The Letter Project

October 17, 2010

Special Delivery (71)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:05 am
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To her mother, Joan Fraser, Caitlin Griscom writes of her studies of James Wright and his poetry:

… I do not want to reach for an obscure connection between Wright and myself. I think these similarities are plenty for me to feel a connection to Wright and his works.

April 7, 2010

 Dear Mom,

This is officially the last letter I will be sending as a part of my poetry assignment. In it, I hope to reach some sort of conclusion to the semester through a discussion of Wright’s life, letters, and poems. Considering all we have read and discussed, I don’t think it will be difficult to make personal connections to Wright or his work. Now I hope that I can make a broader link between these connections.

As I mentioned early on in the correspondence, prior to this class I felt like there was some wall between me and poetry—like poetry was a foreign language I was unable to decipher. Now that the semester is nearing its end, I am reflecting back on those initial impressions. Though I can’t say I have completely “grasped” poetry, I think I have become a better reader of poems—which I would say is more valuable than being able to recite from memory the significance of a handful of poems. Because I have learned about myself just as much as I have learned about poetry and James Wright during this process, I find it interesting to compare my experiences as a reader of poetry to Wright’s experience as a writer of poetry. This interest is reinforced by the fact that over the course of the semester I have seemed to connect most with—in addition to Wright’s discussions of his emotional difficulties—letters that discuss his successes and perceived failures understanding and writing poetry.

In an early letter to Wayne Burns, an English professor who was also Wright’s advisor for his doctoral work, Wright asked if Burns thought poetry was some kind of a disease. I think this question represents Wright’s relationship with poetry. It is simultaneously a source of self-realization and frustration. During the time this letter was written, Wright was struggling creatively with his thesis. In his letter he wanted to ask Burns questions about citing Dickens’ work but it is clear from the distracted tone of his letter that he was writing it for more than just citation advice. During the letter—which indeed begins with his question about poetry being a disease—Wright goes on multiple tangents and digressions so that he comes across as having a sense of urgency. Rather than writing in the way that one might compose a formal letter, Wright used an almost stream-of-consciousness approach, freely digressing or changing topic as he felt inclined. I have actually found this to be true of my own writing. Often I have difficulty staying focused so that rather than moving forward in a linear fashion I jump around and then have to go back and fill in the blanks. I think Wright’s letter is just as interesting because of its form as it is because of its content.

The letter begins broadly, with no apparent direction. He writes about his frustration with the writing process. He is frustrated at having found that he had wasted a full page on something that could be said in three words, so rather than feeling compelled to salvage that page of work he resolves to rebuild the whole work around those words. This passage reminded me of the poem “Why I Am Not a Painter” by an author named Frank O’Hara because in the poem, O’Hara addresses the complexities associated with inspiration. Sometimes authors will remain so attached to their original source of inspiration, even if it leads to something completely different, because they feel obligated to remain loyal to it—disregarding the possibility that this loyalty might prove more of a hindrance than anything else. I thought it said a lot about Wright as an artist that he was willing to sacrifice the effort put into his page of work for what was better for his piece, rather than being determined to keep it purely out of spite.

Wright eventually gets on to the purpose of his letter, but even in a rather straightforward question about citing Dickens, he digresses so that he asks the question twice. An avid letter writer, Wright does not stop at the question. He goes on to say that he received a favorable review of his book in Epoch magazine (which he says is “okay”—Wright was certainly not an egotistical man) but that the reviewer used his book to “flog other writers.” Here Wright gives an indication of his character. Despite the favorable review, he says “I don’t want to be used as a polemical weapon either for or against anybody. Can you imagine a more farcical position to be in?” I chose this letter because I think it fairly represents Wright as a writer and a person. Not only does he exhibit the determination necessary for an artist, but he refuses to sacrifice his morals on the way to success.

