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Www Thomaslarson Com Publications Essays and Memoirs 127 Poetry of Jame

Www Thomaslarson Com Publications Essays and Memoirs 127 Poetry of Jame

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THOMAS LARSON
The Poetry of James Wright
 
Essays and Memoirs(First Published
Poetry Flash
Number 220, July 1991)1.My deep regard for James Wright's poetry is not something I can simply describe, particularly when before me Ihave
 Above the River: The Complete Poems
, holding potentially a new and unassimilated view of his work. To readand write about his whole work will unloosen the spell, comfortable and known, which a few of his poems have hadover me, a spell which was first cast in 1967 when I read his brilliant poem "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy'sFarm in Pine Island, Minnesota." Some ache lingers still from that ending irony to the pastoral landscape Wrightcreated: "a chicken hawk floats over, looking for home./ I have wasted my life."I have not wasted my life because I feel a sensitivity to the world and the unconscious that the poetry of JamesWright has helped engender. I wonder, though, if this posthumous volume will not change my sense of the kind of poet Wright was.Not a poet whom I have measured by a few superlative poems, but a poet who worked diligently through stylisticchanges and geographical influences in three distinct periods—the early lyrical bravado, ethereal moods in iambic tetrameter; the surrealist-tinged, free verse poems of the sixties and their lonely midwestern ethos; and the final renaissance: his mastery of free verse, his discovery of Italy, and his farewell to America that occupied him in the years before his death in 1980. A life compressed, I hope to measure Wright by hisword: to see if his oeuvre reaches maturity, from one who as he said wanted to write "The poetry of a grown man."What also presses on the wonder of this task is the fact that Wright's poetry has always disturbed me—loss, sadness, despair rise so affectinglyin his work that to read him is to experience these things while feeling awe at the poetic construction. We need only recall the final lines of "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio."Therefore,Their sons grow suicidally beautifulAt the beginning of OctoberAnd gallop terribly against each other's bodies.Those two words, "suicidally beautiful," perfectly placed in the poem's syllogistic third stanza, are perhaps the most remarkably paired words inAmerican poetry of the last generation. Has any poet in recent memory shown such sympathetic judgment for a football player while shaming theculture which produced him? Wright's poetry is often, in the same breath, sympathetic and critical. Yet the poems enrich us most when theyaffirm a tender, precariously unfinished life.And still in my dreams, I sway like one fainting strandOf spiderweb, glittering and vanishing and frailAbove the river.*Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept forWas a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyesLove me in secret.* The whole mile of this mountain road high above tiny golden Gargnano gleams right now in a momentary noon of olive flowers, and I amthe only darkness alive in the Alps. *Willa Cather once said that each artist's primary mission was to find her individual sensibility which would yield the "range and character of [her]deepest sympathies." Whatever that sensibility is in Wright it is strenuous, demanding responsibility for the journey into darkness. Wright's callingis not to the void, but to a darkness that possesses the unconscious and actually seeds the illumination he is seeking once he has magnetizedhimself to the object or the objective within the dark. When Wright ends a poem—"Sometimes I have to sleep/ In dangerous places, on cliffsunderground,/ Walls that still hold the whole prints/ Of ancient ferns."—we see the importance of the descent; knowledge lies beneath andwithin, obscured yet beguiling. Neruda pointed out that the
way 
in is to examine "the use and disuse of substances, footprints and fingerprints,the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out." Wright followed this direction and found his sympathy for the fragile,helpless, alone, the lost souls, "the small dark eyes." He felt a duty to linger over, with uneasy compassion, the humiliation of the social outcasts.In them was a mirror to his loneliness. He felt quite naturally a brother to anything dark and unfamiliar; he found the edge within and lay in waitfor the shadows which buffered the light. Unlike many males, Wright lived more within himself, avoiding the transcendent, the gods above andbelow. In a way, it cost him faith. But he gained internal power, self-possession, and his poems testify to that, guilelessly.Wright's poetic craft came from a variety of rhetorical means—mixtures of metrical lines and free verse patterns; a vowel-rich sonority; the juxtaposition of concrete and surreal images. The dominant motif through all eight books of poetry concerned self-effacement. Wright has been
Home Memoir Book Publications Memoir Writing Workshops Lectures Multimedia Bio Contact
 
 - - - .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.
River-and-shores
. 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 
(1957) and
Saint Judas
(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 
(1963) and
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
Collected Poems
, his shores widened. He wanted to merge his American and European sensibilities. In
Two Citizens
(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"
 
