Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71
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.)
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2847
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 search for the bodies and localizing the setting in southern Ohio…. The third stanza, however, is the central one, for it turns directly to the miners them-selves and their hopelessness…. There, stated in clear and accurate detail, is the life of the miner. Of course he doesn't literally knock on the door of a tomb [as the poem seems to state], though the poem gains power from the possibility that a miner could dig into a grave. Rather, the imagery suggests the inevitable death wish of the miner, caught as he is in a hopeless situation.
The final stanza completes the portrait of the miner's family by turning to his wife: "Many American women mount long stairs / In the shafts of houses, / Fall asleep, and emerge suddenly into tottering palaces." Even their dreams, the only really positive element in their lives, are precarious, as their dream palaces totter. The imagery of the poem is fascinating: all the settings, the "black waters," the mine, the "shafts of houses," and the "tottering palaces" suggest the grave. And it is evident, from the way he writes of the suburban children and American wives, that Wright is not speaking just of coal miners here; his comments expand to include, seemingly, most of mankind…. I take this to be one of Wright's more surrealistic poems, and I mean my discussion of it to stand as an illustration of his 'surrealist' method in general. (pp. 20-1)
The Branch Will Not Break is Wright's nature book, suffused with the desire to escape from the world of man into the world of nature. The speaker in these poems, as in all of Wright's poems, is a harried and haunted man, a man who feels out of place in society, perhaps in the world. Nature in The Branch Will Not Break gives him sustenance, acceptance, resurrection, even pronounces a benediction upon him in some poems. The central poem with regard to the use made here of nature is "A Blessing," which comes very near the end of the volume. It is a remarkable poem, one which attempts to achieve a miracle…. [The] poem ends: "Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom." This is the moment of the supreme consecration of man by nature in Wright's poetry, and the key to the happiness of this volume. It is a peak not again reached in the later poetry.
The Branch Will Not Break is an important book in contemporary American poetry, probably the most successful importation of the methods of modern French and Spanish surrealism that we have. It is also a courageous book—by changing his aesthetic so radically, Wright was taking the chance of confusing and alienating his audience. It is courageous too because of the psychological risks it takes—the journey into the interior of the mind which is part of surrealism is a dangerous trip…. (p. 22)
Shall We Gather at the River is both Wright's best book and his darkest, desperate and despairing. It is a unified work, more a sequence of poems than a collection of individual lyrics, which is what the other volumes remain. The poems are united through their narrator, a harried and haunted man, the outcast tamed poet or vice versa, and are located in the present—Minneapolis and the Mississippi River mostly—and the past—the Ohio River and the area in which Wright grew up. The poems set in the present establish a horrible and constantly threatened existence, from which the speaker attempts to escape into the past. But what he finds there is mostly death. Where the escape from a hostile environment in The Branch Will Not Break was made to nature, here it is made in the direction of death—and this difference indicates the greatly contrasting moods of the two books.
The book can be divided roughly into three parts, with a prologue and an epilogue. The first part, encompassing the nine poems from "The Minneapolis Poem" through "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store," establishes the persona of the speaker as an outcast and details his way of life at the bottom of society. The second part, eight poems from "Speak" through "Listening to the Mourners," consists of attempts to escape this situation, primarily in the present. In the third, and most important, section, eighteen poems from "Youth" through "Poems to a Brown Cricket," the speaker, dissatisfied by the movements in part two, returns to the countryside of his youth and, through memory, reconstructs its events. The division is mine, not Wright's, and is far from perfect…. (pp. 22-3)
Psychology and mythology come together in Wright's use of the river. Freud tells us that water is to be associated with both birth and death, as man is born on a literal flood of water, remembers this, and subconsciously associates water both with the pre-birth state of death-like semi-consciousness and with death itself. Wright knows Whitman's poetry well, and in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Whitman makes just this three-fold connection: the waves of the sea fall with the rhythm of the rocking cradle (also the rhythm of the heart beat), associating water with birth, and the word the waves whisper is "death, death, death." Mythology gives us the rivers Lethe, across which souls soon to be born are carried, and Styx, across which Charon carries these same souls after death—so again water is associated with both birth and death, the cycle of life. Add to this the ancient metaphor of the river as life, and you have the materials for understanding James Wright's use of the river. (p. 26)
The many drownings in Wright's poems, from The Green Wall, Saint Judas, and [Shall We Gather at the River] especially, now take on greater significance; the poems are full of people who have drowned in the Ohio. The dead, the subject of death, the river, and the drowned all come together in Jenny, who becomes increasingly important as the book progresses. The speaker centers his search for some kind of happiness in her, his great love, and it is the fact that she is dead that gives the book its despairing darkness. (p. 27)
The power of this book is at least partially ascribable to its unity, the fact that it is almost one long poem rather than a series of short ones…. The other thing that makes me rate Shall We Gather at the River highest among Wright's books is the depth of its theme. In his large use of the quest and the river, encompassing birth and death, Wright touches something very deep in all of us. The book has truth because we all suffer, we all are searching for love, we all feel nostalgia for the settings and affections of the past…. [By] using materials often associated with the collective unconscious, Wright has touched a responsive chord in us all.
