James Wright (1927-1980)
Contributing Editor: George S. Lensing
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The poems of Wright, on the surface, seem simple and accessible. Yet they also seem distinctively "poetic." Students might be asked to discuss how and why the poems are both simple and poetic. This could easily lead to a discussion of images in the poems, and examples from any of the four included here might be used. The example of the moon in "Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960" might be a good illustration. Have the students identify the verbs with which the moon is introduced and discuss the cumulative effects of the moon imagery generally. Then have them identify the other images of city, frost, silos, graves, etc. How are these latter images used in contrast to the moon? Careful consideration should be given to the title. Finally, how does the phrase "the beautiful white ruins / Of America" at the end of the poem encapsulate and summarize the contrast between beauty and its opposites in the poem? This is a strategy, of course, of close read-ing adapted particularly to Wright's work.
Another strategy might be to consider Wright as a social poet addressing American society in the 1960s and 1970s. Ask the students what impression of America during those decades emerges from the poems. How, from the poems in the text, can you justify Wright's identity with those individuals outside middle-class American society? Who are those individuals? What do they have in common? What is the nature of their appeal to Wright?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A typical theme explored in Wright's poetry is rural America versus the modern urban America of the middle class with its wealth, political power, and control over the oppressed. This theme was particularly relevant in the America of the 1960s and 1970s when Wright wrote. America was involved in the Vietnam War, and Wright sees that involvement as a kind of national illness.
Both a theme and a technique is Wright's movement inward and within the self, often through a rural or small-town setting. Images in particular lead him inwardly toward moments of sudden self-revelation: ("Flayed without hope, / I held the man for nothing in my arms" in "Saint Judas," or "I am lost in the beautiful white ruins / Of America" in "Having Lost My Sons," or "I have wasted my life" in "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The "how" of a poem by Wright is intrinsic to the "what." Here, the participation of Wright in the "deep image" movement is important. "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" is a good example to illustrate that movement. The poet is located at the farm of a friend; he is recumbent in a hammock. His mind is not operating in the usual logical and rational way but is dream-like and given to random associations. The boundaries between human and non-human life are being erased through various kinds of personifications: the butterfly is "asleep" and "Blowing like a leaf." Cowbells "follow one another." Droppings "Blaze up." Images define the poet's free play of mind as he moves from the sight of the butterfly, to the sound of the cowbells, to the droppings of the horses, to the darkening of the evening, to the flying chicken hawk. The timing of the images and their cumulative play upon each other are crucial to this process. They are images of beauty, of metamorphosis in some cases, of things in their proper and natural locations. (The chicken hawk is "looking for home" and will undoubtedly find it.) However, the title tells us that the poet is not in his usual location, but the farm of a friend. Now he is profoundly drawn in to the images that surround him. The poem suddenly "leaps" to its conclusion: "I have wasted my life." That leaping occurs among the images that surround him and that startle him abruptly into a knowledge of himself. But the connection is not made through narrative exposition; it is left to the reader's own association and recognition of the images and their timing. The process has not been rational but almost surreal. This poem and other poems of the deep image depend upon the successful "leaps" and their effect upon the reader. How much does Wright's self-revelation, for example, become our own?
Poetry and poetry readings were very popular during the 1960s in America, especially on campuses where the resistance to the Vietnam War was also often centered. Wright gave many public readings at American colleges. His reputation grew steadily over the course of his career and was shortened by his death from cancer at the age of fifty-two.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
An important influence upon Wright was the poet Robert Bly. (See The Heath Anthology headnote for Wright.) But other poets, like William Stafford, Louis Simpson, Robert Creeley, and Gary Snyder, were also writing in a similar mode; they knew and influenced each other. Wright also translated poetry by figures like Georg Trakl, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramon Jimenez, and others. Their poems became important influences on his own work. An important magazine owned and edited by Bly--called the Fifties (during that decade), the Sixties, and for a brief time, the Seventies --published Wright's poems and translations as well as those of Bly and other figures of the deep image school.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. See the questions related to "Having Lost My Sons" in the first subsection above.
2. How is the figure of Judas, the betrayer of Christ, presented in the early sonnet "Saint Judas"? How does Judas anticipate and prefigure other outsiders in Wright's poems--especially Little Crow in "A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862"?
3. How is American society during the 1960s and 1970s depicted in Wright's poetry?
4. How do the various images in the poems and their "leaping" relation to one another lead to the conclusions usually expressed in the poems' last sentence?
See the bibliography at the end of the Wright headnote in the text.