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James (Arlington) Wright 1927–1980
American poet and translator.
Wright, who ranks among the most esteemed poets of his generation, was a significant contributor to the "deep image" school of poetry that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Reacting against the limits of traditional verse, the writers of the deep image school wrote emotional, subjective poetry and relied primarily on image to convey meaning. They called for an intimacy between the poem and the reader and a direct relationship between human experience and its poetic expression. Before becoming involved with this group, Wright wrote in the formalist tradition of such writers as John Crowe Ransom. His poetry in this early period was characterized by formal construction and by a precise use of rhythm, meter, and rhyme. Wright's first two volumes of verse, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), were written in this mode and were well received by critics. The Green Wall won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1957. Wright's writing nevertheless underwent a drastic change.
In the early 1960s, while writing and teaching English at universities in Minnesota, Wright became influenced by his contemporary, Robert Bly. Through Bly, Wright became aware of the highly subjective, surrealist poetry of Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, and others. The Branch Will Not Break (1963), Wright's third volume, is the first to be written in this later style. This collection displays both a relaxing of his previous formal control and a change from the exalted visions of his earlier work. Wright became more concerned with contemporary society, and his poems were often marked by despair. Prostitutes, murderers, and social outcasts peopled his writing. Whether Wright was expressing joy found in the mundane—one poem, for instance, celebrates the beauty of a sewage drain—or anguishing over the encroachment of technology and the spoiling of landscape, his hometown of Martin's Ferry, Ohio, often provided the backdrop.
When Wright died, he had completed the manuscript for This Journey (1982), a collection of poems concerned with his journey through life and his contemplations of death. An acutely emotional poet, Wright wrote with compassion about human suffering and helped bring about the heightened immediacy and impact of deep image poetry, which is the basis for his importance to contemporary poetry.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52, Vols. 97-100 [obituary]; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
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For example, Mr. Wright uses as an epigraph to [The Green Wall] the well-known medieval carol "Adam Lay Ibounden." It is as impossible to imagine a poet of the twentieth-century writing this as to imagine a fifteenth-century poet writing … lines by Mr. Wright…. (p. 43)
A modern poet might perfectly well be a Catholic, believing in the divine plan for human redemption of which the medieval carol sings, but his consciousness of historical earthly time is so different that he could never strike the same note of naive joy in the present; should he attempt it, the note struck would almost certainly be false, expressing not Christian hope but a sort of Rotarian optimism. (p. 44)
One way of perceiving the characteristics of an age is to raise certain fundamental questions which human beings have always asked and then see how the poets of that age answer them, such questions, for example, as: "What is the essential difference between man and all the other creatures, animal, vegetable, and mineral?" "What is the nature and human significance of time?" "What qualities are proper to the hero or sacred person who can inspire poets to celebrate him and what is lacking in the churl or profane person whom poetry ignores?" A man in the Middle Ages would have said that the difference between man and other creatures is that only man has an immortal soul eternally related to God. He has, therefore, a goal, salvation or damnation, but this goal is not in time nor is reaching it a matter of time. A baby who has been baptized and an old man who repents after a lifetime of crime die and both are saved; their ages are irrelevant.
On the other hand, so far as his temporal existence, individual or social, was concerned, like anyone who lives in a predominantly rural culture without machinery, he would be conscious of little difference between himself and other creatures, that is to say, he would be mainly aware of their common subjection to biological time, the endless cycle of birth, growth, and decay. Of man as creating irreversible historical time so that the next generation is never a repetition of the last, he would be scarcely, if at all, conscious. But to a modern man, whether or not he believes in an immortal soul, this is the great difference, that he and his society have a self-made history while the rest of nature does not. He is anxious by necessity because at every moment he has to choose to become himself. His typical feelings about nature, therefore, are feelings of estrangement and nostalgia. In "A Fit against the Country" Mr. Wright sees nature as a temptation to try and escape human responsibility by imitating her ways, in "The Seasonless" he contrasts the rotation of the seasons with a human figure to whom no season can ever return, in "The Horse" and "On the Skeleton of a Hound" he contrasts the "poetical" animal and its unchanging identity with the "unpoetical" man who can never say who he is.
Poets have always reflected on the passage of time, comparing the present and the past, but before the modern period this usually meant expressing a sorrow because the present was less valuable than the past, what was once strong is now weak, what was beautiful has faded, and so forth, but past and present were felt to be equally real. But in Mr. Wright's poems, as in nearly all modern poetry, the present is not unhappy but unreal, and it is memories, pleasant or unpleasant, which are celebrated for their own sake as the real past. The present can only be celebrated, as in "A Girl in a Window" or "To a Hostess Saying Good Night," by showing it as pure chance; what makes the present moment poetical is an awareness that it is related to nothing so that nothing can come of it. (pp. 44-5)
Given the circumstances of modern life, the feeling that only memories are real is to be expected. When a man usually lived in the house where his father and grandfather had lived before him, the past still existed in the present, not just in his memories but objectively about him. Today when men change not only their house but their part of the world every few years, their present circumstances become more and more impersonal, subjective memories more and more important.
Even more striking than its attitude toward nature and time is the kind of person whom modern poetry chooses to speak of. Aside from love poems and poems addressed to relatives, the persons who have stimulated Mr. Wright's imagination include a lunatic, a man who has failed to rescue a boy from drowning, a murderer, a lesbian, a prostitute, a police informer, and some children, one of them deaf. Common to them all is the characteristic of being social outsiders. They play no part in ruling the City nor is its history made by them, nor, even, are they romantic rebels against its injustices; either, like the children (and the ghosts), they are not citizens or they are the City's passive victims.
His one poem to a successful citizen is, significantly, to a singer, that is to say, to someone whose social function is concerned with the play of the City, not with its work.
Mr. Wright is not alone in his imaginative preferences. It is difficult to find a modern poem, unless it be a satire, which celebrates a contemporary equivalent of Hector of Aeneas or King Arthur or the Renaissance prince. To the poetic imagination of our time, it would seem that the authentically human, the truly strong, is someone who to the outward eye is weak or a failure, the only exception being the artist or the intellectual discoverer, the value of whose achievements is independent of his contemporary fame.
There are many reasons for this change, and everyone will be able to think of some for himself. One, obviously, is the impersonal character of modern public life which has become so complex that the personal contribution of any one individual is impossible to identify and even the greatest statesman seems more an official than a man. Another, I think, is the change effected by modern methods of publicity in the nature of fame. Formerly a man was famous for something, for this great deed or that which he had done; that is to say, the deed was the important thing and the name of the doer was, in a sense, an accident. Today a famous man is a man whose name is on everybody's lips. Their knowledge of what he has done may be very vague and its value, whether it was noble or shameful, matters very little. (pp. 45-6)
We should not be surprised, then, if modern poets should be drawn to celebrate persons of whom nobody has heard or whom, at least, everybody has forgotten.
I have not said anything about the quality of Mr. Wright's poems because assertions have no point without proofs, and the only proof in this case is reading. (p. 47)
W. H. Auden, "Foreword" (reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd. and Mrs. James Wright; copyright © 1957 by Yale University Press, Inc.), in The Green Wall by James Wright, Yale University Press, 1957 (and reprinted in The Pure Clear Word Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 43-8).
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Despite [the faults of his poetry], it is clear James Wright is an amazingly good poet. His lines are not stiff like sticks, but flexible like a living branch. Some emotion, rising very close to the surface, always seems to keep the words alive. In thought, his words, underneath, are in touch with something infinite. Another way of saying this is to say that his personality as a man drives forward, disregarding the consequences. Deep in his personality is the plower who does not look back. Everyone recognizes this in his work instinctively, and it is probably one reason for the great affection people have for his work. His instinct is to push everything to extremes, to twist away and go farther. It is obvious that out of devotion to poetry, he would leave any job in the world, with no notice, or live in any way. Men like Whittemore or Nemerov can never write anything new because they are on-the-other-hand men. If you say, "The Christian Church is corrupt," they would say, "On the other hand…." If you say, "John Foster Dulles was as close to being crazy as most statesmen get," they would say.
