The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

James Wright’s poem “Speak” is a lyric lament in five rhyming stanzas. Wright combines a common, colloquial language with an Old Testament rhetoric to describe, through contemporary, personal examples, the state of a lost world. The poem also stands as an imperative plea to the God who is the “you” of the poem to reveal himself. The speaker says, “I have gone every place/ Asking for you.”

Part of the pleasure and the success of the poem depends on the reader not knowing at the beginning that the poem is an address to God. The first stanza begins with the speaker in search of someone, to whom his words are addressed, and he is worried about the consequences of his search. “Wondering where to turn/ And how the search would end.” The stanza’s last image is one of foreboding: “And the last streetlight spin/ Above me blind.” In those moments at the end of his quest, will he have fallen, blind and defeated, or will blindness bring vision?

Stanza 2 answers that question. What the speaker has sought has not been found, and there has been no revelation. The speaker has returned from his search with an earned wisdom, but it is of a world where the reality is one of heroes cast down and battles lost. He refers first to a May, 1965, heavyweight title fight lost by the reigning champion, Sonny Liston. “Liston dives in the tank/ Lord, in Lewiston, Maine.” His other example is of Ernie Doty “drunk/ In hell again.” Although the...

(The entire section is 508 words.)