13 December 2009

Crafting From Empathy and Inevitability: James Wright

Today is James Wright's birthday.

It's somehow appropriate, almost cosmically so, that he was born as winter was descending on the steel mill town (Martins Ferry, Ohio) in which he grew up. Quite possibly no poet ever used the word "darkness" as much as he did in his early poems.

But the interesting thing about his poetry--at least from the poems in This Branch Will Not Break onwards--is that for all of the self-pity he expressed in some of them, his poems are almost never despairing. Sometimes they're angry; other times, they're sad. But at least every emotion he expresses in his poem is an emotion he came by honestly.

The reason for that is that he never, ever "dumbs down" his poems, at least not spiritually. Absent is the facile cynicism that could have come so easily to someone who had his experiences and had a career as an academic. Also absent is the hedonism disguised as spirituality that too often infects the works of the writers of the so-called Beat Generation.

One thing that irked me about guys like Orlovsky and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg (and I say this as someone who studied under Ginsberg) is that they could rhapsodize about the holiness of the hands that crafted the latticework on the fire-escape on an East Village tenement without knowing who those hands belonged to, much less empathising with that person. That trait bothered me long before I could articulate it: While I admired some of the strange lyricism and the stances against authority expressed in some of their poems, something about many of them simply didn't seem authentic to me. Even as a teenager, I felt that way.

Wright--whose work I would discover when I was in my twenties--was the exact opposite. He couldn't keep a long poetic line running on anger and alienation (as Ginsberg did in Howl ) or with an elegaic rhythm (see Ginsberg's Kaddish). But his free-verse poems flowed, not seamlessly, but from a sense of inevitability (which is not always as smooth as one might expect) from something seen (rather than a "vision") to something else seen. Plus, Wright seemed to understand that an image is not just a picture rendered into words; it is something that has its power because it causes the reader (or viewer) to engage his or her imagination. That is why, even at his self-pitying worst, he is utterly transcendent. I almost hate to use that word; the quality I'm describing is almost beyond that.

Many of us in writing workshops tried to emulate his poems. Do I need to say that we failed? Anybody can assemble lines of words into something with a ragged edge and call it "free verse." But to have the kind of empathy Wright had for his subjects, and the respect he had for the music of the words he used, is something that nobody can imitate.

Anyway, I'll stop talking about him and leave you with a few of his poems.

A Blessing
Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.


The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moons young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

And now, here's one for all of you football fans:


In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.