James Wright Wright, James (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wright, James 1927–

Wright is an American poet and translator. His poetry has gradually evolved in style from traditional to experimental verse, consistently reflecting strong lyric grace. Considered by many critics to be one of the finest poets writing in America today, Wright received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1972. He has collaborated with Robert Bly on a translation of Pablo Neruda's poetry. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Peter A. Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading the Collected Poems of James Wright from the point of view of style is like reading a history of the best contemporary American poetry. One discovers a development which could be said to parallel the development generally of our finest recent poets…. [It is] a movement generally away from rhetoric, regular meter and rhyme, towards plainer speech, looser rhythms and few rhymes…. Not that the result is formlessness nor that the forms arrived at are alike. What one looks for is the individual voice, the distinctive style that is right for one poet but not quite right for any other.

James Wright has achieved such a style…. [Furthermore, his] poetry is sufficiently rich, both stylistically and thematically, to merit several voices. (p. 13)

Perhaps the most pervasive general theme in Wright's poetry—if theme it is—is that of separation. [In his first two volumes, The Green Wall and Saint Judas], separation appears in two guises—as the result of death and as the result of being at odds with one's society. There is a corresponding search for love as the ideal solution to the problem—but rarely is it a realised solution. The protagonists in these poems are loveless, either because they are outcasts from society or because death has separated them from the ones they loved…. I see such poems as attempts to overcome separation, alienation—attempts, of course, doomed to failure. (pp. 14-15)

The preoccupation with death in Wright's poems really reflects, at least [in some poems], the deeper preoccupation with and fear of separation, of alienation, of being completely alone. In other poems the emphasis on death will reflect a preoccupation with suffering, with the human condition as inevitably tragic, partially because of death.

The other side of separation—alienation from one's society—is reflected in Wright's constant concern with outcasts, down-and-outers—criminals, murderers, betrayers, lesbians, skid row characters, poets. Again, of course, Wright's sympathies are with the separated and not with the others, the ones who have cast them out. (p. 15)

"Saint Judas" is one of Wright's best and most remarkable poems…. It is a poem of great compassion for man in general and for the outcast, and its title has puzzled for years those of a theological frame of mind. It really shouldn't be so puzzling because the poem itself explains and justifies its title. It would be hard to imagine a more universally reviled man in the western world than Judas, Christ's betrayer—he is the archetypal outcast. Wright takes him up after he had "Bargained the proper coins" and after he turned against himself and decided to commit suicide, and creates a situation that will test his humanity: "When I went out to kill myself, I caught / A pack of hoodlums beating up a man." His instinctive reaction is the right one—he tries to aid the man, and in the process forgets his own troubles…. Judas is the down-and-outer par excellence, and has nothing to look forward to either in life or in death. With absolutely nothing to gain from it, he makes the instinctively humane gesture and tries to protect the suffering man. That is why Wright has chosen to canonize him—not because he has lived a pure life but because he is a man, fallible like all men, who redeems his unspeakable act of betrayal through an act of kindness. Judas thus is presented as the archetypal good man who does indeed make mistakes. And Wright does more than empathize with him; he identifies with him and tells the story from his point of view. This is the key poem to understanding James Wright's love for humanity and for the outcast. It is a brilliant poem, a sonnet of great dramatic power.

The poems in Wright's first two volumes, then, are generally too literary, too subservient to the poems and poets of the past. At the same time, it must be recognized that Wright handles the traditional forms with considerable skill, sometimes with brilliance. There are many fine poems here, poems which anticipate both stylistically and thematically the later work. Still, we must admit that Wright had not yet found his voice in these early books, that his own distinctive style, though emerging, had not yet appeared.

The Branch Will Not Break (1963), Wright's happiest book, is mostly concerned with nature, especially with the landscape of western Minnesota. The book's title indicates its major affirmation—the faith that nature will endure and continue to sustain man. (pp. 16-17)

Wright's new aesthetic involves a loosening of form, a movement away from the heavy domination of meter, rhyme, and rhetoric toward rhythmical sparseness and verbal simplicity….

The function formerly served by regular form in Wright's poems now comes to be served by his images, by his use of what has been called the "deep" or the "subjective" image. This "new" way of perceiving and recording has its origins in surrealism, and shares with that movement an interest in the subconscious mind. (p. 19)

Wright is not a surrealist poet, though he does use many of the techniques of surrealism. I would place him in a middle-ground, somewhere between the poles of surrealism and rationalism. The poetry of surrealism too often can be unintelligible to most readers as the poem records what the poet discovers on a quick, associational trip through the deeper regions of his mind. Wright has definitely liberated his imagination from the strict confines of logical, rational thought, but his poems retain, nevertheless, something of a logical structure. A good illustration of all this is the poem "Miners." The title indicates the subject and is an important guidepost, for without it we might quickly become lost in the poem's oblique imagery—the title provides, in other words, the rational key to the poem. The first of the poem's four sections goes like this: "The police are probing tonight for the bodies / Of children in the black waters / Of the suburbs." The stanza is illusive and seems to have little to do with the title. The drowning of the children is metaphorical—that they drown in "the suburbs" indicates that their death is spiritual rather than physical. The suburbs, further, are not localized; they could be anywhere in America. The "black waters" might be taken to suggest the mines, and one explanation of the stanza could be: these are the children of miners, living in suburbs and destined to become miners themselves someday; thus they are trapped in a hopeless life and might be said to be "drowned." The police serve two functions: first, their probing adds a realistic detail to the stanza; second, they represent an enemy, the hostility of the real world, through their implicit function as an arm of the establishment which exploits the miners.