"On the other hand…." Wright's tendency is the opposite—to follow an idea until it flies, or turns back into a fish. What he admires about the Chinese poets is their ability to get drunk without remorse, to write short poems for a whole lifetime without apology, to ride out of a gate into the desert without looking back.
His work shows an unusual intellectual enthusiasm. Behind the pleasant sense of something new in language lies a conscious and deliberate rejection of an entire structure of thought, which is very well understood. Behind the subtle language, which seems all emotion and fragrance, lies intellectual energy, in this case, extremely powerful intellectual energy.
He goes long distances when he starts, and gives the impression of someone obeying ancient instincts, like some animal who spends all summer with his herd, then migrates alone, traveling all night, drinking from old buffalo wallows. (pp. 97-8)
Crunk [pseudonym of Robert Bly], "The Works of James Wright," in The Sixties (copyright © 1966 by The Sixties Press; reprinted by permission of the editors), No. 8, Spring, 1966 (and reprinted as an essay by Robert Bly in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 78-98).
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I have been worrying the bone of this essay for days because, in an issue of Ironwood honoring James Wright, I want to say some things against his poems. The first of his books that I read was The Branch Will Not Break. It is supposed to have broken ground by translating the imagery of surrealist and expressionist poetics into American verse. That was not what I responded to. What mattered to me in those poems was that their lean, clear, plain language had the absolute freshness of sensibility. They made sensibility into something as lucid and alert as intelligence…. I can give you an example from Shall We Gather at the River:
Along the sprawled body of the derailed
Great Northern freight car,
I strike a match slowly and lift it slowly.
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.
Those last two lines are what I mean. They were not written by the poet who is lonely and sick for home, they were written by the man who noticed that the poet, sitting in his room alone, recalling a scene outside Fargo, North Dakota, nods when he writes down the greeting of his imagined yardman, and catches in that moment not the poet's loneliness but a gesture that reveals the aboriginal loneliness of being—of the being of the freight cars, silos, horses, shadows, matches, poets, flashlights. And that man, the man who wrote those lines, is not lonely. At least that is not quite the word for it. There is a poem by Basho that gets at this:
Not my human
but your solitary cry.
The cuckoo, or hototogisu, is the nightingale of Japanese poetry. Its evening song has all the automatic associations with loneliness and beauty, and Basho is correcting that tradition. He is not, he says, talking about our plangent human loneliness but about the solitariness of being, of beings going about their business. The business of singing, if you are a bird, of feeling lonely, if you are a human. This is a distinction and it is the function of intelligence to make distinctions, but this one has been felt toward, with an absolute clarity of feeling, and that is what I mean by sensibility. It is a quality that flashes out from time to time in Wright's poems and it made The Branch Will Not Break an enormously important book for me. So I should probably rephrase my first sentence in the manner of Two Citizens: I want to say some things against James Wright's poems, which I love. (pp. 196-97)
Someone has calculated that the words dark, darkness, and darkening appear over forty times in the twenty-six pages The Branch Will Not Break occupies in the Collected Poems. Green must appear at least as often. And the book is full of those Wordsworthian words that no one is supposed to be able to get away with: lovely, terrible, beautiful, body, and lonely run like a threnody through all his books. I don't care how often James Wright uses any word, but I do care how he uses them and why. The early poems have helped me to think about this, particularly "On Minding One's Own Business" in Saint Judas…. The poem ends, like many of Wright's poems, with a prayer:
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.
Maybe the worst thing about American puritanism is the position it forces its opponents into. If the puritan can't distinguish a hobo from a hunted criminal, a little nighthawk from a girl who does the sorts of things that rumple hair, the poet won't. Hunted criminal, in fact, equals hobo equals bird equals girl. The puritan can't tell one from another and knows they are all bad; the poet can't tell either, only he knows they belong to the dark and are good. When he agrees to disagree with the puritan on his own terms, he gives away will, force, power, weight because they are bad American qualities and he settles for passivity and darkness. This explains why the grown man's dream is the beginning of a dark hair under an illiterate girl's ear. (pp. 199-200)
Wright has often been praised, to use the curious language of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, for his "compassionate interest in social outcasts." That has never seemed to me to be the way to say it. What has always been a remarkable, almost singular, fact about his 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. He has a feeling in his own bones for what a cold and unforgiving place the social world is. More than that, he has a feeling, almost Calvinist, for how unforgiving the universe is…. He is fascinated by defeat the way some men are fascinated by money, as the intelligible currency of our lives. His poems return and return to this theme, to the unformed hopes growing in the warm dark and the cold dark to which they return, until loneliness and death seem like the price exacted for living. (pp. 200-01)
Over and over again in American writing, [we find the] theme or discovery, that the inner life has no place, that it makes outlaws of us. Whether it is Huck deciding to go to hell or the hell of West's Miss Lonelyhearts, or Gatsby thinking the rich with their good teeth and fast cars can transform the ugly midwestern body of the world or poor Clyde Griffith, who rises from the squalor of his childhood when he glimpses velvet curtains in a Kansas City hotel, or Robinson's loyalty to Luke Havergal and the boozy moon, there is always this sense of a radical division between the inner and outer worlds and the hunger for a magic which will heal it, a sanctification or election. It gives a kind of drama to Wright's search for a style, but it also gives me the uneasy feeling that the way of posing the problem is the problem.
These themes persist through all the later work: a poetry that aims at beauty of feeling, a continuous bone-aching loneliness, a continuous return to and caressing of the dark, a terror of the cold dark, a compassion for whoever suffers it, a desire to escape from the body. The new manner of The Branch Will Not Break doesn't signal a change in theme, but a different rhetorical strategy. The more relaxed rhythms, with pauses at line end, feel like a man taking a deep breath…. And the playfulness of the titles insists on the fact of imagination. So do the plain words from romantic poetry, lovely, beautiful, terrible, that don't describe anything but tell you that someone is feeling something. And the images let go of the known configurations so that they can look inward and try to name the agency of transformation…. This is the freshness of the book and it helps me to understand why I responded to it so deeply and why I end by gnashing my teeth over so many of the poems:
… Only two boys
Trailed by the shadow of rooted police,
Turn aimlessly in the lashing elderberries.
One cries for his father's death,
And the other, the silent one,
Listens into the hallway
Of a dark leaf.
The means, this style that is to make transformation possible, keeps wanting to be the end, the transformation itself, the beauty by which we are justified. There is no ground in these lines between the violent outer world and the kid listening poetically down the hallway of a dark leaf. There must be a Yiddish joke somewhere or a story by Peretz in which the poet appears before the recording angel who asks him what he's done and he says I listened down the hallway of a dark leaf or the long dream of my body was the beginning of a dark hair, etc. And one of the angels, maybe Raphael whom Rilke called the terrible one, says, this guy has got to be kidding.
Wright knows this most of the time, that the "one wing" of beauty won't take him very far. But again and again in The Branch Will Not Break he tries to see what can be made to happen by saying beautiful things, by repeating his talismanic nouns and adjectives of the discovery of the inner world…. (pp. 203-05)
In 1963, the year in which The Branch Will Not Break appeared, Robert Bly printed in Choice a passionate, ragged, very contradictory and very important essay called "A Wrong Turning in American Poetry." He attacked the modernist movement, especially imagism, as a kind of pictorialism, mesmerized by things, frightened of the spirit, preoccupied with technique, a replica of American culture. A great deal of what Bly had to say is true. He wanted a poetry that was inward, fresh, alive to its own impulse. "When the senses die, the sense within us that delights in poetry dies." "In a poem, as in the human body, what is invisible makes all the difference." But much of it read like an evangelical tract. It distrusts the mind and it insists on the radical and permanent division between the inner and the outer, believing only in the election of inward illumination: "A man cannot turn his face at the same moment toward the inward world and the outer world: he cannot face both north and south." Imagination is the source of election and, as in Wright, the world is its enemy. "The imagination out of its own resources creates a poem as strong as the world which it faces." And, as in Wright, the world is a jail in which the soul is imprisoned. Bly translates Rilke's "die Betrejung der dicterish Figur" as "the releasing of the image from jail," and adds, "the poet is thinking of a poem in which the image is released from its imprisonment among objects." But what is an object? A horse? The round white stone on my desk? The old curled postcard of a still life by Georgia O'Keefe? It is when the imagination withdraws from things that they become objects, when it lets the world go. This is a Calvinist and solipsistic doctrine. No wonder that the poetry of the deep image is preoccupied with loneliness. (p. 206)
Galway Kinnell has said some [things similar to Robert Bly's account of the role intelligence plays in the life of the imagination] with less polemical distortion. "We have to feel our own evolutionary roots and to know that we belong to life in the same way that other animals do and the plants and the stones…. The real nature poem will not exclude man and deal only with animals and plants and stones, a connection deeper than personality, a connection that resembles the attachment one animal has for another." This seems to me to say many of the things that are valuable in Bly's essay without hauling in a Manichean dualism, if we add to it that the poem has to be made out of the whole being and not out of assent to the idea.
