- - - .I am convinced of Wright's primary need to efface himself through conscious, subjective observation because now the complete poems bearunblinking witness to this fact. Wright provoked the dialectical force of self and object, especially when the object is unseen, in order tointertwine these energies, develop and sharpen their interdependence as deeply as he could. Each of his books exemplify this ability to move theself toward new obscurities. "I have come a long way, to surrender my shadow/ To the shadow of a horse."Wright used the river and its shores as a dominant metaphor: the river was there to rise above and the shores existed to anchor himself andstraddle the water. A Gulliver of the Ohio valley. The poem of course was his bridge. Wright's task was to cross, to merge. He began with a desireto uproot himself from himself, to accept unlimitable possibilities for his identity. Along the way he recorded experiences: how he hovered overthe water, fell in, crawled to shore—his metamorphoses. I often sense when reading Wright, like reading Georg Trakl, that lungs become gills,hands become fins.
. I suspect this image fascinated Wright because of its delineation of the Other, especially to a boy who saw the refuse the rivercoughed up in floods, who watched his father cross the bridge every day to work on the other side of the Ohio River, in the Hazel-Atlas Glassfactory. Wright knew how well the river acted to separate and define the shores; but he also knew some bridges led nowhere.For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,Has only two shores:The one in hell, the otherIn Bridgeport, Ohio.And nobody would commit suicide, onlyTo find beyond deathBridgeport, Ohio.The idea of shores then gives us a simple framework to see the oppositions in Wright's life. Working-class Martin's Ferry, Ohio, site of his birth,childhood and eventual escape, was one shore; the other was the world of academe he preferred, first at Kenyon College, then at theUniversities of Vienna and Washington, and finally at Hunter College in New York City. The classicist verse Wright learnt from John Crowe Ransomand Theodore Roethke and skillfully imitated in his first two books of poetry—
The Green Wall
(1959)—was one shore; theother was the surrealist verse he studied while translating many Spanish poets as well as Neruda, Vallejo, and Trakl, and which led him to stylisticexplosions in his third and fourth books,
The Branch Will Not Break
Shall We Gather at the River
(1968). The early volumes featuredskillfully metered poems while the sixties' books craftily mixed some metrical lines with free verse patterns, including striking enjambments and, attimes, an almost lax, discursive line. In a sense Wright's career contained the two camps, formal and free, academic and spiritualist, that we seepolarized today between the neo-formalists and the "workshop" poets.After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for
, his shores widened. He wanted to merge his American and European sensibilities. In
(1973) Wright wrote more of his political and spiritual disgust for America and, as the title suggests, discovered a larger geographicaldimension to cross over and wander back. In
To a Blossoming Pear Tree
(1977) the Italian summers resurrected a lost wonder in him. The Italianpoems, particularly the prose poems, seem most inspired. (The two-sided book jacket shows this transcontinental split very neatly—the frontcover is an on-the-ground shot looking up at of the bridge over the Ohio, at Martin's Ferry; the back cover is an above-ground photo of thebridge over the Adige, at Verona.)Bridgeable shores, some at great distance, abound in his poems: the violence in American cities and American foreign policy and the subtle formsof retribution Wright found in its victims; the social pariahs—murderers, homeless, abused, forgotten—and the sympathy Wright felt for them; themysterious, idealized woman, often linked to horses, in his early poems who differs greatly from Annie, his second wife, an actual visiting muse inhis later work; the autobiographical and dissolved selves, ego and egoless; the modern poem as an impersonal record of despair vs. the post-modern poem as a personal transformation of despair.Listing such dichotomies achieves little other than to provide contexts for Wright's movement. The important thing about his poems is theirdecisiveness in bridging these forces and not merely in opposing them. Some literary critics have seen poets of the sixties as content to find andrecord, like their Warrior-Kings, the surrealists, the peculiarly ordered yet undisciplined paintings in the unconscious. As if to say an orgiasticexperience of the unconscious were grounds enough to write a poem. The poet reached fulfillment by finding that "deep image," then, spent,brought it back, only to lose it like Orpheus, by possessing it too closely. Only half-true. The designation "deep image" gave some poetry of thesixties a name and recognized its main practitioners—Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, James Dickey, Robert Kelly—but it did the process a disservice.One does not look inward merely for an image; one goes in deep in order to synthesize inner and outer realities. A poet discovers in the processof merging realities that he has a relation to his subject, which is emerging in the poem and will become the subject of the poem itself. The poemwill begin one place and end in another place by virtue of the transformational epiphany that happens inside it. What occurs in thattransformation has driven poets since Wordsworth to write about the world autobiographically:Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,And what perceive; well pleased to recogniseIn nature and the language of the senseThe anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soulOf all my moral being.Because the poet's projection of sense impressions back onto the world are always altered by imagination and memory, the poet "half creates"the world he also perceives. Such power to interfuse the worlds one inhabits has centered more on the unconscious in the later 20th century.Poets like Wright use their unconscious powers of discovery to bridge the unseen back to the seen or the known so that consciousness of theworld and the world of the unconscious break their mutual boundaries, which our socialization has increasingly impeded and whose naturalcommingling has nearly been annihilated. For me Robert Kelly, as brilliant a poet as Wright, has only amplified what began with "Tintern Abbey":"Poetry, like dream reality, is the juncture of the experienced with the never-experienced. Like waking reality, it is the fulfillment of the imagined"