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Literart Criticism #9

Literart Criticism #9

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Title:
This Is What I Wanted 
: James Wright and the Other WorldAuthor(s): Edward LensePublication Details: Modern Poetry Studies 11.1-2 (1982): p19-32.Source:
 Poetry Criticism
. Ed. Elisabeth Gellert. Vol. 36. Detroit: Gale Group, 2002. From
 Literature Resource Center 
.Document Type: Critical essay
Full Text:
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning[(essay date 1982)
 In the following essay, Lense argues that Wright perceives the spirit of "theother world," whether pastoral or painful, embedded in the common elements of this one.
]James Wright is not generally thought of as a visionary poet. The imagery of his poems hasalways been grounded in matter-of-fact realities, whether the plains and white houses of theMidwest in his earlier books or, more recently, factories and large cities. The poems are almostweighed down by physical details: Wright is careful to tell his readers which hand he uses tostroke a horse, what kind of tree he is standing under while he looks at a field. Nonetheless, inmany of his best poems he is equally preoccupied with the spiritual world behind appearance; hisbest books,
The Branch Will Not Break
and
Shall We Gather at the River,
begin in this worldand end in the other world.These books differ so greatly in imagery and tone that it is necessary to look at them separately,but they have one thing in common in that each embodies a traditional myth of the other world.
The Branch Will Not Break
contains many images of the Earthly Paradise, while
Shall WeGather at the River
builds up a counter-myth of the Ohio River as the river of the dead. Thedifferences in tone and imagery flow from the differences between these two myths. In
The Branch Will Not Break
every object can be seen as holy if only the
 persona
of the poems cangain the insight to look at things properly; at any moment he might encounter "delicate creatures / From the other world,"
1
or his own body might "break into blossom."
2
But in the later book theother world is localized and cut off from such possibilities. It is on the other side of the OhioRiver, the side that can be reached only by death. Because the spiritual world is no longer withinthe natural world, physical life in
Shall We Gather at the River
is unrelievedly grim, while thenatural world of 
The Branch Will Not Break
is essentially pastoral.Wright announces this pastoral theme with the epigraph of 
The Branch Will Not Break,
linesfrom Heine's
"Aus alten Märchen winkt es"
in which the poet longs for the sight of the "land of delight" he knows from dreams and from "old fairy-tales."
3
This land, the traditional EarthlyParadise, will free him from all pain and constraint, and let him be free and happy. Heine's poemends with a bitter acknowledgement that this is only a dream that "dissolves like empty foam" inthe morning, but Wright's poems work in the opposite direction. He often begins by portrayinghimself in a fit of depression or dread, or with a hangover, and ends by recovering himself through finding wholeness in the life of nature. "The life of nature" is the central quality of theEarthly Paradise, the informing myth of these poems. Although this paradise goes by manydifferent names--Eden, the Fortunate Isles, Beulah, Tír na nÓg--every version is essentially thesame, an unfallen world in which every object of ordinary experience is made perfect. There isno death, disease, old age or unhappiness in this other world, and to those who live in it orperceive it through visionary insight every natural thing is perfect.
 
The Earthly Paradise obviously has nothing to do with city life, so, following tradition, Wrightmakes rural Ohio look something like Vergil's Italy. His titles define this pastoral quality bythemselves:
"Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture andInvite the Insects to Join Me,"
 
"Two Horses Playing in the Orchard,"
 
"Arriving in theCountry Again,"
 
"Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island,Minnesota,"
 
