The Letter Project

September 5, 2010

Special Delivery (66)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:05 am
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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.

Dear Mom,

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,

Love,

c

Special Delivery (65)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:01 am
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Joan Fraser, Caitlin Griscom’s mother, responds to Caitlin’s letter.  Excited to receive Caitlin’s letter on  frigid Ohio night, Joan shares with her daughter her own love of literature and more.  She reveals what she sees as the writer’s purpose:

They [writers]  allow us to find ourselves through their work, feel less alone in the universe, or take a trip to another time or place.

Dearest Caitlin,

I arrived home later than usually tonight.  I bundled up against the frigid weather as I ran from my car to the mailbox (sometimes referred to as a post box).  And there, with perfect penmanship, I found a letter addressed to me with a BGSU return address.  As it didn’t have official university logos on it, I felt pretty confident it wasn’t a letter of discipline regarding my daughter.  No indeed…it was an informative and yet personally revealing letter from my dearest daughter.

I read the letter and then began reflecting on its content.  I am once again reminded of the similarities between us (some I have never even shared).  I decided to begin a letter in response in hopes of completing and mailing it tonight as I will be traveling by plane tomorrow and you never know….It’s not the falling from the sky that worries me, it’s the landing after the fall.

So the computer lights up…check the email…read the news headline that pops up…stopped.  JD Salinger died.  I became lost in the story…remembering his written words…odd how I just mailed a copy of Cater In the Rye to my stepson in college two days ago.  Literature…great literature.  The love of reading…oh yes, my daughter Caitlin.

You mentioned so many things in your letter.  In regard to Wright’s struggle with depression, Uncle Dallas and I questioned if being artistic and insightful made one mentally ill or did mental illness help with the creativity (this was when we were young, younger than you are now).  I recently completed the book Touched By Fire in which Kay Jamison (An Unquiet Mind) talks about madness and the creative impulse.  What a gift that comes from tragic internal struggles.

Wright is a perfect example of self-medicating his mental illness.  Alcohol is the most commonly used substance for self-medicating..for literary geniuses, the business man or the elementary school teacher.  You are related to some self medicators (please note: none are in you immediately family). 

You wrote of Wright’s ability to channel “his feelings into his poetry.”  I think that is true of so many writers.  I feel that often the reader enjoys a work because the writer either has touched upon something that strikes a familiar chord with the reader or the writer has written in a way that one is able to escape the difficulties of life, even if only for one reading of a poem or novel.  Writers write for themselves be it cathartic, egotistical, or for money.  But, good writers (as decided by individual readers) have the ability to give a gift to so many.  They allow us to find ourselves through their work, feel less alone in the universe, or take a trip to another time or place.

The most enjoyable thing for me in reading your letter is the reminder of how much you love to read.  As you know, Grandma Em encouraged her children to read.  I remember staying up all night reading (Really, all night.  You know, those books that are just too great to put down.  You have to remember to lift your head away from the book every once in a while as your vision becomes blurry and you feel you can’t readjust it…good times).  Our home videos demonstrate how important I feel that reading is…Picture in my head: my daughter sucking her fingers as we’re reading I Went Walking? And hearing you say with your special voice “What did you see?”

So..tomorrow I will get on the plane and have a sense of relief knowing that this letter will make its way to you regardless of the earth’s gravitational pull and it’s desire to have me sent hurdling to the ground.  I will think of you often during my trip.  As I pick-up my book to read on the plane, plug in my Ipod and hear a song that reminds me of you, or even as I take a side trip to Fort Meyers and go to Strandview and have memories of you as my Maid of Honor.  I love you.  I love the gifts that you share with me and with others.  I love that you enjoy reading.  And..I love reading what you write.

With the largest hug,

Mom

Special Delivery (64)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:00 am
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Caitlin Griscom, from Reynoldsburg, Ohio seeks connections between herself and James Wright in the following letter to her mother.  At the same time, Caitlin begins an incredible journey through letters, a journey which helps mother and daughter to bond in unforeseen ways. 

I think my recent experiences help me relate to someone who, on the surface, I would appear to share very few similarities with.

Dear Mom,

 … I find it interesting that I was debating whether or not even to take the class because in reading Wright’s letters and biography, I’ve found that he too experienced emotional struggles throughout his life. I think my recent experiences help me relate to someone who, on the surface, I would appear to share very few similarities with.