I also picked this letter because in addition to reflecting Wright’s character in its content, it reflects his personality in its form—through his tangents, passionate tone, and inability to avoid discussing his emotional well-being. Between his questions about his doctoral work and mentions of his books and struggles with writing, Wright discusses his own personal struggles. As I mentioned in a previous letter, Wright had a love/hate relationship with his home town of Martins Ferry, Ohio. Years later, his ambivalent attitude influenced his writing; he maintained a level of resentment for Martins Ferry but also felt a certain dislike for the Midwest as a whole. When Wright wrote his letter to Wayne Burns, he was thirty years old—still relatively young and newly separated from Martins Ferry—and his frustration with the city was still fresh. In fact, it seems to have affected his view of the Midwest in its entirety. When speaking of Minneapolis—where he was then staying—he says everything he writes in the town seems a fight against Nature, and “I am sick of fighting nature. I fought it till I escaped from the Ohio Valley.” Wright’s raising in Martins Ferry seems to have manifested itself into a burden he carried with him to every town that shares any resemblance with where he grew up.

Earlier in the letter he describes Minneapolis, saying the people in the town are nice to him but he hates the town “like death.” He goes on, saying:

I am so unutterably miserable in the midwest that I am numb for all of every day except in the very early morning hours, when I read and write. I’m afraid to speak of this, yet I must. I’m afraid, because I can’t seem to make anyone understand the dreadful, practically subconscious, effect that the landscape of a town makes on me.

This part of the letter is fascinating to me because it shows how a person’s background follows him indefinitely—in this case literally and figuratively. Even after Wright escaped Martins Ferry itself, going back to the Midwest seems to have—consciously or unconsciously—brought up his associations with his home so that it became a place that would be impossible not to hate like death. As I mentioned in a previous letter, Wright left Martins Ferry because he feared that he would get stuck in its stagnation and suffer from its less than conducive working conditions. In his letter to Burns, Wright mentions that the only escape from the dreadful effects of the landscape is when he reads and writes in the early morning. The reason for his escape from Martins Ferry therefore becomes not only the reason for his residence in the Midwest, but also his escape from his subsequent situation.

Before proceeding with his letter to Burns, I would like to address Wright’s poems because I think they say just as much about his relationship with Ohio and the Midwest as his letters do. Interestingly enough, Wright composed “The Minneapolis Poem” eleven years after he sent his letter to Burns from the same city. I reread this poem looking for a relation to Wright’s letter, but I actually found more of a connection in his “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway.” In a poem presumably about frogs jumping into approaching car headlights, I think there is a deeper meaning in the words. The poem begins by saying “Still, / I would leap too / Into the light, / If I had the chance.” It seems like a rather straightforward topic: frogs who, naïve to the possibility of any danger, seek the misleading gratification they would find in jumping into light. The beginning of the poem reminds me of Wright’s experience growing up in Martins Ferry. It would be so tempting to continue in the path of his father by pursuing a job in manual labor. I think Wright’s “Small Frogs” shows his struggle between staying in the stagnation of Martins Ferry and resisting the convenience and easiness of staying.

The connection to Wright’s childhood is emphasized further in the poem, when Wright discusses the split second when the frogs have leaped into the headlight and are still alive. He writes,

Many

Of the dead never moved, but many

Of the dead are alive forever in the split second

Auto headlights more sudden

Than their drivers know.

The drivers burrow backward into dank pools

Where nothing begets

Nothing.

The last two lines, “Where nothing begets / Nothing” spoke to me the most because they seem to echo Wright’s perspective on his home. He knew that if he had stayed in Martins Ferry, he would have been holding himself back in a place where nothing begets nothing. Based on the connections I see in Wright’s poem to his views on Martins Ferry, it seems contradictory that I see him in the frogs jumping into the headlights as well as the drivers of the cars. But perhaps this is intentional; the frogs shows an inability to do what is best for them, while the people in the cars—as drivers—automatically have a certain amount of agency. The fact that they have agency, however, is contrasted by the image of them driving backwards into nothing. Here, it appears as though they have lost their agency because they cannot see where they are going or into what they are entering.

In the last stanza, Wright gives the poem a broader significance. He draws attention to tadpoles across the road, dancing in the reflection of the moon. He says “They can’t see, / Not yet.” When I read the poem initially I questioned this ending, wondering what it is they cannot see—the headlights, their fate? If you think of the poem’s ending in the context of Wright’s youth, the tadpoles could be seen as the new generation of Martins Ferry residents who are destined to follow the same path as everyone before them, unless they—like Wright—recognize the danger before leaping into the light.

