James Wright’s Experimental Poems

In her introduction to Above the River, Anne Wright refers to the poems in this section of the book as “experimental poems.” They are, in large part, poems that employ imagery often described as “deep imagery.” To a certain extent, they differ not only in style, but also in content, for there seems to be a shift from a focus on the outsider to a focus on the search for love, love of place, love of parent, and love of woman.

Though I’m still somewhat alienated by this style of poetry, I found myself liking several poems in this section even more than I liked the poems in the more traditional section of poems. Some of these poems seem to be successful in combining the traditional form with deep imagery, while others that use deep imagery seem to resonate somewhere inside of me because I am able to identify with the symbols used in them.

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is one of those poems that seems to successfully combine traditional poetic elements with unusual images to create a poem that both moves and challenges me:

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Although it is possible to see all of these images while lying on a hammock, at first they seem disjointed, and the last line seems out of place. How are butterflies, cowbells, horse pucky, and chicken hawk related? Some people might well think that laying around in a hammock is wasting your life, but “I have wasted my life” certainly seems out of place here because the poet seems to revel in this moment. Or could it be that up to this moment he has wasted his life? Has he missed the beauty of this place, of the moment, because he has been too caught up in seeing the misery that haunts modern life or because he has been too busy to see the moment? The ambiguity of these images seems to enhance and reinforce the meaning of the last line.

Not all of the poems in this section, though, seem experimental. “A Blessing,” though it seems traditional, suggests a relatively new and unusual feeling for Wright. The poem uses a recurring symbol in Wright’s poetry, the horse, to suggest both love and a transcendent experience.

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

In an early poem, “Horse,” Wright describes the horse as “a remembrancer of wild/ Arenas we avoid” and says “The fear she rode, reminded of the void/ That flung the ancient rider to the cold.” In another poem he says “I feel/ Like half a horse myself.” Here the wildness is reinforced by the fact that these are “Indian ponies.” But the image is also fused with a new element, love, the explicit horses’ love of each other but also Wright’s love of horses, and the combination of these two elements creates an out-of-body, or transcendent, experience, “…if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.”

There are several poems in this section which suggests Wright’s reconciliation with his father, which in turn seem to reflect his coming-to-terms with his Ohio heritage. My favorite of these poems is:

Two Postures beside a Fire

Tonight I watch my father’s hair,
As he sits dreaming near his stove.
Knowing my feather of despair,
He sent me an owl’s plume for love,
Lest I not know, so I’ve come home.
Tonight Ohio, where I once
Hounded and cursed my loneliness,
Shows me my father, who broke stones,
Wrestled and mastered great machines,
And rests, shadowing his lovely face.

Nobly his hands fold together in his repose.
He is proud of me, believing
I have done strong things among men and become a man
of place among men of place in the large cities.
I will not awaken him.
I have come home alone, without wife or child
To delight him. Awake, solitary and welcome,
I too sit near his stove, the lines
of an ugly age scarring my face, and my hands
Twitch nervously about.

Wright not only sees his father as sitting “nobly,” but also implies he has accepted Ohio in the line “where I once hounded and cursed my loneliness” and in “I’ve come home.” Ironically, he’s a little embarrassed that his father believes he is a “man of place,” because Wright recognizes that his father’s nobility has come from fighting the machinery that Wright himself fled. It is Wright who seems broken, not his father, as suggested in the last lines “my hands/Twitch nervously about.”

One of my favorite poems in this section reminds me a little of the earlier “Complaint,” at least in its ironic sense of humor. It’s a little hard to imagine how being hit by a car could ever be romantic, but read on:

Small Frogs Killed on the Highway

I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
of the dead never moved, but many
of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets

Across the road, tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon.
They can’t see,
Not yet.

