Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795
It is indicative of the scope of this collection of James Wright’s letters that the title, A Wild Perfection, comes not from Wright himself but from a letter to him from fellow poet Stanley Kunitz, quoted by Wright in a letter to yet another poet, James Dickey. The community of postmodern American poets suggested by that triangle is at the heart of A Wild Perfection: It is, in a phrase coeditor Saundra Rose Maley borrows from Mortimer Adler and uses as the title of her introduction, “The Great Conversation.” The conversation goes beyond the twentieth century and beyond America. In his letters to friends, Wright works out quarrels and queries with the writers he is reading: Plato, Catullus, Horace, Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, and others. Yet many of the recipients of his letters also constitute virtually any critic’s short list of major American poets of the late twentieth century: alphabetically, A. R. Ammons, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Dickey, Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, J. D. McClatchy, John Crowe Ransom, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, M. L. Rosenthal, Anne Sexton, Leslie Marmon Silko, W. D. Snodgrass, Allen Tate, Diane Wakoski, and Austin Warren.
Few, however, will turn to the letters of a poet to read about other poets. Readers pursuing biographical information about Wright will find it in A Wild Perfection, but they may find more than they bargained for. To be sure, they will find dates and details about the poet’s life from just before his enlistment in the Army in the summer of 1946 to his cancer surgery just three months before his death in March of 1980. Tangled among the details of the life of James Wright are also philosophical reflections on the nature of human existence, literary criticism, the craft of writing, love, the academic life. Sometimes these reflections are offhand comments squeezed from the moment. Other times they are polished essays, as carefully wrought as his poems, his reviews, or his college lectures.
Even the essays appear as digressions in a coherent story of Wright’s adult life, much as the cetology chapters of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) punctuate the forward movement of the sailor’s yarn. (Wright admitted, in a February 1, 1958, letter to his dissertation director, Wayne Burns, that he loved a good “yarn.”) The presence of a “plot” in A Wild Perfection is no accident: Maley indicates in her introduction that “readability as part of a narrative” was a selection criterion suggested by her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jonathan Galassi. While Wright scholars may seize piecemeal on this or that nugget of correspondence, fitting it into a context already constructed, the general reader may, with pleasure and profit, read the whole book seriatim and follow the development of one of America’s best twentieth century poets.
While a book of letters that can be read like a novel has its merits, the editors could have offered more helpful contextualization, even to the reader who knows a great deal about Wright. For instance, Wright’s March 13, 1964, letter to Macalester College President Dr. Harvey Rice bubbles with effusive superlatives: “I have never been so moved for so many truly personal reasons as I am moved by your letter.” What in Rice’s letter to Wright could have prompted such language? Nothing in Wright’s letter offers a clue, and the editors are silent. Fourteen pages later, in a May 28 letter to his estranged wife Liberty, Wright tells the whole story: President Rice had attended a lecture Wright gave to an honor society, wrote him a commendatory note, and had copies sent to the dean of students and to Wright’s department chair. What had touched the poet was not just the administrative act itself, though it was kind enough, but the context of the previous six years of what Wright perceived as neglect at the University of Minnesota, where he had been denied tenure. So necessary is the May 28 explanation to the March 13 thank you that, at the very least, a cross-reference should have been made for the reader who has no intention of reading this volume as a linear narrative.
Wright’s letters were not written with an eye toward publication, which gives them a stark, sometimes startling intimacy and brutal honesty. “Brutally honest” is a cliché, but it is the right cliché, which Wright may have approved. He came to know the brute part of himself, what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called the Dionysian (though Wright identified Nietzsche as a “German poet”). Wright knew the beast, and did not flinch in its presence. Yet sometimes the honesty of these letters is almost painful, not just because they reveal uncomfortable truths, which they sometimes do (such as his nervous breakdown at age fifteen, recalled at age thirty; the disintegration of his first marriage; several outbreaks of his catathymic depression; his angry and obscene blowup with James Dickey after a bad review), but also because they exemplify one of the most pandemic diseases of twentieth century writers: self-consciousness. Even in business and personal correspondence, Wright is a conscious craftsman, struggling to master a form, even when that form is the personal letter. The downside of that struggle is that some letters become solipsistic, infinite-regress letters about writing letters. The advantage, however, is that in the process Wright reveals some of the secrets wrested from that struggle, secrets about the nature of the personal letter in particular, and English prose in general, in what may be the last generation of American letter writers.