Wright wrote a poem specific to his hometown called “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” This poem is more explicit in its references to Martins Ferry. In it he refers to specific places within the city. He draws a bleak picture of the city, at one point saying the proud fathers are ashamed to go home where “Their women cluck like starved pullets, / Dying for love.” This poem exudes desolation. When I read this poem I cannot help but picture a dry and isolated place where men and women have to drag themselves from home to work, but even more sadly from work to home—to their women clucking like starved chickens and dying for love. The sons of the poem are described as “suicidally beautiful.” Even the depiction of youth, of the new generation, includes a reference to deadness.

Although this poem is clearly more explicit than “Small Frogs” in its association with Wright’s home, I somehow felt a stronger connection to the latter. Perhaps this is because I had to find the significance of the poem, and I did not find it immediately. I was patient in my reading of the poem, and when I was ready to see the poem for more than what is on the surface, I did.

Now back to Wright’s letter to Burns (if you haven’t lost track of the original topic by now after all of my digressions). In any case, I think it is interesting to read Wright’s poems about Martins Ferry in conjunction with his letters because the poems subsequently increase in significance. After Wright’s discussion of his discontent with the Midwest, his tone turns introspective. He mentions a nervous breakdown he had due to his intense hatred for the Ohio Valley before entering into a discussion of his emotional instability. His tone becomes more urgent. Here, you can enter into Wright’s head rather than settling for his surface ponderings of citations. He tells Burns he is “getting sick of spinning on an ellipse through the dark.” For me, this line hearkens back to the last two lines of his “Small Frogs” poem. During a time when I am trying to stabilize my own instabilities through various means, I can relate to this analogy. It epitomizes the unknown, the unstable, and the unforeseeable. Wright combines the images of darkness, spinning (which connotes disorientation) and an ellipse (which implies that he is on some sort of recurring path). It is impossible to escape this ellipse because it is within Wright. Again, I can relate to that concept. It is one of the most frustrating sensations to feel as though your brain has no “off” switch—that no matter how you try to resist or appease it, it will taunt you with the same repeated thoughts constantly, spinning you over the same ellipse until it seems impossible to analyze anything further. Here, your brain will surprise you by finding yet another way.

According to the letter, during the time of its composition Wright had recently compiled a set of poems about exile and revolt. These topics mirror the apparent exile and revolt happening within him. They also allude to the extreme frustration Wright was experiencing at this time in his writing career. He goes on to say in the poem that “I am getting absolutely furious at the state of things. Here I am, almost thirty years old, half-dead, with language roaring around like mad in my skull, and I ought to be doing the work of joy, but here I am, writing attacks and angers and laments.” Wright’s referral to himself as dead is a recurring one. Just one year later in a letter to Robert Bly, Wright makes a similar comment. In talking about his book The Green Wall (published in 1957), he calls it “dead. It could have been written by a dead man, if they have Corona-Corona typewriters in the grave. For all I know, it was written by a dead man.” Although I cannot make infallible deductions from Wright’s letters, I think anyone would get the impressions of unhappiness, instability, and a feeling of being lost—both in the world and himself. I can’t but help think how terrible it would be to have your only means of escape essentially fail you. This time, writing did not provide the satisfaction it usually does, but actually caused him further pain.

But if you remember Wright’s character, you know that as a determined artist he used this as an opportunity to pull through, showing strength when faced with something so discouraging. Again, this letter reminds me of one of Wright’s poems (which I mentioned briefly in a previous letter) called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” I imagine this poem taking place around dusk, during the moment when the sunset illuminates beauty on every surface so that even the droppings of last year’s horses blaze into golden stones. Amidst this scene of life settling down, the speaker experiences a moment of transcendence. “I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. / A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” Like I said, I saw the ending of this poem as hopeful; as if the reader has realized his mistake in not noticing the beauty he is now witnessing before it is too late. He has the chance to waken from his deadened state. Just like Wright had… and did. Rather than wallowing in his half-dead stupor, he was determined to awaken himself.

Just as Martins Ferry reappears in multiple Wright poems, so does the concept of feeling half-dead. In a poem entitled “One Last Look at the Adige: Verona in the Rain,” Wright incorporates a similar sensation as described in his letters. The speaker says, “In the middle of my own life / I woke up and found myself / Dying.” These realizations occur rather abruptly so that they become epiphanies. In light of Wright’s letter to Burns in which he referred to himself as “half-dead” and the letter to Bly in which he claimed his book could have been written by a dead man, these poems gain an autobiographical significance. “Lying in a Hammock” was written six years after the letter to Bly. Perhaps by the time it was written he had gotten out of the rut he was in and, with temporal distance, was able to reflect back on it. I think it would have been difficult—if not impossible—to write such a hopeful and enlightened poem while he was in the midst of questioning his degree of aliveness.

