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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 I have Above the River: The Complete Poems, holding potentially a new and unassimilated view of his work. To read and write about his whole work will unloosen the spell, comfortable and known, which a few of his poems have had over me, a spell which was first cast in 1967 when I read his brilliant poem "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." Some ache lingers still from that ending irony to the pastoral landscape Wright created: "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 James Wright 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 stylistic changes 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 his word: 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 affectingly in 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 beautiful At the beginning of October And 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 in American poetry of the last generation. Has any poet in recent memory shown such sympathetic judgment for a football player while shaming the culture which produced him? Wright's poetry is often, in the same breath, sympathetic and critical. Yet the poems enrich us most when they affirm a tender, precariously unfinished life. And still in my dreams, I sway like one fainting strand Of spiderweb, glittering and vanishing and frail Above the river. * Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes Love 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 am the 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 calling is not to the void, but to a darkness that possesses the unconscious and actually seeds the illumination he is seeking once he has magnetized himself to the object or the objective within the dark. When Wright ends a poem—"Sometimes I have to sleep/ In dangerous places, on cliffs underground,/ Walls that still hold the whole prints/ Of ancient ferns."—we see the importance of the descent; knowledge lies beneath and within, 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 wait for the shadows which buffered the light. Unlike many males, Wright lived more within himself, avoiding the transcendent, the gods above and below. In a way, it cost him faith. But he gained internal power, selfpossession, 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 vowelrich sonority; the juxtaposition of concrete and surreal images. The dominant motif through all eight books of poetry concerned selfeffacement. Wright has been perhaps our most selfconscious poet who seemed always to discover an un selfconsciousness through the act of writing. I am convinced of Wright's primary need to efface himself through conscious, subjective observation because now the complete poems bear unblinking witness to this fact. Wright provoked the dialectical force of self and object, especially when the object is unseen, in order to
below. In a way, it cost him faith. But he gained internal power, selfpossession, 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 vowelrich sonority; the juxtaposition of concrete and surreal images. The dominant motif through all eight books of poetry concerned selfeffacement. Wright has been perhaps our most selfconscious poet who seemed always to discover an un selfconsciousness through the act of writing. I am convinced of Wright's primary need to efface himself through conscious, subjective observation because now the complete poems bear unblinking witness to this fact. Wright provoked the dialectical force of self and object, especially when the object is unseen, in order to intertwine these energies, develop and sharpen their interdependence as deeply as he could. Each of his books exemplify this ability to move the self 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 and straddle 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 desire to uproot himself from himself, to accept unlimitable possibilities for his identity. Along the way he recorded experiences: how he hovered over the 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. Riverandshores. I suspect this image fascinated Wright because of its delineation of the Other, especially to a boy who saw the refuse the river coughed up in floods, who watched his father cross the bridge every day to work on the other side of the Ohio River, in the HazelAtlas Glass factory. 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 other In Bridgeport, Ohio. And nobody would commit suicide, only To find beyond death Bridgeport, Ohio. The idea of shores then gives us a simple framework to see the oppositions in Wright's life. Workingclass 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 the Universities of Vienna and Washington, and finally at Hunter College in New York City. The classicist verse Wright learnt from John Crowe Ransom and Theodore Roethke and skillfully imitated in his first two books of poetry—The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959)—was one shore; the other was the surrealist verse he studied while translating many Spanish poets as well as Neruda, Vallejo, and Trakl, and which led him to stylistic explosions in his third and fourth books, The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River (1968). The early volumes featured skillfully metered poems while the sixties' books craftily mixed some metrical lines with free verse patterns, including striking enjambments and, at times, an almost lax, discursive line. In a sense Wright's career contained the two camps, formal and free, academic and spiritualist, that we see polarized today between the neoformalists 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 geographical dimension to cross over and wander back. In To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977) the Italian summers resurrected a lost wonder in him. The Italian poems, particularly the prose poems, seem most inspired. (The twosided book jacket shows this transcontinental split very neatly—the front cover is an ontheground shot looking up at of the bridge over the Ohio, at Martin's Ferry; the back cover is an above ground photo of the bridge 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 forms of retribution Wright found in its victims; the social pariahs—murderers, homeless, abused, forgotten—and the sympathy Wright felt for them; the mysterious, idealized woman, often linked to horses, in his early poems who differs greatly from Annie, his second wife, an actual visiting muse in his 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 their decisiveness in bridging these forces and not merely in opposing them. Some literary critics have seen poets of the sixties as content to find and record, like their WarriorKings, the surrealists, the peculiarly ordered yet undisciplined paintings in the unconscious. As if to say an orgiastic experience 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 halftrue. The designation "deep image" gave some poetry of the sixties 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 process of 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 poem will begin one place and end in another place by virtue of the transformational epiphany that happens inside it. What occurs in that transformation 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 recognise In nature and the language of the sense The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul Of 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 the world and the world of the unconscious break their mutual boundaries, which our socialization has increasingly impeded and whose natural commingling 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 neverexperienced. Like waking reality, it is the fulfillment of the imagined and the unimagined." The poem is the bridge, the language of the sense. 2. . . . the way that is my own, the lost way.