Wright was born in 1927 in Martins Ferry, Ohio, which incidentally is only two hours East from where we live (less than the distance it takes me to drive to Bowling Green). He had an older, adopted sister named Marge, an older brother named Ted, and a younger brother named Jack. Though I could go into all the specifics of his childhood, including his schooling, hobbies, and whether he preferred his ice cubes crushed or cubed, I think it is more interesting to focus on what motivated him to pursue writing and what provided the inspiration for his poems. Of course this will demand the inclusion of major life events such as his marriages, children, and career.

Wright first encountered poetry at the age of twelve through Byron. I think this fact calls for a quick rewind into my own childhood when I discovered books just as soon as I could read. Wright’s discovery catalyzed a successful career in writing, while mine has led me to study his works. I wonder if Wright’s mother took away books from him when he talked back…

In any case, his appreciation for established poets led Wright to create his own poetry.  Between his discovery of poetry and when he began to write his own (with the intent of publishing), Wright suffered through the death of his maternal grandmother. This caused extreme distress for Wright and actually led to his first nervous breakdown. I’m not sure if I could call last semester a nervous breakdown, but nevertheless I feel as though I can empathize with Wright on some level. He persevered through his emotional struggles and returned to high school with the intention of graduating and advancing to college. Between high school and college he enlisted in the Army.  After graduating from Kenyon College he married his first wife, Liberty Kardules. With Liberty, Wright had two sons, Franz and Marshall. His children were frequent recipients of Wright’s letters. I will go into more detail later on regarding these letters, but in reading the ones to his sons it seems as though the letters allowed Wright to express himself more honestly than he would have been able to verbally. The letters were a way for Wright to maintain intimacy with his sons as they grew into adults, rather than allowing for a separation due to age and distance to take place.

Based on Wright’s own accounts, it seems as though his personal stresses put a strain on his marriage with Liberty. In fact, it seems as though Liberty too suffered emotional hardships, as he described her in one instance as having a nervous collapse that called for a series of electric shock treatments. Perhaps the tragic flaw of their marriage was the fact that both partners suffered these episodes. In any case, the marriage ended officially in 1962, ten years after it had begun. At this time, Wright’s and Kardules’ sons were 9 and 4. Wright found love again in 1966 after becoming an English professor at Hunter College. Wright married Anne Runk a year later, and the two were together until Wright’s death in 1980.

Throughout his life, Wright fought constant battles with himself; he struggled often with the notion of suicide. It is clear from Wright’s letters that he had some manifestation of depression, but his turning to drink as self-medication most probably did more harm to his health than good. I think that people who haven’t experienced depression aren’t able to understand how debilitating it can be and so they may be inclined to look down on Wright for his “weakness” in reverting to drink. Because I have depression, I feel like I can better understand the desperation which drove Wright to seek any possible relief from his pain, no matter how self-destructive the one he turned to may be. Very fortunately for himself, his family, and his work, Wright resisted the urges he had to end his life and instead channeled his feelings into his poetry and into countless letters to friends, family, and colleagues. These letters were certainly a source of catharsis for Wright. Not only did they succeed in building strong relationships with others, but they also no doubt influenced Wright’s poetry. He often wrote letters to other writers he admired, asking for their advice and suggestions.

Wright remained active with his poetry until the end of his life, when he passed away at the age of 53 from cancer of the tongue. Though this is clearly too soon for anyone to die, let alone a man who still had so much to express, it is evident from Wright’s later poetry that he died with a sense of contentedness and hopefulness that he had not previously been able to reach.

Though Wright’s poetry is without question inspirational from a writer’s standpoint, I like to think that his hopefulness and refusal to give in to the tempting option of suicide is what makes Wright an inspirational man.

See you soon,

Love,

Caitlin

Special Delivery (63)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:50 am
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In this letter, Mike Judge works out a very personal interpretation of one of James Wright’s poems.  Mike’s excitement invites us to a close reading of the poem and reminds of how deeply pleasurable reading poetry can be:

First Days, really holds a lot of value to me. Perhaps, after I have shared my thoughts, then you will understand the reason behind the depths of my infatuation.

Dear Ricky,

I’m very excited to write to you today! On this special occasion, I’m going to be discussing in detail one of James Wright’s poems that I very briefly mentioned to you in my last letter. I have come to realize that the poem, First Days, really holds a lot of value to me. Perhaps, after I have shared my thoughts, then you will understand the reason behind the depths of my infatuation.

One of the greatest reasons as to why I treasure this poem as much as I do is because I can see a lot of connections between this poem and the fall of man from the Bible (the actions that took place in the Garden of Eden). Even if one were to look at the poem’s title alone, they would discover the theme of the creation the world. “The First Days” is an easy parallel to the beginning of mankind.