The best of the "New Poems" are the long ones that Wright has increasingly taken to writing in recent years. One of their titles gives us a clue to the structural notion which lies behind them: "A centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862." We could probably define the modern ode as a long, loosely constructed poem, often consisting of variations on or around a theme. Other poems of this variety which stand out here are "A Secret Gratitude" and "Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child."… [This] form seems to be becoming a characteristic mode for Wright…. The question is really one of structure rather than style as such. The style of these poems is essentially that of the poems of Shall We Gather at the River—a more mature, more highly perfected version of the 'surrealistic' style of The Branch Will Not Break. (pp. 28-9)
The form … of Wright's longer poems is open, and things get into them on the basis of simple association. It makes for a fluid and exciting art form. (p. 31)
Though the "New Poems," at least by contrast with Shall We Gather at the River, tend as a section towards disunity, their general drift and their placement makes a fitting climax to the Collected Poems. Throughout the first four books there is a constant search, within a basically hostile world, for love. The protagonist-seeker is an outcast, separated from love and equanimity by society and the fact of death. The first two volumes could be said to be introductory: pervaded by mortality, alienation, and generally lacking in love, they could not be called joyful. The Branch Will Not Break provides a happy interlude, an escape from the hostile universe of the other volumes. But Shall We Gather at the River forcefully proves that the happiness was only temporary and the search for love again takes over in a hostile world. Though the world remains generally hostile in the "New Poems," the search for love finally has a successful resolution.
Wright has placed two of his new poems at the front of the book, where they serve as a prologue. "The Quest" seems to have been placed there in recognition of the implicit quest, the search for love, that carries us through the collected volume…. The quest here is for love, and it is successful. The most positive of the "New Poems" are several love poems—and they are among the most positive in Wright's work generally. Their predominance here seems to indicate a successful end to the book-long quest of the protagonist-speaker—it ends in the discovery and celebration of a real love.
The section ends on a remarkable note in the poem "Northern Pike," a note which indicates the fulfillment of the quest in spite of everything…. There is an attitude of acceptance, a feeling that, in spite of man's continuing cruelty and the general hostility of the world, somehow things in the speaker's world have reached a long-desired balance. The poem and the book appropriately end with these lines: "There must be something very beautiful in my body, / I am so happy." (pp. 31-2)
Peter A. Stitt, "The Poetry of James Wright," in The Minnesota Review (© 1972 by The Minnesota Review), Spring, 1972, pp. 13-32.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1329
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
The nostrils of slow horses
And the brown bees drag their high garlands,
Toward hives of snow.
The words and images work like a magic incantation to dispel, if only for a moment, the fear of death. Death appears (or fades) in the perspective of a vivid sense of continuing life and the round of the seasons, and seems almost desirable—transformed by the wonder of the world of which it is an essential part. The language and the images have that simple beauty characteristic of Japanese haiku, somehow becoming an actual presence on the page. (p. 166)
[Before] Branch was published Wright started his "association" with The Fifties (later The Sixties). Some of the enigmatically beautiful new poems later to appear in Branch first appeared in that magazine. About this time, the magazine also began its series of translations of modern European and South American poets…. The influence of these foreign poets [especially Georg Trakl, whose poetry Wright translated,] … seemed to bring a new tone to Wright's work, a simplicity and depth of language and image—and cryptic silences where, "far off, the shopping centers empty and darken," or "flashlights drift over dark trees."
Whatever the influences (for one can see where the poet feels a kinship with ancient Chinese poets as well as modern Spanish or German ones), Wright has used them to find his own individual voice.
