Caitlin Griscom responds to her mother’s letter and delves into the subject of James Wright’s letters. Caitlin speculates on what purposes letter writing served for Wright:
Given their confessional quality, I think the letters certainly served a cathartic purpose for Wright, much like a diary might, but they also demonstrate how passionate Wright was for his art. It is clear from his letters that he had what could only be described as a thirst for knowledge; whenever he read a work by an author, he sought out not only other works by that author, but also works about the one which he had just read. As a self-proclaimed English nerd, I can relate to this passion for the written word.
Thank you again for the letter you sent. As I said, I feel a little disloyal to the art of letter writing for calling you immediately after receiving it rather than waiting to thank you in this letter, but alas, we live in a world of instant gratification.
As I mentioned briefly in the last letter, James Wright wrote a multitude of letters throughout his lifetime to family members, friends, and colleagues. Wright’s correspondence will be the focus of this letter. Though it would be incredibly reductive to attempt to discuss all of Wright’s letters in a two-page letter of my own (and I feel that I am betraying Wright for attempting to do so), I would like to give you an idea of the content and form of his letters. Specifically, I would like to express to you how honest these letters are and what purpose they served both to Wright and to his readers, past and present. Given their confessional quality, I think the letters certainly served a cathartic purpose for Wright, much like a diary might, but they also demonstrate how passionate Wright was for his art. It is clear from his letters that he had what could only be described as a thirst for knowledge; whenever he read a work by an author, he sought out not only other works by that author, but also works about the one which he had just read. As a self-proclaimed English nerd, I can relate to this passion for the written word. I think the past few years at BGSU have cultivated the desire in me to read whatever I can get my hands on, much like James Wright devoured poetry.
What is so touching about Wright’s letters is his complete, and even vulnerable, honesty. He wrote very affectionate notes to his sons, revealed struggles with his mental health and alcoholism, and unapologetically asked other writers for their opinions on his work. He actually cultivated several relationships this way. In an early letter to his friend and colleague Robert Bly, he asked bluntly if Bly minded if he wrote “as often and as long as the spirit” moved him, saying he was aware that it was an imposition. We have talked in class about how Wright’s letters exude a kind of social awkwardness—most noticeably in the earlier letters. As he continued to write, the letters lost some of their awkwardness but never their honesty. As a letter writer myself (if my summer letter writing merits that title) I can understand the confessional quality of letters. Writing a letter it, to me, is more like writing in a private journal than it is like writing an email or talking on the telephone. This is due in part to the physical act of writing, because it gives me the opportunity to articulate my thoughts through my hand rather than voicing whatever comes to mind, but it is also due I think to the purging of thoughts onto the page and the ability to fold up those thoughts neatly into an envelope for one other set of eyes to read.
Like Wright did to his many recipients, I have imposed my letter writing onto you. Though I wavered slightly between family members, people I’ve lost connection with, and old teachers as potential recipients, I think I knew you were the only one who I could write so openly to, and who would appreciate the letter’s literal and confessional weight. I am approaching this letter differently than the last. Though keeping in mind this is an assignment, I am attempting to overlook the page requirement or its affect on my grade, and instead write a letter to my mom about the letters of James Wright. Because of this approach, the letter may not be as organized or scholarly as it could be, but I hope that it will make up for that in thoughtfulness.
Although I would not consider myself a writer, I have in the past found solace in writing, and nearly always through a journal or diary. I give Wright credit because he shared many thoughts with his correspondents that I would be too afraid to; although I am glad he had the courage to do so because it shows how talented he was in spite of (or perhaps because of) his imperfections, as well as how genuine he was. At times he presents his circumstances shamelessly, such as when he sent a letter to Robert Bly despite its “tone of nervous instability.” He wrote that in looking over the previous pages, “I see how hysterical and profane I’ve been—and of course I have absolutely no right to send you this letter” but Wright sent the letter in the hopes that its tone would convey more to Bly than its content alone might. In the same letter he goes on to talk openly about his depression, something which makes me feel a sense of pride and reverence for his honesty. His ability to refer to a stigmatized disease makes me want to reclaim the word, myself. In other letters, Wright expressed himself more self-consciously, like when he asked an advisor not to laugh at his “melodramatic tone” because “These are the terms in which my life presents itself to me all the time.” It is clear that Wright was conscious of his emotional struggles in nearly all of his letters. Whether he felt like revealing these struggles or not likely depended on his relationship with the recipient and the circumstances in which the letters were sent; although if my experience is anything like Wright’s, I am sure there were times when it made no difference how desperate a letter sounded just as long as someone was there to read it.
I alluded previously to Wright’s letters to his sons, in particular. I think these letters are the ones that give the clearest indications of Wright’s character. As I said, despite the distances brought on by age and locale, Wright was able to maintain an intimate relationship with both Franz and Marshall. Something I found quite endearing in these letters is their adaptation to his sons’ ages and comprehensive abilities. The first letters, sent when the sons were young, are tailored for a little boy’s eyes. As the boys aged, Wright crafted his letters for a more mature audience.
Franz (who later became a poet) is Wright’s oldest son. Franz received one of his first letters from Wright when he was about eleven years old. At this point, Wright was still married to Franz’s and Marshall’s mother, Liberty. Wright was away from his family in St. Paul and described to Franz the events of the day while including references that surely had sentimental value for the boy. In later letters, Wright could be more forthcoming to his sons, but the letters never lost their intimate tone. Regardless of the boys’ ages, Wright was sure to include how much he loved them and what they meant to him.
As this letter has again been perhaps something of a downer, I would like to leave you with a particularly touching excerpt from one of Wright’s letters to his younger son, Marshall. He sent the letter for Marshall’s sixth birthday and included a poem he wrote for the occasion. I hope what I have included makes sense by itself. I will leave you to make your own thoughts about Wright’s words, but I wonder if you would agree that he was perhaps writing them as much for himself as he was for his son. The letter reads:
A good poem is a poem that says “I love you.”
A saint is a person who (really) loves everybody he knows, whether he gets paid for it or not.
A great saint from India, named Shree Ramakrishna, got sick when somebody called him a saint.
All that means is that a saint is more interested in other people than he is in himself.
Ramakrishna said that we should love one another whether we are good or not. Then, we will all
be good. If you love somebody, your love makes him good.
I know perfectly well that you are a good boy, because I know I love you. If I know anything on
this earth, I know I love you.
I know you love your momma, and your brother Franz, and me.
That is why I feel so good. Thank you, my dear, dear Marsh. Happy Birthday.
Talk to you soon,