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.

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