Of course, I hope that the “light” in this case is meant to be taken metaphorically. This “love song” reminds me a little of the famous Dean Martin line “When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie.” When we contrast the chance the frogs take with the drivers who “burrow backward into dank pools/ Where nothing begets /Nothing” taking the chance of leaping into the light to get to the other side of the highway seems like a good choice. Love requires a real “leap” of faith, and it seems to be the choice Wright has made in his life.

The truest expression of Wright’s love for Annie, though, comes in poems like:

Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains

All afternoon you went walking,
Just you, all alone,
And what you went wondering about
I still don’t know.

I was trying to find something in that mountain snow,
And I couldn’t find it by walking,
So I lay asleep
For three good hours.
There is something in you that is able to discover the crystal.
Somewhere in me there is a crystal that I cannot find
Alone, the wing that I used to think was a poor
Blindness I had to live with with the dead.

But it was not that I was dying when I went asleep
When you walked into the snow.
There was something I was trying to find
In that dream. When I finally fought my way
Down to the bottom of the stairs
I got trapped, I kept yelling
Help, help, the savage woman
With two heads loaded me, the one
Face broken and savage, the other,
The face dead.

Two hands gathered my two.

And you sang: Why, what have you been dreaming?

I don’t know, I said.
Where were you?

You said you just took a walk.

Annie, it has taken me a long time to live.
And to take a long time to live is to take a long time
To understand that your life is your own life.
What you found on that long rise of mountain in the snow
Is your secret. But I can tell you at last:

There used to be a sycamore just
Outside Martins Ferry,
Where I used to go.
I had no friends there.
Maybe the tree was no woman,
But when I sat there, I gathered
That branch into my arms.
It was the first time I ever rose.

If only I knew how to tell you.
Some day I may know how.

Meantime your hand gathered me awake
Out of my good dream, and I pray to gather
My hands into your hands in your good dream.

What did you find in your long wandering in the snow?
I love your secret. By God I will never violate the wings
Of the snow you found rising in the wind.
Give them, keep them, love.

Although there are several “deep images” here that I would be hard pressed to completely explain, they fit the poem so well they don’t seem to intrude. Who can claim to completely understand love or its power to transform our life? Certainly not I.

I do know that Wright, like William Stafford, uses the cold, or snow, motif, to symbolize the alienation people feel when they are “left out in the cold,” cut off from their fellow man. I’m not exactly sure what Wright means when he says, “Somewhere in me there is a crystal that I cannot find/Alone,” but obviously the crystal is precious and essential to his well being, something only another person can discover in him. Perhaps it is love, for love is only real-ized when someone else knows you love them. He also seems to identify his lover with the “tree of life” when he says “Maybe the tree was no woman,/But when I sat there, I gathered/That branch into my arms./It was the first time I ever rose.”

Perhaps my favorite lines in the poem, though are “Annie, it has taken me a long time to live./ And to take a long time to live is to take a long time/To understand that your life is your own life.” His wife’s love for him has finally allowed him to take control of his life rather than letting his environment, the Ohio of his past, control him. Perhaps to take control of our lives, to claim responsibility for our own actions, is to transcend all those forces that threaten to alienate us, and “God have pity on a man apart.”

James Wright’s Traditional Poems

It sometimes amazes me how I am led from one thought to another, from one work to another. While reading about Bly and Stafford, I repeatedly encountered the name of James Wright. When I started reading about Wright, I found that Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost were two of the poets he most admired at the beginning of his career, and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Thomas Hardy is the poet who originally inspired me to become a lit major. In addition, Wright studied with Roethke, another of my favorites. To make a long story not so short, here I am trying to deal with all 376 pages of James Wright’s Above the River:the Complete Poems.

So far, I’ve read the poems Wright wrote from 1957 to 1963, generally considered his traditional period when he wrote poems that are often compared to those of Hardy and Frost. Thematically these poems focus on “the other,” on the individual who suffers the most in our society, the misfit, the outcast, the outlaw. Wright, through his poems, puts us inside these people and makes us see the world through their eyes. But he does more than that, he makes us see how we suffer in our everyday life the same kind of pain and alienation they feel. Wright creates in us that most-Christian of feelings, empathy, for our fellow man by making us identify with his pain.