But it is a voice that grew out of his earlier books also—it was not a veering off into a totally new direction. For Wright was always moving in the direction of a more simple and immediate language. Even the imagery had its precursors. It awaited enrichment or fruition, of course, but the seedlings can be found here and there even in The Green Wall. For example, in that book there are these two lines from "She Hid in the Trees From the Nurses":
Now far away the evening folds
Around the siloes and the hill.
In Branch this "basic" image is enriched (by the distillation of simplicity—which even extends to the spelling), and touched with new magic:
A long sundown.
Silos creep away toward the west.
("In Memory of a Spanish Poet.")
In his next book, Shall We Gather at the River, Wright returned from the infinite spaces to be found in leaves and stones to stand with the hurt and downtrodden of humanity again…. The experience [of Branch], I believe, enabled him to come back with deeper powers of compassion and love—a new intensity of feeling for that mortal life which struggles to catch a glimpse of the eternal—and a greater skill in his craft. (pp. 167-68)
Branch constituted an important development in Wright's work (and it is still my favorite). There was a great advance in technical proficiency as well as a dazzling blossoming of images. Before Branch the lines would sometimes gurgle and choke on their syntax as they were squeezed into the molds of rhyme and meter. With Branch there was a "sea change" in language, speech pattern, imagery, and tone—it was now plain American speech heightened to a strange beauty by the imaginative powers and craftsmanship of a man who had worked long and hard to learn the secrets of his art. The rhythms were balanced to fit their images, thoughts, and feelings—and the poems rounded into a complete form of their own with neither a word too little or too much. While the language had become sharp and clean as sunlight in a mountain stream, the images presented startling shapes from a shadowy primeval mist, or the mysteriously clear and tangible presences of simple existence like the breathing of horses.
I now feel that this was a further development of Wright's art and experience of life, rather than a sudden freakish change of character. It was another dimension of human experience, and it will continue to enrich his work, but it is not the primary concern of his art (as, for example, it seems to have been with some of the Japanese haiku masters—what I mean is the infinite in a grain of sand, eternity in a grass blade's moment of dawn and dew). His primary concerns—and I think in these two things his work has been consistent—is to achieve a superhuman facility with speech in order to embody the human spirit.
His subject matter has, of course, varied, but the most common subject with which Wright has taken his stand for the human spirit has been with those who suffer more than the rest of us…. (p. 168)
Wright sees life neither as "pretty pictures," nor as an ugly meaningless smear—he sees its horror and its beauty even in its smallest manifestations…. (p. 170)
Cor van den Heuvel, "The Poetry of James Wright," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1974 by the University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgment of previous publication is herewith made) Vol. VII, No. 3 (Spring, 1974), pp. 163-70.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
[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 undercut by several details: "bronze" suggests rigidity; sleep denies to the butterfly any possibility of consciously determined movement; and "Blowing like a leaf" implies a lack of volitional strength—a leaf is easily swayed. The house in line 4 conveys a sense of achievement and security easily associated with a life well-led; but the house is empty and it belongs to William Duffy rather than the speaker…. Lastly, the chicken hawk "looking for home" symbolizes the speaker's own quest for fulfillment; but the bird only "floats," he does not vigorously and resolutely pursue his search. By now the speaker too has yielded to a life of floating as he lies back in his hammock. It is too late in the day for difficult decisions, too dark for movement. The point of the many temporal and spatial references in the poem is that they suggest a movement and direction which, ironically, continue to be absent from the speaker's life. And the poem is haunted by absences: the butterfly is unconscious; the house is empty; the cows and horses are not physically present; the hawk, like the speaker, is absent from his home.