world and the world of the unconscious break their mutual boundaries, which our socialization has increasingly impeded and whose natural commingling 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 neverexperienced. Like waking reality, it is the fulfillment of the imagined and the unimagined." The poem is the bridge, the language of the sense. 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 first anthologized and came to wider attention and which, along with Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, was the first fullscale rejection of the Eliot/Pound modernist sensibility), wrote that the new poetry was "subjective but not autobiographical, [revealing] through images not particular pain, but general subjective life." This statement is accurate to a point. But I wonder if not in the poet's psyche where else such subjectivity begins and ends? (Even Eliot himself, after arguing that poetry was an "escape from emotion and personality" [an idea on which Wright might have halfagreed] 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 through the poem resembles a slowflashing beacon, which loses its brilliance while the surface heat generated by the poem's alchemical energy overcomes or reconstitutes that "I." It may be partially or totally deselved. 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 most emphasized bridgebuilding 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 from this 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's crimes and the narrator's own guilt and contrition for both their acts cannot consciously compare, death will make any difference even more inconspicuous: Staring politely, they will not mark my face From 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 the world 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 a larger 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 evanesce quickly. Something in the observed he senses will transform him. But its essence must be apprehended and merged into almost instantly. That vehicle is the body. "The Minneapolis Poem" is a poem about the bodies of the poor, the homeless, the derelict. "The police remove their cadavers by daybreak/ And turn them in somewhere./ Where?" Again Wright wonders about their supposed difference from him; he seeks their flesh, their remains, 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." Dread of 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 helped create 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's erogenous 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 new self 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 lost self. Indeed I would argue that these poets suffered what was lost, through severe depression which required institutionalization, because they were 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 linebyline evaporation of selfconsciousness. "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, Little Crow, "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 narrator is 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 surely mourn." 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 where My 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, he cannot 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 we destroyed? With the Italian poems, the art of selfeffacement has become a delicate, playful, surefooted step. In "Caprice" he begins: Whenever I get tired Of human faces, I look for trees. I know there must be something Wrong, either with me or Italy,
Whenever I get tired Of human faces, I look for trees. I know there must be something Wrong, either with me or Italy, The south of the angels. Nevertheless, I get away Among good trees, there are So many. The trouble is They keep turning faces toward me That I recognize. Not only does he continue to see in the natural world an image of his own inner self but now—after much time spent entering the psyche of objects—he quickly disposes of his own possessiveness and gives to a lizard, a lightning bug, a finch, the granite blocks at Verona, a consciousness that he may have once felt overly responsible to. The Italian summers accept his penchant to lose himself; he is further impressed for they ask nothing in return. Of "The Butterfly Fish" Wright chides, "He knows already he is so alive he can leave me alone." In "Entering the Kingdom of the Moray Eel" we find the narrator willingly eliminated by the object of his observation and the discovery of his unimportance. "He is not going to surrender the splendid shadow/ Of his