In “Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake” Wright shows how the modern age of machinery threatens all of us by dehumanizing us and by sacrificing our body to efficiency and “progress.”

Lament for My Brother on a Hayrake

Cool with the touch of autumn, waters break
Out of the pump at dawn to clear my eyes;
I leave the house, to face the sacrifice
Of hay, the drag and death.
By day, by moon, I have seen my younger brother wipe his face
And heave his arm on steel. He need not pass
Under the blade to waste his life and break;

The hunching of the body is enough
To violate his bones. That bright machine
Strips the revolving earth of more than grass;
Powered by the fire of summer, bundles fall
Folded to die beside a burlap shroud;
And so my broken brother may lie mown
Out of the wasted fallows, winds return,
Corn-yellow tassels of his hair blow down,
The summer bear him sideways in a bale
Of darkness to October’s mow of cloud.

Anyone who has ever helped to harvest hay will immediately understand what back-breaking work it really is. It was enough to make me glad I was an English teacher and make me understand why so many of the farmers’ sons and daughters fled to the city. It’s easy to understand why the brother “need not pass/ Under the blade to waste his life and break.” That “bright machine” that “strips the revolving earth of more than grass” seems to symbolize the Machine that has entered the New Eden, threatening that pastoral, Jeffersonian dream of democracy that fades into a distant past.

Though Leslie was unable to understand the beauty of “Complaint,” I, fan of Benny Hill and Married With Children, was immediately struck by the beauty of this poem.


She’s gone. She was my love, my moon or more.
She chased the chickens out and swept the floor,
Emptied the bones and nut-shells after feasts,
And smacked the kids for leaping up like beasts.
Now morbid boys have grown past awkwardness;
The girls let stitches out, dress after dress,
To free some swinging body’s riding space
And form the new child’s unimagined face.
Yet, while vague nephews, spitting on their curls,
Amble to pester winds and blowsy girls,
What arm will sweep the room, what hand will hold
New snow against the milk to keep it cold?
And who will dump the garbage, feed the hogs,
And pitch the chickens’ heads to hungry dogs?
Not my lost hag who dumbly bore such pain:
Childbirth and midnight sassafras and rain.
New snow against her face and hands she bore,
And now lies down, who was my moon or more.

Victim of modern society and political correcteness that I am, I’ve never been lucky enough to have the kind of devoted wife that was willing to “hold/ New snow against the milk to keep it cold,” but I, though unsure I’m willing to totally reciprocate, can surely appreciate that kind of sacrifice. Still, it’s amazing how the “sense of loss,” the shared human tragedy, can help us to bridge the gap between ourselves and “others” who do not share our life style.

In “American Twilights, 1957,” dedicated to Caryl Chessman, Wright identifies his sense of personal guilt, the kind that we must all feel to some degree if we examine our lives critically, with that of the condemned man:

Haunted by gallows, peering in dark,
I conjure prisons out of wet
And strangling pillows where I mark
The misery man must not forget
Though I have found no prison yet

Perhaps inspired by Chessman’s statement that “I learned too late and only after coming to Death Row that each of us ever must be aware of the brotherhood of man… Circumstances may compel us to become our brother’s keeper; I think we destroy something in ourselves when we become his executioner, ” Wright extends this personal sense of guilt to the sense of “otherness,” or isolation, that the criminal must surely feel if he reaches self awareness:

Lo now, the desolation man
Has tossed away like a gnawed bone
Will hunt him where the sea began,
Summon him out of tree and stone,
Damn him, before his dream be gone:

Seek him behind his bars, to crack
Out the dried kernel of his heart.
God, God have pity if he wake,
Have mercy on man who dreamed apart.
God, God have pity on man apart.

The poem, to me at least, presents a powerful argument against the death penalty because it asserts the common humanity that we all share.

