Tuesday, November 30, 2021

An Ecstatic, Troubled Poet Comes to Life in a New Biography


James Wright

An Ecstatic, Troubled Poet Comes to Life in a New Biography

A Life in Poetry
By Jonathan Blunk
Illustrated. 496 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $40.

By Eric McHenry
Nov. 22, 2017

James Wright loved to recite poems he knew by heart, and he seemed to know most of them. Friends described his aural memory as “phonographic.” “It’s as if he has a piano roll in his head,” his college roommate said. Donald Hall recalled Wright declaiming German poetry “for 20 minutes to an astonished assembly of mathematicians.” At a crowded party, while reciting Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wright brushed against a lit stove and set his coat on fire. Oblivious, he continued his performance while a friend poured beer down his smoldering backside.

“James Wright: A Life in Poetry” may be an unexceptional title for Jonathan Blunk’s engrossing biography, but it’s hard to think of a more fitting one. Poetry was Wright’s element. Volatile and peripatetic, buffeted by depression, alcoholism and estrangement from loved ones, he would reach for his books or his notebooks and steady himself. In 1969, after a horrible fight with his wife, he opened his journal and started drafting a plan to update his will, return to his native Ohio and commit suicide. But partway through he became absorbed in the writing itself, recasting sentences as lines of verse. A few would find their way into his “Collected Poems,” which received the Pulitzer Prize three years later.

At a time of furious side-taking in American poetry, Wright belonged to no school but enjoyed honorary membership in many. His mentors were John Crowe Ransom and Theodore Roethke, masters of the metrical line, but perhaps his favorite American poet was Gary Snyder and one of his best friends was Robert Bly. When Allen Tate voted to deny him tenure at the University of Minnesota, he was probably punishing Wright for his association with the anti-formalist Bly as much as for his drunken appearances at student parties.

In truth, Wright probably had more in common with the Latin American, European and Chinese poets he avidly translated than with anyone writing in English. He was an ecstatic poet — from the Greek ekstasis, “to stand outside oneself.” One of his signature poems, “A Blessing,” explicitly imagines such an event: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” Transcendence was his obsessive theme and his lifelong project.

Blunk’s first chapter opens with a teenage Wright trying to transcend his hometown — climbing the hill above Martins Ferry, Ohio, “anxious to feel ‘the sense, the vista’ he found in books.” But his view of the Ohio River is obscured by smoke from the steel mills, and the surrounding fields are pocked with strip mines. This image of home as a place of effaced beauty, of desecrated land and devastated lives, would haunt Wright and his work. In another celebrated poem, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” he writes:

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.

Long after he’d left Martins Ferry for good, Wright had a recurring nightmare of being chased through its darkened streets. When depressed, he spoke of an apparently genuine fear that he would somehow be forced to go back and work in the mills.


“Being James Wright was a real job,” a friend said. Being around James Wright was labor, too. He was a lot like his poems — brilliant, intense, prone to big dramatic gestures, likely at any moment to take flight or to faceplant. Even his closest friends found him exhausting. For all his literary success, he was always broke and rumpled. As his reputation grew, so did his dependency on alcohol. At a University of Minnesota faculty party where only soft drinks were served, a colleague found Wright in the kitchen with a glass of wine vinegar. He was humiliated by his firing from the school, where he had been an inspiring but erratic teacher — “a beautiful lecturer who spoke off the cuff in whole paragraphs,” according to his student Garrison Keillor, but also one who sometimes failed to show up for class.

As a family man, Wright was similarly half-present. He adored his two sons, Franz and Marshall, but “had little talent for parenting” and was always preoccupied. “Just to be in the same room with him was all I required — and that was very hard for him,” Franz said, heartbreakingly. After Wright’s miserable first marriage ended and his ex-wife took custody of the boys, he saw even less of them. As Franz got older, Wright found him easier to relate to, and even became a kind of mentor to the aspiring poet. (Franz would win the family’s second Pulitzer in 2004.) Angry and troubled, Marshall stopped speaking to his father, and the two never fully reconciled.