Within this poem, the narrator plays the voice of God and the bee is the representative of humanity. As I know that you are well read on this topic, perhaps you can look out for them as well.

The First Days

The first thing I saw in the morning

Was a huge golden bee ploughing

His burly right shoulder into the belly

Of a sleek yellow pear

Low on a bough.

Before he could find that sudden black honey

That squirms in there

Inside the seed…

Already, in this poem, we can see this idea that it is the beginning of time being played out. This is exhibited through the first line of the poem, “The first thing I saw in the morning” (keep in mind that this is God speaking so that the poem makes sense). Then, God goes on to explain that he had found a “golden bee ploughing” into the center of a pear in pursuit of the “black honey that squirms around in there.” As I’ve emphasized, Wright is careful illustrate the current state of the bee: “golden” and pure. The bee is not yet tainted, but it is growing awfully close. Once it has reached the “black honey” that he is after, he will be truly golden no more. It is interesting to note the commonalities in the object of fruit being that which led to both the fall of man and to the fall of the bee; for, in the next line, the bee will quite literally plummet.

…the tree could not bear any more.

The pear fell to the ground,

With the bee still half alive

Inside its body.

The bee has fallen. His pursuit of “black honey” has led it to a broken state, as noted in the line, “The pear fell to the ground, / With the bee still half alive / inside its body.” This is exactly like man’s fall. Before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were fully alive in their same exact bodies. However, once they had sinned they were left fractured, without the direct community with God that they had previously had. Sin entered the world, although their physical bodies stayed the same.

Wright goes on to explain God’s grace in the next portion of the poem. He writes:

He would have died if I hadn’t knelt down

And sliced the pear gently

A little more open.

As we can see, both the narrator and God are gracious enough to give the fallen creatures another chance. Both the bee and mankind did not deserve a second chance; each of them selfishly pursued their own desires rather than their superiors. Even so, the fallen still receive the gift of another chance to live. How wonderful it is to have been given such an opportunity!

The poem continues with:

The bee shuddered, and returned.

Maybe I should have left him alone there,

Drowning in his own delight.

Here we see the bee’s response. It acknowledges its mistake and returns to its everyday life as a changed bee. This passage also comments on an alternative path that the narrator or God could have taken. He could have left us there alone to die; trapped in the prisons that we placed ourselves in. Like before, this exhibits God’s grace for us even through our errors. Without God coming along and freeing us we would still be as the bee, “drowning in” our “own delight:” each of the selfish things that we humans get involved in.

Wright tastefully concluded his poem with a reflection on the poem’s title and a thought on the bee’s future.

The best days are the first

To flee, sang the lovely

Musician born in this town

So like my own.

I let the bee go

Among the gasworks at the edge of Mantua.

Again, “The best days are the first to flee,” is an unfortunate truth that Wright comments on. We then see him transition into the bee’s future. The bee, a fallen creature, is left to live amongst the obstacle-natured “gasworks.” Similarly, we, broken humans, are left to live within a “half alive” world. These gasworks are Wrights choice way of explaining the struggle that both the bee and humanity must face since each of their respective falls.

I have a question for you to ask yourself. What would have happened if the bee had chosen to return to his fruit instead? Or, what would have happened if the bee would have resisted the narrator in the first place? What would its life be like now? These are questions that are helpful to think about, and questions that I want to discuss with you in my next letter that will be arriving sometime in the near future.

I wish you well, Ricky. I hope that your studies keep on going well, and that your time spent reading this letter was enjoyable.

Take care, my friend!

Sincerely,

Mike

Special Delivery (62)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:45 am
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Mike Judge writes to Ricky of James Wright and the deep image poem.  His excitement about learning to enter poetry is very evident in this letter:

This line makes me envision a community of people searching for someone or something that is lost. Such imagery rekindles a sense of yearning and anxiousness inside of me.

Dear Ricky,

The time has come, once again, for me to write to you further on the highly interesting James Wright. I truly hope that you have been enjoying the letters that I’ve sent to you thus far. As you know, literature is one of my greatest passions and this is such an enjoyable way to discuss it!

Today, I want to write to you about James Wright’s poetry. Before this class, I had not read very much poetry at all; and even having read the few poems that we have been able to analyze and discuss in class, I can promise you that I have come to regret my previous inexperience with this wonderful style of art. I have learned that good poetry holds much more that pretty words and artistic meter; it takes wonderful ideas and emotions and weaves them together into a great tapestry of mind-rattling depth. Throughout this course alone I have found a number of such tapestries, and the author of many of them is James Wright.

