This letter is written to a former teacher, Mr. Conrad, in response to an assignment I gave Contemporary Poetry students at BGSU. In this letter, Luda writes insightfully, intelligently, and with compassion about James Wright, his poetry, and poetry’s potential for saving lives. –TW
April 1, 2009
Dear Mr. Conrad,
Today, we meet again with the passing of paper, ink, musings and words. I’m curious to the places this letter will take me, as each letter-writing session over the past few weeks has been a pleasant surprise and simply unplanned expedition. It was very nice to hear back from you via email, and I’m relieved to find that you’ve been receiving my letters—hopefully you enjoy reading them as much as I do writing them. Though James Wright has been the main topic of discussion, exploring his poetry and letters has led me into an exploration of myself. I highly encourage you to look into reading his letters, and maybe learn a little more about yourself within them. There is a quote I love by John Donne, that says, “Letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.” Wright did so through his letters, and it is incredible to read the way he bare his soul to his correspondents.
What I believe to be most magnetic about Wright’s letters is their confessional quality. He so openly explores the depths of himself, from the extremes of his happiness to the profundity of his loneliness. I remember reading a speech by Robert Bly, Wright’s close friend and correspondent, given at the first annual James Wright Poetry Festival in Martins Ferry, Ohio, 1981. “There is an immense loneliness surrounding him,” he said. “So you felt this immense loneliness you feel around him, and then you feel a tremendous dignity in the middle of that loneliness… All around him—the loneliness.” In his correspondence, Wright admits to the depths of his loneliness, and attempts to understand its role in his poetry and life. But the loneliness, like Bly said, is dignified—not once does Wright ask for pity or consoling—he accepts it as a part of himself. This ‘dignified loneliness’ can be seen in Wright’s poetry, but it is never overbearing—his poetry explores his own personal alienation. I’m reminded, now, of one poem in specific, called Beginning.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the fields.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
To me, this is Wright’s honesty—embodied through poetry—at his best. He acknowledges that he has his own personal demons to explore, just as we all have our own. Wright openly acknowledges the idea of entering his own darkness. I love the last two lines especially, “the wheat leans back toward its own darkness/And I lean toward mine” –they send shivers down my spine. In a more technical sense, it is refreshing to see that Wright does not rely on a line break to bring surprise, but more on the narrative itself. As I mentioned in a previous letter, Wright did many translations of world poets (Juan Ramon Jimenez, Pablo Neruda, Victor Hernandez, Karen Hesse, Joy Katz, Georg Trakl) and this poem certainly shows their influence on his writing, as he imagines the wheat, shifting in the wind, as if back and forth from its own demons.
Wright wrote to his old friend Eugene Pugatch (Sept. 30, 1960) who was also experiencing depths of loneliness. “I will not enter your own loneliness with smug moralism and pieties,” he wrote. “The ability to face and endure and—most of all—to acknowledge each suffering in its reality is what makes you a great man.” You see, Wright did not aim to give pity or a pat on the back to Gene, but to relate to him the acceptance he himself felt of his own loneliness, or what he beautifully called it “poverty of the heart.” What Wright conveyed to his friend was that accepting and admitting one’s shortcomings is most important: “To be one’s true self, and yet endure. That is everything,” he wrote. It is not the shortcomings that define us. Many people forget this, and focus on faults. In closing, he wrote something that still resonates within me: “Remember: our life does not turn on trivialities, but on the stars.” I love, love, love this—what a great thing to remember—to not dwell on shortcomings, but simply overcome by admitting them to yourself. It’s a reminder we could all use on a daily basis.
There was one letter that I really connected to, when Wright wrote to Donald Hall (June 26, 1973) about a feeling of detachment. He described that he had been feeling disconnected with himself: “I seem to be losing touch with myself, if you follow me,” he confessed, “I don’t mean I’m boozing (I’m not) or that I’m ill. . . I just seem to have lost touch with poetry and don’t know quite where to turn. I feel low about it.” You see, to be disconnected from poetry must have been incredibly difficult for him, as it was his voice and outlet. I know what he meant, in my own way. There are just some days where I find myself struggling to connect with anything. This letter really let me realize just how important poetry was to Wright’s life.
Wright found great comfort through his own poetry, and that of his friends. He once wrote to James Dickey after reading some poems (Nov 19. 1959):
Maybe now I can just face the fact of my own alienation, maybe I can realize… that you too have your own alienations and yet are able to fulfill your humanity, your (I can’t withhold the word, and I hope it doesn’t embarrass you) greatness, in those poems that you read, poems that, in the face of all the hostility and blindness and deafness and absurdity around us, make sense in some kind of ultimate and tragic and triumphant way… what I mean to say is that I feel changed – perhaps restored, saved. I think I can go on now.
There is a poem in particular that reminds me of this ‘restoration’ he speaks of.
While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked for a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering towards the barn.
I look down now, It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At a touch of my hand,
The air fills with delicate creatures
From the other world
In the speech I mentioned earlier, Robert Bly referred to this poem as “a praise poem.” I admire this description, as I truly see Wright’s hope shining through the lines. He writes of a struggle, internalized: “Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for/Was a wild, gentle thing.” But it is all changed, and he became open to the world around him by overcoming self pity and blame. I can relate to the first few lines extremely, as I’m sure most people can. How many times do I catch myself staring into space, internally reliving experiences passed and worrying? I really do love this poem–it has many levels, some which remain unspoken.