Blunk documents all of this dispassionately, letting the facts of Wright’s life speak for themselves — sometimes to a fault. He seems reluctant to interpret the events he’s describing, or hopeful that they require no interpretation. The resulting paragraphs can be desultory, full of fascinating but unintegrated information.

But Wright comes through vividly on almost every page. Blunk began working on the book in 2002, and it’s clearly the better for that long gestation. He draws on nearly 200 interviews with Wright’s family, friends and literary peers, many of whom are now gone: Mark Strand, Carolyn Kizer, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Franz Wright. Blunk makes judicious use of Wright’s papers, including important letters that only recently came to light. Wright helpfully kept carbon copies of much of his private correspondence. He may have spoken contemptuously of “the prying biographer,” but he expected to have one.

It’s in the extensive endnotes that Blunk really shines, illuminating his sources and his resourcefulness: Wright prefaced two late poems with an epigraph from Virgil, “Optima dies prima fugit” — “The best days are the first to flee.” A reader might recognize it from Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” A serious reader might know that it’s an abbreviation of a longer passage: “The best days of life, for all poor mortal creatures, / Are the soonest to be gone.” But only Blunk, aware that Wright had translated Virgil’s Third “Georgic and committed much of “My Antonia” to memory, can tell you for certain that Wright knew both versions and chose Cather’s. That’s literary biography at its fine-grained finest.

In his late 30s, Wright happily remarried and took a job at Hunter College in New York City. In his 40s, he enjoyed hard-won sobriety, traveled frequently to Europe and wrote some of his most hopeful, grateful poetry. He seemed finally to have achieved equilibrium, if not transcendence; unable to step out of his body, he had made himself at home in it. A lifelong smoker, he learned he had cancer of the tongue in late 1979 and died a few months later, at 52. The best days were the first to flee.

But Wright did a lot with the days he got. Some critics called a sprawling posthumous collection of poems, “This Journey,” his best yet. Wright had worked on the manuscript from his hospital bed. The day he died, an attending doctor found him “walking around his room in an agitated state. ‘My book, my book,’ Wright kept repeating” — the last words attributed to him.

Eric McHenry teaches at Washburn University. His most recent book of poems is “Odd Evening.”


Monday, November 29, 2021

James Wright / Jonathan Blunk / His First and Last Readings

James Wright

James Wright

Jonathan Blunk

His First and Last Readings

Primal Ear / Theodore Roethke, James Wright, and the cult of authenticity

James Wright / Lazy on a Saturday Morning

Of the many resources I’ve mined in researching James Wright: A Life in Poetry, the most vivid have been recordings of Wright’s readings over the course of two decades, when he was a vital public figure in the world of American poetry. A strong impression of his physical presence survives in his voice, in the stories he tells, and in the poems he says—many of them written by others. Wright did not recite poems, and rarely needed a printed text. The word he used was saying poems; they were part of how he spoke, even how he thought. Wright had an astounding memory, so alert to the patterns of sound and language that some I interviewed described it as a “phonographic” memory. After saying poems in Latin, German, or Spanish, Wright would improvise his own translations. He knew countless poems by heart, as well as entire Shakespeare plays, novels by Dickens, and essays by H. L. Mencken and George Orwell—a seemingly infinite store.

For Wright’s authorized biography, I gathered and transcribed four dozen of his readings, public talks, and interviews. Included here are two poems, from readings twenty-one years apart. “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” comes from the first of Wright’s readings that I’ve found, recorded in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 1958. Wright gave his final reading on October 11, 1979, in the Harvard College Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, saying poems from throughout his career, including “A Blessing.”

One of the finest readers of his generation, Wright joined the many itinerant poets who took to the road in the 1960s and ’70s to appear in cities and on college campuses around the country. Along with his wide knowledge of poetry and singular memory, Wright had a richly timbral voice that never lost a touch of Southern Ohioan, a slight Appalachian lilt he carried from his birthplace in Martins Ferry on the Ohio River. He modeled his expressive reading style on his great mentor, Theodore Roethke, with some of the fire and melancholy of Roethke’s friend Dylan Thomas. Thomas created a kind of template for the cross-country reading tour in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and Elizabeth Kray soon began organizing reading circuits of college campuses grouped in close proximity that could then share the cost of hosting poets. When Wright recorded fifteen of his own poems at the request of Randall Jarrell for the Library of Congress in May 1958, he had just arranged, with Kray’s help, his first extensive reading tour across New England for the coming December.

