If memory serves, before now I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life.
The poem is a perfect example of Robert Bly’s concept of “leaping poetry” which I discussed a few weeks ago. That is no accident. I’ve come to find out that Bly was not only a friend to Wright but also a mentor.
If I liked the poem so much, why didn’t I read more of his work? All I can say is that I meant to. This 1971 collection of his poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good way to do that. It contains a good selection from his earlier books along with a section of new poems and one of translations from writers such as Neruda, Vallejo and Trakl.
As I read the selections from his first book, The Green Wall, I wondered if this could be the same poet. They seemed complex and overly elaborate, like something from an earlier age. However, I did appreciate his themes of estrangement from nature (symbolised in the green wall), the horrors of the modern world, and mourning.
The poems from his next book, St. Judas, went further into the hearts and minds of the poor, the criminal, the disenfranchised. Growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, during the Depression, he witnessed poverty and suffering first-hand; the only thing worse than a soulless factory job was having no job at all.
A bad review from the poet James Dickey led to an angry exchange of letters. However, upon reflection, Wright allowed that Dickey’s criticisms had merit. He let go of 19th century poetic traditions and, working with Bly and others, found a new, more direct style. By concentrating on images instead of stylised meter and rhyme, by using plainer language instead of rhetorical flourishes, he began writing the kind of amazing and transcendent poems that I originally fell in love with.
Wright’s next collection, The Branch Shall Not Break, was widely praised and influenced poets such as W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and Galway Kinnell. I loved the poems here and in the remainder of the book. Of course, some are more successful than others and perhaps he overuses the technique of the leaping last line, but there are real gems here.
Wright dedicated one of the poems in Branch to Dickey, who became such a fan that he wrote a glowing blurb for the Collected Poems, saying:
James Wright is one of the few authentic visionary poets writing today. Unlike many others, James Wright’s visions are authentic, profound, and beautiful . . . He is a seer with astonishing compassion for human beings.
I think this episode with Dickey is a good lesson for any writer. It’s normal to feel defensive when your work is criticised. However, if Wright had continued to hold out against Dickey’s comments, he never would have experimented with changing his style. He would never have become the beloved and influential poet we know today. He never would have written the poem that lifted me out of myself and made me seek out this book.
Have you ever received a criticism that you initially thought was unfair but later recognised had merit?