blog post

May 2020
11:00 am

Poetry Salon 5/20 Recap: James Wright

Hello All! This is the first of a series I'll be doing on the blog over this summer. Basically, after each salon I'm gonna post a little recap on what we talked about for anyone who missed it and is interested in seeing what we discussed. 

Yesterday we talked about the poetry of James Wright (1927-1980). Considered one of the most important mid-20th century poets, the evolution of Wright's style is seen as emblamtic of American poetry's evolution over the 20th century. A shift scholar Peter Stitt labels as "away from rhetoric, regular meters and rhymes, towards plainer speech, looser rhythms and few ryhmes." His most famous collection The Branch Will Not Break (1963) emboided this transition, in an art that Paul Zweig says "lays not in complex grammar but in a stark structure of perceptions which became their own statement." 


The first poem we looked at was "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"

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.

What we noted in this poem is its evocative rendering of an industrial midwest landscape and culture. Although very rooted through language in the time it was written, Wright's poem still hits us today due to its keen insights into masculinity, gender roles, and small town society. The poem moves interestingly which each stanza, starting broadly, on an economic/industrial level, then moving to the private family, and then to the individual. Societal decay becomes self-destruction, and the future of the town is also called into question. 

We then moved on to "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,  
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.  
Down the ravine behind the empty house,  
The cowbells follow one another  
Into the distances of the afternoon.  
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,  
The droppings of last year’s horses  
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.  
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Mike noted, particularly in this poem, that we can see Wright's eastern influence. The notion of an occassion poem, which the title establishes. We discussed the varying interpertations of the poem, noting that there are both negative and positive interpertations of the last line. Is it the hawk looking for home what causes the speaker to reflect on their own life? Or is the last line meant jokingly, as in isn't it wonderful that I can waste my life simply observing nature? In the end, there is no definite asnwer. This is the poem's great strength, it's very open. It asks us what we think and requires us to engage with it on our own terms. 

Next, we turned to "Mary Bly" and "A Blessing":

I sit here, doing nothing, alone, worn out by long winter.
I feel the light breath of the newborn child.
Her face is smooth as the side of an apricot,
Eyes quick as her blond mother’s hands.
She has full, soft, red hair, and as she lies quiet
In her tall mother’s arms, her delicate hands
Weave back and forth.
I feel the seasons changing beneath me,
Under the floor.
She is braiding the waters of air into the plaited manes
Of happy colts.
They canter, without making a sound, along the shores
Of melting snow.

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.

These two poems talk of horses and seem to show a healing process on part of the speaker. We discussed the notion of ephipany, and how these poem's structures lend themselves to that mental process, or don't. The importance of "Suddenly I realize", left all alone on A Blessing's shortest line, indicates the centrality of the speaker's mental state. The poem's odd switching of tenses also teases this. It keeps the reader hooked, but also foreshadows the poem's final lines. Just as the speaker is stepping outside their body, time is also escaping from its normal constraints. In both this poem and "Mary Bly", the speaker reaches out into the external world for a kind of solace which is then turned inward into a heightened mental state. 

We ended on a later prose poem of Wright's, "The Sumac in Ohio".

Toward the end of May, the air in southern Ohio is filling with fragrances, and I am a long way from home. A great place lies open in the earth there in Martins Ferry near the river, and to this day I don't know how it came to be. Maybe the old fathers of my town, their white hair lost long since into the coal smoke and the snow, gathered in their hundreds along the hither side of the B&O railroad track, presented whatever blades and bull tongues they could spare, and tore the earth open. Or maybe the gully appeared there on its own, long before the white-haired fathers came, and the Ohio changed its direction, and the glacier went away. 

But now towards the end of May, the sumac trees on the slopes of the gully are opening their brindle buds, and suddenly right before my eyes, the tough leaf branches turn a bewildering scarlet just at the place where they join the bough. You can strip the long leaves away already, but the leaf branch is more thoroughly rooted into the tree than the trunk itself is into the ground.

Before June begins, the sap and coal smoke and soot from Wheeling Steel, wafted down the Ohio by some curious gentleness in the Appalachians, will gather all over the trunk. The skin will turn aside hatchets and knife blades. You cannot even carve a girl's name on the sumac. It is viciously determined to live and die alone, and you can go straight to hell. 

We talked about how this poem could be read as more "positive", or at least more redemptive. Interestingly, the poem is set in the same land as Autumn Begins, but here, there is a plant. A plant that is so tough it can survive industrialization. The poem implies that to survive in this land, you must be this tough as well. The poem's closing lines suggest a radical acceptance of loneliness. Unlike "A Blessing" or "Mary Bly", the speaker doesn't escape their own loneliness. But rather, stares deep into it, and accepts it. 

See you all next Week!

Sebastien Butler

One Pause Summer Intern