Wright had already won acclaim for his rhymed and metered verse and was publishing widely in journals and magazines when he arrived at the University of Minnesota in September 1957 to take up his first teaching appointment. The Green Wall, his debut collection, had been published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, chosen by W. H. Auden. Saint Judas, Wright’s second book, would be of the same traditional cast. “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” is a prime example of the influence of Edwin Arlington Robinson on Wright’s work: a dramatic monologue, spoken by a twelve-year-old boy to the brother of the town drunk, in five stanzas of interlocking rhyme. But something from the streets of Martins Ferry insinuates itself into Wright’s voice, as it does throughout his poetry; the material he is drawn to here creates a tension with the formal craft of the poem. When the boy utters a brief, sharp curse near the poem’s conclusion, Wright’s voice sparks to life, brushing aside decorum and convention. One realizes how much the boy cares for the poor old drunk—that is, how much the poet cares.

When the boy utters a brief, sharp curse near the poem’s conclusion, Wright’s voice sparks to life, brushing aside decorum and convention

Wright dedicated what would be his final reading in October 1979 at Harvard College to the memory of Elizabeth Bishop, who had died a week before in Boston at the age of sixty-eight. In her honor, Wright began by saying from memory Yeats’s ars poetica “Adam’s Curse.” “Everybody knows it,” he allows, “but it doesn’t hurt to sing it again.” Of his own work, Wright chose poems from throughout his career, though he worried in his journal the night before, “I wonder what, if anything, the Harvards will make of Ohio, my Ohio.”

Wright had just returned from nine months of travel in Europe, enjoying a remarkable period of sustained writing that would appear in his posthumous volume, This Journey. He did not know at the time of his reading that the sore throat he just couldn’t shake was in fact a cancerous tumor that would take his life five months later. On the recording, Wright seems as if he were troubled by a cold. But the reading is generous and self-assured, with a storyteller’s pacing and sensitivity. Following a bravura recitation of the bitter, scalding work “The Minneapolis Poem,” Wright turned to a poem from his 1963 book The Branch Will Not Break: “A Blessing.” He often insisted that many poems in that collection, including “A Blessing,” were “just descriptions”—clearly observed moments of perception and feeling. At the time he wrote The Branch, the possibility of happiness seemed always a surprise to him. “A Blessing” owes its inspiration, in part, to translations of classical Chinese poetry, a source Wright turned to often. In this final reading of the poem, Wright throws a slight accent on the word “my” in the penultimate line, heightening an awareness of how closely he has been observing the bodies of those horses that “can hardly contain their happiness.”

Wright’s command of free verse is nowhere more evident than in the skillful enjambment of the last two lines of “A Blessing.” Expanding upon this fluency with image-based strategies he found by translating German, Spanish, and Latin American modernists, Wright had a profound influence on his peers and on succeeding generations of American poets. The Branch Will Not Break remains his most celebrated book; together with his 1968 masterwork Shall We Gather at the River, the poems Wright published in the 1960s helped assure that his Collected Poems of 1971 would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

But Wright never turned his back on rhymed and metered poetry. In his Harvard reading he included “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack,” “An Offering for Mr. Bluehart,” and an early sonnet, “My Grandmother’s Ghost”—the poem Wright said most often throughout his career. The concluding poem of his final reading is another formal tour de force, what he called “a cracked ballade” in the manner of François Villon: “A Farewell to the Mayor of Toulouse.” It was one of dozens of new poems Wright had brought back from his last journey in Europe.

Jonathan Blunk is a poet, critic, essayist, and radio producer. His work has appeared in The NationPoets & WritersThe Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He was a coeditor of A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright.

