Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This Snarl of a Life

The fiercest hearts are in love with a wild perfection.

                              —from a letter to James Dickey
                                                          August 12, 1958

I’d like to begin by praising James Wright for having written the only poem about sports I have ever loved:

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
Ands gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

Of course it is not really about sports at all, but about hope and despair and the power of language to quicken our blood. My college roommate, Tom Hurley, once took me home with him to Youngstown, Ohio, a once-thriving blue-collar town, which by then, by the early 1980’s, was but a shadow of its former mighty self. After an afternoon of drinking beer in a dark old Polish bar, he’d led me through a hole in a chain-link fence to a point overlooking the wide Mahoning Valley, then still choked for as far as the eye could see with the hulking remains of the city’s once world-famous steel mills, those of U.S Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, mills that at their peak had employed as many as 300, 000 workers, many of them from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The silence there was eerie. 

It was out of this background, this hardscrabble industrial Ohio, that James Wright made his first appearance on the American poetry scene in 1956 with his collection of formalist verse called The Green Wall. Then too began the brilliant, tortured, immeasurably rich and thrilling correspondence between Wright and his friends and fellow poets that comprises this volume, A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. Of friends and correspondents, his were some of the best writers this country has known: Robert Lowell, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Rexroth, Anne Sexton, Louis Simpson, Jack Myers, E. L. Doctorow, Denise Levertov, Richard Hugo, A.R. Ammons, Louise Bogan, J.D. McClatchy, Robert Bly, W.D. Snodgrass, Mark Strand, Hayden Carruth, Tomas Tranströmer, Robert Hass, Stanley Kunitz, Roger Hecht, Diane Wakowski, C.K. Williams, Philip Levine, Donald Hall, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

I have long been ambivalent about reading famous people’s letters, just as I have long been ambivalent about reading their memoirs, which have struck me, more often than not, as case studies in vanity and affectation. Not so with the letters of James Wright. “In a man’s letters,” writes Samuel Johnson, “a man’s soul lies naked.” And so it is with the letters in this marvelous collection, distinguished, on page after page, by Wright’s mighty, humble, generous, infinitely hard-suffering voice. At points his candor in the letters is so raw I winced.

Perhaps above all one is struck by the high level of conversation in these often everyday missives, by the stakes—by Wright’s rare, nearly pious devotion to what he called ‘the Great Conversation,’ a correspondence, a dialogue, “in which stories and poems and those who love them talk eternally with one another.” Poetry—one feels in these letters—is a matter of life or death. And so it is for those who know. One has only to scan the book’s index to get a sense of the glorious depth and erudition of this protracted conversation of his. In thinking about poetry and life, he writes with devotion of Catallus and Virgil, of Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Lorca, Neruda, Jiménez, Whitman, and Baudelaire, speaks with pride and knowing of Melville, Lawrence, Forster, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Camus, of Freud, Ramakrishna, and Marx. His hunger for ideas—and for the language that shapes them—was stupendous.

In his poetry Wright was a perfectionist, working tirelessly to develop his own voice and form, and struggling—with every muscle and sinew in his being—against the unshakable curse of competency, what his friend and mentor, James Dickey, called “the good enough that spoils the world.” With the intimate guidance of both Dickey and Bly, he labored restlessly as a poet, and while he often reached dizzying heights in his work and friendships, he was just as often laid low by lengthy bouts of depression and despair. He smoked and drank heavily, both of which destroyed his first marriage and so compounded his nervous exhaustion that at least twice he was hospitalized for it, for what, in one of his letters, he dismisses as just another “mild crack-up.” His life was hard, the price of his poetry dear, giving this intellectually dazzling correspondence a dark and tragic weight. Yet for all the emotional turmoil of his life, Wright believed in love, lived love each day as “a kind of miraculous agony” that one struggles in vain to escape.

James Wright (1927-1980) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1972 for his Collected Poems.

Peter Adam Nash

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