Wright’s empathy for his fellow mankind seems, perhaps ironically, most clearly stated in his translation of a poem by Cesar Vallejo:

Our Daily Bread

From the Spanish of Cesar Vallejo
for Alejandro Gamboa

Breakfast is drunk down … Damp earth
of the cemetery gives off the fragrance of the precious blood.
City of winter … the mordant crusade
of a cart that seems to pull behind it
an emotion of fasting that cannot get free!

I wish I could beat on all the doors,
and ask for somebody; and then
look at the poor, and, while they wept softly,
give bits of fresh bread to them.
And plunder the rich of their vineyards
with those two blessed hands
which blasted the nails with one blow of light,
and flew away from the Cross!

Eyelash of morning, you cannot lift yourselves!
Give us our daily bread,
Lord … !
Every bone in me belongs to others;
and maybe I robbed them.
I came to take something for myself that maybe
was meant for some other man;
and I start thinking that, if I had not been born,
another poor man could have drunk this coffee.
I feel like a dirty thief … Where will I end?

And in this frigid hour, when the earth
has the odor of human dust and is so sad,
I wish I could beat on all the doors
and beg pardon from someone,
and make bits of fresh bread for him
here, in the oven of my heart … !

I only wish Wright’s empathy was universal. Perhaps then we wouldn’t be having this debate on whether the Afghanistan prisoners are legally POW’s are not. Perhaps we would simply treat them as human beings, human beings like ourselves, who, at the very least, deserve to be treated as if they are part of the brotherhood of man, not some caged animal.

Ah, but it would take a far greater imagination than that of all the poets in the world together to create a world where people really lived up to their beliefs. Not even I could be deceived by such a fantasy.

The Real Things We Live By

Considering how few specific poems I liked in Traveling Through the Dark, it’s amazing how many I liked in Allegiances. In fact, this is a very different book than Traveling Through the Dark. If Stafford was looking for a particular place in his previous volume, he has now found it, and this volume is populated by the common people who live there. It’s not that there isn’t a sense of place here, there definitely is. However, there seems to be a shift in focus from finding a place to describing the people who live in a place.

Stafford is a remarkable poet who makes unremarkable people, the ones who live right next door, ones with names like “Bess,” the lady down the street who works at the library, seem remarkable. In fact, “common” might well be the most repeated word in this book of poems, for it is the common man, or Everyman, if you prefer, who Stafford seems most concerned with here:


It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.

Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked–
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders:-we
encounter them in dread and wonder,

But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.

Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.

I like a lot of poems in this short book, but “Allegiances” may well be my favorite because it best captures the essence of the book as a whole.

Stafford appeals to the common man in all of us. This poem is written for those of us who love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where each of us becomes our own Jimmy Stewart bumbling through life, beloved, despite (or is it because of ?) our all-too-human mistakes, while John Wayne, triumphant, rides off into the sunset alone.

Of course, I doubt it is as easy as it first seems to be a “common one.” To do so, you have to give up dreams of traveling to faraway places or dreams of performing heroic deeds like those in Lord of the Rings, no Miniver Cheevy’s here. Hardest of all, you have to find the “real things,” and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean the latest iMac, iPod, or newest version of GoLive.

However, if we are grounded like this, if we can love the “earth and where we are,” we will be able to withstand insanity when it sweeps the land, whether it be cries for revenge or the belief that we can destroy the forces of evil and be TRULY SECURE if only we are willing to spend enough of our Social Security surplus on the military.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the poems in this book is that so many are not about remarkable people; they are about the lives you and I have lived, except seen with greater wisdom and insight than most of us bring to bear on our daily lives.

The following poem reminds me of my own father, the one who trusted me enough with the family car that he never mentioned a “curfew.” Do you think he could possibly not have known that I dragged that car?

Father’s Voice

"No need to get home early;
the car can see in the dark."
He wanted me to be rich
the only way we could,
easy with what we had.