throne. Not for my sake. Not even/ To kill me." It sounds bittersweet to be drawn to the darkness; but it also seems spiritually mature to delight in one's inconsequentiality. The imagist poem of Ezra Pound or Amy Lowell has always seemed to me to possess an arrogant removal of consciousness, in which the isolation of the object does not objectify it. Because we do indeed feel, vicariously or not, the loneliness of those petals on the wet, black bough, the poem does not focus on the object: instead, it focuses on a reader who inserts herself as the subject. Wright I believe like Wordsworth was trying to be personally responsible for what he witnessed and felt in the world. What he felt often was a vast, removed wholeness: "Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness/ Of the Midwest?" The virtue of ruminating on this absence not only brought forth and named what was missing, but also instigated movement between worlds. Wright was among the most democratic of poets. He opposed any artistic conceit that either made the poet's experience or the language itself central to the poem's meaning. He focused on finding a relationship between worlds and giving that association texture and importance. The worst thing imaginable for Wright would have been a poem disembodied, a poem unable to wrought change within itself. How awful to contemplate—a body without tongue, tired eye, strain of ear. Ending "To the Muse" Wright begged Jenny, a beautiful suicide, to "Come up to me, love,/ Out of the river, or I will/ Come down to you." 3. Adige, river on earth, Only you can hear A halfwitted angel drawling Ohioan In the warm Italian rain. "One Last Look at the Adige" That Wright mastered the iambic line in his early poems and free verse prosodies later on is recognized by most critics. I would like to further commend Wright's accomplishments and describe some of the finer elements of his craft. Overall, his poems certainly were more verse than free, musically metrical or nonmetrical dependent on the emotion. But the key to his music has to do with speech and an emphasis on slow, prolonged patterns Wright shaped in verse. These came from a deep sensitivity he had for the resonance of language. That resonance I think is best represented by Ohio, the word itself. The longsounding name haunts his poems: he used it over and over to signify a place on earth, a place in earth, cold as the dark ground. He also loved other Indian words, such as Minnesota or Chippewa, as well as place names in Italy—Adige, Verona, Carrara. In a letter from 1967 Wright touched on the importance of speech, sound, and place in the poetry of William Carlos Williams. In order to write as well as Dr. Williams wrote, one has to have a fine instinctive sense of music in the American language, the music of speech and the music of song; and one must have the character of a great man who loves women, children, the speech of his native place, and the luminous spirit that lurks frightened in the tortured bodies of the sick and the poor. Without these gifts, many new poets have devoted their attention to the art of typewriting; and their poems . . . look and sound like bad prose hacked into arbitrary linelengths. Wright is admiring the naturalness in Williams (and castigating the "composition by field" approach of poets like Charles Olson); perhaps he desired that his poems also possess the same "speech of his native place," Ohio. I think many of his poems do spring from spoken sources. Wright's best lines derive their rhythm and stress from that drawn, defeatist conversation he no doubt heard in his boyhood, a sound imbedded in the phraseology of workers, those who use language to fight back, to boast, to cut or call down. I have a little time left, Jack. I don't know what you want. But I know what I want. I want to live my life. I can move into the McCormick Theological Seminary And get a good night's sleep, Or else get hauled back to Minneapolis. This speechstress quality is scarcely evident in his early work but does appear extensively in the poems of the sixties. Then, it seemed Wright wanted the workingclass idioms to add angry force to his poems against America, to hammer at what the imperialists had done to the Vietnamese, to the poor, to the Native Americans, to their children. He hoped speech phrases would also awaken those victims who helped, unintentionally, to perpetuate the crimes. In "Two Poems about President Harding" he cleverly mixes speech patterns with an iambic line. America goes on, goes on Laughing, and Harding was a fool.
This speechstress quality is scarcely evident in his early work but does appear extensively in the poems of the sixties. Then, it seemed Wright wanted the workingclass idioms to add angry force to his poems against America, to hammer at what the imperialists had done to the Vietnamese, to the poor, to the Native Americans, to their children. He hoped speech phrases would also awaken those victims who helped, unintentionally, to perpetuate the crimes. In "Two Poems about President Harding" he cleverly mixes speech patterns with an iambic line. America goes on, goes on Laughing, and Harding was a fool. Even his big pretentious stone Lays him bare to ridicule. I know it. But don't look at me. By God, I didn't start this mess. Whatever moon and rain may be, The hearts of men are merciless. Many poems, from 1960 to 1980, display Wright's ear for the native speech. Listen, however, to Wright read his poems. (He can be heard in a beautifully deepthroated, vowelheavy recitation on Caedmon CDL 51538, "The poetry and voice of James Wright," recorded in 1977.) The deliberate sounding of the poem's stressed quantities, which greatly lengthen out the phrases, comes through strongest. Any quickness that might come from a vernacular pattern of stresses is deemphasized. Perhaps Wright was trained to flatly declaim any line of poetry; he seems to turn lines that I read as ironic, jocose, vernacularly spirited into ponderously regular lines. He sounds dispirited. Wright would read himself differently than I would, of course. But that irregular counterpoint between metrical and nonmetrical lines, symphonic in its dexterity and never showy or pretentious, is constructed into the poems. His best pieces were the free verse poems in which feeling and image mapped its own prosodic road, at times straight, at times curvy, like those blackdotted sinewy lines which on state maps indicate scenic highways. In an age of flaccid lines from prosy poets we can learn a great deal by listening to Wright's verse, with or without the poet as reader. Wright, a passionately close observer of nature, loves to jar us with sudden seen beauty. The patterns of stress he chooses to echo his vision tell of his lingering observation which usually contrasts with abrupt turns in the phrasing. After close scrutiny in the first two of "Three Sentences for a Dead Swan," we are struck with the poet's heavily enjambed lines, here knotting themselves up with declarations and feelings of pity. A complexly beautiful dead bird struggles in the poet's hands for resurrection. Here, carry his splintered bones Slowly, slowly Back into the Tar and chemical strangled tomb, The strange water, the Ohio river, that is no tomb to Rise from the dead From. Or follow the rhythms and stresses in these lines, from "In Memory of Leopardi": . . . Blind son Of a meadow of huge horses, lover of drowned islands Above Steubenville, blind father Of my halt gray wing: Now I limp on, knowing The moon studies behind me, swinging The scimitar of the divinity . . . What works here? Wright's persistently accented trochees—on "meadow," "horses," "islands," "father," and the endrhymes on "knowing" and "swinging"—help push the lines forward, almost rushing over the surreal images. But slowing the movement are the three stresses on "halt gray wing," on blind and fa, on the consonants d and b butting heads, and on the three b sounds in the third line. This rackety dialogue between rhythm and stress beautifully reflects his strongly confused feelings about entrapment and escape. One of Wright's most musically alive poems is "Willy Lyons": My uncle, a craftsman of hammers and wood, Is dead in Ohio. And my mother cries she is angry. Willy was buried with nothing except a jacket Stitched on his shoulder bones. It is nothing to mourn for. It is the other world. She does not know how the roan horses, there, Dead for a century, Plod slowly. Maybe they believe Willy's brown coffin, tangled heavily in moss Is a horse trough drifted to shore
