After my favorite poem, my favorite poet. James Wright is someone who always sends me back to the sources of my own gift and helps me come away replenished. I don’t imitate him exactly, but in his poems—both the successes and the failures, I should note—I find the pattern for the kind of poetry I wish I could write, and sometimes manage to. He came to me late in life, perhaps ten years ago or so. My partner Sari had his complete poems, Above the River, and I picked it up. Ze’d been assigned it for a class, but the class hadn’t got around to it, so Sari knew as little about it as I. If you don’t know James Wright, I hope you’ll track him down and read him (a good Selected Poems was made available recently by his widow and his friend Robert Bly), because I’ll be pretty inept at giving you an idea of him. He hailed from southern Ohio and his poetry is always overshadowed by the hollow, despairing industrial Midwest: but in the lives of its most pathetic citizens he found material for celebration of a kind, first by means of a tight iambic line and frequently rhyme; later in free verse satisfied to be fleeting and odd, called surreal by some, but it’s not quite that, it’s letting the English language bear burdens and take flights it could never have accomplished in prose. When in later life he began to write prose (and insisted that it was just prose, not prose-poetry), it was somehow as free and penetrating, as image-riddled, as his poems: as if his poetic career had given him the key to pick the lock of prose and set it free. By this time he’d met his second wife, who helped him moderate his lifelong alcoholism and begin to rise out of lifelong depression, and had also discovered southern Europe, especially Italy, and begun to let his writing live and grow strong in sunlight. But there was also a lifelong smoking habit. He developed inoperable throat cancer and died in 1980 after completing his final collection, This Journey. I reread both the selected and complete poems constantly, so haven’t needed to include more than a handful of essential ones in Otros. Make sure. when you introduce yourself to him, that you at least read these:
Sitting in a Small Screenhouse on a Summer Morning
A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack
At the Executed Murderer’s Grave
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Stages on a Journey Westward
From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower
Arriving in the Country Again
In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned
A Winter Daybreak Above Vence
Finally today, the earliest poem in my file, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitter outcry at losing the company of Anne Boleyn, who had gone on to seek lovers in more stellar circles (in another poem she is depicted as a deer with Touch Me Not, For Caesar’s I Am written on her body). Despite a few archaic words, or words archaically used, the feelings, both sorrowful and resentful, are clearly portrayed.
They Flee from Me
They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be Fortune it hath been otherwise,
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
And therewith all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go, of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I fain would know what she hath deserved.