Poetry : Our Poet of the Plains
James Wright, Selected Poems
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005)
What if Dante had hailed from Minneapolis, not Florence? What if Li Po penned his verses by the Mississippi instead of the Yang-Tze? Their output would have, perhaps, looked something like that of James Wright, whose Selected Poems appeared this year. Edited by his widow, Anne Wright, and close friend Robert Bly, it offers a comprehensive but concise view of his poetry in contrast to the hefty Above the River: Collected Poems (1992).
The comparison to Dante is apt, for Wright used his considerable poetical talent to graft existential dilemmas onto the infernal landscape of his native Midwest, which he vividly depicts in its full ruination. In the poem “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned,” he writes:
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
While Dante saw roasting sinners, Wright contends with desolate plains, empty towns, the rusted hulls of factories and a coterie of drunks, drifters and hobos that inhabits them. There is no Virgil, either, only the clatter of trains disappearing into the horizon. Wright was often horrified by his surroundings but they never left his poetry; they lurk even in the generally serene and naturalistic prose-poems written towards the end of his life in Italy: “Mantegna’s dead Christ looks exactly like a skidrow bum fished by the / cops out of the Mississippi in autumn just before daylight.”
Selected Poems performs an admirable task in tracing the arc of Wright’s career from Ohio to Europe and finally to New York, where he was a professor at Hunter College. The first poems are from The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959); the structure here is conventional and the poems have a slight sheen of immaturity. The influence of Robert Frost is obvious, but while the gentle New Englander couched his meanings in a welcoming natural sensibility, Wright revels openly in the questions that would come to occupy him. In “A Breath of Air,” he writes:
I walked, when love was gone,
Out of the human town,
For an easy breath of air
Wright just kept on walking. The two volumes that followed The Green Wall, The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River (1968) represent his finest achievement and very likely the finest achievement in American poetry since “The Waste Land.”
The mournful eloquence and deep sincerity are apparent from the first and never slacken. The lovely themes of the earlier verses are replaced by an exploration of the terrains that Wright knew best: Ohio and the human heart. Exemplary among his stunning poems of this period is “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” in which he describes that peculiar American ritual, the commencement of football season:
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.
As Bly notes in his introduction, the period during which these volumes were composed was one of personal turmoil for Wright, and depictions of death, darkness and oblivion abound in his poetry. One is reminded of Eliot, though his despair seemed more palatable when painted across bustling London. In Wright, the feeling is as naked as the wheat fields:
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis?
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?
But this pervasive dread didn’t have the final word for either the poet or his verses. He ultimately arrives at an affirming solution, a deep joy in the face of the deeply unknown. In “I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again,” he rises with a crushing hangover to see a blue jay “springing up and down, up and down, / On a branch” outside his window:
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.
This knowledge borne of faith, that “the branch will not break,” though frail it may be, runs through Wright’s later work, which takes the form of prose sketches of his European travels and serves as an apt conclusion to a career of serious contemplation and dazzling achievement. Selected Poems chronicles that career admirably.
Alexander Nazaryan, a writer living in Brooklyn, has recently completed his first novel.
Alex Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn.