Posts Tagged ‘John Crowe Ransom

19
Sep
15

Quick Notes on James Wright

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.

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James WrightJames 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).

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Works Cited

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.

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24
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Robert Lowell

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.

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Robert LowellRobert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet, who taught both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. His book Lord’s Weary Castle (1946) won the Pulitzer prize in 1947 and Life Studies (1959) won the National Book Award in 1960. He was influenced by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom (who he studied under), and New Criticism, as well as W. C. Williams. His poetry is complex, has allusions, and imagery. At times in his early poetry, it feels like he is channeling T. S. Eliot in technique, such as recurring images to create symbols and even in rhythms. His craftsmanship is top notched and sometimes I get lost in its mastery and forget what’s going on in the poem. His poetry is considered the beginnings of confessional poetry, and despite the mastery of technique, confessional poetry is a reaction against the New Critics as it brings in the personal full force.

In Life Studies, Lowell provides a history of his family to show where he came from and to suggest, perhaps, that this past is part of who he is, while at the same time trying to determine if he has any control over who he is. He is a divided soul trying to find and/or portray his identity. In doing so, in recounting various histories (both familial and personal), “the work frequently takes the reader by surprise as seemingly random images and memories collide and spark into meaning, the coherence that underlies the poems only apparent in retrospect” (Parini 141). The poems in Life Studies according to M. L. Rosenthal “invoked ‘the most naked kind of confession.’ Rosenthal considered the word confessional appropriate, and later said, ‘because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems’ into his poems, which were thus ‘one culmination of the Romantic and modern tendency to place the literal Self more and more at the center” (Hirsch 125). This culmination arrives in “Part Four: Life Studies,” where it most autobiographical. Many of the poems in Life Studies have a casual and prosaic feel, but sometimes in the midst of the prosy style, they rise up like song. Despite the prosy style, Lowell will chime sounds within lines to give it a more traditional sense of poetry. His main issues or confessions are his relationship with his parents (and which is the better role model) and his time spent in a mental hospital. I’m not sure Lowell finds any cures but maybe he finds hope in the skunks in “Skunk Hour,” the book’s closing poem. These skunks, who, after he states, “I myself am hell; / nobody’s here,” “will not scare” walking around the empty streets under the moonlight and a church, do just fine eating from the garbage. Prior to this book during Modernism, if a poet used the “I” it wasn’t necessarily in reference to the poet and was often the universal “I,” but here the “I,” the speaker of the poem, and the poet are the same. There is no modernist mask wearing. The poet is exposed willingly and deliberately.

In “For the Union Dead,” the final poem in The Union Dead (1964), Lowell will again move between histories, but this time between personal history and political/cultural history. However, in this case it’s mostly to make a political statement about racism and war and how materialism is undermining long-established values. The poems in this book are more rhythmic and with more definite rhymes – the rhythm and rhymes linger in the head long after reading them. Maybe this is how he reaches out into the world, because this book, on some level, seems to be about him trying to interact with the world he can barely see because of his myopia, a theme of many of the poems. The main confessions in this collection are about his weak eyes, finding meaning, his concerns with lack of sexual drive, and trying to connect with a romantic past that evades him.

In his later books, he writes poems that are scaffolded on the sonnet structure.

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Works Cited

Hirsch, Edward. “confessional poetry.” A Poet’s Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 125. Print.

Parini, Jay. “Robert Lowell In Retrospect.” Salmagundi 141/142 (Winter-Spring 2004): 138-144. JSTOR. Database. 21 Aug 2015. PDF.

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The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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