.
If the old olive wind will not receive
A name from me, even a name I love,
Fragile among Italian silences,
Your name, your pilgrim following cypresses,
I leave it to the sunlight, like the one
Landor the master left his voice upon.

(“Your Name in Arezzo”)

George Yatchisin (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8524

SOURCE: “A Listening to Walt Whitman and James Wright,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Spring, 1992, pp. 175-95.

[In the following essay, Yatchisin shows how Wright's study of Walt Whitman's poetry contributed to the development of his own.]

James Wright's essay, “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman,” published in 1962, might have saved Wright's poetic career. The four years between his books Saint Judas (1959) and The Branch Will Not Break (1963) were clearly tumultuous ones; Wright has said in a 1972 interview that “a certain kind of poetry had come to an end, and I thought that I would stop writing completely.”1 Nowhere does he record an “A-ha!” experience while reading Leaves of Grass. But the “Delicacy” essay might be a hint that Whitman helped him find a new turning in his verse.2 The essay breaks into four parts: Wright discusses the three types of delicacy—music, diction, form—he finds in Whitman, and ends by discussing contemporary poets open to Whitman (the Spanish, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Louis Simpson, David Ignatow).

But the essay digresses almost immediately when Wright spends three pages illuminating Whitman's own relationship to the past. Here Wright justifies the essay's existence, claiming, “And the most difficultly courageous way of asserting the shape and meaning of one's own poetry and one's own life [always these two together in Wright, and clearly one of the reasons he values Whitman so] is to challenge and surpass those very traditions and masters whom one can honestly respect” (Prose, 5).

This essay's relationship to the past, then, is to read Wright in one hand and Whitman in the other; to learn the lessons Wright learned, and expand on the challenges he found in his master Whitman. An essay such as this one becomes necessary because Wright took delicacy very seriously, and therefore his essay is more suggestive than full: Wright seems eager to nudge us towards a poem or two of Whitman's and have us discover on our own. Wright, when lauding the famous line from “Song of Myself,” “I was the man, I suffered, I was there,” characterizes it as “almost as unobtrusive as a stage-direction or perhaps a whispered aside to the reader” (Prose, 11), and in a way characterizes his own examination of Whitman—we must look hard to find what he whispers softly about.

To complete Wright's essay, it becomes necessary to do work many might find critically trivial; it becomes necessary to scan poetry and perform line-by-line exegesis. This essay will read through Wright's essay to test his claims and to find what he says we can find in Whitman. And to go beyond Wright's own examples, this essay will also look further into Wright's poems and prose, to see other echoes of these lessons he learned from Whitman, even if no direct correspondence is clear. Whitman was clearly one of Wright's ear-tunings. So by learning what Wright learned from Whitman, we also learn what there is to learn in Whitman.

In 1962 Wright wrote:

Whitman's poetry has a delicacy of music, of diction, of form. The word ‘delicacy’ can do without a rhetorically formal definition; but I mean it to suggest powers of restraint, clarity, and wholeness, all of which taken together embody that deep spiritual inwardness, that fertile strength, which I take to be the most beautiful power in Whitman's poetry, and the most readily available to the poetry, and indeed the civilization, of our own moment in American history.

(Prose, 4)

Beyond the Whitmanesque length of this sentence, the urgency Wright felt is clear; he's not merely worried about aesthetic rules, he's worried about civilization and history. Wright's rhetorical situation becomes crucial to understanding his essay. Wright feels he has two forces to fight, each equally ominous. First, the Beats must be beaten back,3 as must every person who ignores Whitman's own warning, quoted and italicized by Wright, “‘I do not intend this as a warrant for wildness and frantic escapades’” (quoted in Prose, 11).

Second, someone needs to jostle poets like Wright himself in his first two books, poets creating well-wrought urns like Longfellow did, Longfellow, that “‘poet of melody, courtesy, deference—poet of the mellow twilight of the past’” (quoted in Prose, 7). Wright turns the image of Whitman around, hoping to define him as “one of the roughs” who inside is as gentle as a lamb. Then, he wants us to learn from that image, to write as delicately as that lamb.

Again, while Wright's own forecasting statement for his piece prepares us for four sections, his section on the delicacy of Whitman's music begins with what seems a subsection, a look to tradition; for as Wright claims, “Whitman realizes the past has existed” (Prose, 5). It is at this point that Wright offers the notion of challenging one's poetic masters already quoted. For Whitman, such a master is Longfellow. Wright goes to great pains to establish that Whitman valued Longfellow and in what ways. Referring to Specimen Days, specifically “The Death of Longfellow” and “My Tribute to Four Poets,” Wright finds the precise point where Whitman parts Longfellow's company: “‘He strikes a splendid average, and does not sing exceptional passions, or humanity's jagged escapades. … His very anger is gentle, is at second hand’” (quoted in Prose, 7). Wright claims Whitman values the past, but feels he must “pass beyond. … [H]e tunes his verses towards those very crass and difficult subjects which Longfellow … avoided” (Prose, 7). Why such painstaking movement and scholarship? Wright wants two things, to say Whitman wasn't merely a wild-man radical desperate for a clean break from all traditions and to say Wright has a reason for such scholarship. If Whitman could learn so much from Longfellow, then how much more can Whitman teach us? As Whitman himself wrote about the Poet in the 1855 Preface, “He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet … he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson.”4

Wright's lesson may have begun even earlier than the writing of this essay. Further evidence that Whitman might have been central to Wright's movement away from rhyme and meter occurs by 1959.5 “The Morality of Poetry” appears in Saint Judas, and is headed by the epigraph, “Would you the undulation of one wave / its trick to me transfer …,”6 from none other than Walt Whitman; the poem itself is a symbolic mess in randomly rhymed iambic pentameter. Wright tries to respond to another poet (one Gerald Enscoe) whose “human images come to pray for hands / To wipe their vision clear.” Wright can't help, confused by the sea, which is both “sheer outrage” and “nothingness.” Despite seeming advice like, “Before you let a single word escape / Starve it in darkness,” the poem itself is too full of a sea that is more than a sea and birds that are more than birds, not to mention random allusions to “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” By the end Wright's mind is lost on the sea of language, and he sends us “shoreward echoes of my voice.” He knows he has failed his task and has let us, and his fellow poet, down.

Perhaps Wright's confusions stem from his desire to emulate Whitman; he might already be struggling with lessons about how to discover new rules, since Wright admits in the poem that nature “flaunts to nothingness the rules I made.” It turns out Wright's epigraph refers to Whitman honoring old rules; the lines occur in “Had I the Choice,” one of Whitman's later, shorter lyrics. To examine the poem in the way Wright will soon look at Whitman's “Reconciliation” proves rewarding. Here is the entire poem:

Had I the choice to tally greatest bards,
To limn their portraits, stately, beautiful, and emulate at will,
Homer with all his wars and warriors—Hector, Achilles, Ajax,
Or Shakespere's [sic] woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello—Tennyson's
fair ladies,
Metre or wit the best, or choice conceit to wield in perfect rhyme,
delight of singers;
These, these, O sea, all these I'd gladly barter,
Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,
Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse,
And leave its odor there.(7)

The poem seems typical of later Whitman, down to the pyramidal shape of the stanza pointed out by Sculley Bradley as the most common stanza form in Whitman.8 Yet, listening closely to lines one and eight, it's clear Whitman is writing in precise iambic pentameter. Looking at Wright's epigraph allows us to hear more: What Wright prints as two lines is actually one, line seven of the poem. But given Wright's enjambment of the line, we're left with a line of iambic pentameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter. Similarly, lines two, three, and four all begin with iambic pentameter ghosts, despite their increasing length, while line five is actually two lines of iambic pentameter, the second complete with a feminine ending, or the amphibrach Paul Fussell claims Whitman uses to “recall classical heroic hexameter”9—quite fitting considering the previous march of Homer's soldiers.

The remaining lines also tell a metrical tale. Line six, the sudden, shortened plea to the sea after the break of the poem's wave, opens with an emphatic spondee, but otherwise fails to escape the iambic pentameter trap, despite its lingering feminine ending, possibly echoing Whitman's falling hope. The last line is inevitable—iambic trimeter, the unfastened hemstitch that elsewhere in the poem always has a line to hang on to for safety.

“Had I the Choice” is rarely dragged out beside “O Captain! My Captain!” as an example of Whitman writing meter. But without meter, the poem has no meaning. It's a bitterly sad lament from a poet who knows he has had no choice—he's stuck in the tradition and can never truly capture the sea's song. Man may be free, but everywhere he is in iambs. Hearing the poem this way illuminates Wright's choice of an epigraph, for with “The Morality of Poetry” he, too, is struggling, taken out to sea by his music. Elsewhere, Wright evades the overtly judgmental tone of the poem's title in an interview: “What I meant there was that there are different kinds of forms in poetry which are possible and to try to write any of them well is a good thing. That is the morality of poetry, as far as I'm concerned” (Prose, 222). So an “A” for effort is enough.

Enough, that is, if we never give up listening. Wright doesn't, which becomes more than clear when he turns to “Reconciliation” as the poem to explore the delicacy of Whitman's music:

Listen again to Whitman's opening line: ‘Word over all, beautiful as the sky.’ The line is flawless iambic pentameter; he uses a trochaic substitution in the first foot, a hovering spondaic echo between the second and third feet, a daring and yet perfectly traditional inversion; and he successfully runs two light stresses before the final strong stress.

(Prose, 9)

Obviously, iambic pentameter soon appears everywhere by this method, just as any scansion tends to one's personal tunings.10 Yet Wright challenges us to hear, really hear, Whitman. He challenges us to be free enough to accept any laws—free verse doesn't mean no meter, or it wouldn't be very free at all.

Further examination of “Reconciliation,” which Wright quotes in its entirety, makes it clear exactly how deft Whitman the Prosodist is, and how wise Wright is to point us to this poem, even if he fails to say more about it. If, instead, we turn to what Sculley Bradley does with the poem, and move beyond his heavy-eared listening to the opening line, we encounter a sensible scansion, complete with his hovering accents (Bradley, 453)—he points out the lines' accents run, 4 (or 5), 8, 12, 6, 6, 6. It's the last three lines that interest him, how after the break of emotion and the haunting image of “the sisters Death and Night” (1881 Leaves, 321), the poem levels out:

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

As Bradley writes, “The last three lines, given to quiet, reflective reaction, are all in six stresses” (453). But as Bradley fails to write, Whitman very skillfully manipulates the caesura, so the lines sound 2/4, 5/1, 6. The poem, after all, is about war's end, about a re-Union, about the conclusion to the most frightening event—personally, philosophically, politically, morally—Whitman had to suffer. The fourth and fifth lines of the poem embody that struggle, the last the reconciliation—the line is a long gush of emotional re-integration. Line two's wish, “Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,” is enacted with the poem's end: the closing lines' music allows no separating rests, no carnage. That's as true a reconciliation as Whitman could capture.

The poem, undoubtedly one of Whitman's loveliest, argues Wright's case soundly: delicacy, indeed. Wright says, “He moved beyond the permissive variations of iambic; and he is not afraid of the new musical possibilities out there, so he brings some of them back with him” (Prose, 9). Wright's image of Whitman as an explorer intrepidly staking out poetics incognita is all the more attractive since it would appeal so to Whitman himself. The Whitman of wild abandon is killed by Wright's essay and is replaced by a poet finely tuned to all the musics that fullness and silence can give him.

Wright further validates Whitman's lessons with his own poems. For example, the title poem of To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977):

Beautiful natural blossoms,
Pure delicate body,
You stand without trembling.
Little mist of fallen starlight,
Perfect, beyond my reach,
How I envy you.
For if you could only listen,
I would tell you something,
Something human.
An old man
Appeared to me once
In the unendurable snow.
He had a singe of white
beard on his face.
He paused on a street in Minneapolis
And stroked my face.
Give it to me, he begged.
I'll pay you anything.
I flinched. Both terrified,
We slunk away,
Each in his own way dodging
The cruel darts of the cold.
Beautiful natural blossoms,
How could you possibly
worry or bother or care
About the ashamed, hopeless
Old man? He was so near death
He was willing to take
Any love he could get,
Even at the risk
Of some mocking policeman
Or some cute young wiseacre
Smashing his dentures,
Perhaps leading him on
To a dark place and there
Kicking him in his dead groin
Just for the fun of it.
Young tree, unburdened
By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms
And dew, the dark
Blood in my body drags me
Down with my brother.(11)

Shirley Clay Scott sums up Wright's dilemma here: “But in this poem he has to choose between his two loves, the beauty of the earth and the cursed of the earth, and there is no question about his choice … the imagery detaches the subject from external nature and connects man to his life and death only through the link with life and death of another man.”12

There is also the poem's music to consider. A rhythm of three has to jump out at every reader, “Beautiful natural blossoms, / Pure delicate body, / Worry or bother or care, / the ashamed hopeless / Old man.” The lines themselves, not surprisingly, tend to be built around three accents. Nonetheless, it's the three lines built around two beats—“Something human” and “We slunk away” and “and dew, the dark”—that tell our bodies the poem. Wright cleverly moves from the trochaic meter constantly associated with the tree, to the iambic movement of the narrative (the human story), to a caesura suggesting the necessary separation of any human story. Whitman's lesson about caesuras is learned well, in a poem similar to “Reconciliation”; both are about the painful recognition of how similarly we share our separation. Instead of the sisters Death and Night, Wright gives us the pear tree—inhumanly beautiful, beautifully inhuman. The slinking away and the dark and the dew are as human as anyone can get, and the music of this free verse poem (how ironic that name is in this case) drives the point home, ever so delicately. Learning to listen, we learn to write.

Clearly it's impossible to say “Reconciliation” led directly to “Pear Tree.” But the exercise of listening opens one's ears, just as Whitman himself opened the poem. Eniko Bollobas writes, “In 1855 Whitman shook the foundation of accent-and-syllable counting regularity: his ‘barbaric yawp’ counted accents, if anything, and replaced the traditional prosodic unit of the foot with higher prosodic and grammatical units, the line, the phrase, the sentence.”13 Whitman allowed for a lot; unfortunately most of his heirs wrote the prose chopped into arbitrary line lengths that Ezra Pound so detested. Yet he also led to Wright.

