Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"I Have a Secret with Myself": James Wright's Classicism

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"I Have a Secret with Myself": James Wright's Classicism

Article excerpt

"I Have a Secret with Myself": James Wright's Classicism A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. Edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.00

James Wright: Selected Poems. Edited by Robert Bly and Anne Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $13.00

There's an account of James Wright's work one often comes across, specifically of his breakthrough in the early Sixties, when he sloughed off the formal constraints of his early style. His poems, the story goes, became more authentic in two opposed ways. First, the recalcitrant facts of the working-class Midwest began to shine through the page with greater fidelity; here was a poetry of strip mines and foundries, of billboards hanging among dead mulberry trees. Second, by employing the procedures of certain Spanish and Latin American surrealist poets, Wright channeled the subconscious into his poems; mysterious hallways now opened through the stems of elderberry leaves in Ohio, while housewives dreamed of palaces in the air.

There are reasons for the resilience of this account. For one thing, it is partially true. Beginning with The Branch Will Not Break in 1963, Wright's poems did display a new lucidity and originality; with their skeletal verse movement and tonal swerves between demotic homeliness and vatic extravagance, these lyrics sounded like nothing that had come before. The account also clicks with a generational pattern: Many of Wright's contemporaries responded to the upheavals of their age by scrapping rhyme and meter.

Wright himself certainly understood the changes in his poetry as presaging something akin to a conversion. In 1958, the year after the publication of his first book, The Green Wall (which Auden had selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets), Wright began corresponding with James Dickey and Robert Bly. These letters make painful reading. Smoldering with self-hatred and often swelling to over ten pages, they show a mind spun helplessly out of orbit. Wright's teacher Theodore Roethke, who had had his own experience with manic episodes, wrote to warn him: "I've been through all this before, through the wringer, bud, so please respect my advice. Once you become too hyper-active and lose too much sleep, you'll cross a threshold where chaos (and terror) ensues...To come to the point: it would set my mind at rest if you would go to see some professional (yes, a psychiatrist) and tell him what's been going on the past two weeks." Neither Dickey nor BIy had this obvious insight. Or else they chose to ignore it: Here, after all, was a penitent, a fresh recruit to the poetics of the primal that each was separately advocating in the journals of the day. Wright was working at the time as a lecturer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, but he began riding the bus on weekends to Ely's farm in the west of the state. Reading the letters, one winces to see the stronger personality dominating the stronger poet. Could Wright, whom Auden had praised for his sensitive and discerning intelligence, really be swayed by Bly, for whom thought and imagination were forever locked in combat, for whom all metrical poetry reflected "a nostalgia for jails"?

But that's where the old conversion narrative founders. Just as Wright's fascination with the irrational surfaced in his earlier poems-it's evident especially in his bardic symbolism, which he picked up from Yeats through Roethke-so his love of technique, of measure and proportion, remained in the newer work, even if it went underground. In one letter, after many sentences of supplication, he complains to BIy: "It is my feeling, so far, that your attack on iambics is pretty futile. The selection of a bad line out of one of Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, to show that the English language is unstated to iambics seems to me a terrible waste of time and energy." The very next day he writes to Donald Hall of "my own personal curse, my equal love of Whitman and Winters. …

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