These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.
James Wright (1927 – 1980) is an American poet, and often associated with the Deep Image poets of Robert Bly. He studied under John Crowe Ransom as an undergrad from 1948 to 1952 at Kenyon College, and later with Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington “in the spring of 1954” (Elkins 33). His early work in The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959) was formal and influenced by such poets as Edgar Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost. In that formalism, he even re-invented Sapphics or Americanized it into three lines of iambic tetrameter and one line of iambic dimeter. I love that he did that. In those early books. The poetry was filled with despair and nature, as he says about The Green Wall in an interview with Peter Stitt:
I tried to begin with the fall of man and acknowledge that the fall of man was a good thing, the felix culpa, the happy guilt. And then I tried to weave my way in and out through nature poems and people suffering in nature because they were conscious. That was the idea. I don’t think that that book is structurally very coherent, but that was the idea of it. You know, I left out about forty poems from that book.
Wright then started working on translations, which, as some people say, translated him. And, in part, they did, but so did his time with Robert Bly, who told him “poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling” (Stitt). In 1963, James Wright’s most successful book appeared, The Branch Will Not Break.
This was unlike his earlier poetry as it was not formal and it was filled with joy and delight. As Wright says, “At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about” (Stitt). It might also be the most successful book of Deep Image poetry (of the Robert Bly camp of Deep Image poetry) that has been written. His concerns with formalism, or the turning toward free verse, however, may be hinted at earlier in the poem from Saint Judas “The Morality of Poetry,” as Ralph J. Mills pointed out (Kalaidjian 103). For in this poem, Wright near the end writes:
Woman or bird, she plumes the ashening sound, Flaunting to nothingness the rules I made. Scattering cinders, widening, over the sand Her cold epistle falls. To plumb the fall Of silver on ripple, evening ripple on wave, Quick celebration where she lives for light, I let all measures die. My voice is gone, My words to you unfinished, where they lie Common and bare as stone in diamond veins. Where the sea moves the word moves, where the sea Subsides, the slow word fades with lunar tides. Now still alive, my skeletal words gone bare, Lapsing like dead gulls' brittle wings and drowned, In a mindless dance, beneath the darkening air, I send you shoreward echoes of my voice. (61)
Nonetheless, Wright arrived at free verse, mid-western speech, Jungian unconscious imagery, and an ability to express joy. Part of this new writing arose from translating Georg Trakl, who, according to Wright, “writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relations between one image and another” (Stitt). This leaving out of the explanation is what Bly calls “leaping.” For Bly, “leaping” is the leaping that occurs as the content or the mind reading/writing/experiencing the content leaps from conscious experiencing to unconscious experiencing, and the leaping is quick. There’s also the leaping that occurs with epiphany, which is a common experience in The Branch Will Not Break. The well-known example is at the end of “A Blessing” with the famous last lines: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” This epiphany is physical, psychic, and figurative. But what is interesting about this are at least these two things. First, the surreal like quality that he could step out of his body as well as blossom. There are better examples of surrealism elsewhere (though Wright is adamant he is not surrealist), but that type of surreal thinking does exist. The second thing of note is that Wright is often in the physical world objectively observing it. It’s almost Imagistic in that objectivism and with the use of juxtaposing two images to create an effect. But with Wright the effect becomes deliberately personal, subjective, and emotional. With an Imagist, the juxtaposition is an objective witnessing, and maybe creates a subjective understanding, but it’s so distant. For instance, in Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” where is Pound in that poem? Maybe we feel him between lines two and three. There’s an objective representation of the subjective (if there is a subject), but with Wright, he inserts himself into that space. He inhabits the “leap.” His psyche is in that place that Trakl does not explain. This is one of the strong effects of Wright’s Deep Image poetry.
Another example of this is “The Jewel”:
There is this cave In the air behind my body That nobody is going to touch: A cloister, a silence Closing around a blossom of fire. When I stand upright in the wind, My bones turn to dark emeralds. (122)
The poem opens as if in a dream and ends in the surrealistic image of his bones transforming into “dark emeralds.” Again, this is a physical, psychic, and figurative epiphany, but here, more than in “A Blessing,” the epiphany is more suggestive. It’s like a Symbolist image of suggestion. We can probably intuitively understand the transformation, but it’s an unconscious understanding, that later our conscious minds can maybe grapple with. The important part is that we realize an important transformation has happened, and maybe that’s the most important thing with many of these poems and Deep Image poems.
In “In Memory of a Spanish Poet,” Wright kind of outlines for us the process of a Deep Image poem. The poem begins with the following epigraph: “Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me. – Miguel Hernández, written in prison, 1942.” Then the poem:
I see you strangling Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls. Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun. I dream of your slow voice, flying, Planting the dark waters of the spirit With lutes and seeds. Here, in the American Midwest, Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange heaven of my skull. They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell, A greeting to my new country. Now twilight gathers, A long sundown. Silos creep away toward the west. (130)
The Spanish poets were very influential to the Deep Image poets, and here we have Wright having a vision of Hernández in jail deteriorating but his voice escapes and plants seeds in the Midwest. The images are mostly surreal, and the surreality mixes with the real, such as “ruins of the sun,” “voice, flying,” “dark waters of the spirit,” “strange heaven of my skull,” and these juxtapositions are highly suggestive, like a Symbolist poem. Through it all, we see the transformation of Wright, through whom the surreality is mediated before it also transforms the American landscape, which in the end expresses death, as in seen in the final images of the last stanza. Here, the poet transforms the land.
Sometimes the transformation is more subtle or impressionistic, such as in “Arriving in the Country Again,” where Wright feels a sense of ease in the environment he inhabits. But there is transformation, which often comes “From the other world” (“Milkweed” 143-44).
After The Branch Will Not Break is the book Shall We Gather at the River (1963), and here he returns to the subject of his first two books: death, despair, and loneliness, and to the anti-heroes of “misfits, mental patients, murderers, drunks, prisoners, prostitutes, fugitives, and exiles” (Kalaidjian 102). “In these poems,” as I quote from the notes I wrote in my book, “he is more of a passive observer with less surreal imagery. He’s an observer of transformation, but he does not transform. Thus, lending more to his lonely and depressed state. In The Branch, he often transforms and/or has epiphanies – his transformations are within, but, at times, stimulated from the external. If these are deep image poems in Shall We Gather at the River, which they probably are not as they lack surreal imagery and personal transformation, it is the deep image of the external.”
This book is followed by Two Citizens, which Wright describes by saying, it
begins with a curse on America. There are some savage poems about Ohio, my home, in that book, poems that I could not have written if I hadn’t found Annie [his wife who introduced him to Europe]. She gave me the strength to come to terms with things which I loved and hated at the same time. And in the middle of that book, between the curse and the final expression of grief, there is a whole long sequence of love poems. I’ve never written any book I’ve detested so much. No matter what anybody thinks about it, I know this book is final. God damn me if I ever write another.
He does write one more book of poems titled To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977).
Elkins, Andrew. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1991. Print.
Kalaidjian, Walter. “Many of Our Waters: The Poetry of James Wright.” boundary 2 9.2 (Winter 1981): 101-121. JSTOR. Database. 17 Sep 2015. PDF.
Stitt, Peter. “James Wright, The Art of Poetry No. 19.” Paris Review 16 (January 1975). Paris Review. N.d. Web. 18 Sep 2015.
Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.