The Library of Congress is the source for Wright’s reading of “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” on May 25, 1958, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Wright’s final reading at the Harvard College Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 11, 1979, which includes “A Blessing,” is now part of the Woodberry Poetry Room’s audio archive.


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Primal Ear / Theodore Roethke, James Wright, and the cult of authenticity

Primal Ear

Roethke, Wright, and the cult of authenticity.

Adam Kirsch
July 31, 2005

On August 22, 1957, Pete Rademacher fought Floyd Patterson in Seattle for the world heavyweight championship. In the stands that day were two boxing fans from the English Department of the University of Washington: Theodore Roethke, a forty-nine-year-old professor, and his twenty-nine-year-old student James Wright, who was celebrating the completion of his Ph.D. Each was one of the leading poets of his generation. The year before, Wright’s first book of poems, “The Green Wall,” had been chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets award; Roethke’s most recent book, “The Waking,” had won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize.

Neither Roethke, the son of a greenhouse owner from Saginaw, Michigan, nor Wright, the son of a factory worker from Martins Ferry, Ohio, regarded a prizefight as an incongruous setting for poets. On the contrary, they imported the vocabulary of boxing—its swagger and its feuds—into their discussions of the poetry world. “Allen Tate,” Wright assured Roethke, “certainly seems to think you’re the Heavyweight Champion of contemporary American poetry.” This must have delighted the older poet, who approached his rivals in a fighting crouch: “Those limp-pricks,” he bragged, “I can write rings around any of them.” And, in a letter to James Dickey, Wright insisted that without “the high joy which is all that matters . . . poetry is considerably less interesting than boxing.”

For all these masculine growls, though, there have been few American poets more acutely tenderhearted, more genuinely and at times dismayingly sensitive, than Roethke and Wright. Roethke’s great subject was the secret life of flowers, plants, and children, while Wright allied himself in his poetry with the dispossessed and the outcast. Both poets were deeply sentimental about women, especially after each found happiness in a late marriage. And they were still more vulnerable on the subject of fathers—the taciturn, unemotional men about whom Roethke and Wright wrote some of their best poems.

No wonder that, in their letters, they stepped so gingerly around the paternal element in their relationship. “I’ve spent nearly the whole of three sessions with my doctor yacking about you,” Roethke wrote Wright in 1958. “Apparently you’re more of an emotional symbol to me than I realized: a combination of student-younger brother—something like that. (I even shed a tear or two.)” Wright was equally careful to avoid the language of fathers and sons: “I’ve never directly told you what I think of you, because I’m afraid you would think I am turning you into a father. I swear I never have thought of you as a father.” Instead, Wright relaxed into a more comfortable metaphor: “I myself feel funny about writing it down on paper. It’s as though I were reminding myself that I am breathing, or that I am happy, or that I just won a fist-fight.”

Decades have now passed since their sadly premature deaths—Roethke’s in 1963, Wright’s in 1980—and today they need to be reintroduced to a generation of readers who are likely to know them only from a few anthology pieces. It is a nice coincidence, then, that new editions of both poets’ work have recently appeared: “Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems” (Library of America; $20), edited by Edward Hirsch, and “James Wright: Selected Poems” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $13), edited by Robert Bly and Anne Wright. A large volume of Wright’s selected letters, “A Wild Perfection” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $40), has also just been published. Reading the two poets side by side helps their distinctive gifts to stand out sharply—along with their equally suggestive limitations. For Roethke and Wright both hoped that poetry could be a communion of souls, beyond or below the level of literature. But over the course of their careers they paid a high aesthetic price for their belief that earnestness could make a poem live.

The sense that, by the nineteen-forties, modern poetry had become too difficult—too remote from ordinary language and subjects, too hard to understand—was practically the only thing that united American poets of the mid-twentieth century: academic and populist, the students of John Crowe Ransom and the companions of Allen Ginsberg. The thirst of these poets—those born, roughly, between 1905 and 1930—for an alternative to the strenuous complexities of high modernism, as defined by the example and precept of Eliot and Pound, led to an explosion of new styles in mid-century American poetry: the Beats, the confessionalism of Robert Lowell and John Berryman, the projective verse of Charles Olson, and the “deep image” poetry with which Wright would be associated.

