When Peter A. Stitt (interviewing Wright for The Paris Review five years before Wright’s death) asked James Wright to describe his poetic philosophy, he stated, “I regard myself primarily as a craftsman” (Stitt 38). This pithy phrase sums up many of Wright’s influences. Born in the steel town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, and growing up during the Great Depression, the odds were stacked against Wright becoming a poet. Wright described his parents as“honest-to-God hillbillies” (Blunk 17). His father Dudley sometimes struggled to provide for the family while working in difficult conditions during the Great Depression (Blunk 21). Through a confluence of good teachers and good fortune, Wright became a poet of astonishing multiplicity and virtuosity. That he thought himself a “craftsman” may, at first, appear unusual. One might imagine that a poet would choose to describe themselves as an artist instead. And yet, when viewed through the prism of Wright’s working-class upbringing and aesthetic influences, this descriptor makes perfect sense.
James Arlington Wright hated his hometown. Yet Martins Ferry, Ohio remains a central fixture in his poetry. Spanning his entire poetic career, from his orthodox and traditional prosody to his experimental and modern structure, Wright returns over and over again to the town he vowed to leave behind. Travelling across the country, and then the world, Wright could not shake the firm grip with which a tiny steel town held his identity. There is always a pasture, a factory, a slag heap; and alongside it all flows the river.
When reading from the collection, Above the River, it is important to bear in mind that Wright, though eager to move on, was formed by a childhood in a rust-belt town. He could no sooner leave his boyhood home than the muck could leave the Ohio River. Martins Ferry is everywhere in Wright’s poetry. There are suckholes and snow blindness. Regional dialect and colloquialisms bring the Ohio River valley into vivid detail. In correspondence to contemporary author, Leslie Marmon Silko, Wright relates the importance of local features. It is in the unique characteristics of the landscape that the setting of a work becomes a part of the text rather than merely a backdrop. Wright’s voice is distinctly rural. Consider the opening two lines of “The River Down Home:”
Under the enormous pier shadow,
Hobie Johnson drowned in a suckhole.
It is a harsh eulogy, but it accomplishes a great deal. The dialect of Southern Ohio, a blend of Appalachian and Midwestern linguistic tradition, is beautifully laconic. Hobie Johnson drowned in a suckhole, and there is no other way to say it. It is not verse; it is a matter-of-fact, take-it-or-leave-it statement which manages to be both sad and aloof. This is town gossip -- passing remarks to a neighbor, and it persists throughout Wright’s work all the way from The Green Wall to The Branch Will Not Break. It conveys emotion while stoic, and it offers beauty in the form of bluntness.
Wright described the ancient-Roman poet Horace as the consulate poetic craftsmen. Many times, he described himself as “as a Horation,” going so far as to say, “the person whom I would like to be my master is Horace—Horace, who was able to write humorously and kindly in flawless verse” (Blunk, 38). In his helpful essay, Dark Water: James Wright’s Early Poetry, Jerome Mazzaro takes a tour through Wright’s first few books, tracking his style as it developed, closing with what may be Wright’s definitive poetic statement, his 1968 book, Shall We Gather by the River. In that essay, Mazzaro connects Horace’s simplicity and regard for the everyday, practical, realities of life with Wright’s early book, The Green Wall (1957). He explains how, “the senses of transience, the forms, and the emphases on friendship in The Green Wall (1957) attest to a Horatian tie. There is, in addition, something Horatian in the care that the poems take in expressing common, practical wisdom” (Mazzaro 135). This ability to transform the practical into the poetic, as well as a keen interest in expressing profound thoughts in a simple way, seem to be Horace’s major contributions to Wright’s work. Wright’s description of “The yellow pears” (Wright 28) in his poem, Autumnal, from The Green Wall (1957) seems particularly Horation in this manner, presenting an idyllic scene which souls the reader towards new heights of contemplation. “In his informal satires, epistles, and iambics as well as in his lyrics, Horace transformed many of the varieties of human experience and sensibility into unforgettable, immortal poetry” (The Poetry Foundation). The same could be said of Wright.
Moving forward in literary history, we come to Wright’s childhood influence: The English Romantics. A loosely-defined group of 18th-Century English poets, the Romantics focused on a range of interests, but they united around a few major themes, many of which are represented in the above illustration by famous poet and artist William Blake. According to the British Library’s page on the Romantics, as they “highlighted the healing power of the imagination,” the English Romantics, “were inspired by the environment, and encouraged people to venture into new territories – both literally and metaphorically. In their writings they made the world seem a place with infinite, unlimited potential” (The British Library). Trapped in an industrial landscape whose social arrangements robbed his father and family of dignity, Wright must have felt liberated by the perspective of this group of poets, whose focus on landscape mimics Horace’s parallel focus. Unlike Horace, however, the English romantics had a keen interest in the rebel and the revolutionary as archetypes, focusing on the ways in which a confluence of landscape, personal imagination, and poetic rhyme and meter can produce transcendent possibilities.