Robert Hass sums up the historic moment, describing the advent of balloon frame construction in housing:

It was invented by a man named George Washington Snow in the 1850s and 1860s, about the same time as Leaves of Grass. … The balloon frame … made possible a light, quick, elegant construction with great formal variability and suppleness. For better or worse. … The balloon frame, the clapboard house, the Windsor chair. American forms, and Leaves of Grass, which abandoned the mortise and tenon of meter and rhyme.14

Wright's essay wants to lead us toward the better, away from the worse. It accomplishes such teaching most slyly when Wright seems to do nothing but quote four lines from the bird's song in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” (although Wright doesn't even say which poem the stanza comes from—that's how indirect his essay can be at times). Wright says, “We need only listen” (Prose, 9), and then quotes:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

(1881 Leaves, 335)

Preceding this quote, Wright discusses how Whitman “moves beyond the permissive variations of iambic … perhaps they are the quantitative possibilities of the classical languages” (my ellipsis; Prose, 9), and thereby informs us how to read this hauntingly musical passage. Whitman's first line seems ordinary, if irregular—a trochee, an anapest, and an iamb. It's the second line that seems to resist scansion: it's either five feet or seven, but seven feet leaves us with an extra syllable that's hard to scan around.

Simply focusing on the words tells us a different metrical story, as Whitman seems to favor tri-syllabic diction in this line, to the point of echoing “arriving” at line's end (a clever way to show death is constantly approaching, constantly not quite here). If we take Wright's hint about “classical languages,” though, the line is easy to scan: we end up with an amphibrach, an amphimac, and three more amphibrachs; it's as if Whitman, and his bird announcing death, can call up some ancient poetic music all their own. The line, when heard this way, ends up dominated by unstressed syllables, and the solitary amphimac seems out-of-place, nearly forcing “round” and “world” to be heard unstressed, which only makes sense—death's song un-accents the world, particularly when death claims one as great as Lincoln. Five lines later in “Lilacs” Whitman suggests he's conscious of what he's up to when he writes, “Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet” (1881 Leaves, 335); death is so delicate she traffics in unaccented syllables. (The entire stanza has 18 stressed, and 23 unstressed syllables, a ratio traditionally closer to prose than poetry.)

Wright sums up his section on the delicacy of Whitman's music by again echoing his two fears for the future of poetry, namely “the old-world elegance of Longfellow … [and] the curtain of aimless destructiveness, which is eventually not even destructive but just trivial” (Prose, 10). Yet, learning to listen in the ways Wright offers could only show us how much Whitman escaped both fates, and how much he has to teach us.

To continue pointing out Whitman's lessons, Wright next proceeds to Whitman's diction. Somehow the essay grows more and more delicate itself; as Wright moves towards the intangibles of poetry, he leaves even more of the responsibility with us, and therefore the task of an essay such as this one grows.

What Wright claims awaits us in Whitman's diction is a great ability to be precise about the fierce without running from its power or hoping to overpower it. Wright writes, “He is able to retain his delicacy, which is a power of mind as well as a quality of kindness. … He is sensitive precisely about things that are often in themselves harsh, even brutal” (Prose, 11). Wright has in mind the Drum-Taps poems in particular, their whispering insistence on the horrors of the war.

He quotes “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown” in its entirety, but elaborates on Whitman's focus: the wounded young man's face. “He suddenly looms up out of the confusion and darkness; he has been shot in the abdomen; his face, buffaloed by shock, is ‘white as a lily’” (Prose, 13). Wright's own “buffaloed” nearly outdoes Whitman's metaphor, a metaphor which isn't unusual, Wright knows that. What amazes Wright is the triple play Whitman pulls off: he comes up with an apt metaphor, he attempts to deal with non-poetic subject matter, and he writes about personally painful experiences—“in him they become a single act of creation” (Prose, 13). That act of creation, what Wright later calls an “act of the imagination,” becomes the major issue for the rest of the essay. How can poetry help us imagine our lives? And specifically, how can poetry help us imagine the drastic end of a life?

As with “Reconciliation,” it's useful to examine “A March in the Ranks” more closely, now that Wright has pointed the way. The poem seems set in a forgotten bolgia of Dante's Inferno—pitch black, fiery light, vague forms. Whitman even comes upon the hospital out of the “heavy wood,” his own selva oscura. Whitman isn't in control of the situation of the poem; the entire direction of the army is confused, marching down the “road unknown,” which just happens to dangle off the first ten syllables of the opening line. Whitman's usual ecstatic use of participles is subverted in the third line with “retreating,” far from the “-ing” dominated awakening of the poet he celebrated in “Out of the Cradle.” At mid-poem the lad's face looms, and Whitman begins whispering with parentheses:

At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of
bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen,)
I stanch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is white
as a lily,) …

(1881 Leaves, 305)

These quiet clues hit hard. They seem as if they forced their way into the bulk of the poem, nearly daring Whitman to utter them. He does. The clauses in a way become their own poem, death's peace answering the bustle of the hospital; the lily nature's first appearance in the poem beyond the heavy wood, which isn't much more than darkness. There's also the rhyme of “temporarily” and “lily,” enough of an echo to leave us the boy a cut flower in our hands, and us inconsolable. It's clear that returning to the general rush can't help Whitman himself shake the image; he writes, “I see again the forms.” The poem brings it all back.

The poem winds to its end, like “Reconciliation,” with a kiss: “But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me.” The subject and object at the line's end are nearly one, meeting on the same side of the verb. Also, the “he me” rhyme takes us back to temporarily-lily, and another identification with death is made. The close: “Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks, / The unknown road still marching.” The darkness, now, isn't merely night. And the painful hemstitch leaves the road itself marching off, while Whitman, one may guess, is still with the lad.

At least in his thoughts, but that's what poems are about. Robert Hass, again, could be writing about both poets when writing about Wright, “What mattered to me in these poems was that their lean, clear plain language had the absolute freshness of sensibility” (Hass, 27), which is another way to say imagination. Wright himself claims, “He [Whitman] deliberately seeks in American life the occasions and persons who are central to that life; he sometimes finds them harsh and violent, as in the war; he responds to the harshness with a huge effort of the imagination: to be delicate, precise, sensitive” (Prose, 13).

Again it is worthwhile to turn to one of Wright's poems and see such imagination at work. From To A Blossoming Pear Tree comes “Hook”:

I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and dead snow.
I stood on the street corner
In Minneapolis, lashed
This way and that.
Wind rose from some pit,
Hunting me.
Another bus to St. Paul
Would arrive in three hours,
If I was lucky.
Then the young Sioux
Loomed beside me, his scars
Were just my age.
Ain't got no bus here
A long time, he said.
You got enough money
To get home on?
What did they do
To your hand? I answered.
He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.
Oh, that? he said.
I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
You take this.
Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook,
And place it,
In your freezing hand?
I took it.
It wasn't the money I needed.
But I took it.

(Tree, 58-59)

Again, it seems, a whispering. What stands out, since it stands alone, is “Gently,” the fulcrum about which the poem pivots. How might a one-word line be learned from Whitman? Like “A March in the Ranks,” “Hook” seems to fill with blur and doubling: two men with women trouble, the repeated “nothings,” the question that answers, the repetition of “I took it.” What stands out, singly, is the action, and what stands out about the action is its quality—gently (so close to delicately). The action also earns its own stanza a sentence long. Literally and syntactically, nothing in the poem means as much as “gently”—a seeing similar to a lily lost in the horror of a field hospital. Both poems are narrowings, simply by different means—Whitman fills the page to fight pain, Wright empties it. Yet neither shrugs the pain off.

As an aside, one reason for the change in line lengths is symbolized by an event that occurred just a year after Whitman's death. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his frontier thesis, and the world of the pioneers, at least according to historians, was closed. Manifest Destiny had largely been manifested. The Brooklyn Bridge replaced Whitman's ferry ten years before. The land was closing up, and the thrust of expansion had to turn elsewhere. Bollobas claims, “Naming becomes very important for Whitman, because here lies the essence of his poetic attitude: in asserting himself ‘Adamically’” (Bollobas, 68). She doesn't consider what happens when everything is named, when Adam has to share his Eden with too many others. Years later, Allen Ginsberg does, and his ode to Whitman, “A Supermarket in California,” apes Whitman's extended line, but leaves him lost in the supermarket America has become. The lengthy Whitman line turns ironic—it's too big for twentieth century writers to keep all the crap of America out. Ed Folsom writes, “Ginsberg's absorptive lines, imitating Whitman's, seem to accumulate empty or absurd images rather than the rugged, ennobling catalogs Whitman could so easily collect as he wandered the roads of America.”15

Times have changed. Wright, in his bitter, ironic “Minneapolis Poem” (how that city works as a magnet for his worst moments), writes, “The old man Walt Whitman our countryman / Is now in America our country / Dead. / But he was not buried in Minneapolis / At least” (Collected Poems, 141). The parody of Whitman's parallelism sets up equivalences between Whitman and America and leaves them both dead. Another one-word line for an inability to say more. Winning the freedom to talk also wins the freedom to be silent; the balloon-frame house gets to be both inflated and deflated. Whitman, at his largest, can embrace both. For what are the parenthetical statements of “A March in the Ranks” but his voice barely audible?

It is impossible to continue to discuss diction and music without discussing form, the topic Wright wisely saves for last. It's the word over all in poetry, encompassing music, diction, voice, anything a poem can be reduced to. Wright turns to the 1855 Preface, as many others have done,16 to quote: “‘The rhythm and uniformity of perfect poems shows the free growth of metrical laws, and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges’” (quoted in Prose, 14). Wright could also have quoted this passage: “It [American poetry] is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic … here the theme is creative and has vista … the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms” (1855 Leaves, 8; my ellipses). Here, of course, comes all the talk of Whitman's organic form, as inherited from Coleridge and the German Romantics (see Bradley, 440). Yet, what lingers in the second quote is vista—an all-encompassing sense of past, present, and future—which doesn't sound like poetry simply doing its own thing in a natural, random way.

Wright himself dodges the notion of organic form, finds it too much a label. Instead, he suggests the following about the first quote from the 1855 Preface:

It is this kind of formal growth that, I believe, gives special appropriateness to Whitman's mention of ‘shapes of chestnuts and oranges.’ These fruits do indeed have ‘shapes’—delicate shapes indeed. And they are compact, not diffuse. Their life depends on their form, which grows out of the form of blossoms, which in turn grew out of the forms of trees, which in turn grew out of the forms of seeds. If I followed the changes that overwhelmed an orange seed, I should be startled at the unexpected form of each stage of growth; but the form would be there nonetheless, however unexpected: at once undreamed-of and inevitable.

(Prose, 16)

Seed, tree, blossom, fruit. Form becomes movement; literally organic growth. Which is how Wright discusses “I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ”; yet another case where he hands us the poem, leaving us to listen:

I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday morn
I pass'd the church,
Winds of autumn, as I walk'd the woods at dusk I heard your long-stretch'd
sighs up above so mournful,
I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the
soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
Heart of my love! you too I heard murmuring low through one of the wrists
around my head,
Heard the pulse of you when all was still ringing little bells last
night under my ear.

(1881 Leaves, 110)

Five lines from a church to a lover's bed, with a walk in the woods and a night at the opera in between. Wright's clue: “A simple poem of five lines. Whitman addresses four different sounds. In these apostrophes and in his arrangement of them we can find the form of the poem” (Prose, 15). The sounds: organ, wind, tenor/soprano/quartet, heart/pulse. But there's really a fifth sound Wright doesn't give Whitman credit for—the ringing little bells. Without them, we don't wind up back in church, although a new church, a real church—that of love. (Remember, Whitman is passing by in the first line). The poem builds, too, from music by instrument to nature's music, from music by voice to the body, unvoiced. The movement towards the bed is a movement towards the self (via the other). The movement also makes the love brilliantly strong, as it climaxes a crescendo of sounds that includes nature itself and the opera Whitman so loved. And the sound—a “murmuring” that deafens the organ, the wind, the opera.

Wright, wisely, leaves such dissection to essays such as this one. Instead, he prefers to offer vague directions—“For he uses parallelism not as a device of repetition but as an occasion for development” (Prose, 15), and, “We discover the form of the poem as we read it; and we know what it is only after we have finished” (Prose, 16).

The process of poetry, of form, works as follows: “We suspect undiscovered laws of possibility—a movement not by linear connection, nor even by the co-centric circles that structure Romantic poems, but by overlapping circles whose centers are all decentered from each other. … Each metamorphosis becomes only a strand of the knot, or web of the whole poem, that vanishes in the tangle.”17 Put more poetically by D.H. Lawrence, “But there is another kind of poetry: the poetry of that which is at hand: the immediate present. In the immediate present there is no perfection, no consummation, nothing finished. The strands are all flying, quivering, intermingling into the web, the waters are shaking the moon” (quoted in Stitt, 143).

Actually, while the above quotes apply to Whitman, they were used by Richard Jackson and Peter Stitt to discuss James Wright's uses of form, uses that clearly change between his books Saint Judas and The Branch Will Not Break. Here's “Miners” from Branch:

The police are probing tonight for the bodies
Of children in the black waters
Of the suburbs.
Below the chemical riffles of the Ohio River,
Grappling hooks
Drag delicately about, between skiff hulks and sand shoals,
Until they clasp
Somewhere in a vein of Bridgeport, Ohio;
Deep in a coal hill behind Hanna's name;
Below the tipples, and dark as a drowsy woodchuck;
A man, alone,
Stumbles upon the outside locks of a grave, whispering
Oh let me in.
Many American women mount long stairs
In the shafts of houses,
Fall asleep, and emerge suddenly into tottering palaces.

(Collected Poems, 118-119)

Like “Solemn-Sweet Pipes,” four images. This time, soundless, in some ways sightless; the emphases seem to be on the search—probing, grappling, clasp, stumbles, emerge. If we take the numbering as a clue, the conclusion should be a conclusion, but it seems more like a reversal, a return to the suburbs of lost youths, a turn away from the strip-mine ravaged Ohio Valley. That's fitting, too, somehow—a progression of descent, a “mounting” of “shafts.” The poem is a continual search for our suicides—children hunted by police, the actual body-dragging, the man knocking at a grave (in another poem Wright says, “Earth is a door” [Collected Poems, 84]), the women adrift in dreams, their houses given away to palaces, tottering, yet still. It would be easy to explain the poem away. Suffice to say that Wright's web shimmies akin to Whitman's, “Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” (1881 Leaves, 450). Both poems exhibit form at its most organic, “indirect” yet full of “vista.”