Wright is both a more literary and less theoretical poet than Bly or Kinnell. If Bly seems sometimes to apply his ideas about imagination to the activity of writing. Wright suffers the tenor of a style as if it were the temperament of a lover. He lives inside it, feels through it. That's why his poems reflect, with desperate force, the lameness of the isolated inner world, "the sight of my blind man," its mere sensitivity which issues so often in the same nouns and adjectives, the same verbal constructions, the same will to be beautiful. Against the defense economy, we place—as plea and touchstone—little boys wondering, wondering. Against Moloch, as Allen Ginsberg said in a moment of lovely impatience, the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit.
Aestheticism is what I am talking about, decadence. It's a cultural disease and it flourishes when the life of the spirit, especially the clear power of imagination and intelligence, retreats or is driven from public life, where it ought, naturally, to manifest itself. The artists of decadence turn away from a degraded social world and what they cling to, in their privacy, is beauty or pleasure. The pleasures are esoteric; the beauty is almost always gentle, melancholy, tinged with the erotic, tinged with self-pity. Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Lawrence grew up in a period of decadence in poetry. They did not put down the aesthetes who ought to have been their fathering generation; they honored them. (pp. 207-08)
The issue seems to me urgent and I want to say the whole thing against these poems, this tone, in Wright because his struggle with it belongs so much to our culture, to American ugliness, to every kid who wanders into every public library Carnegie built in every devastated American town and, glimpsing the dim intuited features of his own inwardness in some book of poems he has picked up, is, when he emerges into the sunlight of drug store, liquor store, gas station, an outcast and a fugitive. The Branch Will Not Break is a book vivid with inward alertness, but it also brings us up against the limitations behind the aesthetic that informs it.
Wright's subject, like Wordsworth's, is the discovery of his own inwardness and the problem of what it can mean, what form it can take in the world. A large part of Wordsworth's struggle had to do with the fact that, in his time, there was no coherent psychological or philosophical accounting for the intensity and reality of his own experience, so he labored in The Prelude both to make it visible and to find a form for it in thought. Wright's problem is different in crucial ways. For one thing, he was born a convicted sinner in southern Ohio. For another, his experience is closer to the erotic. For that reason, it seems to me, by some measure, truer because it is through the erotic that one body turns to another and social life, in which the intensity of human inwardness has to find a form, begins. (p. 208)
[Wright's poem] "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" is about a form the inner life takes in the world. (p. 209)
[The] Friday night football games [in that poem] are in one way a deeper order than either the political or the economic systems of which Blake is thinking [in his poem "London"], because their necessity is entirely imaginative. This is a harvest festival and a ritual. Ritual form is allied to magic, as it is in every community, and magic is allied to the seasons and the sexual potency of the earth.
Because this festival is American and puritan, it is an efficient transmutation of lovelessness into stylized violence. "Gallop terribly": or changing chickens into horses. It is a way of describing and evoking the animal beauty in the violence of the dying year, the explosive beauty of boys who are heroes because they imagine they are heroes and whose cells know that it will be their turn to be ashamed to go home. Even the stanzaic structure of the poem participates in the ritual. The first two stanzas separate the bodies of the men from the bodies of the women and the third stanza gives us the boys pounding against each other, as if they could, out of their wills, effect a merging. Insofar as this is a political poem, it is not about the way that industrial capitalism keeps us apart, but the way it brings us together.
This is, in other words, the poem Wright has always been writing:
Sick of the dark, he rose
For love, and now he goes
Back to the broken ground.
Everything about those fall nights is brought to bear here, even the harsh artificial light in which they occur and the cold and darkness that surround them…. Later again, in "A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter," he will make the connection … between the beauty of football and the beauty of war. Saying that, we are in the territory of The Iliad and the territory of tragedy. Beyond any social considerations, what the fall of the year tells us is that we are all going down to the dark, one way or another. It is Homer who describes battle as the winds of autumn sweeping the leaves, terribly, from the trees and it is Homer's Apollo who watches the battle and says, with a god's luminous contempt, "Men, they are like leaves, they flourish a little and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, and then they fade away." Suicidally beautiful: that adverb is not there to nudge us into feeling. It means what it says. It tries to describe what happens when the inner life can't find its way out of the dark and it also describes, illuminates that tendency in James Wright's art. (pp. 209-11)
Suicidally beautiful: the poems [in The Branch Will Not Break] have suffered from that temptation and the poems from this point on, the best of them I think, reflect a determination to face "the black ditch of the Ohio" and not be killed by it. This is announced—in another place by another river—in "The Minneapolis Poem," the second poem in Shall We Gather at the River, that utterly painful book…. [Wright's] response to … suicidal beauty matters to me because it introduces that odd comic tone which will continue into some very desperate poems … and because what he places over against that death is the life of the imagination. (p. 212)
A strange thing, a wonderful and strange act of imagination occurs in Shall We Gather at the River. It is the appearance of Jenny. She is the secret inside the word secret which appears so often in the book: the discovery of his spirit and of the beauty of the body and of the desire for love which grew up in Ohio and was maimed there. She is probably also the young girl in the earlier poem "Beginning" who lifts up the lovely shadow of her face and disappears wholly in the air. Shall We Gather at the River is dedicated to her…. (p. 213)
In the new poems at the end of the Collected Poems, Jenny is "The Idea of the Good," and as she emerges, her name echoing all those sentimental midwestern songs, Wright returns again and again to the terror of the river down home…. (p. 216)
What emerges from [the] birth and death [portrayed in the new poems at the end of Collected Poems] was not possible in the diction of the early poems or in the willful beauty of The Branch Will Not Break—the poems about Uncle Willie, Uncle Shortie, Emerson Buchanan, Aunt Agnes, Wright's teacher Charles Coffin, the poems of the people of Ohio, his own Winesburg. Much of this is in Two Citizens, where Jenny is identified as "the Jenny sycamore" who had been "the one wing, the only wing." But it isn't only Ohio that emerges in these poems. There is also a more open insistence by Wright on his art and the traditions of his art. And this has required him, once again, to find a new language, a style that can accommodate what he has learned and gather it to the spoken language of his childhood. The way he has achieved this is, I think, intensely artificial, even a little weird, and I think it is meant to be. At its best it's very funny and playful…. (pp. 216-17)
At other times its artfulness consists in rendering peculiarities of diction exactly. (p. 217)
Here and there in the artifice is something like boozy insistence, that strange pride that dares you to contradict…. (p. 218)
Sometimes the manner blusters through difficulty, but at their best these poems do make a wholeness. Especially "Prayer to the Good Poet" in which he links his own father to Horace, one of his fathers in poetry, and the poems to his Ohio teacher, and the unmannered fluidity and assurance (and amazed gratitude) of some of the love poems. And … Jenny becomes the sycamore, his first rising and discovery of poetry. That is why "October Ghosts" is the most crucial poem in the book, for me. It's a poem in which Wright makes a kind of peace with the terror and loneliness of "To the Muse":
Jenny cold, Jenny darkness,
They are coming back again.