Yet Roethke and Wright were unusual in their early and intense mistrust not just of modernism but of the whole idea of poetic sophistication. Each was the product of a decidedly unliterary Midwestern setting—before Wright, the last writer to emerge from Martins Ferry, Ohio, had been William Dean Howells—and retained a lifelong suspicion of cleverness. To justify their calling, they had to insist that poetry had more to do with authenticity than with artistry.

As early as 1926, when Roethke was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, he was already laying special claim to “sincerity,—that prime virtue of any creative worker.” “I write only what I believe to be the absolute truth,” he maintained in an essay for a writing class, “even if I must ruin the theme in so doing. In this respect I feel far superior to those glib people in my classes who often garner better grades than I do. They are so often pitiful frauds,—artificial—insincere. . . . Many an incoherent yet sincere piece of writing has outlived the polished product.”

For a few fortunate years, in the second half of the forties, Roethke did succeed in making magic out of inarticulateness. His best and most characteristic poems concoct a new language for the shapeless urges of the unconscious. “One belief: ‘One must go back to go forward,’ ” he wrote to the critic Kenneth Burke in 1946. “And by back I mean down into the consciousness of the race itself not just the quandaries of adolescence, damn it.” In “Open House,” his 1941 début volume, Roethke’s verse was still constrained by the formal neatness of his youthful influences—especially Louise Bogan, the poet and longtime poetry critic for The New Yorker, who was briefly Roethke’s lover. Even in his early poems, however, he was drawn to images that could not help seeming Freudian and Jungian: massive subterranean forces, painful hidden blockages. “The teeth of knitted gears / Turn slowly through the night, / But the true substance bears / The hammer’s weight,” he wrote in “The Adamant.”

Roethke had wandered into his true subject before he discovered a style that could accommodate it. The creation of that style was an arduous triumph, requiring him to return to the primal scenes of his own childhood. His biographer, Allan Seager, records that Roethke, while working on the poems of his best book—“The Lost Son and Other Poems,” published in 1948—sometimes went around the house naked, a token of a larger stripping down.

The first fruit of this effort was the famous “greenhouse poems,” in which Roethke re-creates the vegetable world of his earliest years. Roethke’s family operated one of the largest nurseries in Michigan, thus allowing him to fill his poems with immediately legible symbols of psychic growth—roots, stems, and blossoms. But it took Roethke’s talent for powerfully indirect evocation to make the greenhouse not just a metaphor but an eerily living presence, as in “Root Cellar”:

And what a congress of stinks!— Roots ripe as old bait, Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich, Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks. Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath. 

Nearly a century and a half after Wordsworth, Roethke manages to invent an entirely new kind of nature poetry, in which the earth is not reassuringly earthy but teeming and alien. At times, Roethke’s greenhouse even becomes surreally menacing: “So many devouring infants! / Soft luminescent fingers, / Lips neither dead nor alive, / Loose ghostly mouths / Breathing.” Lines like these, from “Orchids,” show just how much Sylvia Plath learned from Roethke about making the reader shiver.

In “The Lost Son and Other Poems,” Roethke also began another major sequence that he would wrestle with for the next several years—what he described as “a series of longer pieces which try, in their rhythms, to catch the movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not ‘I’ personally but of all haunted and harried men).” If poems like “Weed Puller” had shown the poet pressing himself as close to nature as he could get—“Me down in that fetor of weeds, / Crawling on all fours”—Roethke’s new style attempted to vault the barrier of sentience, to speak with nature’s own voice.