Wright says, “Form in Whitman is a principle of imagination: the proliferating of images out of one unifying vision” (Prose, 17). Each poem becomes its own invention of form, a creation of “the solid and beautiful form of the future where there are now no solid forms”—of course, since the poems of the future aren't written yet. Wright himself turns testy in an interview when a non-logical jump similar to those in “Miners” (or “Sweet Pipes,” for that matter) is called a device:

Wright: It's not a device.

Michael Andre: That method.

Wright: It's just an understanding.

(Prose, 147)

The vague words tend to mount—understanding, vision, imagination, vista. But isn't poetry an attempt to name this very unnameable? “The best of the earth cannot be told anyhow” (1881 Leaves, 224). Or as David Daiches says, in a manner more full of possibility, “Whitman's cumulative method also means that his poetry is more open-worked than the kind of poetry which modern criticism is equipped to handle. Its meaning is developed lengthwise, not depthwise; words acquire new meanings by reiteration, and images take on significance by functioning in a series” (quoted in Bollobas, 98). Gay Wilson Allen describes Whitman's parallelism similarly: “He tends to build up to an emotional, if not logical, climax” (Allen, 221).

The march of parallelism allows formlessness form. It gives the poet steps to leap from, ways to peer over and through things. Whitman, as the first major English-writing practitioner of parallelism, further helps put up the balloon frame house of poetry. A poem must move.18

Wright offers “a further example of the parallel form, which is delicate and precise and therefore very powerful but which is not based on the repetition of sentence structure” (Prose, 17) when he quotes the opening six lines of Section 8 of “Song of Myself.” The growth of form here is rather evident:

The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies
with my hand.
The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy
I peeringly view them from the top.
The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol
has fallen.

(1881 Leaves, 35-36)

In typical Wright fashion, he merely quotes the passage, but his notion of form is easy to see—these lines are Whitman's version of the Sphinx's riddle, as humans go out of the cradle up the hill of life and into the pit of death in a rush.

But there is even more parallelism in this passage. The second of every pair of lines stresses Whitman as see-er, and the uglier the scene, the sooner the I of each line sees/acts. Of all the form to point to Whitman, of all the parallelism, Wright carefully selects a passage that stresses Whitman as compassionate seer. It's not surprising Wright closes up the discussion of Whitman's form with the claim, “Form in Whitman is a principle of imagination; the proliferating of images out of one unifying vision” (Prose, 17).

Unfortunately, critics tend to label Wright's organic form (learned via Whitman) as a type of surrealism, that miserably abused word. Wright replies, in response to a query about “Miners” and surrealism: “It's influenced by surrealism. I don't think the poem itself is surrealistic. I think it's extremely formal, very traditional. The images are all parallel to one another. It's as formal as the end of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I don't mean it's as good” (Prose, 181). The only tradition he can be referring to is Whitman's. The reference to Lincoln is possible circumstantial evidence that Whitman is on Wright's mind. The mention of the Gettysburg Address also reminds us where we most tend to see parallelism—in prose. Bollobas writes, “The prosodic avant-gardism of Whitman is characterized by an overt preference for the ‘devices’ of ordinary and oratorical language, by bringing speech-strategies into the text, and by substituting prose rhetoric for traditional poetic artifice” (71).

So when Wright's essay turns to Spanish writers, he's not after surrealism at all, but Whitman's ghost, filtering it through the Spanish poets he claims share with Whitman “the belief in the imagination as the highest flowering of human life” (Prose, 19). As mentioned earlier, Wright translated more and more from the Spanish during the 1960s: Cesar Vallejo in 1963, Jorge Guillen in 1965, Pablo Neruda in 1967. And in Wright's Collected Poems, a selection of translations are placed between Saint Judas and The Branch Will Not Break. It seems that during this period Wright could not escape Whitman and his “enormously courageous willingness to leap from one image into the unknown, in sheer faith that the next image will appear in the imagination” (Prose, 19). What more is poetry than imagination bridled to form?

For one last look at the delicacy of form in both poets, it's worthwhile to turn away from Wright's essay and look at two poems written 109 years apart. The surface matter is the same, but that's nearly all. The first section of Whitman's:


Of olden times, when it came to pass
That the beautiful god, Jesus, should finish his work on earth,
Then went Judas and sold the divine youth,
And took pay for his body.
Curs'd was the deed, even before the sweat of the clutching
hand grew dry;
And darkness frowned upon the seller of the like of God,
Where, as though earth lifted her breast as though to throw him from
her, and heaven refused him,
He hung in the air self-slaughter'd.
The cycles, with their long shadows, have stall'd silently foreward,
Since those ancient days—many a pouch enwrapping meanwhile
Its fee, like that paid for the son of Mary.
And still goes one, saying,
“What will ye give me, and I will deliver this man unto you?”
And they make the covenant, and pay the pieces of silver.(19)

The whole of Wright's:


When I went out to kill myself I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.
Banished from heaven I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

(Collected Poems, 84-85)

Two very different poems. One sprawling, enjambed. The other enjambed, yet iambic pentameter. One public, raging, issue-driven. The other private, pitying, reflective. Walt Whitman wrote “Blood Money” in 1850, on the way to his invention of free verse, to the 1855 Leaves of Grass where that free verse would help him claim, “What is commonest and cheapest and nearest is Me” (1855 Leaves, 36). It is unclear what happened to Whitman to bring about such a change in five years, but that issue is beyond this essay's scope.

James Wright wrote “Saint Judas” in 1959. Ignoring the Petrarchan sonnet form, the sentiment surely sounds like Whitman, ever eager to embrace all, even the prostitute. (Why “Blood Money” seems unlike Whitman we'll get to.) When Robert Hass describes Wright's work as “a dream of transcendence and a dream of community” (Hass, 33), he might be glossing all of Whitman. But the iambic pentameter doesn't seem to connect—Wright and Whitman might seem poets of the same mind, not the same body.

Yet “Saint Judas” betrays itself. As with any good poem, form and content must merge. The regularity of Wright's iambic pentameter doesn't really break down until the sestet; he ignores the uni-form of the sonnet as much as Judas tries to ignore the uniforms. The feminine endings of “beaten” and “eaten” suggest the fall. The violence of “Stripped, kneed and left to cry. Dropping my rope” wrenches the metrics of the line with an initial spondee and fourth foot trochee. The off-rhyme of “uniforms” and “arms” aches with the distance Judas wants to achieve from the soldiers, the distance he feels from the beaten man. The run of three unaccented final syllables before the final accent empties the poem out, leaves us holding the nothing of man.

What Wright learns is he can't have his Judas and hang him, too, not in a sonnet. Wright has to defy the form to discover Judas, to say what he claims he was after in the poem: “You would think he'd be a completely cold person. And yet he couldn't have been to experience such complete despair” (Prose, 166).

As for “Blood-Money,” it's not a poem about discovery, for Whitman hasn't learned how to discover yet. It's message-driven, and a message has no room for the imagination (that's not to say imagination cannot have room for a message). The form is received: cant and rant. The same is true for the two earliest poems in the Deathbed Leaves of Grass, “A Boston Ballad” (1854) and “Europe” (1850): poems with too much to say not to be essays in a poem's clothing. All three are incredibly political, embittered about the Fugitive Slave Law, angered over the trial of a fugitive slave, and excited by the revolutions of 1848. Whitman's preconceived ideas lead him to received forms, instead of a searching form that catches itself saying something. As Shirley Clay Scott says about Wright, “The poem's informing power, however, derives not from knowledge or experience that existed prior to the poem, but from experience that the poem achieves with the leap from experiential order renewed by language to the ideal order created by language” (Scott, 56). Or, as Wright might simply say, “The poems aren't delicate.”

“Saint Judas” might be a fourteen line model for Wright's poetic career. He began with two quite formal books, The Green Wall (lauded by Auden, no less) and Saint Judas. The rest, however, pulled away, not composed metrically,20 but after a new form. In 1969, Richard Howard joked about the split in Wright's books, claiming he had written “two in verse and two (it is tempting to say) inversely.”21 While it is difficult to say what led Whitman away from the notion of the line he battled with in “Blood-Money” (who would expect an enjambment like, “enwrapping meanwhile / Its fee” in Whitman?), it seems clear Whitman is one of the things that happened to Wright to lead him into the sestet of “Saint Judas” and beyond. As Wright says in an interview, “Well it's strange how an influence works on one's mind. … It may take a long time for the movement of one's own emotion to come out and make sense” (Prose, 164). While Wright refuses to spell out all of the delicacy there is in Whitman, he points us in many right directions, helping us encounter Whitman anew.

To end this essay, it might be best to point to a place where Wright seems most receptive to Whitman, just in the way Wright ends his “Delicacy” essay by pointing us to poems by Bly, Levertov, Simpson, and Ignatow in which he feels Whitman lives on. “Leaving the Temple at Nimes,” the second to last poem in Wright's posthumous (a composting, almost) This Journey (1980), not only echoes Whitman's lessons, it mentions him by name. It's hard not to draw a big metaphor about a last book called This Journey written by a lover of the Singer of the Open Road, particularly when that Singer is repaid at the very end for a lifetime of debts. In the poem, Wright breaks four leaves from an ivy on a pine at the Temple of Diana, a gesture similar to Whitman's breaking a sprig of lilac for “him I love” (1881 Leaves, 328). The first two leaves are to honor Diana and the “solitary poet” Ausonius. As for the other leaves, the poem ends:

And I will send one ivy leaf, green in winter,
Home to an American girl I know.
I caught a glimpse of her once in a dream,
Shaking out her dark and adventurous hair.
She revealed only a little of her face
Through the armful of pussy willow she gathered
Alive in Spring,
Alive along the Schuylkill in Philadelphia.
She will carry this ivy leaf from Diana's pine
As she looks toward Camden, across the river,
Where Walt Whitman, the chaste wanderer
Among the live-oaks, the rain, railyards and battlefields
Lifts up his lovely face
To the moon and allows it to become
A friendly ruin.
The innocent huntress will come down after dark,
Brush the train smoke aside, and leave alone together
The old man rooted in an ugly place
And a girl with an ivy leaf revealing her face
Among fallen pussy willow.(22)

Wright has carried on the program of adhesiveness—a discovery of “lovingkindness”—by telling Whitman he need not fear becoming the live, lonely oak in Louisiana growing; he'll be broken and re-grafted, “alone together” with poets forever. Walt “the friendly ruin”: not merely stroke-crippled in Camden, Wright leaves us with “Walt Whitman, the chaste wanderer,” a delicate man who survived this journey with an armful of poetry white as a lily. Honed, bone-clean, pure.


  1. James Wright, Collected Prose, ed. Annie Wright (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 133. Hereafter Prose.

  2. Other influences, also, led Wright to his “new Form”—among them Georg Trakl, Robert Bly, Robert Penn Warren, and translations of numerous Spanish writers (themselves influenced, as Wright notes, by Whitman).

  3. Wright later admitted he was wrong about much of the Beat movement, and he grew to respect the work of Corman, Snyder, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti in particular (see Prose, 142-143).

  4. Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Penguin, 1959), 12. Hereafter “1855 Leaves.

  5. In fact, near the end of the “Delicacy” essay, Wright heralds the Malcolm Cowley reprinting of the first edition of Leaves as the best poetry book of 1959.

  6. James Wright, Collected Poems (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 60-61.

  7. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, ed. Harold Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: New York University Press, 1965), 514. Hereafter “1881 Leaves.

  8. Sculley Bradley, “The Fundamental Metrical Principle in Whitman's Poetry,” American Literature 10 (January 1939), 451.

  9. Paul Fussell, “Free Verse,” Antaeus 30-31 (1978), 296-308.

  10. Sculley Bradley finds only four stresses in this first line, but he's hunting for Anglo-Saxon blood beats (see Bradley, 452).

  11. James Wright, To a Blossoming Pear Tree (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 60-61. Hereafter Tree.

  12. Shirley Clay Scott, “Surrendering the Shadow: James Wright's Poetry,” Ironwood 10 (1977), 62.

  13. Eniko Bollobas, Tradition and Innovation in American Free Verse: Whitman to Duncan (Budapest: Akademai Kiado, 1986), 14.

  14. Robert Hass, Twentieth Century Pleasures (New York: Ecco, 1984), 70-71.

  15. Ed Folsom, “Talking Back to Walt Whitman,” in Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds., Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song (Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981), xlv.

  16. See Gay Wilson Allen, The New Walt Whitman Handbook (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 210; and Bradley, 440.

  17. Richard Jackson, “The Time of the Other: James Wright's Poetry of Attachments,” Chowder Review 10-11 (1978), 134.

  18. Even Ezra Pound, bitter heir of Whitman, unwanted forefather to Wright, laments a lack of motion in poetry: “The defect of earlier imagist propaganda was not in misstatement but in incomplete statement. The diluters took the handiest and easiest meaning and thought only of the Stationary image.” See Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), 52.

  19. Whitman, Early Poems and Fiction, ed. Thomas L. Brasher (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 47-48.

  20. An overstatement, as several poems in each of Wright's books are strictly metrical, including “May Morning” in This Journey—a prose poem that is actually a perfectly rhymed and metered sonnet.

  21. Richard Howard, Alone with America (New York: Atheneum, 1980), 662.

  22. James Wright, This Journey (New York: Vintage, 1982), 85-86.

Kevin Stein (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5318

SOURCE: “‘A Dark River of Labor’: Work and Workers in James Wright's Poetry,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 6, November-December, 1993, pp. 49-54.

[In the following essay, Stein surveys the poems in which Wright confronts the industrial and economic exploitation of workers and landscape.]

Many of James Wright's early poems introduced uncommonly common subjects, populated as they were by a murderer, a prostitute, a lesbian, an escaped convict, and an occasional drunk. Even W.H. Auden, who chose Wright's The Green Wall as the Yale Series winner, couldn't help but notice Wright's affinity for chronicling the lives of “social outsiders,” those who “play no part in ruling the City” and no part in making its “history.”1 As Wright matured, beginning with the unpublished collection Amenities of Stone (1961-62) and its successor The Branch Will Not Break (1963), this attention took keener focus, often directing his eye to the “lives / Of the unnamed poor.”2

These coal miners, small farmers, housewives, and factory hands were “outsiders” largely because they lacked access to society's “ruling” circle of power and to the pen that wrote its “history.” Growing up in the mill and factory town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, Wright, of course, experienced first-hand the hard life of America's working poor. He saw the physical, emotional, and spiritual toll exacted on his father by years of labor at Hazel-Atlas Glass, where he once worked himself. Only through the grace of the G.I. Bill was Wright able to attend Kenyon College and, in effect, trade his father's factory for a factory of another sort, one where words were both tool and end product.