I think Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock” poem is indeed indicative of an epiphany he experienced that roused him out of his half-dead state. Just a year after his letter to Burns (and a month after the letter to Bly) Wright wrote another letter to Bly with a noticeably more hopeful tone. In it, he replies to a comment made by Bly about rising from the dead, which Wright says:

connotes some of the shock of self-recognition which has got to take place among us, not only among people who are trying to write poetry, but who, simply as human beings, are sane. The relation between poetry and human experience is one which has got to be urgently established among us. It is, of course, always a matter of life and death—it always has been—but in our own time this becomes a literal matter.

After reading Wright’s work, it does not surprise me that he would make this relation into a matter of life and death. For Wright, poems needed to have significance beyond well-written words; they needed to display human connection—hence his emphasis on establishing a relation between poetry and human experience. According to Wright, there should be no division or separation between human experience and the written depiction of human experience.

Wright concludes his animated letter by heartily thanking Bly. He says “Thank you immensely for everything, everything. I, too, feel as if I had risen from the dead. Please write again. I have so much to say that I could not even begin to get it all into this note, this mere note.” I think ending the letter this way serves to illustrate Wright’s approach to writing. Though he is discouraged by his feelings of being half-dead, he comes back with persistence after most likely experiencing a moment of realization. He shares this triumphant feeling eagerly with Bly, as only James Wright could.

Reading these letters and poems in particular is something of a shock. It reminds me that even though I can find out about Wright through first-person correspondence and self-expression in poems, I can never completely empathize with him. Although I can say I know what it feels like to be numbed to outside stimuli (such as jokes I cannot find funny anymore, or the sensation of being disconnected from others), there is no way for me to completely connect to Wright. Without his words, I would have no idea of his struggles in the first place, but though they serve the purpose of enlightening readers they simultaneously alienate us from what they represent. By the very act of articulating feelings, I think they lose some of their realness (which I know Wright wanted to avoid, but it nevertheless seems at least partially inevitable). What Wright describes in his letter and poems is something you can really only feel, rather than describe. I think this is why he had to use analogies such as spinning on an ellipse through the dark. It is impossible to articulate feelings in isolation; they need to be grounded in something more concrete and substantial.

Wright’s persistence in overcoming his half-dead state and his bravery in being forthcoming about these experiences also qualify as reasons for which Wright is admirable in his artistic and personal pursuits.

Soon after saying he feels half-dead, Wright draws his letter to Wayne Burns to a close. He tells Burns he had better control himself before he goes haywire and that he isn’t sure how Burns will make coherent sense out of the letter. Ironically, the next paragraph delves into a description of Wright’s correspondence with one of his students, just going to show Wright’s preference for writing as one speaks or thinks rather than as one would format a formal essay. It also further emphasizes Wright’s passion for writing and the urgency with which he sought to describe and share his passion with the recipients of his letters.

Although this letter does not reveal any significant truths about Wright or include any moments of transcendence, I like it because it speaks to Wright’s writing style, his emotional struggles, his character, and his passion for what he did. Even though he was relatively young when he wrote the letter, it still shows maturity and a certain jadedness that I think Wright had to resist for much of his life. His resistance can be seen in later letters, when it was assuredly more difficult to keep moving forward with his writing and personal struggles.

In several later letters to Bly, he spoke of his difficulties battling alcoholism. In one letter, sent when he was 46, Wright describes what it is like to fall into alcoholism. He says “one of the real curses of a man who has a so-called ‘drinking problem’ is that the drinking isn’t the problem. One drinks excessively in order to numb his mind and thus evade the problem, which is psychological.” I think this explanation articulates the rationale behind many addictions. Some seek alcohol or drugs as a desperate relief from their present situations, as self-medication or a coping mechanism, not realizing that this actually perpetuates their problems. The fact that Wright was aware of this cycle shows extreme insight.