We came so early,
But now we are shovelled
Down the long slide.
We carry a blackened crocus
In either hand.
And then these lines in which Wright seems to have, at last, two wings. One of them is Jenny who is beauty, loneliness, death, the muse, the idea of the good, a sexual shadow, a whore, the grandmother of the dead, the lecherous slit of the Ohio, an abandoner of her child, a "savage woman with two heads … the one / Face broken and savage, the other, the face dead," the name carved under a tree in childhood close to the quick, a sycamore tree, a lover, the first time he ever rose. The other wing is his art, and with both of them he returns to his native place. The lines are a four-verse summary of "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" and, because they gather—at the river—the whole struggle of James Wright's poetry. I think they are among the most beautiful and simple lines he has written:
I will walk with you and Callimachus
Into the gorges
Of Ohio, where the miners
Are dead with us.
This is the poem that ends, "Now I know nothing, I can die alone." Which is what has to be, and did not seem possible before. (pp. 218-19)
Robert Hass, "James Wright," in Ironwood, Special Issue: James Wright, 10 (copyright © 1977 by Ironwood Press; reprinted by permission of the editors), 1977 (and reprinted in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. 196-219).
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Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963) came out a year after [Robert Bly's] Silence in the Snowy Fields and resembles it too much for critical comfort. The poems in The Branch, although much more personal and forceful than Wright's earlier efforts, seemed to borrow not so much Bly's honesty as Bly's emotions and subjects. As in Silence, one found the love of mysticism, of abrupt leaps between apparently unconnected material, of solitude, of the instant of extraordinary perception, of playful, scene-setting titles ("As I Step Over a Puddle …"), of dusk and small plains towns, and of animals and nature. Occasionally, however, Wright's differences from Bly emerged and clashed with the Bly adaptations: Wright did not share Bly's Whitmanesque attraction to death; Midwestern bleakness was just that for him; solitude was often as painful as it was exquisite; and the Midwest was not only the locale of Minnesota farms where Wright awkwardly felt Bly's sort of ecstacy …, it was also the scene of his brutalized working class youth in Martins Ferry, Ohio, where his father's vitality was crushed in factory work…. Often, Wright seemed confused about his feelings in The Branch; his dominantly joyful response to Midwestern realities seemed forced. (pp. 353-54)
Since Shall We Gather at the River (1968), however, Wright's poetic independence, sincerity, and power have steadily increased. By being original, he has more profoundly learned from Bly. In Shall We Gather, Wright … found his voice…. His new honesty after The Branch resulted in a shift in subject matter, from rural scenes to people and urban scenes, and, more crucially, a shift in feelings, from ecstacy to anger and misery…. Even Bly saw that the happiness of The Branch was willed: "tired of his own vision of the hostility of things, Wright assumes in animals a gentleness that is not there." Recently, however, especially in Two Citizens, Wright has become our most scrupulously honest, our least pretentious poet.
There is, however, an aspect of Wright's determined honesty that can be, in its own way, artificial. Often Wright is strangely aggressive about his supposedly humble straight-talking, as if he were saying, at one and the same time, "I'm just a simple man, not all that bright or special, in fact quite thoroughly ordinary and vulnerable," yet also "There is more value in an ordinary man's honest emotions than in any elaborate, self-conscious thinking. So here is my emotion and you can take it or leave it. You'd better take it." Mark Twain without the hidden smile. Wright's aggressiveness about the value and validity of all his emotions leads him, at times, into blundering impulsiveness and embarrassing sentimentality. He has always felt and demonstrated, with intense preoccupation, the value of mercy and tenderness. But in at least two poems of Two Citizens, he seems to be not so much loving someone as loving love…. Immersed in his emotion, Wright has no awareness of its wishfulness. In his new book, To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), Wright again occasionally refuses to do any hard thinking in order to keep a desired emotion unsullied.
When Wright is not just blusteringly direct or uncritically wishful but is aware of his aggression and raises the possibility that his simplicity is sentimental, when he hears how others might hear him, as he does more and more in his recent work, his affirmed emotions, underpinned by intellect, have double the power and weight. "Well, What Are You Going to Do?" …, quite obviously in its very title, conveys this self-awareness. It is a love poem about a cow. Wright knows his readers might think deep and tender love for a cow absurd, but it is against that thought that the poem squarely places itself. Wright splits himself in two: he is half identified with himself as a boy watching his pet cow give birth and half an adult watching, questioning, and finally justifying that boy's awe-filled tenderness…. The boy watches the cow's suffering for two hours and then finally helps the birth along. The event is presented as one which is as frightening, intense and exposing as a boy's first sexual love. The cow is called "a beautiful woman," whose "problem" the boy knows nothing about…. [This] sense of witnessing a sacred event from profane life suffuses James Wright as a boy. But another James Wright occasionally emerges and finally dominates the poem. This Wright asks us "What was I going to do?" and "What was I supposed to do there …?" half to convey awe, but also to assert that he was right to feel tender rather than indifferent or afraid or disgusted. This is the Wright who deliberately brings in details that are hardly romantic or sentimental…. This Wright is boldly challenging his readers to find fault with his love. The unpleasant aspects of the experience seem insignificant for someone capable of empathizing with the animals…. Wright is an extremist when it comes to love, but usually he avoids the shrillness and defensiveness of this poem. My main point here is that Wright is focusing not only on his experience but also on his response to that experience. Wright's best recent work is similarly self-conscious and similarly asserting the interdependence of love and indignation: if you love, you will hate all that threatens the loved object; if you hate it is because you love. Thus Wright frees himself from both dreamy, soft love and consuming hatred. (pp. 354-57)
William S. Saunders, "Indignation Born of Love: James Wright's Ohio Poems," in The Old Northwest (copyright © Miami University 1978), Vol. 4, No. 4, December, 1978, pp. 353-69.
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[James Wright] was a poet of enormous verbal resources and skills engaged in a complex and deeply human quest to write—in his own terms—"the poetry of a grown man" in the style of "the pure clear word." He was one of our great poets of the lost and desolate, feeling his way emotionally into the lives of the cheated, the drunk, the lunatic. He was also a Horatian craftsman for whom craftsmanship was never itself enough, continually struggling for clarity and against glibness in his work, and somehow capable of revealing what Robert Hass calls "the aboriginal loneliness of being." But if Wright was an explorer of our specifically human social darkness, he was also a poet of lyric ecstasy and radiant natural light. Over the years his work increasingly evoked the external natural world. Now in his last, posthumous collection—virtually completed before his death—Wright returns to his primary concerns, particularly exploring the terrible harshness and beauty of nature, but with a luminous depth and intensity.
"This Journey" takes Wright through the temples and cemeteries of Italy, where he is continually surprised by his own life and the lives of others…. [His] sense of astonishment at being alive and at the way things disappear and change is one of the leitmotifs of the volume, whether he is contemplating the ruined Temple of Apollo, where the frightened men who "cowered here" are now long dead, or the Forum, where the pitted statue of a girl is slowly dissolving into someone he can "almost name." This strange, double metamorphosis—humans turning to stone, statues becoming humanlike—is a subject the book returns to again and again.
The transforming moments in Wright's work are characteristically either moments of human exchange or moments of the isolated self's ecstatic communion with nature. "This Journey" is the study of a man bringing himself into harmony with the natural world before his death….
[It] is the book of a man stepping lightly through the ruins, trying not to brood about the dead but brooding anyway, amazed by the transformations of time. It is appropriate that Wright's final journey ends with him watching a new day breaking over Venice, telling himself that he has to believe in his life because it is the only one he has, somehow still living inside his body, "sitting here strangely / On top of the sunlight." (p. 15)
Edward Hirsch, "Stepping through the Ruins," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1982, pp. 15, 37.