The notion that letters such as Wright’s are no longer possible in the age of e-mail is entertained in Maley’s introduction and elaborated by David Orr in his New York Times review of A Wild Perfection. The death of the personal letter, however, was similarly predicted with the advent of the telegraph, the technology of which did, indeed, influence English prose style (the staccato rhythms and short sentences dictated by the sheer cost per word led to a style still sometimes called “telegraphic”). If letters such as those of James Wright are never seen again, it is because there will never be another James Wright. It has nothing to do with the technology of the typewriter, or pen and ink.
Or perhaps, in one respect, it does. The aforementioned self-consciousness of Wright’s letters extends to an awareness of the physical medium in which he wrote, and Wright felt a difference between the pen in which he first drafted his poems and the typewriter with which he hammered them into shape. To poet and editor Donald Hall, Wright said the following in March of 1956, a paragraph which makes no sense unless one understands his distinction between writing and typing:I know I haven’t sent you anything new for a while. To tell the truth, I haven’t even typed much, though I’ve been writing like hell, mostly stuff that isn’t coming off. I can’t say that I feel barrenfar from it. But I’m going through some odd stage in which changes, which I don’t understand, are taking place. I don’t want to sound like Letters to a Young Poet, but it’s the truth.
Many writers have left records of those agonizing failures of inspiration, but that is not what is going on here. The muse on March 22, 1956, was sending Wright all he could handle, but the angel of revision, the goddess of editing, seemed unavailable. The form, which Wright always expressed as something external to the poet, would not come.
Wright’s struggles with poetic form, which A Wild Perfection details admirably, were the struggles of his generation of poets, the post-1945 poets who made that bizarre compound “postmodernist” necessary in American letters. In a lifelong dialogue with Robert Bly, whose war against the iamb in English-language poetry he joined with reservations, Wright played the role of a French neoclassic raisonneur. Genuinely grateful for what he considered Bly’s tutelage, Wright nevertheless feared that Bly’s extremism on the issue of poetic meter would blunt or waste his powers. Furthermore, as he wrote to Louis Simpson (while congratulating him for winning the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for poetry), “there isn’t enough strict iambic verse in the English language to bother resisting; anyway, Wyatt already resisted it.” That is, the moment iambic pentameter was established as the “natural” English verse form, in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s translation of book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), it was already doomed.
Wright’s quarter-century conversation with James Dickey is similarly precarious, especially as it began with a July 6, 1958, blast against Dickey, ostensibly because a review of Dickey’s had slighted Philip Booth but manifestly also because it had slighted Wright’s poetry. Wright’s immediate retraction, his temporary “resignation” as a poet, a few weekends of rest at Bly’s farm, all unfold alongside a growing respectful interchange with Dickey. The editors present the original offending letter in its entirety and do not edit out Wright’s stumbling over his apologies in the next few letters to Dickey. Avoiding both sensationalism and Bowdlerization, A Wild Perfection reveals both the ugliest and the most beautiful elements of Wright.
The index of the book is a marvel of detail, yet it is not exhaustive. It seems to have been prosecuted in the unwarranted assumption that the only readers of Wright’s letters would be devotees of American poetry. A great number of proper nouns appear in Wright’s letters that do not show up in the index. It is clear from Wright’s letters that he had at least a passing interest in college footballbut a reader could not tell that from the index. Surely the only reason that baseball great Dizzy Dean is indexed is that Wright wrote an elegy for Dean’s death in 1974, which appears in an appendix of unpublished poems at the end of the volume.
That appendix itself is worth the price of the book. Jonathan Blunk has carefully selected all the poems to which Wright specifically refers in his letters. They appear in the form in which they then existed. Many are unpublished, and those that were published later appear here in earlier incarnations.
Wright, despite his anguished lashings of self-hatred and occasional erosions of will (mostly thanks to alcoholism, which he was able to stave off in the last decade of his life), was a deeply humane presence in American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, and A Wild Perfection admirably captures the personal and intellectual charism that made his loyal friendsthemselves major figures in American letterslove him as fiercely as he loved life, America, and poetry.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17
American Poetry Review 34, no. 4 (July/August, 2005): 23.
The New York Times Book Review 154 (August 28, 2005): 14.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 19 (May 9, 2005): 57.