Later on in his career, James Wright began to write deep image poetry. In this style the writer tries to communicate his or her meanings or messages through images rather than abstract phrasing. When done successfully, the images evoke strong emotions that the reader may have associated to the images or even new ones that the reader hasn’t experienced before. To be honest, at first I wasn’t too fond of this approach of poetry. But, like coffee, it has grown quite a bit on me. My favorite example of this is in Wright’s poem, Hook. However, I don’t want to give too much away, as I will be writing you a separate letter on that poem specifically in the near future. So instead, I’ll explain this to you through another one of Wright’s poems, Rain.

Rain is a dark poem about misfortune. It is a wonderful example of deep image poetry because throughout the entire poem, there is only one line of that does not solely serve as an image (but even that line does if you choose to look at it in a certain perspective). Here it is:

Rain

It is the sinking of things.

Flashlights drift over dark trees,

Girls kneel,

An owl’s eyelids fall.

The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley

Of strange rocks.

I like to view each line as its own scene in a movie. Every time that I progress to the line below, I see a very new and distinctive shot filled with emotion. The first line sets the stage for the rest of the poem. Rather than saying, “It is misfortune,” Wright carefully chooses to say “It is the sinking of things.” Instead of just acknowledging a fall through normal words, Wright empowers readers to be able picture someone or something sinking that they have a personal connection with. This personalization is what makes deep image poetry so moving: it brings past experiences to the forefront of one’s mind.

From there, Wright continues with his image driven lines. He first writes, “Flashlights drift over dark trees.” This line makes me envision a community of people searching for someone or something that is lost. Such imagery rekindles a sense of yearning and anxiousness inside of me. It makes me think about moments that I’ve lost things and had to search through figuratively dark places to find them. What a powerful tool, this deep image poetry is! The rest of the poem follows suit, I just wanted to include an example so that you can understand how profound it really is. Perhaps you can try reading the poem again and reflecting on the emotions and associations that you may have with each of the lines. I think you would find it valuable and potentially enlightening.

Wright wrote on many other topics, as well. One of his more re-occurring topics is that of hardship. Like in the poem Rain, James Wright regularly writes to explain various forms of troubles that people face. Wright is certainly qualified to do this, as he had a rough upbringing and was an alcoholic for a decent amount of his life. One of my favorite illustrations of hardship that Wright presents to his readers is in his poem, The First Days.

This poem discusses an individual who stumbles across a “…huge golden bee ploughing / His burly right shoulder into the belly / Of a sleek yellow pear / Low on a bough.” The individual watches as the bee writhes his way through the pear trying to find the “sudden black honey” that resides within the center of the fruit. With all of the force combined with the added weight of the bee, the pear crashes to ground. The bee almost dies because of his pursuit, but the observing individual cuts the pear open and lets the bee go free because it was almost dead and trapped inside of the fruit. After freeing the bee, the individual reflects, “Maybe I should have left him alone there, / Drowning in his own delight.” What a powerful line! How often do we pursue our very own forms of “black honey?” In other words, how often do we pursue things that ultimately bring us down, sometimes to the brink of destruction? All of the time. It is a curse; and worse, it is a curse that we bring upon ourselves.

I have come to realize that the poems that I have chosen to illustrate Wright are not of the most cheerful variety. However, their applicability to any person’s lives, as well as the fact that they are personally impacting drew me to them. I hope that you won’t assume that all of his poems are of his nature, for they certainly are not.

Sadly, I must cut my letter off here for now. I very much value you as a friend, and would encourage you to check out some more of his work. Should you desire to, I do have a small collection of some of his poetry that I could easily lend to you.

Take care, brother,

Mike

Special Delivery (61)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:44 am
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In his second letter to his friend Ricky, Mike Judge writes  about James Wright’s letters.  Here, Mike explores Wright’s desire to be a “life giver” : 

With the goal of pulling from your own “song,” you can hit the highest marks in life. Not only that, but you can inspire others to do the same.

Dear Ricky,

I hope everything has been going well! It’s been some time since we last spoke! Life for me has been pretty well, although school and work are always heavy burdens to bear. I imagine you are as ready for the approaching Spring Break as I am. Anyways, the reason that I’m writing you, on this occasion, is to discuss with you some of James Wright’s letters. You see, there is a very interesting and enlightening story that I have pieced together throughout Wright’s letters which I would like to share with you. I’ve done my best to give you a brief overview of the relevant information that leads up to the point of my letter. It may not make complete sense until the end, but I would encourage you to stick with me until we arrive at that place of revelation.