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I think it is fair to suggest that a poem like [the title poem of his collection This Journey] speaks of Wright's understanding of his situation, which is the mortal situation, common to all of us, of course, but mortal in the extraordinary sense of the word too, in the sense of his own imminent mortality, and the reconciliation of the poet that already-passed sentence of doom. It is also fair to observe about that poem that it contains not only some of the themes of this book, but also the echoes of much of Wright's past work too: a verbal reticence or quietness, a gentle kind of toughness, a patient tenderness and tender-heartedness, and a stoic strength….
Most of this book offers poems about places in Italy and France, for Wright spent a good deal of time in the Mediterranean region in his last period, and wrote a lot of poems, verses and prose poems about his contemplation of nature, a rather subdued, sometimes philosophically pious sort of contemplation at that. He did not write many "touristic" poems, however: monuments and history, contemporary life and politics and so on are hardly ever presented. And in this last volume, where several poems deal with what he knew was his last season of spring in Europe, the poet meditated on some Classical objects and themes, on Diana especially, the Virgin goddess, the huntress who killed, the bringer of death, the inviolable maiden, whom he seems to have regarded, implicitly, as his Muse. Which is hardly surprising, given his situation. I am sure he was deeply pondering the paradox that April is, as Eliot put it, "the cruellest month," and perhaps knew that there is a most ancient tradition, from quite pre-Christian roots too; in which the attendance upon the goddess of love, Venus, or Aphrodite, not Diana or Artemis, as in Wright, is a sad and dangerous nocturnal observance. And Wright surely changed his goddess to Diana the Huntress because he knew her fatal arrow had already struck him Wright places the opening poem of this book ["Entering the Temple in Nimes"] squarely in that awareness.
That poem, grave and quiet, a prayer, not for salvation, but for a moment's respite in which to see a sign, a bare sign,… that would be all the grace the poet asks for, the promise of life's continuity, for others, if not for him, is not only a motif that runs through the book, but one that conveys much of Wright's characteristic poetic voice. For, from the beginning, James Wright's poetry is full of lamentation and sorrowing, full of pity for those who suffer.
I think, in short, of Wright as a Weeper, a poet overflowing with tears. But not a simply lachrymose poet, in the 19th Century mode, the sort of poet Mark Twain satirizes in Huckleberry Finn. It's a bit chancy to risk showing a heart and mind always weeping, in this society of ours that respects power, speed, strength, and winning at whatever cost; and it risks being misunderstood as merely sentimental and soft … but Wright was not really all that soft, and he was no whimperer. If one recalls Casteneda's odd stereotypes, in his Don Juan, namely Don Juan who is the Warrior, and the other wizard who is a Dancer, and the witch who is a Killer, then one can think of the essential Wright as what I have called A Weeper. It seems to have been his nature, and it certainly is his hallmark as a poet: a fountain of flowing tears.
In a culture like ours today, when it seems that so few even know how to weep, when indeed it almost seems to be forbidden to weep, and when grieving is a forgotten emotion, when loss and failure are denied, a poet who weeps is an important phenomenon, and someone to be considered very seriously.
Jascha Kessler, "James Wright: 'This Journey: Poems'," in a radio broadcast on KUSC-FM—Los Angeles, CA, June 30, 1982.
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Wright's stylistic odyssey is paradigmatic for his generation of American poets. His first two books, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), are the work of a 1950s formalist chafing against formal disciplines. Strained, high-flown diction only occasionally relaxes, as though with a sigh of relief, into the plainness of everyday speech. The syntax is extended, convoluted—a snare in which the poet thrashes, gamely but helplessly. More than once the reader may have the disconcerting experience of coming to the bottom of a page and thinking a poem is over, only to turn the page and discover another two or three stanzas yet to go. The movement of such poems is like the galvanism that keeps a corpse's limbs twitching for some moments after the last breath has been drawn.
The milieu of these early poems—the industrial wasteland of southern Ohio—… is incongruous with the mandarin style they employ. Wright's wasteland, like Eliot's, features a once beautiful river polluted by human rapacity. But Wright's cast of characters is as quintessentially American as Eliot's is cosmopolitan. His small-town whores, ne'er-do-wells, drunks and wage slaves in mines and mills are belated versions of those portrayed by poets like Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson. The great difference is in point of view. Robinson, who certainly provided one model for Wright's intricate stanzas, scanned his characters from a clinical distance, rehearsing their disasters with a tone of stoic irony. Irony is not a tone Wright often reaches for; when he does, it eludes his grasp. In poem after poem he seeks imaginative identification with outcasts…. He is obsessed with the sufferings of victims, with his own sufferings and with the guilt of having suffered less than others he has known. It is the obsessiveness of feeling in the poems, just as much as their mechanically elaborate rhetoric, which often prolongs them beyond their natural span into exhausted anticlimax. In all manner of ways, the early Wright was overwrought.
Having grown disillusioned with his awkward and faltering devices. Wright looked outside his own literary tradition. Like a number of other poets near him in age—Bly, Merwin, Kinnell—he found a new voice through translating foreign poets and adapting some aspects of their styles. For Wright the new models included Trakl, Neruda and Vallejo, all of whom he translated, as well as certain Chinese poets to whom he paid a more remote yet discernible homage.
The Branch Will Not Break (1963) exhibited the new approach, which governed his work from then on. It is hard to recall how startling these poems were when they first appeared, so thoroughly have their once venturous strategies been assimilated over the last twenty years. Wright's near-abandonment of rhyme and meter was bound to make a difference, but a more striking innovation in these poems is his use of language as a seemingly immediate transmitter of perception. His words no longer smother what they seek to describe; they depict objects with the entranced accuracy of Chinese painting. And in a way which seemed jarring to some of the first readers of these poems, Wright often abruptly couples passages of calm, objective description with expressions of feeling that may or may not have an evident link to the scene. (p. 118)
One's reaction to [the last lines in the anthology piece "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"] is a test of one's taste for the later Wright. If one thinks the last line a self-indulgent non sequitur, one will not get far with this poetry. But if one appreciates the threads of intuition, at once as tenuous and as strong as a spider's web, which hold imagery and statement together, one will find much to admire in Wright's later books.
Sometimes even a fan may feel the new method misfires. Wright is capable of a tone of faux naïveté that is cloying in large doses. And his experimentalism occasionally has about it that wide-eyed American spit-and-rubberband quality, the self-applause of an auto mechanic seeking a patent on the wheel. But his successes outnumber his lapses.
He never stopped writing about the American Gothic dinginess of Martins Ferry, Ohio; but he managed in time to master his emotions in dealing with his past, subduing them to the rule of a contemplative spirit. He aspired, in Stevens's phrase, to write "profound poetry of the poor and of the dead." This he did, on more than one occasion. And yet it is not so much in these laments that his most lasting work appears as in his steady views of the enduring forms of nature that provide a serene backdrop for human perturbation. By drawing together the lasting and transient aspects of existence, Wright achieved an elegiac tone as complex as Hardy's. As his voice gained in flexibility, his settings took on variety. To his stark vignettes of the Midwest he added others of landscapes far afield. A great many of the poems in This Journey, as in his previous volume, To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), come out of Wright's travels in Europe. They eloquently continue the line in American literature that seeks to come to terms imaginatively with the old world. Perhaps surprisingly, what comes through most vividly is the poet's sense of being at home. (pp. 18-19)
Wright's awareness of approaching death can be discerned in these poems—not in any cadaverous quality but rather in a heightened sensitivity to the pulse of vitality everywhere around him….
Two words that turn up time and again in these poems are especially suggestive of the nature of Wright's last phase: they are "light" and "gather." He had come to see life as both radiant and fragile: "light" in both senses. And without renouncing the local and tragic themes he began with, he made it his final business to integrate, to "gather," a wider range of scenes and tones than many poets master in longer careers. This last book gives the lie to his most famous line: his life was not wasted. (p. 119)
Robert B. Shaw, "Exploring the Ruins," in The Nation (copyright 1982 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 235, No. 4, August 7-14, 1982, pp. 118-19.