The second stanza is somewhat more specific, centering on the process of the...

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COR van den HEUVEL

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a universality in Wright's work not only in subject matter but in form and technique as well. He is a classicist in the broad sense of the word. A craftsman who can put to use the traditional elements of his art while at the same time exploring new means of expression. In subject matter, his work encompasses both the outer world of planets and horses, grass and stars, and the inner world of the mind and heart which seeks to relate to the inner worlds of others.

His first book [The Green Wall] was devoted mostly to groundwork—mastering traditional forms. It appealed mainly to academic critics. Though the poems revealed some awareness of the human condition, the doorway to the human heart was opened only a crack—and the wonders of existence were barely tapped. The demands of the traditional forms in some cases resulted in an awkwardly elaborate facade of rhyme and meter through which a stilted sentimentality came on stage to talk of dead hounds and whores. But in many of the poems the language was expertly handled and in some cases the form began to take a less restricted shape—though the iambics might still drum their tum-te-tums too insistently upon the ear.

In his second book, Saint Judas, the forms retained a strictness, but there seemed to be a freedom of language within them—a more natural speech—so that the rhymes and meter did not obtrude on the senses but rather provided a subtle music to the sense. And, too, Wright began to express in earnest his concern for the downtrodden—the rejected and suffering members of humanity—which some of his friends and critics feel is the most important and characteristic element in his work….

In "At the Executed Murderer's Grave," Wright's pity, though it first excludes the dead murderer—"I do not pity the dead, I pity the dying,"—ultimately includes him, for we are all criminals one way or another in our grasping after love…. (p. 164)

Death—"Earth is a door I cannot even face"—and Love—the terrible beauty that causes pain and suffering as well as joy—are the two poles of the [above] poem. The poet stands in the middle torn by the immense incomprehensibility of the two—and by pity for himself, and by extension for the rest of mankind, all caught in the web of life strung upon them.

Wright is concerned as deeply with the other emotions as well. Hate plays a major role in a number of poems as the poet vents his rage at the cruelty and stupidity of our world. (p. 165)

In his next book, The Branch Will Not Break, the outer universe poured into Wright's poetry with a magic immediacy that led many to think the poet had undergone a violent metamorphosis. The language became simpler and more natural—with a haunting beauty. Here is "In Fear of Harvests":

It has happened
Before: nearby
The nostrils of slow horses
Breathe evenly,
And the brown bees drag their high garlands,
Toward hives of snow.

The words and images work like a magic incantation to dispel,...

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R. J. Spendal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The central conflict of "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" is] the opposition between an impulse to change and failure or inability to do so. The speaker is aware from the beginning that he has "wasted" his life. Each of the poem's major images depicts his frustrated impulse toward change. The last lines suggest that as the evening of his life approaches the speaker resigns himself to a permanent state of irresolution. To "lean back" is to give up; this hardly seems the posture of aroused insight.

The butterfly, a traditional symbol of metamorphosis, indicates at the outset the speaker's concern with change. However the conventional meaning of the image is...

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Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

James Wright, of Ohio, has been to Vienna, to Verona, to Sirmio, never forgetting Ohio, which sounds as sweet as any of them. Of Verona's Adige he writes,

              This is another river
              I can still see flow by.
              The Ohio must have looked
              Something like this
              To the people who loved it
              Long before I was born.

It must, it must; though in an unexpectedly weak book ["To a Blossoming Pear Tree"] this poet who has shown strength in the past is making little effort to reach for the feel of that "must have."

The present collection goes better when anecdotal material can carry itself. Wright was waiting for a bus in the cold, and a young Sioux with a hook for a hand was good to him….

              Did you ever feel a man hold
              Sixty-five cents
              In a hook,
              And place it
              In your freezing hand?

We can imagine how that was. The language isn't surgically clean, just clean enough to convey the incident; that seems to be the neutral quality James Wright is after now, content to be carried by his matter, anecdotal matter with nostalgic auras. (pp. 12-13)

Hugh Kenner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 12, 1978.

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems in Wright's To A Blossoming Pear Tree are concerned with the] mythology of the insulted and injured to be located alike in southern Ohio and in the poet's body ("helpless and miserable / dreaming itself / into an apparition of loneliness"). And they exploit that mythology with the insolence of utter conviction. But so deeply is the poet identified with something which has happened to him outside the poem that he cannot be bothered, or even begged, to make it into a coherence within the poem…. The divine event is a deja vu; it is, it has always been, as Wright says, "a secret of blossoms we had no business / to understand, only to remember." (One figures here is the source of Wright's new...

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