John Wheelwright’s poetic work remains outside the canon of great literature, despite a quiet revival of interest in Wheelwright after the 1960’s, and his work is still undergoing assessment. Public ignorance of Wheelwright’s literary achievement has at times been attributed to an alleged obscurity in his work, but the political nature of his didacticism may also have played a part in his marginalization. Nonetheless, Wheelwright’s oeuvre can be richly rewarding to explore. From the precociously individual work of his youth to the “more dissonant and more complex” statements of his maturity, noted Matthew Josephson in Southern Review in 1971, emerges the voice of a man who “was forthright and had the strength and courage for life on his own terms.”
Rock and Shell
Wheelwright’s first major collection, Rock and Shell, contained two remarkable long poems. The first, “North Atlantic Passage,” originally published in pamphlet form in Florence, Italy, in 1923, makes use of the then-emerging Surrealist technique of associative logic and imagery, and the modernist feature of polyphonic voices to explore the theme of “the One and the Many.” The second, “Forty Days,” is a revision of the story of the apostle Thomas, which the poet based on a reading of the apocryphal Gospels. It presents Wheelwright’s unorthodox ideas on religious material, exploring, as it does, the poet’s own confrontation with doubt and faith. Wheelwright’s budding social conscience resulted in such poems as “Come Over and Help Us,” based on the 1920’s murder case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Notable among the shorter poems are elegies on his friend Harry Crosby and renowned poet Hart Crane.
Magazines and radio
Wheelwright’s evolving political convictions, deeply ingrained sense of justice, and desire for involvement in public life found some satisfaction in his work on radio, in his correspondence course on rebel poetry for workers, and in his setting up a small magazine called Poems for a Dime. A notable contribution to the popular publication was Wheelwright’s own Footsteps, a verse drama in the tradition of English poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, which deals with labor issues. It was also at this time that Wheelwright wrote poetry and criticism for Arise!, a monthly publication of the Socialist Party, and presented his weekly poetry readings and commentary on Boston radio stations WORL and WIXAL.
In “Verse + Radio = Poetry,” a brief, unpublished commentary on the possibilities of radio, Wheelwright offered...
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