Wright's escape from the Ohio River Valley, and from the industrial greed that polluted it, was never complete, nor did he want it to be. His poems insistently return to the work and workers he knew in Ohio, indicting in the process a capitalistic system that devalues both. What's most striking about these poems, however, is the manner in which Wright inextricably binds his empathy for those chained to the machinery of capitalism to his own pressing guilt for having escaped that fate. Recognizing that his personal guilt has its source in larger social realities, Wright refuses to separate the private from the public self.

One goal of poetry such as Wright's is to subvert the silencing of “outsiders” that Auden, perhaps unwittingly, alludes to in his Introduction to The Green Wall. Giving voice to the voiceless fulfills James Scully's call for a “dissident poetry” that “breaks silences: speaking for, or at best with, the silenced.”3 The act of writing “history” thus takes broad sweep in Wright's poems, including not only the communal but also the personal. History becomes inclusive and embracing, drenched with the peculiar spirit of a time, its sources and its future. Wright would take quite seriously C.K. Williams's injunction that history is the proper arena for “our most profound ideas and ideals,” for it grants fundamental grounding, the means of connection to what Williams calls “concrete historical reality with its necessities and its responsibilities and demands.”4 For Wright, that meant acknowledging, as he did in an interview with Dave Smith, the unsettling truth about his home, a town where “people were quite shockingly separated from each other along class lines.”5 His uneasy sense of himself as risen from an underclass indisputably affected his aesthetics and, just as importantly, his attitude toward a poet's responsibility to a place and its people.

Perhaps the poem that epitomizes this merging of communal and personal, of the spirit of place and the citizens who live there is Wright's widely recognized “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” The poem is brief enough to quote in its entirety:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman at Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Characteristic of many poems in The Branch Will Not Break, “Autumn Begins” moves elliptically, almost reticently, as if the white spaces of silence paradoxically enlarge and embolden what is spoken in the poem. Returned to the scene of his youth, Wright finds himself afforded a perspective not available to the locals. Now curiously outside of the outsiders, he calls the ballplayers “their sons,” not claiming them personally as “mine” or collectively as “ours.” He comes to recognize the ritualized violence of football as an emblem of the larger competitiveness of capitalism, a system that, particularly in the mill and factory town of Martins Ferry, necessarily produces more losers than winners. Workers, driven to the refuge of “long beers” or made pallid by the “blast furnace” of their workplace, have come to realize that for them the American dream has been irreparably “ruptured.” The residue of their grinding, physically debilitating work carries over to the home front, ineffectuating even the men's relations with their wives. The wives suffer, too, both in need of their husbands' love and in empathetic love for them.6

Of course, all this has not been lost on the sons, who know as well as anyone that to dream of “heroes” in our society, whether in athletics or in business, is to dream of the wealthy. Soon to be defeated by the economics of hard labor, they partake of their own “suicidally beautiful” ritual, hoping that they, unlike their fathers, will break the cycle of repression. The boys seize football as the last chance to elude their fate—whether by earning the adulation that accompanies football heroes through adulthood, or by literally escaping the region through a college football scholarship. Wright, who watched future Cleveland Browns placekicker Lou Groza star on his own high school team, appreciated the allure of the latter and readily admitted it:

I realize that … our problem when we were boys in Martins Ferry, Ohio, in that industrial area enclosed by the foothills of the Applachians on both sides, near that big river, was to get out. It has become plain to me that football helped many people to get out. And many of these people came from desperately poor families.7

Any cautious critic would do well to question whether Wright, a former semi-pro player in the Ohio River Valley, might have exaggerated the contribution of football in particular, and sports in general, to the upward mobility of the region's youth. That critic need only turn to higher authority, none other than Sports Illustrated, to adduce the following facts.8 Martins Ferry, and its neighboring towns along the Upper Ohio River Valley, have produced an astounding number of accomplished athletes, chief among them: Phil and Joe Niekro, the winningest pitching brothers in the history of major league baseball; John Havlicek, college, Olympic, and Boston Celtics star, and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame; Bill Mazeroski, eight-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the hero of the 1960 World Series; Alex Groza, a talented basketball player whose career was ruined by his involvement with fixing games while in college; and of course, Lou Groza, third-ranking scorer in professional football history and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It's clear that while “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” may indeed chastise the prevailing economics of repression, it also subtly celebrates the communal spirit and individual will of the region's inhabitants.

“Autumn Begins” was to be included in the unpublished collection, Amenities of Stone (1961-62), the precursor to Branch which Wright withdrew from publication at Wesleyan University Press, and its theme is representative of the manuscript. In fact, of the sixty-seven poems in the March 5, 1961 version of the manuscript, at least twelve can be said to address the fate and circumstances of the working class. The titles of just a few poems make this evident: “On the Foreclosure of a Mortgage in the Suburbs,” “The American Dream,” “The Mill Field at Aetnaville, Ohio: 1960,” “Miners,” and “People Are Sick of Pretending That They Love the Boss.”9 The titles alone demonstrate that the redefinition of poetic self Wright had undertaken in Amenities necessarily involved a concomitant reexamination of his relationship to a place and its people.

What occasioned this transformation, though the source of much critical discussion, remains largely speculation. Certainly Wright had lost faith in the odd sort of ventriloquist act he had performed, to general acclaim, in The Green Wall and Saint Judas. There he spoke his poems in the voices of Frost and Robinson, but also Herrick, Donne, and his former teachers Roethke and John Crowe Ransom—none of whom, to be honest, spoke much like the folks back home. Like most young poets, Wright tried on the familiar voices of other poets as a way of finding his own. Surely his work translating Trakl, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, and others exposed him to ways of writing and thinking about poems that both startled him and vivified his own conception of what a poem might do and say, as well as what it need not do and say. Wright clearly was looking around for models, as his remarkable association with Robert Bly indicates, though he was looking less for a guru than for someone whose ideas resembled his own emerging sense of the responsibilities and possibilities of poetry.

Wright may have found someone like that in John Knoepfle, a quiet and somewhat shy poet who had collaborated with Wright and Bly in translating Vallejo, and who would later become an occasional visitor, along with Wright and John Logan, to Bly's farm. Not only was Knoepfle interested in translation, but he also had embarked on an ambitious project to record the oral histories of men who had worked as captains, mates, rousters, etc. on side and sternwheel boats on the Ohio River. From that experience, Knoepfle had begun to write what he called “river poems,” often using the men's work stories as their basis. Wright himself had seen these poems, and in a letter of April 1961, during the period of his own struggle with Amenities, Wright wrote Knoepfle, “I want to say that I have admired your translations very much, and your poetry also, particularly the group of river poems. …”10 Wright may have been referring to a group of Knoepfle's river poems published the previous month in Audit. That group included the poem “Sons of Kanawha,” whose subject is the Kanawha Valley men who worked pumps at a dam site above Cincinnati during World War I, when getting coal supplies downstream from Pittsburgh to New Orleans proved crucial to the war effort. Many of the men died of flu contracted from laboring at the pumps, indirect victims of the war, as the poem's second and third stanzas explain:

They volunteered on pumps
to dry the coffers when
Ohio's dams went up with
Wilson's war and coal
from Pittsburgh needed
good water all the way
to Cairo. No one asked
the price they paid.
There were rooms where
no doctors came when flu
soiled their sleep and
gas lamps sputtered with
lost light for their eyes,
coins for the dead. …

What's most notable about the poem is the manner in which Knoepfle weaves together the sacred trinity of Wright's own Ohio River Valley poems: work(ers), the Ohio River, and death. My point is not at all that Wright got his ideas from Knoepfle (he didn't), but that Wright surely noticed Knoepfle had studied the Valley and its workers and come to similar conclusions about the state of things in his home country. In effect, Knoepfle's poems confirmed Wright's own beliefs about the dire conditions for workers in the Ohio River Valley. Having that confirmation must have strengthened Wright's resolve to speak of this place and for these people, which, after all, were his place and his people.

Wright's own poems about work and workers, as they appear in Amenities, are bleak and imagistic, and often quite idiosyncratic in their choice of images. Most of them show an unguarded, almost shocking will to speak the truth about the life of the working class. The unpublished “People Are Sick of Pretending That They Love the Boss,” for example, closes with this stomach-churning scene:

A merchant seaman
Leans on a fire hydrant
And throws up,
The names of items on his mother's shopping list,
Over and over.

And here is the dreary, though understated, opening of “On the Foreclosure of a Mortgage in the Suburbs”: “The friends of my childhood / One after another have fallen behind / Payments / And stones.” Again Wright mingles death and need of money, and he does so with characteristic, albeit bitter, wit.

One other unpublished poem from Amenities, “The Continental Can Company at Six O'Clock,” describes—in violent and incendiary images—the dehumanizing process that eventually overwhelmed those friends who didn't get out. Handwritten, passionately scribbled on the bottom of a draft of another poem titled “Rain” (a version of which eventually appeared in Branch), the poem boldly conflates the polluted Ohio River and the area's exploited workers, implying their mutual victimization at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Here, the speaker observes workers driving away from a day's labor and witnesses a pernicious transformation:


The faces fall down the ramp into the yard
Beside the river.
Headlights roil over the water,
And the faces divide into drops of blood,
That fall over the high voltage wires of the fence
Into the river.
The water darkens to red fire.
And the blast furnaces of Benwood are lunging at the sky,
Animals blinded with anger.
Suddenly the faces flood into one dark red face.
The hood of each car is a dark sloop bearing a coffin
Toward the river.
This is October, the restless flames of dead blow torches have scarred
the wind.
Men are dying without ever knowing it.
America, America,
It is raining
In the river.(11)

Though the poem is weakened by implicit political rhetoric, its substance is surprising. The workplace itself has become bestial, a violent animal that swallows workers in the morning and spits them up, bloodied by the experience, at shift's end. Even then the workers are not free. Wright negates the stereotypic association of the work day's end with freedom and rebirth, effectively eliminating the only escape available to these workers. In fact, numbed by a day's grueling labor, they drive off to a kind of death-in-life, unaware of their fate.

Wright feared this fate for himself and mourned it for others. Donald Hall, in his introduction to Wright's Above the River: The Complete Poems, quotes from a Wright letter which elaborates the dailiness of the process and its cruel results: “I knew musicians and possible poets and even ordinary lovable human beings, and saw them with brutal regularity going into Wheeling Steel, and turning into stupid and resigned slobs with beer bellies and glassy eyes.” Elsewhere in the same letter, Wright reveals how darkly he viewed the situation back home: “… nothing but the Ohio Valley (i.e., death, real death to the soul) on one side and life (escape to my own life …) on the other.”12

By embellishing its flow with a bleak rain of coffins, Wright equates the Ohio River with the mythic Styx. Thus joined, the Ohio and the Styx become what Wright, in “Prayer to the Good Poet,” later calls a “dark river of labor,” ferrying away the broken and defeated. This image, pervasive throughout his work, serves as the focal point of the haunting collection Shall We Gather at the River (1968), a book decrying the fate of “legless beggars” and “Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter.” To Wright, release from such a place into the heavenly “other world” must have seemed an enticing alternative to enduring this world's sufferings, which surely accounts for Wright's inability to grieve the death of Willy Lyons, his “uncle, a craftsman of hammers and wood.”

In the poem that bears his name, Willy has died with little to show for his years as a low-paid carpenter; “nothing,” Wright says, with bilious irony, “but one cracked ball-peen hammer” and a suit his son “inherited, / For a small fee, from Hesslop's Funeral Home.” At Willy's passing, Wright's mother weeps “with anger,” fitfully mourning his death less than the hardscrabble life of poverty he had been forced to live in the Ohio River Valley.

Unlike his mother, Wright appreciates that by dying Willy has, in effect, freed himself from an unforgiving life controlled by economic forces. In the poem, Wright imagines “roan horses,” often a figure of redemption in his poetry, “plod[ding] slowly” to the Styx to greet Willy's coffin. Instead of carrying Willy into the promised land, the horses mistake the coffin for a “horse trough drifted to shore” and find it empty, a detail which nicely salvages the poem from the possibility of sentimental excess. More importantly, though, Wright grants Willy in death a degree of personal agency simply not available to him in life. To gain redemption, Willy requires neither the mystic blessing of the “roan horses,” nor the clink of coins in his pocket. He works patiently and with care, planing trees by the water's edge, “fitting his boat together” for the crossing to heavenly reward.

In crafting his own death ship, Willy escapes from what any good Marxist would surely label the commodification of labor, that process of reification whereby unique human activities forfeit their various qualitative differences in favor of a single quantitative measure of value—that is, how much one is paid for doing them. Pointedly, Wright, either by aesthetic choice or political inclination, avoids that sort of rhetoric. Though clearly aware of class distinctions and the role work has in them, Wright abjures political theory in favor of a deeply human, though spiritual, faith. He enables Willy to discover in death, in the release from earthly strictures, that craftsmanship itself possesses an immanent and redemptive value not bound to wage. If the poem is a version of American tragedy, it's also strangely, and ironically, beautiful.

In the books up to and including Shall We Gather at the River, Wright's attraction to forms of escape influences much of his poetry concerning work and workers. It also begins to distinguish his poetry of the working class from that of others writing on the same subject, in particular Philip Levine. If, at this stage of his career, Wright frequently yearns for escape, Levine prefers to stay put, sanctioning a kind of fight against authority and privilege that eludes Wright. One need only examine the function of animals in both poets' early work to see this distinction. Levine's lion in “They Feed They Lion” returns full of racial and class anger to riot Detroit like a contemporary version of Yeats's great beast. In “The Fox,” the besieged animal turns to face his pursuers, “shouting and refusing / to budge, feeling the dignity / of the small creature menaced / by the many and larger.”13 Wright's animals, on the other hand, often serve as mythologized and beatific sources of transcendence, like the “Indian ponies” of his well-known “A Blessing,” the “great white bird” that he asks in “The Minneapolis Poem” to lift him away from the “police” to safety among the “secrets of the wheat and … the unnamed poor.” In nearly every instance, these animals offer a means for Wright to break free of the discomfiting reality of this world, a way to distance himself from gloomy Ohio. Unlike Levine, who still loosely considers himself a member of the working class and therefore speaks with them, Wright seemed to regard himself as painfully outside of the outsiders and, as such, spoke for them.