From “The Lost Son and Other Poems” through his next book, “Praise to the End!” (1951), to “The Waking” (1953), Roethke experimented with this new style. But he never accomplished more with it than he did in “The Lost Son,” the first poem in the sequence. Like “The Waste Land,” whose influence is profound but seldom obvious, “The Lost Son” dispenses with plot and argument for the sake of a hypnotically effective voice. The poem charts the emotions of a man mourning the death of his father, and it progresses through a chain of moods: grief, nostalgia, regression to childhood terrors, and, finally, a tentative reawakening to adulthood. Appropriately, Roethke draws from the deepest wells of the English language—Mother Goose, Shakespeare, the Bible—in order to create a new idiom for primal experience:

All the leaves stuck out their tongues; I shook the softening chalk of my bones, Saying, Snail, snail, glister me forward, Bird, soft-sigh me home, Worm, be with me. This is my hard time. 

“The Lost Son” is the peak of Roethke’s inventiveness as a poet. But his attempt to extend its discoveries into a whole sequence revealed the fragility of this technique: without the momentum of narrative, it quickly grows static and repetitive. There are wonderful passages in “Praise to the End!” that manage to capture childish orality and sexuality with a disturbing vividness. Yet by the time he wrote “O, Thou Opening, O,” from “The Waking,” even Roethke seems to have grown impatient with his style: “And now are we to have that pelludious Jesus-shimmer over all things, the animal’s candid gaze, a shade less than feathers . . . I’m tired of all that, Bag-Foot.”

When Roethke tried to return to a more explicit and formal kind of poetry, the limits of his sensibility were harshly exposed. (“Ted had hardly any general ideas at all,” Auden reportedly said.) And his late poems, from “The Waking” through the posthumous “The Far Field” (1964), are crowded with limp, quasi-mystical abstractions: “I learned not to fear infinity, / The far field, the windy cliffs of forever, / The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow.” What is most disappointing in Roethke’s late work is the way he fell back into emulation of the established modernist idols, especially Yeats and the Eliot of “Four Quartets.” Imitation as direct as Roethke’s of Yeats, in “The Dance,” is usually found only in very young poets, not in accomplished masters. It was as though, having used up his poetic capital—his childhood—Roethke looked to those authoritative voices for reassurance.

The failures of his late work confirm that Roethke’s real subject was his own inwardness; he wrote best when he avoided direct statement in favor of tremulous connotation. That is why Roethke was always at a loss when asked what his poems meant. They could not be elucidated, he knew, only intuited. “Believe me,” he adjured the reader in a 1950 “Open Letter,” “you will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, naïvely, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert.”

Long before he met Roethke, James Wright shared his view of sincerity as the central literary value. In 1946, the eighteen-year-old Wright sent some of his poems to a professor who had offered encouragement. “As you read them,” Wright warned, “you will be conscious of the absence of a syllable here and there, and even of the discarding of iambics altogether. I would rather sacrifice technical skill than sincerity.” Throughout his career, Wright, still more than Roethke, would gamble on the obvious intensity of his emotions—his loneliness, compassion, wonder—to accomplish more than mere “technical skill” ever could.

Wright’s revulsion against the sterility of technique was all the more extreme because of his early proficiency as a writer of traditional verse. His first book was characterized not by audacity but by a highly polished literary language: “For who could bear such beauty under the sky? / I would have held her loveliness in air.” Yet Wright had emerged from a still less literary milieu than Roethke. “My mother had to leave school when she was in the sixth grade, my father had to leave when he was in the eighth grade,” Wright recalled near the end of his life. “He went into the factory when he was fourteen and my mother went to work in a laundry.”

Wright would often honor his father’s lifetime of manual labor in his verse: “one slave / To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father,” he wrote in “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” one of his best early poems. But already in that poem, from his second collection, “Saint Judas” (1959), Wright was moving away from pastoral elegance, straining to incorporate the brutal realities of working-class Ohio:

I waste no pity on the dead that stink, And no love’s lost between me and the crying Drunks of Belaire, Ohio, where police Kick at their kidneys till they die of drink. 

The stylistic revolution that was to produce Wright’s best poetry was touched off by a passing insult in a 1958 review, by James Dickey, of the anthology “New Poets of England and America,” where Wright took his place alongside many of the young writers who were to dominate American poetry for the next several decades—including Richard Wilbur, Adrienne Rich, and Anthony Hecht. But Dickey found the anthology “representative of a generation that has as yet exhibited very little passion, urgency, or imagination,” and he went on to dismiss Wright’s work in just two words—“ploddingly sincere.”