It is true that there are utterly incredible moments to be found in Wright’s letters—moments when he felt lucky to be alive and connected with everything around him. A quote of his that I really enjoyed was in a letter to James Dicky: “I am not dead! This joyful thought fills my mind each morning when I waken” (Aug. 25, 1958). How I wish this thought instantly popped into my head on those days when I can hardly wake up for my 9:30AM class. It’s true—we are all lucky to have each day and live in it! There’s a story about James Wright that I really enjoy, when he was spending a few days at Robert and Carol Bly’s farmhouse. One night after the Blys were asleep he got quite drunk and snuck into the chicken coop. He later wrote about it to Dickey (Dec. 18, 1960):
Sitting here alone in this warm chicken house, I have an indescribably sense of warmth and love,” he described, “I am as it were basking in the golden blades of light, the imagination, the friendship, the truth to the spirit…those precious things I had forgotten to love; and now at the very least I love them, and I know my love is true; so I feel very happy.
What a simple yet beautiful realization he had come upon—I can just imagine him sitting in a chicken coop, scribbling poetry with a grin on his face. What a great image!
Poetry is what really gave Wright a sense of self—I think because it was how he really expressed himself easiest. He found great solace through poetry, and felt most like himself when writing. Poems gave him freedom, as he wrote in a letter to Robert Bly of Bly’s poems (Feb. 18, 1960), “…they always give me an awful sense of liberation. I don’t know quite why, but it is a feeling that the best poetry can give.” Anne Wright, his wife, once found a short note with a scribble of the beginnings of a poem on it. It perfectly describes what I have wished I could say about poetry. In its uncompleted state, it is great nonetheless:
Poets pass on a chill spring
and a dying fire to one another,
but poetry is not a cheap trick.
It is the true voice. It isn’t an
ornament flung random on life. It’s
The flowering of life, as Guillén said.
The note reflected thoughts on a book he had just finished reading by Gibbons Ruark, and Wright was quite shaken by the work—he had also written, “This man is real. So he’s a real poet. There is no other kind.” Another letter to W.D. Snodgrass (Nov. 7, 1960) captured Wright’s revitalizing attitude: “I do not know how things are working out as poems. But I will say this: I feel alive with them, and I am seeing things I never saw before. And, though it sounds (and probably is) immoral, I am having a hell of a good time with poetry. I had lost that, and to get it back is worth everything.”
Wright and his first wife, Libby, did not have the best relationship. In many of his letters he confesses their physical and emotional separation. There was an incredibly poignant letter between them (Aug. 12,1960) that particularly resonated with me. It showed true tenderness of love past, but also relayed Wright’s passion for poetry. In it, Wright writes of how he came across a poem that he wrote a while back, and the effect it had on him. It’s incredible to think that simply finding an old poem could affect him to such a degree, but the poem was actually about his wife and unborn child, and took him back to an incredible place in his memories. I’m including quite a longer passage of it because I couldn’t bear to weed any of it out:
I looked at the poem, and was able to say: whatever I have to give—as man, poet, as living creature on this earth—is here, and it is good…As I sit here, I have no way of knowing myself at all: for all I know I am a hired liar who has already gone insane and is convinced that his lies are truth; so this old poem is a kind of reassurance, like a compass in the hand of a man lost in a strange forest, or like a signpost in the midst of the desert.
How confidently he writes, and how beautifully! I can’t get over the fact that he realizes this poem is a testament of himself, of his creation, and of his art. He tells Libby, “even if I can’t hang on, even if I go utterly to pieces, I wish you would look at the poem anyways, because I wrote it once and it was as near to secure truths as I ever came of maybe ever will come again before I die.”Such powerful words. I often spoke of an element of transformation in Wright’s poems. I saw this element within his letter—the idea that his poetry outlasts himself, and that within this single poem he discovered truth and meaning. “For at least once in my life,” he concluded, “all I had to give in love, sharing of pain, and poetry, all of these came together in one single and whole moment of life.”
I’m running out of time and paper, but there is one last letter I’d like to tell you about. Wright not only kept correspondence with his close friends, but also with his students and readers of his poetry. This letter to Wendy Gordon, on September 6, 1975 asked Wright the simple question of why he writes poetry. His reply was stunning:
Why? Because we live in a horrible century, and poets have been able to keep one another alive. How? I don’t know how. I do know this much: when I moved to Japan thirty years ago with a bayonet on my shoulder, another boy named Toshitada Iketani was waiting…with a bayonet on his shoulder. Somehow—don’t ask me how—he and I didn’t kill each other. Three years ago he translated one of my books into Japanese. In our correspondence, it turned out that he too had carried Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with him in combat.
It may seem silly and cliché to say, but in this case, didn’t poetry save lives? It is without a doubt that Rilke saved these two men from killing each other, although they had no idea at the time. I am constantly reminded of how small of a world it is, and it is these little connections that prove my point time and time again. What are the odds that this would have happened? Kismet.
Oh how I’ve rambled on, Mr. Conrad. There is just so much to say. Reading James Wright’s letters has been so…indescribable… to me, so maybe this letter has shown you why. I send you my best, to yourself and your family. Congratulations on your second son, it was a wonderful surprise to hear the news.
All my best,