She does not know how the roan horses, there, Dead for a century, Plod slowly. Maybe they believe Willy's brown coffin, tangled heavily in moss Is a horse trough drifted to shore Along that river under the willows and grass. Let my mother weep on, she needs to, she knows of cold winds. The long box is empty. The horses turn back toward the river. Willy planes limber trees by the waters, Fitting his boat together. We may as well let him go. Nothing is left of Willy on this side But one cracked ballpeen hammer and one suit, Including pants, his son inherited, For a small fee, from Hesslop's funeral home; And my mother, Weeping with anger, afraid of winter For her brother's sake: Willy, and John, whose life and art, if any, I never knew. The double trochee of the name Willy Lyons lays a ground from which the poem's regular, almost graceful movement proceeds. In the phrases at the ends of lines there are clear echoes of a two beat unit ( / x x / ), which sounds to me when sped up slightly like a heavy trochee, albeit over four syllables: "hammers and wood . . . drifted to shore . . . willows and grass . . . knows of cold winds . . . funeral home . . . I never knew." These lines sway in one's consciousness like a coffin floating out on a sea of death. Notice the trochee at the end of the line, "The long box is empty." It is echoed in the lines immediately following, on "river" and "waters," and in the amphibrach "together." The falling rhythm ringing throughout the poem in the nouns "uncle," "craftsman," "mother," "brother," and "coffin" echo the sense of release: Willy is free, but those left behind now must descend into their own loneliness to remember his poverty and to live with his loss. The trochaic construction which predominates in "Willy Lyons" helps push the body and the survivor's guilt where it has to go. American English is ripe with falling rhythms, with two and threebeat phrases. (I am indebted to Robert' Hass's superb essay "Listening and Making" for ideas about twobeat ["an exchange"] and threebeat ["a circle of energy"] units.) Our verse rocks with the heavily trochaic phrases and beat patterns that Whitman intoned and Ginsberg chanted, that we find hard pressed in Frank O'Hara's "leaning on the john door in the FIVE SPOT," or softbacked in Henry Taylor's "It wasn't quite the face I remembered, the years/ being what they are, and I could have been wrong," that ring out from poets as disparate as Adrienne Rich and Diane Wakoski. The musicality these poets share derives from irregularly balanced accentual patterns, often based in that pithy quality of our incessant talk. Additional spoken qualities arise from Wright's clever arrangements that emphasize the sounds of words. Wright found a way to isolate their sonority and thereby force a reader to speak/hear them. The poet often constructed stanzas or units which through his choice of words and length of line would breathe out and in, intensifying the emotion. Consider Wright's often used dwindling down stanza, a three or fourline unit that pares away the line and isolates the feeling, from "Beginning": The moon drops one or two feathers into the field. The dark wheat listens. Be still. Now. Here the linestresses obviously shorten as the stanza whittles itself away. But the words chosen linger on their stresses more fully than on other words the poet might have used. The threebeat phrase, "the dark wheat listens," has this pattern: x / / / x . The plosives that end "dark" and "wheat" and the double s sound in "listens" further retard the motion. When Wright discovered that the spoken stress of the word or phrase could dictate the poem's arrangement, he found the best means to actualize his sensibility in poetry. He became then a poet of slow, isolating, straining energy. Add to that a strategy learned I believe from his teacher and friend, Theodore Roethke—the fat, baubled, vocalic, round line, the one in which the singlesyllable, heavily vowelsound words dominate. From "A Secret Gratitude" we hear: One winter afternoon Fair near the place where she sank down with one wing broken, Three friends and I were caught Stalk still in the light. As a sentencelong stanza, the endline trochee ("broken") propels some movement. But then Wright isolates and slows with more singlesyllabed words and a lineshortening stoppage. Listen to this sonorously slow example from "Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child." The fat line slows to meet his desire which, in turn, he wants to stay with as long as he possibly can. This morning My beloved rose, before I did, And came back again.
