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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 591 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.