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[Although James Wright] was an extraordinarily sophisticated and erudite poet, he kept plenty of room in his heart for the humble virtues. A concordance will show that he was never too lofty to make frequent use of good and bad—words that have become members of an endangered verbal species. Bad has come to mean good, while good has slipped down to the C-minus range, above fair but below excellent and other hyperbolic superlatives. (p. 612)
So when I say that James Wright was a good poet, I am using his characteristic vocabulary and saying two things about goodness: Wright was a good man and he wrote well.
Those nine monosyllables are so easy for me to put down that there is some danger of our forgetting how hard it is to be good and to work well. Wright's books seem to bear the scars, stretch-marks, and trophies of much struggle and even some defeat. He had a certain kind of good poem in mind, but he never achieved it, not quite. It was a vexing, perplexing problem of making ends meet. Here I am tempted to revise Blake and claim that, yes, extremes do indeed meet, but not until you introduce them. For Wright the extremes were ends, in many senses, of subject and technique. Wright's Democratic Vistas embraced so much that they make Whitman's look Republican. Wright wanted to canonize Judas and all the nameless sinners and pariahs. His outcast and downtrodden people were not the picturesque peasantry of the Liberal Imagination, not the eloquent Joads of Steinbeck, not the entertaining Snopeses of Faulkner. Wright's "people" were scum, the dregs, the horrible and disgusting filth of gutter, slum, and a richly deserved death row. Wright seems not only to have smooched lepers but also to have rejoiced in their leprosy. At the same time he rejoiced in the beautiful things of nature and culture: love among people, great art, the masterpieces and royalty of the plant and animal kingdoms. The glory of Wright's To a Blossoming Pear Tree is only partly a function of the pear's unilateral beauty; the glory depends also on the horrible presence of a shameless queer old derelict. Both tree and man—terminal extremes of health and disease—do what they do in passionate response to a biological summons to love in one way or another. Courageously Wright launched poem after poem in the direction of this indulgent democratic ideal, and it can be a thrilling enterprise to witness. (p. 613)
To include Judas, Harding, Daley, murderers, and drooling winos in lyric poems requires much more talent than Whitman's practice of sanctimonious slumming. The struggle to memorialize the aristocrats of squalor, the world-class crooks along-side the no-class losers, drew Wright to a correspondingly forked aesthetic. He seemed to want to embrace both James Whitcomb Riley and Rainer Maria Rilke in one hug: to keep faith with the corniest midwestern vernacular (a faith rather like Orson Welles's respect for Booth Tarkington, or Eliot's for Mark Twain) and at the same time to respond to the hypermodern voices of continental symbolist and surrealist poets whose primordial archetypal languages may lie even deeper in the soul than one's native vulgate…. Wright's effort to celebrate splendor while honestly recognizing the squalor inside and outside oneself, along with the parallel effort to honor conventional verse-verities, as registered in Robinson and Frost, while comprehending Rilke and Neruda—these labors resulted in nine volumes of poetry published over a twenty-five-year period…. The nine make up a corpus that is the most inconsistent known to me and is also among the most distinguished. The transition from The Branch Will Not Break … to Shall We Gather at the River … seems relatively smooth, but the other items in the series represent swerves, leaps, experiments, feints, backslidings, divagations, miscues, and even episodes of repudiation. (pp. 613-14)
This Journey, which cannot be called a culmination, is simply the last book by a poet who died too soon. It contains some very fine poems and some that seem inchoate or perfunctory. (But Wright at his most perfunctory could be far superior to many another poet at his most brilliant.) "Wherever Home Is" impresses me as a poem in Wright's most convincing voice…. In a few poems like "Lament: Fishing with Richard Hugo" Wright treats his own sharp tongue to a banquet of mockery…. One can speculate that Wright could have put all his voices and talents in a book-length poem or sustained sequence. He could not handle plots, and most of his characters reduce to one persona called "James Arlington Wright"; but that persona has enough depth and richness, and his experience takes in enough time (from classical antiquity to this century's Hardings, Eisenhowers, and Mayor Daleys; from Sappho to Doris Day and Barbra Streisand) and covers enough ground (China, Hawaii, Ohio, Italy) to have generated a great long poem. Instead we must be content with the pieces that we have. (pp. 614-15)
Of the seventy poems in This Journey, almost a third are in prose. Most of these are all right, I suppose, and a few (preeminently "Honey") are as good as anything of this sort that I know of. But "this sort" in itself somehow fails to satisfy. Mixed in with ordinary verse, as in This Journey, the prose poems have a chance of pleasing; but, in a work like Wright's Moments of the Italian Summer …, in which all the so-called poems are prose, the total effect is unsettling and frustrating. (p. 615)
Wright commanded a range of poetic devices adequate to provide all the relief and variety that a book may need. Without the prose poems, This Journey stands as the work of a good man who wrote well. (p. 617)
William Harmon, "James Wright, the Good Poet," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1982 by The University of the South), Vol. XC, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 612-23.
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[James Wright is] at least in part a representative man whose poetics demonstrate what we mean by contemporary as both an extension of and a rebellion against modernism….
We live in a time when critical theory has called into question not merely the function of art but the very existence of art. Theorists deny there can be an author. From Derrida to Culler to Fish, the talk is of the text, an impersonal object neither story nor poem. The desire of such criticism … is to bring to literature the objectivity of scientific inquiry; that is, to codify what and how literature knows. This is the direction and legacy of New Criticism in part, of modernist rebellion in part—but it is largely the temperament of the industrial world. While criticism fabricates objectivity and impersonality, becoming at last not a way of experiencing art but a kind of parodic extension of Robert Frost's remark about free verse—that is, a game played without net, racket, or balls—poetry has gone in the opposite direction. To understand and to follow James Wright's development as a poet we have to search for the man in the poems. (p. xii)
When W. B. Yeats spoke about the need to choose between perfection of the art and perfection of the life, he touched upon the central issue in poetry since the emergence of romanticism. If he seemed to echo modernist doctrine, to take the side of art's perfection, Yeats's poems moved always toward the inseparability of life and art that seems and is particularly contemporary. His act, the contemporary act, is that of the personality of a man rising symbolically to become the personality of men. We can see exactly this process in the poetry of James Wright.
Wright began with poems remarkable for their facility in verse elegance and for their implicit homage to the modernist obsession with an ideal and an impersonal music which might create an art, as Flaubert had said, apparently about nothing at all. Wright's first book, The Green Wall, appeared in 1957…. [It] made far less splash that year than did the Russian satellite Sputnik. The Green Wall carried into the space age the approving introduction of the last major modernist, W. H. Auden. In style and in attitude it echoed Robert Frost and E. A. Robinson, Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas. It was the kind of poetry that Wright has referred to as "quietist" but it did not entirely conform to Donald Hall's survivor's description of poetry in the 1950s: "Here was the ability to shape an analogy, to perceive and develop comparisons, to display etymological wit, and to pun six ways at once. It appealed to the mind because it was intelligent, and to the sense of form because it was intricate and shapely. It did not appeal to the passions and it did not pretend to." Wright's was most unlike this paradigmatic poetry in that within his acceptance and practise of modernist restraint, decorum, and structure more received than evolved, he brought great passion to contend against historical constrictions…. The poet of The Green Wall is capable primarily of conventional language and pastoral scenes of bruised beauty. Wright learned to call this glib. Even so he gave us a surprising mix of poems about mad girls, black prostitutes, George Doty the murderer, and Sappho the Lesbian. Sappho? From a Martins Ferry boy? That was the college influence, the books. The others were Wright's true subject, and his subject was the ghostly debris of the American promise. (pp. xii-xiii)
James Wright understood the American promise to be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was a vision of possibility, sometimes utopian but ordinarily practical. It was the vision of a small farm, a decently fed family, and the right to be responsible for one's self and one's own…. Wright's subject was heroism, promise and failure and evidence. Even in the slicked-up poems of The Green Wall there are hints of the blunt, aggressive poetry he will come to, of the dream life he will dramatize, and of the fearful privation of the human spirit that will be his battleground. Yet, the poet who speaks The Green Wall is the composite voice of Wright's literary fathers. Wright himself is scarcely to be seen.