After Dickey’s essay appeared, in the Sewanee Review, Wright wrote him a crude and defensive letter: “Since you both think and feel that my verses stink, it is your responsibility as well as your privilege to say so in print.” Yet he viewed Dickey’s critical approach as needlessly cruel. Students sometimes asked Wright for his opinion of their verse, he went on, and “when their verses were sentimental and inept, I believe that I have criticized them honestly and severely; however, I have never greeted a student by telling her to go fuck herself and shove her hideous poems up her ass.”

When Dickey replied sternly to this attack, though, Wright collapsed into contrition and self-reproach. “As I sit here,” he admitted, “I think I know why I was hurt. You simply said that I was not a poet. This remark of yours only confirmed what—obviously enough—is a central fear of mine, and which I have been deeply struggling to face for some time.” Wright’s doubts about his highly praised work were compounded by another jolt that he received in the very same week, when he read the first issue of Robert Bly’s new little magazine, The Fifties, whose inside front cover declared, “The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.” Just two days after his mea culpa to Dickey, Wright wrote to Bly, entirely renouncing his early work: “My book was dead. It could have been written by a dead man, if they have Corona typewriters in the grave.”

This double shock succeeded in winning Wright over to what Bly called, in an essay in the second issue of The Fifties, “the new poetry.” According to Bly, the “old style, with the iamb, its caesuras, its rhymes, its thousands of rhythms reminding us of other poems and other countries . . . is like a man speaking who gestures too much. . . . But in the new poetry, the contrary is true—there is no necessity in the form itself for continual gesture, by rhyme, etc.—therefore, if you raise your little finger once, slowly, it has tremendous meaning.”

This metaphor perfectly describes the technique of the first volume that Wright produced after this crisis: “The Branch Will Not Break,” published in 1963. The book contains much of Wright’s best writing, which indeed wagers everything on the effectiveness of small, dramatic gestures. The most celebrated and controversial example is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

The poem is a catalogue of meticulously observed natural details—“the bronze butterfly, / Asleep on the black trunk,” “The droppings of last year’s horses”—which concludes with a sudden, seemingly unjustified swerve: “A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” The last line suggests how “deep image” poetry differs from the Imagism of the nineteen-tens: it is not the visual composition that matters to Wright but the way the visible world calls forth a mysterious inward response. And for Wright—as for Roethke, who declared that his poetry’s leaps of association “either . . . are imaginatively right or they’re not”—the link between things seen and things felt cannot be artificially prepared. He agreed with Bly’s dictum that “in the new style, where the tension and density of the emotion is everything, you have to, like a good gambler, agree to stake everything on one throw.”

Still more than Roethke, Wright is tempted to turn his poems’ aesthetic gamble into a moral test. As he wrote to his close friend Donald Hall, “Whatever a poet has been in the past, right now he is defined, to me, as a man who has both the power and the courage to see, and then, to show, the truth through words. If I’m a bad poet, that means a liar.” The literary results of this high-mindedness, however, were decidedly mixed. In his work of the nineteen-sixties, Wright’s determination “to show the truth” can give his voice a grave credibility, as in “Speak”: “To speak in a flat voice / Is all that I can do. / . . . I speak of flat defeat / In a flat voice.” But often in his later writing Wright strips from his poetry the very things that turn a personal experience into a shared work of art. In his quest to make his poetry authentic, he often descends to melodramatic reporting on his own emotions: “I feel lonesome, / And sick at heart, / Frightened, / And I don’t know / Why.” And he wards off any doubts about this style—his own or his readers’—with a kind of truculent earnestness:

This is not a poem. This is not an apology to the Muse. This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire To his brother and friend. If you do not care one way or another about The preceding lines, Please do not go on listening On any account of mine. Please leave the poem. Thank you. 

