The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

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“Sketch for an Aesthetic Project” is a long narrative poem in four sections totaling ninety lines. Jay Wright employs the first-person voice to lend immediacy to the spontaneity of experience and thought. Three lines from Thomas Kinsella’s “Night-walker” introduce the poem: “I believe now that love is half persistence,/ A medium in which, from change to change,/ Understanding may be gathered.” Wright’s narrator achieves this understanding by equating aesthetics with the natural changes of love. The poem’s first section contains three stanzas; the remaining three sections contain one stanza each.

In the first section’s five-line stanza, the narrator describes his restlessness with his “stomp[ing] about these rooms in an old overcoat.” Anxiety seldom compels him to leave his enclosure “even on sunny days,” and his cold rooms suggest a dormant foundry.

One night, when he does leave, he finds emptiness, and this suggested locale corresponds to Wright’s native Albuquerque, New Mexico, or the Mexico that he deeply enjoys. In the second and longest of this section’s stanzas, the speaker discovers in the vacant environs a few persons, a burro, the sounds of his own footsteps, and the furtive “unthinking walkers” cursed by the arcane. The soul he hopes to meet “tugging a burro up the street/ loaded with wet wood” would be his alter ego, laden with fuel to ignite a beauteous aesthetic response, but this figure only beseeches him for alms. In this section, the poet establishes the searching artist who must tramp about in rain that soaks his sensibility and that, although he does not know it, becomes directly responsible for his sketch.

In his home place, the poet reconstructs his travels, “recalling the miracle of being there”—namely, in Harlem, New York—where he walked summers innocently while he breathed the city’s smells, listened to its voices, and while his thoughts lingered on its religious and spiritual life, centered momentarily on the old deacon who is “a rabbi of the unscrupulous” to the women who watch him pass. The speaker identifies with this man who abides among the maddening voices of the people. Despite his physical distance from Harlem at this point in the poem, the aesthetic proximity unnerves him.

In section three, the narrator and “ingenuous sailors” experience the dullness of waiting near or on the sea. The speaker says, as if to himself, “Wake” to open the section to the artless but toiling sailors transporting their “bloody cargo” of slaves “up the shoreline.” Keeping “a log for passage” enables him to record his emotional response to his project. The “parchments of blood” constituting this log happen to be “sunk where I cannot walk” because they are in his subconscious and racial memory. After the sailors have been “intensely buoyed by the sight of land/ and the fervent release of cankered bodies,” the narrator remembers that even in the silence there prevails a “mythic shriek.”

In the final and briefest section, the poet returns to the coldness, understanding the shriek as a metaphor for music. He realizes that his aesthetic solitude was an illusion, and that aesthetic beauty is undeniably alive and is “swift and mad as I am/ dark in its act/ [and] light” in the way it softens his irresolute notions about what an artist must do.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Because Jay Wright’s poems are both deeply spiritual and profoundly experiential, his figurative language encompasses regions such as his native southwestern United States, Harlem, and other African American communities, and the richness of their languages, idioms, and rhythms. Many of his poems reflect his appreciation of African culture and history and its dissemination in the western hemisphere, and his readers also encounter Mesoamerican allusions and images.

Wright’s narrative technique utilizes subtle musical qualities. He quickly creates staccato effect in “Sketch for an Aesthetic Project” with st sounds, often referring to action, in section 1—“I stomp,” “I step,” “staggering,” “streets,” and “a dimeyed student.” He achieves a similar effect with “I clatter over cobbled streets.I pretend not to be afraid of witches.” The tensions that assist and sustain creativity are reflected in this section’s hard consonants, but these hard sounds yield to softer sounds as the poem proceeds until they return in section 3. The effective repetition of words and sounds, another musical quality, can be found in the phrase “only, perhaps” in line 8, restated in line 11 of the first section, and near the close of sections 1 and 3, where those whose presence the narrator needs would either “pluck my pity” or “pluck my bones.”

The narrative style of section 2 is less figurative and more direct, its language denotative, although the poet finds vitality in the streets of Harlem. Yet Wright freely relies on hard verbs and active adverbs to heighten the subtheme of the suppression of ideas and actions. The narrator may walk his home streets, but he does not fear the witches who reside there “or any forces/ ground down under the years here,/ carping and praying under stones.” These do not intimidate him. The burro tugged by one he hopes to meet carries a burden, and in front of the Harlem store-front church the speaker feels weighted down beneath the deacon’s scrutinizing gaze, admitting that, later in the poem, he can neither “grovel under the deacon’s eyes” nor remain on his stairs. These images culminate in his depiction of the reality of the sea upon which he cannot perform the miracle of walking.

In addition, the second section of the poem contains sibilant sounds, especially in the passage “I walk in summer, innocently,/down Seventh, . . ./ twisting.” This sibilance continues into the third section, where Wright skillfully deploys ss words such as “blessed” and the “less” suffix.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 175

Callaloo 6 (Fall, 1983). Special issue on Jay Wright.

Doreski, C. K. “Decolonizing the Spirits: History and Storytelling in Jay Wright’s Soothsayers and Omens.” In Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act, edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Harris, Wilson. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillén. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Okpewho, Isidore. “From a Goat Path in Africa: An Approach to the Poetry of Jay Wright.” Callaloo: A Journal of the African American and African Arts and Letters 14 (Summer, 1991): 692-726.

Stepto, Robert. “After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Arts, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Stepto, Robert. Introduction to Selected Poems of Jay Wright. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Welburn, Ron. “Jay Wright’s Poetics: An Appreciation.” MELUS 18 (Fall, 1993): 51-70.