The Letter Project

September 5, 2010

Special Delivery (61)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:44 am
Tags: , ,

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,


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