Saint Judas, published just two years after the first book, continues the neo-Georgian style, though there is a new urgency of personality. The book's initial poem, "Lunar Changes," suggests not so much an alteration in the way the poems will comport themselves—and indeed "Complaint" exhibits the smooth couplets of iambic pentameter which look backward in time—as the presence of deeper, more subtle changes. Wright had begun to abandon the pastoral hymn to Nature as the perfect Emersonian mirror. He had decided to know the reality of nature as he is in it and it is in him. As yet the attempt was rough and sporadic, but it was there. It was there stuttering through personality. Implicit in his lunar changes were the questions of what a poet knows and how he knows; that is to say, of facing the problem of what authority poetry might have in a post-Wasteland and post-Holocaust world. When poets or critics talk about the problem of form and content they are inevitably talking about the poet's authority, that which allows poetry to do anything or, as Auden says, "to make nothing happen."
The interjection of personality as the fundamental force of contemporary poetics drove against the cultural and critical lust for objective knowledge. To describe and evaluate the new poetry, criticism called it "confessional."… Confessionalism meant the recording and presentation of the raw data of biographical existence, the evidence of naturalistic decay. Everyone pointed out the extreme subjectivity and lack of shapeliness. It was, of course, a further rebellion against passionless modernism and the art about nothing. The poetry of personality, which had to have a confessional dimension but which might not be confessional, imagined that the details of the individual life might be drawn to a coherence and meaning that extended beyond the one life. (pp. xiii-xv)
With Saint Judas Wright began the invention of himself, his place, and of a poetry that would dramatize the life he had known, the American promise and the American nightmare. He began to feel that what he wrote and the way he wrote were historical lies. He wanted truth in his life and life in his poems. His poems underwent lunar changes and more. His titles pointed at guilt and innocence, purity and impurity…. Speaking of shame and humiliation, of revelation and accusation, Wright was a poet passing through learned abstractions toward finite places and things, what he called "secrets," that might constitute and define the individual life apart from and yet within a community. In "At the Executed Murderer's Grave," Wright believed that "We are nothing but a man." This theme, Donne's and Coleridge's, of obligation and responsibility to man and being, which displaces the modernist obligation only to art, welled up. Wright had begun to allow his Ohio mythology to gleam forth from the details of his life, to allow his life to shape what was both immediately, verifiably true and also historically, mythically accurate. (pp. xv-xvi)
Sylvia Plath and others would join Wright in portraying art as the instructor of how to die. Wright's employment of biographical details which are verifiable, the confessional element, was obvious and demonstrated the poetry of personality. However, the syntactical skill and suppleness, the suspensions and juxtapositions, the rigorous cadence and tight rhymes drove against the poem's spontaneity. Wright created a character in whom we could place trust, a mature and sympathetic and ironic voice…. Wright's lunar changes and those of his contemporaries were directed at discovering, assembling, and giving cohesive authority to their secret lives. It is not difficult to see that the poets were regarding poetry as more nearly inspired than confessional. Their poet, logically, was an extension of the romantic corrective agent, though an agent virtually without power because their secret lives remained too often merely personal. (pp. xvi-xvii)
Wright's lunar changes did not happen in a vacuum. The contemporary movement toward personality is a romantic impulse, though it is an impulse finally as characteristic of modernism as of nineteenth-century art, with perhaps a renewed emphasis on a naked style capable of expressing experience in a world which had overnight hurtled into the space age. Of course Sputnik is only an image for a world spinning geometrically faster from its Cartesian birth…. Pastoral visions and melodious verses were, in the new age, as unreal as bogeymen, and what life was there in seamless artifacts? Poetry, it seemed, was beyond passion, rather than made of passion. The contemporary poets responded by beginning to write what Donald Hall described as "the poetry of a man in the world, responding to what he sees: with disgust, with pleasure, in rant and in meditation." If the result was art it would be the art of personal experience from which might rise a forged self, an empirical wisdom, a more tested vision of the real. The choice is, in retrospect, clear: the art about nothing at all or the life-roughened poem…. James Dickey had said in The Suspect in Poetry, published by Wright's friend Robert Bly in 1964, that "The secret does not, of course, reside in a complete originality, which does not and could not exist. It dwells, rather, in the development of personality, with its unique weight of experience and memory, as a writing instrument, and in the ability to give literary influence a new dimension which has the quality of this personality as informing principle." From within and from without, James Wright was under pressure to bring his life, or an invented life, forth in his poetry.
Following the publication of Saint Judas, Wright wrote a letter to his publisher in which he said he would not do that kind of poetry again. His third book, The Branch Will Not Break, showed radical stylistic changes but not a complete break with the past…. The changes in Wright are … the predictable steps taken by literary history away from modernist orthodoxy…. In general, the change is from a dispassionate, ironic, closed-form poetry to Hall's poem in the world, to open form as it had been appearing to Wright and others through non-English models. The usual argument is that Wright was transformed by the influence of Robert Bly and through readings outside of the Anglo-American tradition of poetry. While this is a valid argument, we might be reminded that Wright no more abandoned his native traditions in poetry than he abandoned his Ohio Valley.
Nevertheless, Wright's poetry was now marked by a turn toward a private vision generally characterized by a juxtaposition of vivid and disparate images, an abjuring of narrative or linear progression in favor of an elliptical and spatial movement, and an economy of adjective, adverb, or qualifying phrase, all of which produced a resonance from the particular as it was baldly felt. William Carlos Williams had said "no ideas but in things," but he had not said no ideas. Wright did not abandon thought or thing in his new poems; he put them in a different balance. (pp. xvii-xviii)
The critics called Wright a surrealist and an imagist. He thought himself neither. In time we are going to get what academics call the definitive examination of what Wright was. We may get one after another and we may actually learn something about his lunar changes—but it will be a small something. Critics are not very good at understanding something any poet knows, which is that he contains multitudes because he lives by the imagination. Wright was more and less than any label. Nevertheless he created a visible character, a personality, and a coherent art in which his individual poems function as pieces of a mosaic.