"A Prayer to Escape from the Market Place."
The last of these poems is a goodexample of the tone and imagery of most of the book:I renounce the blindness of the magazines.I want to lie down under a tree.This is the only duty that is not death.This is the everlasting happinessOf small winds.Suddenly,A pheasant flutters, and I turnOnly to see him vanishing at the damp edge.Of the road.
4
 Everything here is entirely conventional, but the poem communicates much more than thesurface message that the country is much nicer than the "market place" of the city. Wright's
 persona
is not necessarily much happier at the end of the poem than at the beginning--just asthings seem to be getting under way, the poem ends abruptly with the disappearance of thepheasant. The longing for peace implicit in the title may or may not be gratified. The speaker of this poem may come to share in the "everlasting happiness / Of small winds," or he may just aswell drive back, disappointed, to St. Paul or Pittsburgh. Likewise, in the other poems I havelisted, the speaker is an observer of nature rather than a participant in the life he sees around him;whether he is lying in a hammock at William Duffy's farm and feeling that he has wasted his life,or watching a bird through a window in
"Two Hangovers,"
he is not a part of what he sees.Nonetheless there is a transforming power within the natural world, and these poems prepare forits appearance in the concluding poems of 
The Branch Will Not Break.
These poems represent abreakthrough, a change from mere wistful observation of the countryside to sudden visionaryinsight that reveals the world of the numinous within nature; here Wright puts himself in thetradition of poets like Blake, who affirm that "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
5
Wright is neither extravagant nor very specificabout his "other world," but it is certainly present in
"Milkweed,"
perhaps the most famous of these poems. Here the speaker, again brooding and depressed at first, achieves an epiphany thatmakes him whole:While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,I must have looked a long timeDown the corn rows, beyond grass,The small house,White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.I look down now. It is all changed.Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
 
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyesLoving me in secret.It is here. At a touch of my hand,The air fills with delicate creaturesFrom the other world.
6
 The Midwestern setting could hardly be more ordinary, yet this farm and the milkweed growingin the field are charged with an emotional force that would be out of place if the poem were notabout the other world as much as about the farm. As the poem begins, the speaker is cut off fromthe natural world: he is "in the open," but at the same time "lost in himself." He seems to havebeen brooding for some time, but has not resolved his problem, has not found what he has lost.Being lost in himself, he seems almost entirely unaware of anything close to him; for that matter,very few things that interest him
are
close to him. Wright is careful to stress the way he looksaway from himself, at the rows of corn (not at individual cornstalks), another field with browsinganimals, and a house still farther away. The effect is to make the speaker an insignificantly smallfigure lost in a vast flat field. The farm is not as comfortable as one might expect; it is a littlefrightening. But, when he looks down and forgets about his isolation, everything changes. Thelandscape suddenly focusses down to a milkweed pod. When he touches it he is freed from hisfailures of perception and can realize that both the natural and spiritual worlds are not remote,but stand in a close relationship with him.It is never clear what he has lost, or thinks he has lost, and it doesn't matter. What
does
matter ishis sense that he is lost in himself in a world that seems to recede almost infinitely from him. Heis not seeing things properly because he imagines himself to be alone in the world that isindifferent to him, while in fact he is surrounded by love.The emotional force of this experience is more than simple relief at escaping from the city orfrom his own undefined problems; it is his emotion that makes the other world visible to him ashe watches the milkweed pod split open and scatter its seeds. It is hard to say just what thatemotion
is,
but it is very intense, capable of transforming his perception of the world by itssimple presence. The kind of experience Wright is presenting here is the traditional form of mystical illumination in which the presence of the other world is suddenly apparent through theagency of some trivial thing. The milkweed pod is like the gleam of light that inspired Yeats's"Stream and Sun at Glendalough" or the quiet garden surrounded by angels in Rilke's "DuinoElegies."The progression from anxiety to relief in
"Milkweed"
is, in outline, much the same as in
"APrayer to Escape from the Market Place,"
but the image of "small dark eyes / Loving me insecret" sets this poem apart from simple pastorale. Wright uses the phrase "the other world"without defining it at all, but it is clear that he wants to suggest that there is a healing force, a sortof undirected but powerful love, within the natural world, and that it can be perceived inmoments of vision. In such moments Wright's
 persona
can see heaven in a wild flower, or evenbe transformed himself, as in
"A Blessing."
In that poem, the speaker again reaches out of himself and touches a natural thing, this time a horse's ear; his delight in the horse leads him intoa vision of change and growth:

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