While the quest for release compels much of Wright's poetry, so does the guilt associated with successfully achieving it. In fact, the tension that animates Wright's relationship with the Ohio River Valley can be attributed to his own physical if not spiritual escape from it. Wright, unlike many of his boyhood friends, did “get out.” The mere grace, perhaps the luck, of that release infuses “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62” with a ranging, self-reflective intelligence. Appearing in To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), the prose poem is devoted to Wright's Scout-master, Ralph Neal, who “knew he would never himself get out of that slime hole of a river valley,” or who “maybe … didn't want to.” Ralph Neal stayed because of his scout troop—boys he loved, Wright explains, mostly for the awful “knowledge of what would become of” them. And Ralph Neal was right, on both counts.

After Wright admits, almost ashamedly, that his “portrait hangs” in the Martins Ferry Public Library, he then offers a broken litany of what happened to those who stayed there: “Dickey Beck, a three-time loser at housebreaking, was doing life at the State Pen”; “Dale Headley was driving one of those milk trucks where the driver has to stand up all day and rattle his spine”; “Hub Snodgrass was still dragging himself home to … spend a good hour still trying to scrape the Laughlin steel dust out of his pale skin”; and “Mike Kottelos was making book.”

Making “book” in a different fashion, Wright records his friends' heroically unheroic history. Woven within it are the implicit failures of education, of religion, of capitalism, even of the Boy Scout system and—by extension—the generalized failure of America, “the very name of” which, Wright tells us, “often makes me sick.” The poem might end here, easily dismissed, its tenor that of a familiar and myopic protest poem. But there's the matter of Ralph Neal, whom Wright conspicuously calls “an American.” Dedicating himself to the boys, Neal illustrates “the most sublime of ethical ideals” by refusing to abandon them, behaving much like the poem's saint who refuses “Nirvana” when he realizes his rabid, “scruffy” dog can't “accompany him into perfect peace.” Surely such loyalty became most honorable and most compelling to Wright in light of his own escape.

It's worth noting that Ralph Neal's actions earned no monetary reward. His was volunteer work, offering just the kind of intrinsic satisfaction that capitalism most often imperils. It's this humanity Wright admires in Ralph Neal, his ability to elude economic and spiritual bankruptcy without departing the earth altogether. In his late work, in fact, Wright comes to admire this determination to stay put, to endure travails life foists upon us; gradually but certainly, this attitude counterbalances his yearning for escape.

The turnabout must have taken Wright by surprise, for in “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” a poem appearing in Two Citizens (1973), Wright is “almost afraid to write down” what amounts to an epiphanic moment of spiritual rebirth. In the midst of the Great Depression, Wright's father and uncles had found work with the WPA digging a swimming pool next to the hopelessly polluted Ohio River, which, Wright tells us, was already “dying.” For once, “that hole in the ground” isn't a grave. Instead, filled with water, it becomes a sort of New Deal baptismal font—providing salaries to sustain the out-of-work men and their families, and offering them the literal and figurative opportunity to rinse themselves in its redemptive waters. Diving deep, Wright himself “rose” to epiphany, delivered by a little girl's solemn—and practical—advice: “Take care now, / Be patient, and live.”

Wright's father, who, he tells us in “Two Postures Beside a Fire,” “broke stones, / Wrestled and mastered great machines,” is the model for this way of life, a worker perhaps weary but decidedly not broken. Wright came to admire the way his father dealt with thwarted dreams and still refused to give in. In the prose poem “Honey,” included in the posthumous This Journey (1982), Wright recounts one story exemplifying his father's response to the frustration of being without work:

I heard my father offer to murder his future son-in-law. … They were fighting with each other because one strong man, a factory worker, was laid off from his work, and the other strong man, the driver of a coal truck, was laid off from his work. They were both determined to live their lives, and so they glared at each other and said they were going to live, come hell or high water. High water is not trite in southern Ohio. Nothing is trite along a river.

Prompted by the loss of work during the Great Depression, the incident starkly demonstrates the two men's will to make a living, no matter what the physical and emotional costs. Still, the most curious aspect of the poem is not Wright's memory of the event itself, but his recollection of another incident, occurring near his father's death, in which his father subtly resolves the earlier dispute: “My father died at the ege of eighty. One of the last things he did in his life was to call his fifty-eight-year-old son-in-law ‘honey.’” The father's gesture of reconciliation is informed as much by stubbornness as by tenderness, for as Wright says at the poem's close, the real lesson here is this: “My father died a good death. To die a good death means to live one's life. I don't say a good life. / / I say a life.”

Wright's This Journey is replete with poems revealing his admiration for others who stay put, resolutely determined to resist any trial they encounter, those who show a muted, perhaps understated, courage in the face of adversity. If Wright never fully refuses the enticements of transcendence, he has, by this time, begun to amass a solemn list of those creatures and things that keep themselves firmly rooted to a place, even an irreparably ugly place. In the poem “The Sumac in Ohio,” for example, Wright discovers a grove of sumac opening their buds along the inhospitable slopes of a gulley in Ohio, impervious to the effects of “sap and coal smoke and soot from Wheeling Steel,” their skin so tough it “will turn aside hatchets and knife blades.” And in “A Finch Sitting Out a Windstorm,” he celebrates as well the “damned fool” finch who dares to “return / The glare” of a windstorm, clamps his claws “so stubbornly” around a branch, and “refuses to move”—all the while rejecting Wright's half-hearted advice to “Give up, drift, / Get out.”

Throughout his career, James Wright was compelled to write poems about the work and workers of Martins Ferry, the presiding spirit of a place he both dearly loved and hated. He loved the place for the resoluteness of the people who worked there and the stubborn beauty of the landscape. He hated it for the terrible ravages inflicted by grinding factory labor upon those people and the environment. His escape from that work and that place was itself the source of his most wrenching personal debate, the wellspring of both pride and shame, relief and a pertinacious guilt that reveals itself in his poems—perhaps nowhere more tellingly than in “Prayer to the Good Poet.” Addressed to Horace, the poem asks the ancient poet to welcome Wright's seriously ill father into heaven, imploring him “to gather my father to your bosom.” His father had reached the end of his own “dark river of labor” beside the Ohio where he once gathered his sons to swim, and now must cross the Styx into the afterlife. It's no accident Wright wishes to introduce his father to Horace: in doing so, he links his paternal and literary fathers. More importantly, in bringing the two together, he reconciles the work and place he escaped from and those he escaped to, and is able to confess, revealingly, to Horace:

I once worked in the factory that he worked in.
Now I work in the factory that you live in.
Some people think poetry is easy,
But you two didn't.

Absolved by his two fathers of having chosen the “easy” life over an honest day's work. Wright frees himself to speak for the “silenced” he left behind. In writing a personal and communal history of the working class in the Ohio River Valley, Wright spurns a glib, stereotypical presentation of oppressor and oppressed, and likewise rejects the easy solace of Marxist rhetoric. If the broken lives of the exploited must be recorded, so also must the lives of those who, by strength of will and moral conviction, refuse to succumb to exploitation.


  1. W.H. Auden, Introduction to The Green Wall (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), rpt. James Wright: The Heart of the Light, eds. Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 24.

  2. See Wright's “The Minneapolis Poem,” Shall We Gather at the River (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968). Other editions cited include: The Branch Will Not Break (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1963), Two Citizens (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973), To a Blossoming Pear Tree (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), and This Journey (New York: Vintage Books, 1982).

  3. James Scully, Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), 5.

  4. C.K. Williams, “The Poet and History,” TriQuarterly, 72 (Spring/Summer 1988), 196.

  5. James Wright, in “James Wright: The Pure Clear Word, an Interview with Dave Smith,” American Poetry Review 9, No. 3 (1980), 19-30; rpt. in James Wright: Collected Prose (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 192.

  6. Paul Breslin argues that the “notion that conditions of work in industrial America repress sexuality is … commonplace in the radical social criticism of the late fifties and early sixties, especially in the work of Marcuse,” in his own fine book The Psycho-Political Muse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 168. As Breslin suggests, see Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (1955; rpt., New York: Vintage, 1962), 77-78.

  7. Wright, interview with Smith, 195. Wright talks at length about Martins Ferry, football in the Ohio River Valley, the importance of “place” to good writing, and his family background. “All of my relatives were working people,” he remarks. “Back in the thirties I would have called them working class” (199). Except for one “distant cousin,” Wright was the first of his family to attend college, and only the second to graduate from high school.

  8. See Ron Fimrite, “The Valley Boys,” Sports Illustrated, 68 (23 May 1988), 78-84.

  9. As always, I thank Anne Wright for permission to quote these poems. Some unpublished, some retitled, revised, and later published, the poems are gathered in the 5 March 1961 version of Wright's Amenities of Stone. For a discussion of the manuscript, see my James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989). See also the James Wright Papers, Literary Manuscripts Collection, Manuscripts Division, University of Minnesota Libraries, St. Paul, Minnesota.

  10. Wright's comments appear in a letter to Knoepfle, dated 19 April 1961, quoted here with permission. The occasion was Wright's seeking Knoepfle's signature on a $10 check, made out to both men, received from The Nation for a published translation of Vallejo. Knoepfle's river poems and accompanying commentary appeared in Audit, 1, No. 10 (March 1961), 9-11.

  11. See James Wright Papers. Thirteen lines of the poem mysteriously appear, somewhat revised, elsewhere in Amenities. Wright includes them in “Three Letters in One Evening,” a long, unpublished poem offering a narrative on the death of Jenny, the dead lover/muse of many of his poems. In this instance, each “car-hood is a dark sloop bearing / Living men under water” (my emphasis).

  12. See Hall, Introduction to Above the River: The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux and University Presses of New England, a Wesleyan University Press Edition, 1990), xxxi, xxv. Hall also cites an incident, late at night, when Wright, obviously agitated, remarked angrily that “… they wanted him to go back to the mills. He made a speech about how he would never go back to the mills, no matter how much they tried to push him there; he had fought them all his life.”

  13. See Levine, They Feed They Lion (New York: Atheneum, 1972), and One for the Rose (New York: Atheneum, 1981), respectively.

David Pink (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Wright's ‘A Blessing,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 44-45.

[In the following essay, Pink discusses “A Blessing,” focusing on the significance of boundaries in the poem, and on the instances of transgressing them.]

“A Blessing” is perhaps James Wright's best known poem. It certainly embodies his greatest strength: the poet evoking nature as an inroad to the metaphysical or numinous. Wright is, in general and in this poem in particular, a poet of epiphany in the grand Yeatsian tradition. “A Blessing” culminates with the poet's wish to step out of his body and “break into blossom.” There can be no doubt, given the poet's spoken wish for natural communication with an Indian pony, “I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,” that he is seeking transcendence through nature into a new connection with nature.

Although the speaker of the poem is wistfully serious, the poem is touched by situational irony. The metaphysical or religious communion between human and horse occurs “just off the highway,” a manmade avenue of highspeed commerce. The encounter between the poet and nature must take place “just off” that highway, to amplify the gulf between man and nature. Furthermore, the horses are enclosed in “barbed wire”; the poet and his friend must transgress an unnatural boundary to enter into the natural setting. The artificial boundary of the fence, but more important, the limits of being—of otherness—between the horses, “they can hardly contain their happiness,” and the poet who wants to transcend himself almost dissolve. It is a credit to Wright's poetic sensibility that they do not.

The persona of “A Blessing” is an interloper. By crossing the boundary of the fence, desiring to cross the boundaries of being, and also by calling the ponies “Indian,” he seeks to cross the boundaries of difference, ownership, authorship, and time. Many of these definitions are relative to the history of relations between Whites and Indians. The poet is a white man crossing the ultimate symbol of usurpation of Indian lands and crucifactory emblem of ownership, the barbed wire fence, hoping to re-encounter, (regain?) the imagined/supposed/hoped-for bond that the Indian peoples had with nature.

It is difficult for the reader not to hear the wheels spinning on the highway as background for the poet's desire to shut out the world even as he soulfully embraces it, by becoming something usually regarded as beautiful yet mindless—a blossom. What the poet desires is beauty untainted by consciousness.

Such a desire for reincarnation is in a sense (especially considering Richard Hugo's reminiscences about Wright's alcoholism) painful. It is fabulous to think of Indian ponies as being “hardly [able to] contain their happiness / That we have come” and even more so to equate or metaphorize the “slenderer one” as a girl: “Her mane falls wild on her forehead … her long ear … delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.” But Wright's poem is about the will to love—to love most of all himself, waging the same battle that we all must wage.

Much of Wright's work, with this poem as a particular example, figures importantly as poetry of place. He will be forever linked with Martin's Ferry, Ohio; but as a professor of English at the University of Minnesota and as a traveller, he moved about. Many of his poems name a place. In this one he names Rochester, Minnesota, [an] incongruous mixture of a small-town, Sinclair Lewisian main street, the Mayo clinic, and a few whorehouses. Rochester is a family town, and its primary industry revolves around cures for the incurable.

More boundaries.

Outside of the poem, the lights from operating rooms and the dining room lights of marriage are a distant, unspoken tableau for boundaries and history—light defining the limits of intercourse and the wish for transcendence: “There is no loneliness like theirs.”

Work Cited

Wright, James. “A Blessing.” Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Ed. Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair. New York: Norton, 1988. 1284.

David Baker (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Re: Wright,” in The Kenyon Review, New Series XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 157-60.

[In the following essay, Baker introduces a group of Wright's poems, asserting that his “work has yet to be appraised satisfactorily.”]

We are building a huge cottage industry out of the ranking and aligning of cultural works and literary authors. The two Blooms—Harold and Allan—have constructed, quite independently, their lists of scholarly inclusions and exclusions. William Bennett has prescribed for us all his elixir of elitist medicine even as, like the Casey Kasem of poetry, William Harmon spins The Top 100 Poems out of his The Top 500 Poems. Everywhere: lists, orderings, preferences, reassessments, and rankings, thanks to the English departments, editors, publishers, and political action groups busily booming their canons and deconstructing everybody else's. Rightly enough, Harold Bloom laments that a work or writer may now be deemed canonical by someone's merely saying so.