 . , .2.. . . the way that is my own, the lost way."The Silent Angel"Donald Hall, in his preface to the 1962 collection
Contemporary American Poetry 
, (in which Wright and other "deep imagists" were firstanthologized and came to wider attention and which, along with Donald Allen's
The New American Poetry 
, was the first full-scale rejection of theEliot/Pound modernist sensibility), wrote that the new poetry was "subjective but not autobiographical, [revealing] through images not particularpain, but general subjective life." This statement is accurate to a point. But I wonder if not in the poet's psyche where else such subjectivitybegins and ends? (Even Eliot himself, after arguing that poetry was an "escape from emotion and personality" [an idea on which Wright mighthave half-agreed] noted, "of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.")In Wright's poems, the "I," the narrator's consciousness, usually has a clear definition, at first, but it is changed by the end. Its sojourn throughthe poem resembles a slow-flashing beacon, which loses its brilliance while the surface heat generated by the poem's alchemical energyovercomes or reconstitutes that "I." It may be partially or totally
de
-selved. But the "I" that saw the way down becomes lost to place, myth,memory, to that newly emerged creature born of consciousness meeting object. The narrator's identity recast, such effacement is the mostemphasized bridge-building force in all Wright's work."At the Executed Murderer's Grave" begins with an autobiographical taunt: "My name is James A. Wright, and I was born/ Twenty-five miles fromthis infected grave." The narrator desperately tries to dodge Doty's humanity, so sure is he of his difference from the rapist and murderer. "Doty,if I confess I do not love you,/ Will you let me alone? I burn for my own lies." But slowly through the poem he loses his autonomy. Although Doty'scrimes and the narrator's own guilt and contrition for both their acts cannot consciously compare, death will make any difference even moreinconspicuous:Staring politely, they will not mark my faceFrom any murderer's, buried in this place.Why should they? We are nothing but a man.The poem's dark truth suggests that a likeness of ourselves is imprinted in others, which once discovered dissolves itself into that part we share.In the process of such connection, we are often made new. The poet's knowledge of himself may depend upon how well he seeks his image in theworld and then, when he finds it, how well he sees it indistinctly. Doty is "Dirt of my flesh"—a dubious discovery, but one which leads Wright to alarger acceptance of Doty's humanity.In some memorable poems from the sixties, "A Blessing," "Milkweed," "Lifting Illegal Nets by Flashlight," we find the narrator wanting to evanescequickly. Something in the observed he senses will transform him. But its essence must be apprehended and merged into almost instantly. Thatvehicle is the body. "The Minneapolis Poem" is a poem about the bodies of the poor, the homeless, the derelict. "The police remove their cadaversby daybreak/ And turn them in somewhere./ Where?" Again Wright wonders about their supposed difference from him; he seeks their flesh, theirremains, so he will know for sure. The narrator recognizes that "I could not bear/ To allow my poor brother my body to die/ In Minneapolis." Dreadof being disembodied leads him to connect to the poor in a heroic final image—"to be lifted up/ By some great white bird unknown to the police/And soar for a thousand miles." It is almost a spiritual deliverance, an escape into a new body, which his compassion for the other has helpedcreate in the poem.To contrast the self which actively forces contact is the self which seeks freedom after contact. Consider "A Blessing." The horse is immediately,erotically, engaging: "And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear/ That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist." The narrator'serogenous appetite seems to force a merger, on the spot. "Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom."With "break" forcefully enjambed, indicating loss first and transformation second, the poem seems to resist the edge: to blossom may mean a newself and the consequent annihilation of his old self for which he may not be ready.How Wright enjoys, almost lusts after, a loss of personal identity! The confessional poets felt life was intolerable without a self, without a lostself. Indeed I would argue that these poets suffered what was lost, through severe depression which required institutionalization, because theywere ill, and not for any poetic creed. (This thesis is rigorously proved in Anne Stevenson's excellent analysis of the life of Sylvia Plath,
Bitter Fame
.) Wright's poems may emphasize despair but he refuses to embrace depression. An example is "The Idea of the Good." "I am bone lonely"the poem begins, and the feeling circulates through it with increasing gloom. But Wright quiets the loneliness with an almost line-by-lineevaporation of self-consciousness. "Nobody else will follow/ This poem but you,/ But I don't care . . ./ Patience.""A Centenary Ode" reveals the poet's search for personal culpability while revisiting the Native American holocaust and one of its icons, LittleCrow, "true father/ Of my dark America." Wright states at the onset: "I had nothing to do with it. I was not there./ I was not born." The narratoris not dissembling his responsibility, but guiding it to a place where he can seed his sorrow. "If only I knew where to mourn you,/ I would surelymourn." Wright desires an earth in which grief can have its season. But in this poem all are victims.Oh all around us,The hobo jungles of America grow wild again.The pick handles bloom like your skinned spine.I don't even know whereMy own grave is.As we have seen before, in poems of flesh, body, grave, Wright found connection and some liberation. Here, without a grave for himself, hecannot grow. A grave in America should be a place of honor. But he asks, how can we be consecrated in the burial grounds of those wedestroyed?With the Italian poems, the art of self-effacement has become a delicate, playful, sure-footed step. In "Caprice" he begins:Whenever I get tiredOf human faces,I look for trees. 

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