Jonathan Blunk, author of the definitive 2017 biography, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, describes the effect which this kind of poetry had on a young James Wright. Blunk writes that, “the poems of the English Romantics—Byron, Shelley, Blake, and Keats—were his earliest infatuation” (Blunk 24). In a particularly transcendent moment, William Blake seemed to have invaded Wright’s life, telling him, from the lines of a poem, to focus on the industrial wasteland around him as a Romantic landscape. In Wright’s own words: “‘One of the strangest experiences of my life,’ Wright later recalled, ‘was my first reading, as a child, of the Blake line ‘The Ohio shall wash my stains from me’” (qtd. by Blunk 24). The Ohio River separates Martins Ferry from the larger town of Wheeling, West Virginia in which Wright’s father worked in the factories and steel mills, the waste from which would be dumped straight into the river (Blunk 21). This strange coincidence—a combination of transcendent poetry and the Ohio River’s polluted wastes—seems to symbolize an important thematic strain in Wright’s poetic work.
After Wright graduated from high school in 1946, he immediately entered the Army in the occupying forces in Japan. He utilized the educational subsidies which he earned under the G.I. Bill to enter Kenyon College (Blunk 34). At Kenyon College, Wright met some of his most influential mentors. For example, John Crowe Ransom, the literary critic who founded Kenyon College’s literary review, The Kenyon Review, attracted Wright to the college (Blunk 40). He, alongside professors and employees of the magazine, witnessed the cutting edge of literary criticism. Called, New Criticism, this philosophy rejected the need for biographical background in reading a text. The “New Critics focused their attention on the variety and degree of certain literary devices, specifically metaphor, irony, tension, and paradox” (The Poetry Foundation). Admirers of formalist poets like Robert Frost, Ransom and other teachers helped Wright attain a mastery of form, setting the stage for his most technically complex early work. Similar to Formalism, the New Criticism approach to poetry would have pushed Wright to consider each poem to be a complete and contained work. As such, Wright’s goal was to write poetry that stood on its own, apart from his upbringing and experiences. His earlier poetry omits some of the local texture which would place it squarely in Southern Ohio. Consider the first stanza of “A Girl in a Window:”
Now she will lean away to fold
The window blind and curtain back,
The yellow arms, the hips of gold,
The supple outline fading black,
Bosom availing nothing now,
And rounded shadow of long thighs.
How can she care for us, allow
The shade to blind imagined eyes
While the poem is most likely one of Wright’s own experiences, it lacks any indicators of the Midwestern identity which would develop later in his career.
Having published his first couple of books, Wright felt himself reaching an impasse. The formal verse which had carried him through Saint Judas (1959) began to feel stifling. Meeting the poet Robert Bly helped Wright to rediscover his passion for poetry. Robert Bly, unlike John Crowe Ransom, Horace, the English Romantics, and other early influences, was a staunch experimentalist with a keen focus on the environment. Taking Wright in at his farm, Bly helped open Wright’s eyes to new possibilities in poetry, allowing him to undo the shackles of formal meter and rhyme, while retaining the transcendent beauty of his early influences. As Wright explains in his Paris Review interview, “At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about. Every Friday afternoon I used to go out to Bly's farm, and there were so many animals out there.” (Stitt 49). Wright was able to completely disconnect from his anxieties and focus on the landscape which helped him to connect with poetry. The carefully metered lines and rhyme schemes were scrapped in favor of a more conversational form. The subjects of the poems drew directly from Wright’s background and experiences. Perhaps most importantly, Wright did not shy away from injecting local colloquialisms and idioms into his poetry. In doing so, Wright could take his readers on a tour of his hometown and the surrounding landscape. Shreve High Football Stadium and William Duffy’s Farm are enshrined with melancholy and dignity.
This process of creative rediscover fueled the drafting of the poems which would become The Branch Will not Break (1963). In his essay, published in the Kenyon Review, defending Wright’s place in the literary canon, David Baker explains the blistering significance of this book for Wright’s career. He wrote, taking a view which encompasses both this book and Wright’s whole career, ““In these poems, and throughout his career, James Wright was beset by so many tensions-between the Neoclassical and Romantic impulses of his teachers and poetic models, between a formal dignity and a wild, open frankness, between the perils of citizenship and the obliterating otherness of solitude and of nature itself. Rather than succumb to these large pressures, he made poetry from the sparks given off by their collision. And we are richer for it.” (Baker 160). The combination of influences drove Wright to create a kind of poetry which mixes free verse, formal verse, the transcendent landscapes of the English Romantics, and the metaphor and irony of the New Critics to forge a kind of poetry which allowed him to explore, articulate, and eventually share his industrial upbringing.
Herbie Dittersdorf, Jacob Gusentine, Jack James