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 poem does not say so, the poet has explained (in reference to this poem and others in which Doty appears) that Doty was a distant family friend; he was convicted and then executed for rape and murder.
Stanza 3, in emotional language, moves readers forward to yet a third example of someone whose life is an emblem of failure: “And Jenny, oh my Jenny/ Whom I love.” Because one is told that the speaker has developed this intimacy, her failure proves to be the most shocking. The promise of redeeming love has failed her, or she has rejected it, living as a prostitute and even abandoning her own child “In a bus-station can.” She seems to suffer no remorse, as she “sprightly dance[s] away/ Through Jacksontown.”
As stanza 4 begins, the speaker places himself inside this blighted urban landscape. He too has been one of the failed, one of the transgressors, who “got picked up/ A few shrunk years ago/ By a good cop.” He speaks now with an ironic detachment: “Believe it, Lord, or not.” By including himself among the damned, and being able to joke about it, he offers at least a momentary way of confronting the pain. The speaker modifies and expands the scope of his ability and perhaps his responsibility: “I speak of flat defeat/ In a flat voice.” The last stanza provides a summary and a slight shift of focus. The speaker and the poem have moved beyond explanation and examples. The voice becomes pure lamentation, almost accusation.
The sense of the speaker measuring his experience and his argument adds an important quality to the poem’s success. The form of the poem contributes to this effect. It is written in accentual-syllabic meter, with an iambic base meter. The eight-line stanzas are rhymed ababcdcd , with the fourth and eighth lines as two-beat lines and the others as three-beat lines. Since the fourth line of each stanza is also end-stopped, each stanza seems to be made up of two quatrains. The voice, then, seems carefully paced, holding to a middle ground...
(This entire section contains 591 words.)
that could be called “flat.”
The slant rhyme also plays its part in the overall design. John Frederick Nims, in his widely used Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (1974), describes the effect as like that of a flatted “blue note” in music, one that expresses a modified and controlled sadness. Against this norm, the poem’s moments of runaway emotion stand out. An important example comes in stanza 3, when the speaker is describing Jenny, a lost soul whom he loves: “And Jenny, oh my Jenny/ Whom I love, rhyme be damned.” The poet not only allows the second line of the stanza to expand to four beats but also follows through on his promise by dropping the expected b rhyme in line 4, matching “damned” with “old.”
Along with the metrical and rhyming skill with which Wright crafts the poem, one can locate its success in the blended rhetorical voices. Wright combines an elegant Old Testament language with a tough, contemporary jargon. He borrows directly from the texts of Ecclesiastes (“And saw under the sun/ The race not to the swift/ Nor the battle won”) and Psalms (“Lord, I have loved Thy Cursed,/ The beauty of Thy house”), changing them only slightly to fit his needs. He moves from the slang voice of “Liston dives in the tank” to the odd nursery-song rhythms of Jenny’s tragic story: “She left her new baby/ In a bus-station can,/ And sprightly danced away/ Through Jacksontown.” The voice of stanza 4, in its humor and plain diction, approaches the sound of pop music or perhaps slapstick:
Which is a place I know,One where I got picked upA few shrunk years agoBy a good cop.Believe it, Lord, or not.
In a poem titled “Speak,” this variety and richness of voices reflects the speaker’s shifting emotions and needs. Instead of preparing “a face to meet the faces that you meet,” as did T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, Wright’s character in this poem matches the voice to describe his psychic and spiritual challenges.
One of the poem’s strategies—suspense—is more conventionally found in fiction, but Wright uses it with success here. Often Wright’s poems offer the reader a clear understanding at the outset of the setting and what the story will be about. “Sitting in a Small Screenhouse on a Summer Morning” is a good example. In “Speak,” the reader overhears the speaker’s complaint, directed toward a “you,” but is not told who that “you” is. One then reads on, hoping to discover both the identity of the “you” and the nature of the quarrel. When the playful use of “Lord” as a mild and appropriate expletive in the early stanzas gives way, at the end, to the direct invocation of God, the reader more clearly understands the speaker’s Job-like cry for a voice, for God to “speak.” Only through such a manifestation could the speaker grow beyond the “flat defeat” to which he has become a witness.
Dougherty, David. James Wright. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Dougherty, David. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991.
Roberson, William. James Wright: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Smith, Dave. The Pure Clear Word: Essays on the Poetry of James Wright. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Stein, Kevin. James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.