And always that was his gift,
given for me ever since,
easy gift, a wind
that keeps on blowing for flowers
or birds wherever I look.

World, I am your slow guest,
one of the common things
that move in the sun and have
close, reliable friends
in the earth, in the air, in the rock.

Though we were never rich, can anyone be richer than a 16 year-old teenager with a pretty girl sitting next to him driving the family car with ten dollars in his pocket from his paper route, more than enough for a movie and a meal at the drive-in? I’ve never been that rich since. Nor do I expect I ever will be.

Maybe I’ve misspoken, maybe my father, like the father in the poem, taught me how to be rich and easy with what I have. Sometimes I still feel that rich when I’m up high on Mt Hood while others are down below chasing the mighty dollar bill. As long as I have the earth under my feet and the sky above me, I’m certainly as rich as I need to be.

And this book reminds me just how rich I am. Stafford’s celebration of life reminds me why I spend so much time reading poetry. His vision helps transform ordinary lives into extra-ordinary lives, making us happy just to be alive.

“Allegiances” from Another Viewpoint

To whom do we owe our allegiances, our loyalty and devotion?

Because of the word “heroes” in the first line, this poem reminds me of an assignment I once gave to a class. Who is your hero? Simple, even sophomoric, but it was for a sophomore lit class after all. It was also a trick question.

Most of the kids named sports figures, rock stars, or Hollywood leading men and women. I learned more about Michael Jordan than I ever cared to know. A few more thoughtful students–those who probably had me figured out more than I knew, wrote about their fathers and mothers or, joy of joy, a favorite teacher.

When we discussed the topic, I let fly my arrows. Had they named heroes or celebrities? Is a hero always well known? Is a celebrity a hero? What does a hero do? Doesn’t a hero take care of those around him? What has Michael Jordan ever done for you?

I probably convinced very few of the 16 year olds that the common ones among us can be heroes or more specifically worthy of allegiance by our altruism, courage, determination, endurance and support of the common things. It’s “time for us common ones to locate ourselves by the real things we live by,” time for us to stand up, locate our convictions, “get real” as the TV psychologist says. That is how to earn the allegiances of those around us.

But we search for others to pay our allegiances to in all manner of other places. In any direction we search for others to make us shiver, the elves, goblins, trolls, spiders, encountered in dread and wonder. The search changes us and not because we found what we were looking for. I like the line “a season changes” and we come home safe, quiet, grateful.” Anyone who have traveled to a foreign land–and I don’t think the South of France is foreign enough, I’m choosing China–knows the feeling of such a return. We can come home from the journey more respectful of ourselves.

The last stanza troubles me a little. There is no “suppose” about it, an insane wind does often hold the hills, we are surrounded by beliefs that are strange to us–pencil in Taliban here. But we ordinary beings, the non celebrities among us, the moms and dads and teachers who love and work hard for the kids “can’–have the ability to–“cling to the earth and love where we are, sturdy for common things.” Are not those “sturdy for common things” most worthy of our allegiance?

If someone wrote on my epitaph “sturdy for common things” I would rest peacefully.

Diane McCormick

The More Things Change

Eisenhower’s Visit to Franco, 1959

… we die of cold, and not of darkness.

The American hero must triumph over
The forces of darkness.
He has flown through the very light of heaven
And come down in the slow dusk
Of Spain.

Franco stands in a shining circle of police.
His arms open in welcome.
He promises all dark things
Will be hunted down.

State police yawn in the prisons.
Antonio Machado follows the moon
Down a road of white dust,
To a cave of silent children
Under the Pyrenees.
Wine darkens in stone jars in villages.
Wine sleeps in the mouths of old men, it is a dark red color.

Smiles glitter in Madrid.
Eisenhower has touched hands with Franco, embracing
In a glare of photographers.
Clean new bombers from America muffle their engines
And glide down now.
Their wings shine in the searchlights
Of bare fields,
In Spain.

James Wright from Above the River