In 1971 Wright published his Collected Poems…. It contained, in addition to most of his previous work and a section of translations, thirty-one new poems under the title "New Poems." This work showed Wright had come far from his early conventional poetry, but it also showed that he had moved away from the dream and nightmare image poems of his middle career. There was a renewed interest in narrative, or at least narrativelike, poems. He did not abandon rhetoric or image, private or public consciousness, screech or song, but he recombined these elements with an increasingly colloquial diction and an abruptly modulating tone. He tried to speak forcefully and plainly within the constraints of poetry, a poetry now identified with loosened rhythms, circling syntax, repetitions of image and phrase, anecdotes daringly dramatized and punctuated by authorial intrusion. In other words, he tried to stretch his expectations for and his accomplishments in poetry and he stepped even closer to the personal: he demanded the right to speak not as persona or mask but as himself, a man in the midst of chaotic experience who means to achieve a cohesive view of the real…. The foundation of Wright's vision of man being, as he said, that most of us are selfish sons of bitches, he still believed that no one was wholly without the evidence of hope and possibility. Wright was, we should remind ourselves, making these poems in an era of terrible racial struggles, of apparent social fragmentation, and of the daily news delivered icily in body counts. Yet Wright's testimony was finally quite clear: life is good. (pp. xix-xx)
Wright's awareness of the American dream of possibility, a dream which subsumes all other dreams, led him to rant and sing of kinsmen, waste, violence, betrayal, destruction, and love…. There was in "New Poems" and subsequently in Two Citizens … a more raggedly personal style than ever. And in Two Citizens, which he came to reject, there was an open argument with country and kin. A surprising, shocking book, Two Citizens has been widely regarded as evidence of Wright's and contemporary poetry's failure to make art, a failure inherent in the exchange of art's distance for personal authority. Certainly there was an extension of Wright's decision not only to front the people, places, and ideas nearest to him but also to front his reader. Time will, of course, judge Wright's choice and the value of his writing but it is not irrelevant that his private argument has been felt by many to possess significant public resonance. (p. xx)
[In a preface Wright provided in 1963 for a book of poems by Hy Sobiloff, he] identified the fundamental task of modern art: the attempt to give coherence and objectivity to the subjectively real and all but ungraspable design of human experience. He moreover reveals the large and primary figure of his poetry by evoking the ubiquitous wandering exile whose journey is first shadowed in the Christian image of the lost garden and then echoed in the contemporary exile who is technocratically and industrially victimized. Wright has evoked Thoreau's fear of being ground up in the machine, processed, lost, made anonymous and irresponsible. In such a world, Wright knew, we belong not to the dead or the living but to the undead mass. How then shall we live—not merely survive as naturalistic motes—when to live is to see, to be fully conscious, able as Thoreau said to look another man in the face, to recall what the American promise was and to understand what it has come to? From this perspective it seems not surprising but predictable that Wright would woo a poetry of prosaic character and the emotional range of a Dickens, who not incidentally was the subject of James Wright's doctoral dissertation. Wright is devoted to Horace and the demands of Horatian craft, restraint, distance, humility, elegance—but it is the anger, humor, indignation, love, and ragged passion of Dickens in contention with that Horatian ghost that most identifies Wright's late poetry and his citizenship. (pp. xxii)
[Few] American poets have become so ruthlessly local, regional, and willing to address their arguments so directly as James Wright. In Two Citizens the mythical and real Ohio River Valley are one in contrast with Wright's adopted Italy, the country of Horace. His two citizens are himself and his wife Annie, but they are also America and Italy. Wright claims he loves Italy and hates America but he spits and blusters and does not believe that himself…. Neither in memory nor in poetry could he abandon the source of his dreams…. He understood that the artist cannot perfect life or art but must settle for a ragged interpenetration of both. When he wrote of his Appalachian country of steel mills, mines, factories, farms, and river towns, Wright showed us the suffering and horror and ugliness that Dickens had known, but after Horace the last words of Wright's Collected Poems are "I am so happy." And the last words of Two Citizens are "I love you so." Beyond all the false starts, for Wright, there had to be the journey homeward, the inside journey, where there would be courage and, more than courage, joy. (pp. xxii-xxiii)
We hear of nothing so frequently in his poems as the glint of … joy, the flash of happiness, the blossoming of beauty…. James Wright never thought of himself as a morbid or death-haunted poet, though some of his readers did. He was keenly aware of what it felt like to live in perhaps the most turbulent, confusing, painful, absurd, and incomprehensible time man has ever known. He had survived the hell of the Ohio River Valley and he had experienced firsthand the hell of destruction that the Atomic Age was in Japan. But he believed, as he wrote, that the branch would not break, that a man might lie still enough to watch a blue jay on that branch "abandon himself / To entire delight."
Wright's poems are counters to the fear and the ugliness that attack us all. The world of his poetry is one in which we may discover the heroic in ourselves, the secret life we hadn't known about. His poems tell only one story, the great story of finding the way home, and on the right terms. This is most significantly the American story, but it is not only the American story. We find him again and again standing in the place of darkness where the dream had died. Trying always to assume his individual responsibility for life, he leans like a compass needle toward the true place which is inside but which in the poems is Ohio, the place named after the river that is life itself. (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
In 1976 James Wright published what is commonly referred to as a collection of prose poems, Moments of the Italian Summer. He regarded these pieces as prose fragments but he also felt that the distinction between prose and poetry was irrelevant. The pieces, however defined, are reveries, testimonies to a joy immanent in the natural world. His language pours out like water from a broken dam and in contrast we become aware, as he must have, of how fitful and choked his poetry had sometimes been. In retrospect there is an impression that Wright spoke in spite of himself, that there was a joy in him he could not hide…. Wright had learned that for the writer every life and every piece of creation was no less than the image of all creation. Through the struggle with language and for language, he had been given the fit of life that is the self. He had understood that he had to break down and scrape away the dead expression that sealed him from the living presence of the past in its pastness and from himself, from the actual world in which he and all men walked. Wright had discovered that history was not merely style; it was memory and power as the evidence of and the stimulus to ordinary human responsibility. The living past, shown forth by all that debris of the American promise, cries out to the poet. When he answers it is with poems. When the poems are true and strong they return us all to the dream of possibility. (p. xxv)
I said earlier that James Wright was not death-haunted. Still, Death is the main character in our fictions. Wright was like most of us God-haunted and self-isolated. This risked the refusal of life and the debasement of creation which he had described. Wright allows us to see that if we choose not to undertake our destiny and choose not to front life, which the choice to employ habitual language and gesture means, we effectively ignore communal responsibility. This is the responsibility each bears to all. It is the responsibility of courage. Wright's courage consists in his willingness to communicate the truth of his feelings at the risk not only of public failure but of failure before his masters, Dickens and Horace. Wright continuously praised writers for telling the truth boldly and powerfully but shied away from such claims for himself. The irony, though it is not very ironic, is that the more he brought his life into his poems, his emotional and ethical and biographical and mythical life, the more truth he made us feel in ourselves, the more courage he gave us. The one story he tells proceeds from the conviction to which he was always faithful, that however tragic life may be there is the beauty of joy within it and we must seek tirelessly for it. (p. xxvi)
Dave Smith, "Introduction," in The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright, edited by Dave Smith (© 1982 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1982, pp. xi-xxviii.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
[James Wright] was a poet of emotional extremes. Certain of his feelings—his overflowing compassion, and his lifelong loving preoccupations with his working-class origins—appealed to readers so strongly as to rule out a purely aesthetic judgment. At the same time, Wright was an exceedingly private poet, whose impulse was often to protect the object of his feeling even against the intrusion of his own words…. He probably changed the possibilities of American poetry more than any other poet of his generation except Ashbery and Ginsberg. The style which he, and his friend Robert Bly, invented—at once emotionalist and secretive, with its simple sentences, forbidden nineteenth-century words like "lovely," and opalescent, mysterious nature imagery—became for more than a decade the dominant mode of the American brief lyric. Yet it remains a conspicuously mannered style, derived neither from speech nor from traditionally fluent writing. Poignant though it can be, it is perhaps too limiting, in its exclusion of complex thought and resonant music, to yield poetry of the very greatest impact. Wright himself—though showered with easy and, often, implicitly anti-intellectual praise—continued, rather endearingly, to suggest that, judged by the standards of the dead poets he loved best, he was "minor."
He also continued to change, in a way that makes one think of Yeats, Eliot, Lowell—poets not at all "minor" in their ambitions. In Two Citizens …, he largely turned away from the imagistic, to make poetry out of the inarticulate violence of American masculine speech when it tries to deal with intense emotion. It was a confusing, disquieting kind of poetry. The poet's feelings seemed to veer to opposite extremes from line to line, or to protect themselves behind inscrutable sarcasms…. [In] his next book, To a Blossoming Pear Tree, he often seemed to be ironing out the new style's subtlety along with its prickliness, while remaining indulgent toward its worst real fault, the Hemingwayesque mannerism of sentimental toughness.
Wright's posthumous volume, This Journey, is a much better book than To a Blossoming Pear Tree, though there is no return to the drastic originality of Two Citizens. This Journey is probably the least mannered of any of Wright's books. Something happened to the poet in the advance aura of his dying (as it happened to Williams, to Roethke, to Lowell) to produce both an unusual transparency toward the world as it is, and an unprecedented power of direct statement…. Never before had he spent so much poetic time calmly looking at things, without making them preternaturally "lovely" or sad…. (pp. 36-7)
This Journey might be a good place for the uninitiated reader to begin with Wright—and then work back into the labyrinth of intention, risk, and talent in the earlier books. It is also a good place to see what a remarkable ear Wright had, even though for a while he almost worked to suppress it, in the grammatically determined free verse linebreaking he shared with Bly. (p. 37)
Alan Williamson, "An American Lyricist," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1983 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 188, No. 4, January 31, 1983, pp. 36-7.
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