But the job of the poet is to make the reader want to care—to awaken his sympathy, not extort it. The problem with Wright’s and Roethke’s poetics of sincerity is that it allows the poet to believe that right thinking is more important than good writing. In a 1961 essay, Wright made this denigration of artistry explicit: “It should be unnecessary to say that gentleness and courage in dealing with a subject matter very close to life . . . are primarily matters of personal character; and that, where the character is lacking, no amount of literary skill can substitute for it.” It is equally unnecessary to say that the reverse is also true: gentleness and courage, unfortunately perhaps, are unavailing without the colder cunning of the artist. Only when they combined both kinds of virtue did Roethke and Wright produce the poems by which they continue to live. 

Published in the print edition of the August 8, 2005, issue.

Adam Kirsch is a poet, a critic, and the author of, most recently, “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Poem of the week / Rest by Christina Rossetti

Poem of the week: Rest by Christina Rossetti

This serene vision of death reads rather like the dream of a good night’s sleep


O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hush’d in and curtain’d with a blessèd dearth
Of all that irk’d her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noonday holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.

Carol Rumens
Mon 22 Nov 2021 10.00 GMT

Framed by Christina Rossetti in mainly secular terms, this prayer for rest seems at times simply a prayer for sleep. The state it evokes is nearly, but not quite, oblivion, a marginally conscious sense of succumbing to deliciously peaceful unconsciousness. While the sonnet’s title, Rest, inevitably carries the suggestion of death (and the closing lines reiterate this dimension) the opening plea, significantly, is to “Earth” itself. A certain sensory luxuriousness adheres to the substance – which is soil, planet and, perhaps, mother goddess. The chiasmic structure of the first two lines expresses earth’s all-encompassing solidity. Earth is also conceived almost as a visible form of darkness – the kind we may “see” when we close our eyes before dropping off . This earthen dark doesn’t only mercifully prevent sight but, in the poem, encloses the whole body and shuts down its responses.

The first four lines very effectively mime a settling-down process. Rossetti handles the iambic line lightly, for instance, introducing a dactyl at the start of line two (Seal her sweet eyes). The effect is of slight tremors or shudders as muscles relax, and consciousness recedes. The even breathing of deep sleep can be imagined in the steadily metrical and beautifully serene fifth line, “She hath no questions, she hath no replies … ” That steadiness of rhythm is sustained to the last line of the octet: “With stillness that is almost Paradise”.

The focus of “hushed in and curtained” seems to combine internal and external views. (A comparison with the sonnet After Death might be revealing). We see the speaker as a visitor to the bedside might, but we’re also still inside her mind, feeling the cessation of “all that irked her” and its exchange for the “stillness that is almost Paradise”. A particularly lyrical sestet finds the darkness clearer than “noonday” and yet it still “holds” her. There’s particular poignancy in such a music-loving and melodically attuned poet finding “Silence more musical than any song”. At this point, I feel convinced that the poem is autobiographical, despite the third-person point of view. The one who feels such an overwhelming peace in her imagined rest is the poet herself, “irked” for most of her life by severe ill-health besides being prey to turbulent mood swings: according to a Poetry Foundation essay, Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel were known during childhood as “the two storms”.

In line 11 of the sonnet, the cessation of “the very heart” seems, again, to suggest a process that belongs to metaphorical rather than literal death – and to signify primarily the loss of emotional reaction. There’s a sense now that every nerve has been sedated. The process seems closer to death, as the focus moves from unconsciousness to a wonderful evocation of timelessness in line 13. Rest, above all, means the exclusion of the sense of passing time.

The speaker will wake to “Eternity”, but the experience is described very much in terms of ordinary waking up. The last line gains its simple, colloquial power from this connecting sense of everyday experience. After an extra long sleep, we look at the clock in sheer disbelief and, as long as we haven’t missed some important deadline, satisfaction. “And when she wakes she will not think it long.” The theology of a recuperative post-mortem sleep seems liberal, compared with the demand for repentance in purgatory.

Rossetti is certainly doing something more serious than praising “care-charmer sleep” but her vision is communicated so well, I think, because she understands what it is to be tired and worn, and knows the sheer sweet pleasure of turning in for a night’s kip.