Throughout James Wright’s lifetime, he wrote countless letters to his friends, family, and acquaintances. These letters serve as a window into the man’s rather intriguing life. Wright loved to write. He did it every day, and it was easily one of his favorite activities. With such compassion for his work, he eventually published a number of poetry books. After the publishing of one such book, Wright received a rather unfavorable review from a literary critic, James Dickey. In response to his bad review, Wright wrote a very angry letter to Dickey. One especially notable excerpt from this letter is when Wright is criticizing Dickeys approach to his review. Wright writes:

Sometimes a man tries to write poems and fails. I think the critic has fulfilled his responsibility when he says so and explains what he means. Sometimes good critics explain the standard by which they judge (I said explain, not merely state), and sometimes they go so far as to admit that there may possibly be, somewhere in the universe and in human history, standards different from their own. But if the versifier (like myself, as you well know) fails to achieve a poem, I don’t see why the critic has to kick him in the balls.

As you can see, James Wright is furious about this review. It has struck a chord so deep inside of him that he is riled with anger. But we don’t get to understand this anger until Wright’s next letter to Dickey.

Once Dickey has received this hateful letter, he responds with a justly angry letter of his own. This letter basically calls Wright out on all of his shortcomings to the point where Wright begins to actually consider the fact that he is not a good writer. In fact he even admits it to Dickey. He confesses, “You (Dickey-in his review) simply said that I was not a poet. This remark of yours only confirmed what-obviously enough-is a central fear of mine, and which I have been deeply struggling to face for some time.” This is where Wright admits his shortcomings and explains the furious tone in his previous letter, but he then goes on to explain this struggle’s history. Wright reflects that, as soon as his book was published, he “looked into it and knew at once that it contained merely competence, and that competence alone is death.” Wow, what profound words! Such an expression implies that Wright’s standards were well below the level of excellence because he was ok with taking the easy way out and not shooting for the winning mark, just the passing one. Now we can see that Wright was not quite the literary master that he had made himself out to be at that time of his life. He had been enslaved to mediocrity, with “competence” as his goal.

In a separate letter to Wright’s friend, Donald Hall, Wright reflects on his experience with Dickey’s response letter by saying, “I read his letter, and realized finally that my own message had been written to myself, to that part of myself which had betrayed poetry by complacency.” This is Wright’s way of saying that he had disgraced the world of poetry by contributing with uninspired work that was just good enough to scrape by. At this point in his life, Wright cared more about pleasing the literary field with passable work, than with creating masterpieces bred from deep within his soul. His work was shallow, and it was fueled on fumes rather than raw energy.

But things changed. Wright discovered a truth that set him free from the bondage of mediocrity. This is what I want you to see, Ricky. It’s a beautiful truth that has power to inspire and challenge a man to reach above the level of competence.

Much later in Wright’s lifetime and career, he wrote a letter in response to an educator name Laurence Green who had asked him, “What inspires you to write poetry?” Wright gave a truly amazing response. Not only is it amazing, but it is also quite different from the response that he would have given before Dickey’s original book review. Wright responds by explaining that deep inside of every individual, there is a deep and profound “song” that represents each person’s individual spirit and inspiration. Here is the core of his response, “Everybody surely hears some kind of song inside of himself. How amazing if he could only be brave enough to sing it out loud. If he does, often he gets back from other people something like an echo-an echo changed and transfigured by the secret songs of the very people who have heard him sing in the first place.” What Wright poses here is that true work and true life are fueled by the heart and soul of an individual. Through his early years, James Wright was fueled by the goal of achieving competence. He was pulling from an alternate source that, while it was easy to tap into, ultimately yielded “death.”

I would propose to you that James Wright’s great success that occurred later in life came from this revelation. With the goal of pulling from your own “song,” you can hit the highest marks in life. Not only that, but you can inspire others to do the same. In Wright’s words, “If he does, often he gets back from other people something like an echo…changed and transfigured by the secret songs of the very people who have heard him sing…” Ricky, this is what being a ‘life-giver’ is all about. When we don’t hold back and distort our own songs, our songs resonate and inspire others to sing as well. We should use our deepest passions and our greatest inspirations to fuel our pursuit for God and life. It’s so easy to get caught up onto the easy path as Wright did early on in his life, but I believe that it is possible to hold true to the songs buried inside each of our souls. Every time we deny competence, we grow stronger as men and become more capable of reaching our greatest dreams.

Well that’s all that I had to share with you this time. I hope that you have enjoyed these snapshots of James Wright’s life as much as I have. Take care, my brother. Sincerely,

Mike

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