Listen to this sonorously slow example from "Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a Black Child." The fat line slows to meet his desire which, in turn, he wants to stay with as long as he possibly can. This morning My beloved rose, before I did, And came back again. The kind of poetry I want is my love Who comes back with the rain. Oh I Would love to lie down long days long, the long Down slipping the gown from her shoulders. Wright prepares us perfectly, expectantly sexual, for the last line's unveiling. Now hear how free verse patterns, creatively used to speed or slow the movement, to jar or soothe the sense, make Wright's loneliness felt in "The Minneapolis Poem." Here is the sixth section: But I could not bear To allow my poor brother my body to die In Minneapolis. The old man Walt Whitman our countryman Is not in America our country Dead. But he was not buried in Minneapolis At least. And no more may I be Please God. Other stanzas in the poem are just as elastic, pressing out and then pulling or snapping back the lines like rubber bands, reverberating in the embattled conscience of America fighting with itself in the sixties. How many of us know the truth of these lines from our lives during and after that period? "There are men in this city who labor dawn after dawn/ To sell me my death." The truth of those lines also arises from their sound. Can you feel the four beats in each line, the second one in its sound quantities lasting like the speech accents in the first line? Can you hear the word "men" in "me" and "dawn" in "death"? That is resonance—the feeling of the image is echoed in the sound and stress of the phrase. 4. Last I wish to mark Wright's insistent attack on America, a country he could never love. Typical of Wright's rage during the sixties are these lines from "The Minneapolis Poem": I wonder how many old men last winter Hungry and frightened by namelessness prowled The Mississippi shore Lashed blind by the wind, dreaming Of suicide in the river. For Wright, Ohio or Minneapolis or any particular place in the U.S. meant the experience of hopelessness; America was the political entity which alienated and ruined people—black, the poor, the workingclass, the artist—with lies. America was a hellhole. A nation lost in its ignorance: Blind hoboes sell American flags And bad poems of patriotism On Saturday evenings forever in the rain, Between the cathouses and the slag heaps And the river, down home. A nation disposing itself in Vietnam: . . . terrified young men Quick on their feet Lob one another's skulls across Wings of strange birds that are burning Themselves alive. Traveling in Europe, free it seemed from the pain his country caused him, Wright still could not forget. In a prose poem he remembers the saintly Ralph Neal, the scoutmaster of his boyhood troop: . . . who loved us, I reckon, because he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy. Wright despaired of ever finding good in his country. He tried; why he failed or how he might have succeeded has no concern for me here. Only the fact that of those things he was possessed by, a hatred for America was central. So he left; he quit trying. Italy was a place he experienced, as any exile would, as beyond country. Wright, however, could not stop the nightmares. This is from "The Lambs on the Boulder":
Ralph Neal, the scoutmaster of his boyhood troop: . . . who loved us, I reckon, because he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy. Wright despaired of ever finding good in his country. He tried; why he failed or how he might have succeeded has no concern for me here. Only the fact that of those things he was possessed by, a hatred for America was central. So he left; he quit trying. Italy was a place he experienced, as any exile would, as beyond country. Wright, however, could not stop the nightmares. This is from "The Lambs on the Boulder": And uglier things than Giotto's wobbly scratches on a coarse boulder at the edge of a grassy field are rotting and toppling into decay at this very moment. By the time I reach Padova at fifteen minutes past four this afternoon, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to hear that Rockefeller's Mall in Albany, New York, had begun to sag and ooze its grandiose slime all over the surrounding city of the plain, and it will stink in the nostrils of God Almighty like the incense burned and offered up as a putrid gift on the altars of the Lord . . . . America was the one thing that Wright could never efface, never make inconspicuous. He could remove himself into the dark beauty of horses, shadows, water, ruins, a person, a myth. But he could not force America, the political object, to give anything back to him. Its dark was never nourishing. Again and again he felt a duty to paint America's portrait in such sickening tones that it would suffocate one day. But, for all his effort, these lines change nothing. They spin the wheels of rage and seldom connect, except to his fears. What they do express is the bitterness of a child who feels ridiculed and rejected by a belittling parent. Why? Because he was a poet growing up among working men and women. That was a double dose of namelessness. America effaces its workers as much as its poets, and Wright struck back, in solidarity, for those working class heroes whose souls could not speak, who perhaps had no idea that Wright spoke on their behalf. I see on the TV news that hundreds of thousands turn out for parades to honor the troops, post PersianGulf War: Many, many people forgive their oppressor. But not Wright. A grim reaper, he sharpened his scythe on an image of home only fools would believe in. He was telling us that there is no transforming America. Transcending it, yes, leaving it, yes, dying in it, for it or against it, yes. But, changing it? No. It is only endurable. At the bottom of the cliff America is over and done with. America, Plunged into the dark furrows Of the sea again. < Prev
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