I suppose that these kinds of rankings are inevitable, even perhaps necessary to our judgments. We compare in order to prefer and to praise; literary editing and literary pedagogy are nothing if not studies in comparative analysis. But poetry itself is not a match, a game, or even, ultimately, a competitive public enterprise. It is far more personal than that, our most intimate exchange of language—mind singing to mind. Over the ages, the only real competition in poetry is one poem wrestling with another.

The reassessment of a poet's achievement is a particularly daunting task when the poet is our near contemporary. A reassessment implies that we have achieved an assessment but that, for whatever reasons, circumstances may have altered this critical reception. But James Wright's work has yet to be appraised satisfactorily. His reputation, during his lifetime as now, is as incomplete as it is mixed. He is hailed as one of our age's great lyric poets, a belated Romantic whose valorizations of the individual and nature—and of the aboriginal bond between the two—give heart in a cruel, socially corrupt time. He is demonized as a sentimentalist and egoist, whose movements toward increased openness of form betray a poem's imperative for formal constraint and dignity. Currently the latter opinion is dominant. Indeed, poetry itself is now overshadowed by narrative theory, by prose of all sorts, and by the media of popular culture, while the Romantic sensibility is often reduced to quaint irrelevance by the current field of practical critics and cultural managers.

Perhaps, given the grim state of things at the moment, this is why Wright's beautiful poetry seems to me especially timely. His themes are as suited to our time as to the quiet, repressive 1950s out of which much of his struggle was first born. In the earliest poem here, “Lonely,” already we sense what Robert Pinsky calls in Wright's poetry a “linking of the local and the heroic.” What does it mean to be a citizen, a neighbor? How can any individual belong to, and how withstand, the dominant social structures? In later poems Wright more boldly confronts these vexing problems; here, the muted “neighborly advice” and a silent nature perpetuate the inherent loneliness of a troubled social construct, a marriage. This vignette recalls one of Wright's early influences, E. A. Robinson; we also find the formal patterning and rhetoric of Wright's Kenyon College teacher-turned-editor, John Crowe Ransom, whose “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” prefigures the naive or simple “study” of Wright's elegy. Here, in Ransom, as in Poe and many other male poets, the female is most “lovely” in death.

Wright was only twenty-four when this poem and “Father” appeared in The Kenyon Review. If “Lonely” tends toward pathos and slack repetition in several places, the also elegiac “Father” more tightly enacts the myth-like, mysterious “transfiguring” true to his best poems. Reassessment was Wright's obsession as well, for when the poem appeared in The Green Wall, in 1954, he had rewritten the first stanza with these lines:

                                                            But only the dip of an oar
In water sounded; slowly fog from some cold shore
Circled in wreaths around my head.

This sentence is both more clear and more deliberately measured; the iambic rhythm is tenser, due to the four consecutive stresses of “some cold shore / Circled,” whereas in the earlier version the meter is stiff and the syntax seems manipulated to rhyme.

Published in 1953, “Robert Sitting in My Hands” is a further example of Wright's beginnings. Following Ransom, early Lowell, Nemerov, Ciardi, Wilbur, and of course Eliot, a whole generation of poets began their careers as young Neoclassicists, formalists—not only Wright, but Merwin, Rich, Kinnell, and many others. This generation quickly learned to undercut, to ironize their Neoclassicism by a number of strategies—most notably an increasing personalness of voice within the formal frame, a strategy which culminated in the 1959 masterpiece, W. D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle, conventionally formal and yet utterly original in its piercing confessions. “Robert Sitting in My Hands” shows Wright straining to fuse his rich, nearly baroque impulse (as in the second sentence of each of the first three stanzas) with a kind of purer or transparent lyricism. The poem also clearly echoes another of Wright's early influences, A. E. Housman, whose “To an Athlete Dying Young” narrates “[t]he time” another god-youth was carried “shoulder-high.” Laurels and grapevines adorn these young heroes, but nature's inevitable withering, its “brown shadows,” foretell a human mortality.

The four poems published in 1958 demonstrate Wright's growing range, his mastery of traditional lyricism and his growing discontent with it. Both “A Girl Walking into a Shadow” and “All the Beautiful Are Blameless” appear in his 1959 Saint Judas, but in comparison they exhibit Wright's increasingly bimodal conflict. Nearly Yeatsian in its graceful melancholy, “A Girl” is a model of Georgian lyricism—general in its details, rhetorically restrained if a touch sentimental, in tightly closed lines and quatrains. Its melancholy seems impersonal, its figures more nearly symbolic than unique; still, it sings with an intelligent loveliness which Wright carries to the end of his career.

“All the Beautiful,” on the other hand, with its more ragged “natural” structure, its self-deprecating humor (“I, being lightly sane”), and its population of local roughnecks (“Two stupid harly-charlies got her drunk / And took her swimming naked on the lake”), anticipates the direction of Wright's stunningly original 1963 volume The Branch Will Not Break. Here the dead woman is not simply an ingredient in a young Romantic poet's still-life study but rather a victim of male-instigated peril. Wright's rage for justice, his connection—moral, but also erotic—with the dead woman, reaches a more complete resolution than in “Lonely” and further anticipates one of his powerful, mature Romantic themes: intimate sympathy with the doomed, the voiceless, the misunderstood, those outside the usual social structures, those traditionally outside the poetic attention. During these years Wright was writing his Ph.D. dissertation, The Comic Imagination of the Young Dickens (University of Washington, 1959), and was undoubtedly learning from the social aptitudes of Dickens, whose fictions depict characters similarly bruised, muted. The dead woman's beauty and blamelessness seem less like naive exploitation and more an indictment of crudeness, cruelty.

The other two poems from 1958, “Safety” and “With the Gift of a Feather,” seem more conventional. At least from my vantage point nearly forty years later, they are lovely illustrations of period pieces, representative of the traditional techniques and the rather staid, impersonal stances of the dominant lyric mode of the early and mid-fifties. But they do not clearly anticipate the openness, the blunt, personal innovations of such poems as “Lying on a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” “Two Hangovers,” “A Blessing,” and so many more ground-breaking poems shortly to come in The Branch Will Not Break and the poet's 1968 Shall We Gather at the River. These two were certainly worthy to find space in Ransom's 1958 The Kenyon Review, but are also, in retrospect, rather sentimental in places; their rich meter and rhyme seem inhibitions to this poet's search to find his most apt voice, his stark, subsequent “pure clear” words. These must have been among the many poems which Wright discarded during the early 1960s, as he pushed toward the new style (and manuscript) which would so dramatically influence his peers and his followers.

“President Harding's Tomb in Ohio,” on the other hand, does appear in Branch as “His Tomb in Ohio,” the second part of “Two Poems about President Harding.” Again Wright has made a few fortunate rewrites; the final two lines of stanza one become “Chuckle and stumble and embrace / On beer cans, stogie butts, and graves” while line four of stanza two is the more abrupt “And snivel about his broken heart.” The first poem of the pair, “His Death,” is an openly structured piece, brusque, but also natural sounding, a sympathetic connection with the former “weeping drunk” president:

I am drunk this evening in 1961,
In a jag for my countryman,
Who died of crab meat on the way back from Alaska.
Everyone knows that joke.

Harding's public life, his exposed shame in “His Death,” provide the complex trope for Wright to extend with “His Tomb in Ohio” in such lines as “His grave, a huge absurdity” and such figures as the ongoing “laughing” of the whole country. Wright must have seen himself in this “countryman,” his fellow Ohioan. His own increasing sense of exile, of shame, his expanding connection with the bruised and the forlorn, the castoff—whether of presidential stature or condemned to the ghetto—find a fuller and more original expression in this poem than in all but a very few earlier pieces. The more conventional, dignified technique of “His Tomb in Ohio” seems wonderfully ironic following “His Death,” too, a complex formalization of Harding's shame, Wright's sympathy, and a country's merciless “ridicule.”

This group of poems provides us with a fascinating picture of the development of a young, brilliant poet. In these poems, and throughout his career, James Wright was beset by so many tensions—between the Neoclassical and Romantic impulses of his teachers and poetic models, between a formal dignity and a wild, open frankness, between the perils of citizenship and the obliterating otherness of solitude and of nature itself. Rather than succumb to these large pressures, he made poetry from the sparks given off by their collision. And we are richer for it.

As for reassessment: Wright once referred to himself as a third-rate lyric poet. Typically, his judgment is too humble but brutally exacting: “Whatever moon and rain may be, / The hearts of men are merciless.”

William V. Davis (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “‘To Step Lightly, Lightly, All the Way through Your Ruins’: James Wright's Ohio Poems,” in The Midwest Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1996, pp. 353-64.

[In the following essay, Davis argues that Wright transcends the geographical places he writes about in his poetry by transforming them into metaphorical images.]

In her essay, “Places in Fiction,” Eudora Welty says that “[p]lace is one of the lesser angels that watch over the … hand” of all writing and that “as soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may,” to try to determine “what good writing may be, place can be seen … to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it” (116). Welty is careful to distinguish between a “sense of place” in writing and “regional” writing. She calls the term “regional” a “careless term, as well as a condescending one” since it fails to “differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art” (132).

In terms of poetry specifically, Welty says that “[m]an is articulate and intelligible only when he begins to communicate inside the strict terms of poetry”; that “place induces poetry” and “can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point” (123); that place “never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself” (128). Finally, Welty says, “It seems plain that the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly and passionately from its place of origin will remain the longest understood” (132).

James Wright, obsessed more than most poets with a sense of place, was born in 1927 in Martins Ferry, Ohio, a small industrial/mining town on the Ohio River not far from Wheeling, West Virginia—then and now one of the poorest areas of the United States. Wright grew up during the Great Depression. His father, a die-setter at one of the local factories, was often out of work, and the family constantly struggled to survive, moving frequently from place to place within the small town of Martins Ferry, the place which would become Wright's microcosm in literature, as it was in life.

Martins Ferry, Ohio, inseparably connected with the river, whose banks it literally hangs from, was the place where Wright was from and which he never really left—although he literally left it early on and never really returned. It was home for him in the way that writers have to have a home, beyond geography, and even though he called it “That black ditch / Of river” in his poem “The Life,” he also called it in the same poem “my only country” (Above the River: The Complete Poems, 163). That it certainly was.

Asked in an interview about Martins Ferry and his sense of place, Wright responded by describing Ohio as a kind of microcosm of the whole country. He said that “Ohio is eastern and western while it is also northern and southern” (Smith, 7); and he went on to say that he had a “peculiar kind of devotion to Martins Ferry. … It is my place, after all” (5). And then he talked about the “poetry of place,” as a poetry of presence, and, finally, he expanded his thinking about this specific, particular place where he was born to a place literally as large as the nation and, indeed, of the imagination itself. In short, for Wright, this “only country” of Ohio, which so many of his most representative poems explore, is both a specific, particular place and his universal region of imaginative mind.

Wright's “Ohio” poems include, then, the poems which make literal, specific, detailed references to the people and places of Ohio—most often to Martins Ferry. In these poems Wright attempts to define Ohio in terms of his own literal, physical, presence there or in terms of his memories. These “Ohio” poems include Wright's poems of praise for Ohio and its people (and include as well the negative poems of “dead Ohio”) both of which are scattered throughout Wright's canon although they come to climax at almost the exact center of his canon and career, in Two Citizens, Wright's most ambivalent book, the book, as he called it, “of my patriotism, my love and discovery of my native place” (dust jacket comment).

Then, secondly, there are those poems (again scattered about throughout the canon) in which Wright successfully effects a physical transformation of place in such a way that the specific and particular becomes almost universal and in which place blurs into metaphor and theme goes beyond any literal Ohio to become an almost mystical, largely metaphysical, place—an “Ohio of the mind.” In these poems, as Bonnie Costello remarks, “place sifts through his imagination like dusk” (232) as Wright's “inner voice and vision go out to meet the landscape, and the landscape moves in to shape the private world” (226). This movement back and forth “between psychic and natural landscapes” allows Wright to “render the subjective experience of place in a primary way” (230). In short, in these poems Wright works to effect a spiritual transformation of place. Between the poles of these two “Ohios” then, James Wright staked out his claim to place. It was something he was clearly conscious of; as he said in an interview the year before he died, his “sense of vista” had to do with the “deep world in the Ohio Valley … and the huge world of time and space beyond the place” (Saunders, 6).

And so Wright's work is unique. Unlike other poets of place (many of them among his early models—poets like Virgil, Wordsworth, Hardy, Lawrence, Frost and Robinson), Wright uses place not to define itself, finally, not to delimit any particular place, thematically or structurally, within the bounds of mechanical meter and memorable meaning, but ultimately to go beyond particular place by so grounding himself in it that he can go through it, out the other side as it were, and into his own “Ohio of the mind.” It is this that makes Wright's poems not merely “regional,” but universal.

In this sense, then, Wright's most memorable poems are attempts, simultaneously, to explore the limitations of the specific and the local as well as the full reach of the imagination, as the inner and out worlds of the works meet and merge into a single entity—even though (and almost inevitably) they are frequently “weighted” toward one side or the other of the dichotomy. This desire for synthesis in part accounts for Wright's frequently vivid, often startling “deep image” lines: butterflies “searching for diamonds / In coal seams” (“Two Hangovers,” Above the River, 132), or alighting “on the branch / Of your green voice”; “Small antelopes” that “Fall asleep in the ashes / Of the moon” (“Spring Images,” Above the River, 137); a “grandmother's face” which “is a small maple leaf / Pressed in a secret box”; locusts “climbing down into the dark green crevices / Of my childhood” (“Twilights,” Above the River, 131); as well as the wonderment of “How many scrawny children / Lie dead and half-hidden among frozen ruts / In my body, along my dark roads” (“The Frontier,” Above the River, 161); and the possibility (or the inevitability) that “When I stand upright in the wind, / My bones turn to dark emeralds” (“The Jewel,” Above the River, 122). Such moments come to climax in what is probably Wright's best-known poem, “A Blessing,” which ends:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

(Above the River, 143)

Wright's sense of place then involves his attempt to escape from a particular, specific place and to a place of almost spaceless space and timeless time. And yet, ironically enough, Wright found himself, again and again, brought back, as literal, literary, and mental exile, to his particular personal past and to his personal particular place of Ohio. Indeed, this sense of deracination, of exile, of longing, and of inevitable return became his constant theme—and his constant threat. As Wright himself said in an interview (Smith, 6):

My feeling about the Ohio Valley is … complicated. I sometimes feel a certain nostalgia about the place. At the same time I realize that … our problem when we were boys in Martins Ferry, Ohio, in the industrial area enclosed by the foothills of the Appalachians on both sides, near that big river, was to get out.