The speaker's divided state of mind is further reflected in the binary character of much of the poem's imagery: "two pines" … and, at least by implication, the two points between which the speaker's hammock is strung. The theme of irresolution is also conveyed through structure. The winged creatures at beginning and end have conventional associations with aspiration and the will to change, while the quadrupeds of the middle section symbolize the weight of reality, life conducted at the level of exigency (eating and excreting). The poem, like the speaker, is thus equally divided between the conflicting claims of character renewal and brute subsistence. With a little imagination one can even see the butterfly and hawk lifting the poem at each end while the cows and horses bow it in the middle—the shape of a man lying in a hammock. This structural image supports what the poem's other details have already revealed: the speaker is a victim of blunted purpose, hopelessly suspended between alternate courses of action. (No. 64)
R. J. Spendal, in The Explicator (© copyright, 1976, by The Explicator Literary Foundation, Inc.), May, 1976.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 211
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
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.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066
[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 apostrophe, the object of his attentions and the subject of his askesis: blossoming.) Hence there is a particular stimmung (he has translated Theodor Storm, Trakl and, most recently, Hesse) of James Wright's past, which we remember, which we recognize … and we note certain clues toward what is dimly apprehended as a sort of Ohio Osiris Complex in the last book, Two Citizens: the sense of disintegration in dark waters, the embrace of a tree, and a resurrection ("I rose out of my body so high into / that sycamore tree that it became / the only tree that ever loved me"). But my sense, my suspicion of Wright's legend of himself as the Torn God was confirmed by no more than scattered limbs, perhaps appropriately—"wound after wound, I look for / the tree by the waters"—and in the arrogance of these disjunct, choking poems there are but glimpses of what I divined to be gathering on the farther shore, far indeed, the other side of "that water I rose from."…
Chastened, cautious now ("Saguaro, you are not one of the gods"), and a little dimmed from—perhaps by—his old exaltations, his peerless apocalypse (in which of course the entire earth found its death and rebirth inside the poet's own body, conceived as infinite and eternal), James Wright addresses himself, loyal still to his plain chant, his ground bass, to those energies and impulses in nature which are effervescent, fecund and even prodigal. Fifteen years ago, this was his identification:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
By a characteristically sensitive enjambment, Wright thus indicated both the breaking and the blossoming. But now, in the tormented title poem which confronts, which invokes these same energies and impulses, a discrepancy, an alienation is powerfully mourned; there is no release into ecstasy, merely its notation as otherness, and the human humiliation…. (p. 22)
The poems in Wright's lovely new book are all … attestations—diffident yet explicit, careful yet fervent, defeated yet proud—of disjunction, of negation, of (we must say it) failure in his vast project. If he were to succeed, after all, we should not have the poems at all. We should have silence. But he has failed, and the confession of his failure ("a half-witted angel drawling Ohioan / in the warm Italian rain") constitutes his new book, its resonance greatly enlarged by the poems about Italy, the region around Verona in particular: "It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige. By this time, we are both an open secret"…. No American poet is so consistent as Wright, so consigned to his peculiar, beautiful doom. The further nuance here is of course the exchange of the ruined American midlands (and the repugnant American public mentality) … for the Italian locus, the places and objects of Verona which afford the poet, which furnish him, his apocalyptic transformations not more easily or more readily, but more ripely; it is here in Italy that the asseveration is most richly to be made the
… it was hard to name
Which vine, which insect, which wing,
Which of you, which of me …
Something in his own country has the more painfully cast James Wright out of his own body, and the moments when he finds himself, when he comes to, as we say, are more likely to be elsewhere, abroad:
I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligeri in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige. The river has recovered from this morning's rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.
Now surely such perceptions can be made back home, but there is some functions of the self which is available to Wright over there and only so: the function is one of transformation, which he has gainsaid among the strip-mines and the scrap-iron, or which has gainsaid him. "What can I do to join him," Wright asks about the garter snake baking on a rail, and it is his very question, the interrogation proposed to a condition where being can be shared or participated in more broadly, more fully. The blossoming pear tree is no longer to be found in Wright's own veins and vesicles. The wonder of the book named for this tree is that he has put away any bitterness, any ressentiment about the collapse of the eager transaction as it was reported in so many other poems, so many earlier books. There is nothing to do but sit still and look very closely, very carefully at what is in front of your eyes, his eyes; the acknowledgement of the separate life, the contours which are not shared but merely shards, fragments of a unity, a totality inaccessible even to wishing—this acknowledgement makes for a poetry which, by immense repudiations, has come to accept itself, has resigned itself (what else is prose but the resignation of poetry, the submission to an element which makes not stay against that ebbing tide?) to a constatation of being which he cannot become, or rather a becoming he cannot be; call it an acceptance of mortality rather than a god's estate, of death rather than eternal life. As James Wright asks (in prose): "What color is a hungry shadow?" (pp. 22-3)
Richard Howard, "James Wright's Transformations," in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1978 by Richard W. Burgin), February-March, 1978, pp. 22-3.
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