The two senses of place in the work of James Wright, then, although they can be somewhat arbitrarily separated out in the poems, must finally be put back together—as they always are in Wright's most memorable poems. This sense of a sense of place, beyond time and place, fully personal and private, specific and specifically limited, but simultaneously unlimited and universal, is the sense of place Wright sought for in his finest poems, and which, in them, he finally found.

By looking briefly at representative poems, we can, finally, put James Wright in his place (as it were) in terms of contemporary American poetry.

In the first poem of Two Citizens Wright says, “I want to gather you back to my Ohio” (Above the River, 223). Later in the same book Wright, as he often does in the early work, speaks of Ohio, that “brutal and savage place” “in the middle of America” which “I still love” (Above the River, 238), as a grave. Still, acknowledging that “The one tongue I can write in / Is my Ohioan” (Above the River, 261), and knowing that he must excavate his past in order to extricate and expiate himself from it, Wright tells one of his many stories of a “grave in blossom” (Above the River, 163).

In “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio” (Above the River, 236-37) Wright describes how his father and the other “fierce husbands” of Martins Ferry built a swimming pool for the city when they realized that the “river / That is supposed to be some holiness” had started to die. This “hole in the ground, / No grave for once,” became for Wright a place both of baptism and mystical experience. He describes how, when he “rose from that water,” a “little girl” appeared as if from nowhere and “whispered” over his shoulder, “Take care now, / Be patient, and live.”

The little girl who appears here is, clearly, the same anonymous little girl who appeared at the end of The Green Wall, Wright's first book, and spoke through the voices of birds, saying: “Be Careful of holes,” “Cling to the edge, cling to the edge” (Above the River, 45). At the end of “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio” Wright acknowledges this little girl's continued presence in his past and the guidance she has given him: “I have loved you all this time.”

With Wright thus clinging to the edge, the first group of poems, the poems of specific, placed reference, comes to a powerful climax with “At the Executed Murderer's Grave,” the penultimate poem in Saint Judas, his second book.

“At the Executed Murderer's Grave” (Above the River, 82-84) is an important transitional poem, the single poem that both brings to climax Wright's early obsession with the formal work in his first two books and with Ohio as a literal progenitive place, at the same time that it prepares for the “deep image” poems that are soon to come.

“At the Executed Murderer's Grave” begins:

My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.

Then, immediately, Wright mixes George Doty the murderer, Ohio, and himself together:

                                                                                                    I return
Only in memory now, aloof, unhurried,
To dead Ohio, where I might lie buried,
Had I not run away before my time.
Ohio caught George Doty …

Wright notes, “I walked here once. I made my loud display.” Now “sick of lies,” and turning “to face the past,” he finds that just as Doty has been executed for crimes committed in Ohio, so he also “burns” in memory as his “nights electrocute my fugitive, / My mind” with memories of his life in Ohio which, in one sense, he knows he has escaped from, but, in another sense, knows he never can. As Wright says in the middle of the poem,

I do not pity the dead, I pity the dying.
I pity myself, because a man is dead.
If Belmont County killed him, what of me?

Then, by the end of the poem (the metaphor changed from a hole to a door), he writes:

Earth is a door I cannot even face.
Order be damned, I do not want to die,
Even to keep Belaire, Ohio, safe. …
(Open, dungeon! Open, roof of the ground!)
I hear the last sea in the Ohio grass,
Heaving a tide of gray disastrousness.
Wrinkles of winter ditch the rotted face
Of Doty, killer, imbecile, and thief:
Dirt of my flesh, defeated, underground.

Here, in these final lines of this poem, George Doty, Ohio, and “James A. Wright” are inseparably linked, united, and “buried” together. What is this meant to mean? Apparently two things simultaneously. First, beyond the literal place-oriented associations with Ohio, Wright is talking about his poetic self. This becomes explicitly clear in the line, “I croon my tears at fifty cents per line.” There is an elaborate history, both personal and poetic, to Wright's interest in George Doty. In The Green Wall he included “A Poem about George Doty in the Death House” (Above the River, 25-26) and, even there, early on, Wright implies an earlier interest in this “man I have wondered of.” Then, in the late 1950s Wright published two early versions of “At the Executed Murderer's Grave,” both quite different from the one in Saint Judas. This poem, then, perhaps more than any other, illustrates Wright's empathetic response to the “outcasts” of the world. As Robert Hass has remarked, “What has always been a remarkable, almost singular, fact about [Wright's] poetry is the way in which the suffering of other people, particularly the lost and the derelict, is actually a part of his own emotional life. It is what he writes from, not what he writes about” (31-32).

The “James A. Wright” who has written these early formal poems is dead; the James Wright of the new “Ohio” is about to be born. In short, Wright, having made peace with Doty, and having buried him in Ohio, has also “buried” his own literal Ohioan past, and replaced it with the “Ohio of the mind” that is to come.

This turn in Wright's theme and in his poetic design results in the powerful books of his middle and late career—The Branch Will Not Break, Shall We Gather at the River, To a Blossoming Pear Tree, and the posthumous This Journey—books in which place blurs into metaphor and theme goes beyond the literal Ohio to become a mystical metaphysical place in the imagination, an “Ohio of the mind.”

These later poems, however, are as important to the working out of Wright's “Ohio” theme as the earlier explicit ones set in Ohio were—even though they are not specifically set in Ohio—and, indeed, often, seem to insist on a kind of studied avoidance of anything “Ohioan,” even of anything at all particular to any specific place. In these poems, then, Wright moves out into that “huge world of time and space” beyond Ohio, and enters the arena of his finest and most representative work.

This is the world of Wright's “deep image” poems. These poems are poems of a place beyond self that can only be reached by a kind of death of self—by one “skillful with suicide” (“A Christmas Greeting,” Above the River, 147), who “Stumbles upon the … locks of a grave, whispering / Oh let me in” (“Miners,” Above the River, 126). Clearly, this is a place, like the “cave / In the air behind my body / That nobody is going to touch,” that Wright speaks of in “The Jewel” (Above the River, 122).

In a poem positioned in the center of Wright's central book, and, appropriately enough, entitled “Beginning” (Above the River, 135), he documents the movement of the moment of transition from the one world to the other in terms of a series of synesthetic surreal-like images:

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon's young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

“Beginning” begins in an interior “place” and thus is literally placeless. This immediately sets it off from Wright's earlier “exterior” poems of place and suggests that he has made his move from the literal to the metaphysical in this new “beginning.” An important clue to this transition in Wright's work is the connotative changes attributed to the words “dark” and “darkness” here and in his later poems. Whereas in the poems of Wright's literal Ohio the conventional associations of light and dark are much more conspicuously at work, in the “deep image” poems of these “Ohio of the mind” poems the traditional associations are reversed and “dark” becomes positive, good, something to be sought for, something to “lean toward” for the sake of making a new beginning. As Breslin has said, this kind of “deep image” poetry is “hermetic, in that it asks, not merely occasionally but continually, that we attribute an inherent significance to a recurring symbolic vocabulary,” and that learning to read such poetry “is largely a matter of initiation into the vocabulary.” Therefore, in Wright and the other “deep image” poets (Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, and W. S. Merwin, for instance) “there is a reversal of the traditional moral symbolism of light and darkness” whereby “darkness” comes to be seen as “a sign of wise humility, of turning inward from the illusion of a corrupt culture toward the mysteries of being” (120, 162).

In an essay published at about this same time that he himself was making this major turn in his own work Wright discussed how a poet engages in a search in an attempt to discover “how to be true to his own self.” In “The Quest for the Child Within” Wright said:

The journey itself is a dark one. … But there really seems to be a true path back to the lost paradise, back home to the true child in one's self, back to the source of healing strength—back to the Kingdom of God which, we have been told, is within us. If there really is a true path homeward, then it appears that certain heroic men found it dark, sometimes yawning with dreadful pits of fire, sometimes winding and contorted apparitions of our own vanity. … [These “heroic men”] see the world. … And they discover themselves and what they contain. … [T]hey are alive at last.


Therefore, as early as Shall We Gather at the River, Wright had begun his final turn toward his true imaginative home, his “Ohio of the mind.” In a poem called “Listening to the Mourners” (Above the River, 161), “speaking with the voice / Of a scarecrow that stands up / And suddenly turns into a bird,” he describes rising from the field of his “native land,” which is here called “This place of skull.” Such a metaphysical golgotha can only be arrived at by thought. More than an exterior physical place, it is an interior mental one; a place of imagination, an “Ohio of the mind.” In “Willy Lyons” (Above the River, 166-67) Wright contrasts this “other world” of imaginative mind with his literal uncle, “a craftsman of hammers and wood,” who is now “dead in Ohio.” And even though his mother cries because “she is angry,” she knows that death “is nothing to mourn for” because “It is the other world” (166), a world, as Breslin (175) says, that is “secretly abiding within or behind” the literal world called “Ohio.”

Finally, if not fully writing under the death threat of the cancer that killed him, Wright's career came to completion with the book, published posthumously, but, appropriately enough, entitled This Journey—the book of Wright's literal life and of his poetic career. In This Journey he remembers both life and career and, now, knowing he is at the end of them, he imaginatively re-journeys the journey he has made as man and poet.

Acknowledging that he is literally “a long way from home” in “The Sumac in Ohio” (Above the River, 324-25), Wright remembers his early life in Martins Ferry all over again. “A Flower Passage” (Above the River, 354-55), Wright's elegy for Joe Shank, the diver who retrieved the bodies of the drowned from the Ohio river when Wright was a boy, celebrates this “Shepherd of the dead,” now himself dead, but dreamed back to life by the “mourning” Wright, “not home in my place” but far away, gathering mental “flowers” from both present and past and passing them back and forth through each other in his mind.

But the fullest final assessment of Wright's journey in This Journey is the poem “The Journey” (Above the River, 337-38), the title poem in the middle of the book. “The Journey” is set in Tuscany, that part of Italy that Wright had so much come to love, his home away from home, as it were. Here, with everything “graying gold / With dust,” Wright leans “down to rinse the dust from my face.” And, there, in this arid place almost removed from time and space, he finds a dusty spiderweb, a kind of microcosmic world all its own, and he finds a spider, symbol of self, stepping into this “center of air … While ruins crumbled on every side of her.” And he sees that she is “Free of the dust, as though a moment before / She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.”

This vision of spider and spider web is of something special, something almost sacred, and in trying to define what it means for his life, man and poet, Wright comes as close as he ever came to defining the separate sides of his dichotomous quest toward his final “place”—both in his own life and in contemporary literature.

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don't worry.

Here at the end of life and career James Wright has managed to bring together “the heart of the light” of his life and work and to define the “secret” of “this journey” as he steps “lightly, lightly / All the way through [his] ruins”—beyond the dead in Ohio, “who surely / Will bury their own, don't worry”—and, “free of the dust,” off into “the journey” of the placeless place of poetry.


Breslin, Paul. The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Costello, Bonnie. “James Wright: Returning to the Heartland.” Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982, 221-33.

Hass, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. New York: The Ecco Press, 1984.

Saunders, William S. James Wright: An Introduction. Columbus: The State Library of Ohio, 1979.

Smith, Dave. “James Wright: The Pure Clear Word, an Interview.” Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982, 3-42.

Welty, Eudora. “Place in Fiction.” The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York: Vintage, 1979, 116-33.

Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: The Noonday Press, 1992.

———. Dust jacket comment to Two Citizens. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.

———. “Something to Be Said for the Light: A Conversation with William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro.” Anne Wright, ed. Collected Prose: James Wright. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983, 151-71.

———. “The Quest for the Child Within.” Frank Graziano and Peter Stitt, eds. James Wright: A Profile. Durango, Colorado: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1988, 57-69.

Edward Hirsch (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2299

SOURCE: “A Hand, a Hook, a Prayer,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 26, No. 5, September-October, 1997, pp. 17-20

[In the following excerpt, Hirsch analyzes Wright's handling of encounters between needy strangers in several of his poems.]

James Wright's poem “Hook” explores a moment of direct contact, of actual—of actualizing—connection. It gestures toward the reader by recalling, by summoning up out of the distant past, a fleeting but necessary encounter with another person, a stranger. It was written with that deceptively blunt and aggressive directness that characterized so much of Wright's late work. Wright once wrote an essay called “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman” and I find a similar delicacy—an unlikely almost Horatian lightness—in much of his own seemingly raw work. Here is “Hook”:

I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and dead snow.
I stood on the street corner
In Minneapolis, lashed
This way and that.
Wind rose from some pit,
Hunting me.
Another bus to Saint Paul
Would arrive in three hours,
If I was lucky.
Then the young Sioux
Loomed beside me, his scars
Were just my age.
Ain't got no bus here
A long time, he said
You got enough money
To get home on?
What did they do
To your hand? I answered.
He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.
Oh, that? he said.
I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
You take this.
Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook,
And place it
In your freezing hand?
I took it.
It wasn't the money I needed.
But I took it.

How do we account for a poem in the American vernacular that rises to a state of unlikely grandeur? “Hook” is a lyric of reminiscence that builds out of isolation into an epiphanic encounter. I want to linger over some of the details in the first part of the poem to show how emphatically everything reinforces a feeling of isolation turning into—turning toward—a human recognition. The initial exposure to the wretched state of the speaker immediately announces that we are in the territory of a threshold experience. It cries out for transformation.

To begin: there is a free-floating, nearly unbearable sense of stasis in the first stanza. The speaker is not so much recalling a singular episode as establishing a state of being. “I was only a young man / In those days,” he declares, summoning up a time when he was young, alone, inexperienced. The verb “was” is repeated five times in three sentences (“I was”; “The cold was”; “there was,” etc.). It's as if a camera is zooming in for a close-up as we move from a larger period of time (“those days”) to a particular evening to a street corner in Minneapolis. So, too, the word “nothing” is emphatically, even obsessively, repeated three times, a triple underlining—twice at the end of lines where it gets special emphasis, and once as a one-word sentence. The image—the feeling—of being stranded and forlorn is intense.

The protagonist recalls that he was literally outside—an outsider—in cold darkness, which I take both as a literal place and a metaphoric state. The fact that he was “in trouble with a woman” engenders his suffering as male. He was exposed to the cold, unsheltered, exiled from whatever warmth and domestic comfort he associated with the feminine. There was nothing between him and dead snow (notice the pun—the dark double entendre—in the phrase “nothing between”). The sense of being damned is powerful. The motif of “God damned” bitter cold is picked up in the second stanza where he recalls being lashed about on an exposed corner as “Wind rose from some pit, / Hunting me.” He felt the icy inferno coming directly for him. It's crucial to Wright's poetic that these symbolic resonances are registering within a “realistic” framework; i.e. he has firmly established waiting on a corner for a bus to bring him to Saint Paul in three hours. Yet those hours stretch out like an eternity—spatially, temporally. Everything here conspires to suggest a protagonist separated from the realm of other people, betwixt and between, in a liminal state. A marked Wordsworthian solitary damned to the city.

Notice the word “then” that serves as a turning point in the poem, as it often does in lyrics written in the epiphanic mode. He was alone and suddenly another man “loomed” beside him, seemingly out of nowhere. The young Sioux simply appears, as if out of the underworld: an original American, an unlikely stranger, an older brother in suffering. The exactitude—“his scars / Were just my age”—establishes a keen likeness, an equation between one man's suffering and another's chronological time on earth. It centers the encounter. The man speaks in a raw vernacular. (Wright who was so well-educated and learned himself always seemed to sentimentalize the state of being under-educated in others, identifying emotionally, indeed internally, with them as social misfits and outsiders.) He understands the protagonist isn't going anywhere for a while and asks if he has enough money to get “home.” The word “home” resonates with a sense of lost comfort and safety. The question comes with the force of unexpected kindness, a gift of concern. It will hang there for a couple of stanzas. The conversation that follows exists in some other state of time.

The protagonist—I am tempted to call him a lost pilgrim—answers the question with another question about the Sioux's hand: our first recognition of his disability. The exchange burns at the heart of the poem—as the title makes clear. The meaning of that title has been suspended and only now comes into direct focus:

He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.

There is movement here from darkness to light that marks a poetic crossing, a sudden gesture of illumination that comes before speech, an answer to the answer. Notice the phrase “raised up” which carries religious overtones. The starlight is “terrible” because it flashes and glints off the hook (a mechanical device has replaced a living hand), but also because it casts a shocking light on the price—the cost—of his suffering. He has paid with part of his body. The word “slashed” comes with a violent jolt.

Wright's delicate touch as a poet is suggested as we move from the apparent melodrama of “terrible starlight” to the odd understatement of the next stanza. “Oh, that, he said” (an offhand comment without the slightest trace of self-pity), “I had a bad time with a woman.” And of course this statement—this acknowledgment of the cause of his suffering—links him powerfully to the protagonist of the poem. He has already been where the protagonist seems to be going—a mirror to the future. Yet he doesn't dwell on what happened to him. The word “here” hangs at the end of the line (“I had a bad time with a woman. Here”), floating between two sentences, de-emphasizing the bad time but emphasizing the key status of the moment itself. Then he offers change for the bus ride: “You take this.” An offering.

In the next stanza, which is one sentence slowly drawn out across six short lines, the speaker turns abruptly to the reader with a question that further suspends the moment in time, outside of time. The question has a rhetorical and possibly even belligerent edge as he turns to us—to you and me—in the present.

Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook
And place it
In your freezing hand?

The stanza focuses the camera on the moment itself. Word by word, frame by frame, it casts special light on the exchange. It implies that maybe we—the privileged ones—haven't ever had (or recognized) such a gift. Here the specificity of the “sixty-five cents” resounds with literal force so as to underline the understated compassion—the tenderness—of a man holding out an awkward number of coins in a hook and placing it (gently!) in “your freezing hand.” The hook meets the numb hand: a gift in the coinage of the land from a more experienced American Virgil to a less experienced American Dante.

The final stanza makes absolutely clear that the gesture—the acceptance—is not about commerce but communion: “I took it. / It wasn't the money I needed. / But I took it.” There is an emphatic tautness in the twice-repeated one-syllable word “took.” It resonates with a sense of all that is being given and received, which is so much more than it seems. Pause for a moment over the masterful use of sound in the phrase “took it,” probably the harshest trochee in American poetry. The bitterness, the connotative power, is incredible—both as rhyme and as pure sound. Yet the bitterness feels redemptive (and this is one of Wright's great achievements, I think) because of what is being recognized, acknowledged, accepted, “taken,” both consciously and unconsciously. Maybe this has something to do with the position of the tongue in the mouth of the reader who says the phrase aloud—it moves behind the teeth shot backward against the glottis, then back to the teeth again. The sound all this makes—the feeling inside the mouth—is intense. For an instant it reduces the speaker to one who makes animal sounds. Repeat the phrase “I took it” aloud twice—and put in a disavowal about money—and it starts to have harsh sexual overtones. The vibration of the language inside the mouth enacts a certain kind of drama.

Wright has come a good distance from his earlier poems “In Terror of Hospital Bills” and “I Am a Sioux Brave, He Said in Minneapolis,” both from Shall We Gather at the River (1968). The frightened speaker in “In Terror of Hospital Bills” wonders “what words to beg money with,” and immediately summons up a response—or responses.

Pardon me, sir, could you?
Which way is Saint Paul?
I thirst.
I am a full-blooded Sioux Indian.

I understand these to be four different voices—each coming up with a line, a small con to bum money, to get by, to get over. Two approach with polite questions, two with bold declarations. The voices are disembodied, indeterminate. And there is a gap between the need—the motive of desperation—and what each speaker actually says. They are emblems—or veils—of Wright's own shame, his sense of abandonment, the terror that he “will have to stalk timid strangers / On the whorehouse corners.”

When the full-blooded native American appears in the next poem, “I am a Sioux Brave,” he is described as “just plain drunk” and knows “no more than I do.” The stranger can offer on native wisdom since he appears only as Wright's estranged and drunken double. But there was a small sea change in Wright's work by the time of “Hook,” which appears in To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1979). Does “Hook” dramatize the same encounter? If so, its tenor is completely different. The Sioux in Wright's later poem seems cold sober and knows more than the protagonist. Instead of a con, a line, he comes with a gift, and “Hook” becomes a poem about unexpected kindness, about holding and taking, about contact between strangers.

How powerful—how nearly unbearable—it becomes then in the title poem of To a Blossoming Pear Tree, the poem following “Hook,” when the speaker must refuse contact, refuse sex, with an “ashamed” and “hopeless” old man who comes from nowhere out of the “unendurable snow” to stroke his face.

Give it to me, he begged.
I'll pay you anything.
I flinched. Both terrified,
We slunk away,
Each in his own way dodging
The cruel darts of the cold.

This is just the old man Wright was terrified of himself becoming in “In Terror of Hospital Bills.” The shame and vulnerability of the old man “so near death / He was willing to take / Any love he could get” fills him with recognizable pain (a pain he identifies as “something human”) and turns him longingly to the “pure delicate body” of a blossoming pear tree. What goes too far—what he cannot accept—in “To a Blossoming Pear Tree” goes just far enough in “Hook”—an engagement mixed with restraint (and restraint overcome)—and makes what he can accept—what he actually takes—all the more extraordinary.

In many of Wright's best poems the speaker—a criminal outcast—escapes from the social realm of other people into the more consoling realm of nature. Think of the aboriginal encounter with the two Indian ponies in “A Blessing.” Its final recognition is a late Wordsworthian epiphany, a spot of time:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

This poem concludes with a lyrical release from selfhood into ecstasy. But instead of such a dissolution “Hook” lingers over a moment of human linkage. What is remarkable about this is that the epiphany brings him into contact—into right relationship—with another person. Such engagement is a rarity since, in poetry, epiphanies almost always have been solitary fusion experiences. But Wright here charges us with an instance of mutuality that becomes a metaphor for poetry itself. Think of the poem as a gift, a hook reaching out to a hand. You may not need the coins in the device, but you may need the contact, the words coming out of darkness and crossing a threshold to find you.

G. Burns Cooper (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

SOURCE: “Wright's ‘On a Phrase from Southern Ohio,”’ in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 100-2.

[In the following essay, Cooper analyzes the significance of line length in Wright's “On a Phrase from Southern Ohio.”]

Poets and critics disagree about the role of the line in free verse. Some assume that there is a pause at the end of each line whereas others do not; some say lines within a poem tend to take the same amount of time to read or say, yet others disagree. Some critics assume that line divisions should reflect divisions in syntactic phrasing; others argue that the most important feature of free verse rhythm is the tension created by enjambment, in which line divisions and phrase divisions do not match. Some assume that the structure of lines in a poem has a specific, iconic meaning, whereas others see no more meaning than the need to breathe from time to time. With all these choices available, the way a poet uses line divisions is a hallmark of that poet's individual style.

Sandra McPherson also suggests that lines provide a sense of “scale”—each line is presumed to be equally “heavy” in some sense—and that there is “suspense” from one line to the next; the lineation guides “our response to the speed of the poem.” The effect of line length on speed presents a kind of contradiction: If the “suspense” or pause involved in moving from one line to the next delays a reader slightly, then shorter lines should tend to slow us down, longer lines to speed us up. At the same time, one often comes across the claim that dividing a poem into short lines makes it read faster.

James Wright's poem “On a Phrase from Southern Ohio” depends on both pacing and weighting effects. After four stanzas of mostly longer (11- or 12-syllable) lines, the poem narrows to one- and two-syllable lines, then abruptly opens out into longer ones:

Then from the bottom
Of that absolutely
Smooth dead
Straight up
And white
To a garden of bloodroots, tangled there, a vicious secret
Of trilliums, the dark purple silk sliding its hands deep down
In the gorges of those savage flowers, the only
Beauty we found, outraged in that naked hell.


Why does Wright divide the lines this way? The most obvious answer is that the verticality of the short lines is mimetic of the cliff face, and Wright's emphasis on topographical descriptions—“narrow,” “bottom,” “smooth,” “face,” “straight up,” “gorges,” even “hell”—encourages us to think of that mimesis. But there is more to it than that. Though the poem is not simple, the plot is: The narrator, reminiscing, recalls seven boys, including himself, borrowing a boat and crossing the Ohio River to West Virginia, where they climb a cliff which had been formed by the cutting away of the side of a mountain, presumably for mining. There they encounter two black boys and beat them up. The rest of the poem is not so much narrative as pondering by the narrator, except for the following mysterious question:

What were those purple shadows doing
Under the ear
Of the woman who was weeping along the Ohio
River the woman?


Given this story, we start to see that topography is not just topography in this poem. The terms used to describe the cliff could also be used to describe people's bodies: “foot,” “scarred,” “bottom,” “smooth dead face,” “white,” “naked.” Underlying the description of the mountain and of the flowers is a violence and violation, even rape; the color imagery evokes blood, bruises, and of course, racism. The purple of the trilliums shades into the purple on the weeping woman's face two stanzas later. Ultimately, it is a morality story: Even though the boys climb to it rather than falling, they enter a “garden” that is also “hell.” This moral and religious imagery is ironically echoed in the following stanzas:

Well, we beat the hell out of one
And chased out the other.


Damned if you know;
I don't.


And still in my dreams I sway like one fainting strand
Of spiderweb …


(The first two of these remind one of Genesis; the third of Jonathan Edwards and the sinner hanging by a thread of spiderweb over the fires of hell.)

With this background, let us return to the pacing and weighting produced by the line structure. The short lines slow the pace of the poem to a crawl, not only reflecting the boys' slow progress but also forcing us to focus on every word and understand each with what seems at first to be simplicity and clarity. The longer lines and more complicated, paratactic syntax that follow not only speed the flow from word to word again but complement the effect of lushness and moral confusion produced by the semantics of the stanza. At the same time, though, our vertical progress down the page is undoubtedly much faster in the section of short lines, while the eye movement turns horizontal in the longer lines; in this sense the shorter lines are faster and the longer lines bog us down. Both ways, the contrast between the two helps to mark out distinctly separate rhythmic groupings of lines and underscores the shift of tone.

These patterns of line lengths may have little meaning in themselves, but Wright combines them with other types of patterns: a narrative that seems at first to be a celebration of boyish adventurousness but reveals its underlying violence; imagery that shifts from stark but simple topography to a profusion of beauty and violence; and a set of pseudo-religious allusions that turn a climb into a Fall. These patterns reinforce each other and multiply the power of their effects.

Works Cited

McPherson, Sandra. “The Working Line.” Field 8 (1973): 54-60.

Wright, James. “On a Phrase from Southern Ohio.” To a Blossoming Pear Tree. New York: Farrar, 1977, 34-35.

Further Reading

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Dougherty, Douglas C. James Wright. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 425p.

A comprehensive study of Wright's work with a useful biographical essay, chronology, and extensive bibliography.

Elkins, Andrew. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991, 273p.

A book-length study of Wright's entire body of work that emphasizes the continuity and development of themes and concerns, with an extensive bibliography of works about the poet.

Henricksen, Bruce. “Poetry Must Think: An Interview with James Wright,” New Orleaons Review 6 (1979): 201-07.

Interviews Wright, who discusses poetic structure and the poet's obligation to uphold ethical as well as aesthetic standards.

Howard, Richard. “James Wright: ‘The Body Wakes to Burial.”’ In Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, pp. 575-86

Discusses Wright's sense of landscape and his handling of language and imagery in his poems.

Janssens, G. A. M. “The Present State of American Poetry: Robert Bly and James Wright.” English Studies: A Journal of English Letters and Philology 51, No. 2 (April, 1970) pp. 112-37.

Analyzing the poetry of Wright and Robert Bly, discusses the conflict engendered in American poetry between the intellectual, ironic poetry favored by the New Critics and the poetry of imagery and emotion wrought by poets speaking not through personae or in complex forms, but in a colloquial style which voices their own feelings, thoughts, and recognitions.

Stein, Kevin. James Wright, The Poetry of a Grown Man: Constancy and Transition in the Work of James Wright. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989, 222p.

An examination of Wright's corpus that focuses on the formal changes in Wright's poetry and their significance for his poetry.

Stitt, Peter and Frank Gratziano, eds. James Wright: The Heart of Light. Ann Arbor: the University of Michigan Press, 1990, 425p.

Extensive collection of essays devoted to Wright's work.

Additional coverage of Wright's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, 97-100; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 4, 34, 64; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 10, 28; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 169.

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James Wright Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Wright, James (Arlington)