In another letter to Bly he brings up a similar topic. He urges Bly to write, “even if it’s only a note. It turns out that one of the worst of my troubles has been isolation—a common and severe affliction among us alkies—so correspondence, serious and friendly, is a healing thing.” This plea for correspondence shows that Wright wanted to heal. He was not content with his situation. Again, he turned to writing as an escape and a healthier kind of medicine than alcohol. And, despite his difficulties, he persevered. He lost a few battles along the way to alcoholism and depression, but he won the war against suicide.

At the beginning of this letter I wanted to reach some kind of all-encompassing conclusion about Wright, and make generalized connections between him and myself. I think it’s safe to say that I see characteristics of Wright in myself. He had a passion for writing and reading prose and poetry just as I have a passion for reading and analyzing the written word. He struggled throughout much of his life with alcoholism, depression, discouragement, and a volatile relationship with his hometown. Similarly but certainly not identical to Wright’s experience, I have my own emotional struggles that I deal with—more so this year than in the past. Despite his consistent struggles, Wright exhibited the biggest strength in his refusal to give in to the tempting escape of suicide. I am not sure that others have had that strength.

Aside from these characteristics, I do not want to reach for an obscure connection between Wright and myself. I think these similarities are plenty for me to feel a connection to Wright and his works.

Mom, thank you for your willingness to read these letters despite the fact that they are, at times, more bleak than positive and less organized than they could be. Looking back at this letter and the ones before it, I don’t think I could have been as honest had I been writing to someone else. Thank you, also, for making your responses just as vulnerably honest as my letters.

See you soon,

Love,

Caitlin

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:02 am
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Caitlin Griscom discusses James Wright’s poetry with her mother, Joan Fraser.  (TW)

March 29, 2010

Dear Mom,

As I mentioned in the last letter, this one will be focusing on specific Wright poems. This is also the last letter I will be sending before the final letter, which will be significantly lengthier.

We have the freedom to choose which poems to talk about, with the assumption that we will choose one or two to which we can personally relate. It was harder than I anticipated for me to find a poem with which I connected. I kept rereading poems waiting for one to speak to me, not realizing that one had already done so. The poem is one we initially discussed in class so I had wanted to cover one we had not talked about, but I cannot ignore my connection to “Hook.”

The speaker of “Hook” is an older man reflecting back on his younger days, and one night in particular when “The cold was so damned / Bitter there was nothing. / Nothing.” The speaker reveals that he was in love with a woman, adding an emotional chill to the coldness of the poem. Waiting for the bus in Minneapolis amidst the dead snow, “lashed / This way and that,” the speaker is approached by a Sioux with scars as old as the speaker. The man tells the speaker that a bus won’t be coming for a long time and asks if he has enough money to get home. Rather than responding, the speaker asks what happened to the man’s hand. The man raises his hook into the “terrible starlight” saying he had a bad time with a woman. He then tells the speaker to take what he is holding. The last two, poignant stanzas of the poem read:

Did you ever feel a man hold

Sixty-five cents

In a hook,

And place it

Gently

In your freezing hand?

I took it.

It wasn’t the money I needed.

But I took it.

When I first read this in class, I felt like out of all of the poems of Wright’s we had discussed, I related to this one the least. After we talked about it, however, I felt like I might relate to it the most. When I read it to myself I was impatient to understand it and only saw loss and pain in the poem. Right away the speaker describes the night as being so cold that there was nothing. Rather than seeming like an opportune emptiness, it seems like a vast void. This void can be felt in the dead snow and terrible starlight that pervade the night. Based on these descriptions, I felt that the poem exudes desolation, coldness, and emptiness.

When we talked about this poem in class, we talked about its darkness, but darkness in its relation to compassion—ultimately, the more pervasive theme of the poem. Rather than focusing on the coldness in the poem as I had done in my reading, we looked at it as hopeful, as an opportunity for a change for the better. The fact that the man in the poem is damaged yet is still able to offer compassion to another is what makes the poem both remarkable and relatable.

I have found that at times I am more comfortable offering than accepting compassion. But talking about the poem and reading it again made me wonder if I have ever been in the speaker’s position, when someone had offered me warm compassion in an otherwise chilling situation. I felt like if I had been, it would not be something I would have to ask myself. As it happened, I had a low day during our next class. I felt out-of-sorts all day and when I was asked in class to give my opinion on a poem I could not find the words. Walking back to my residence hall, I saw out of the corner of my eye that someone from class was riding his bike next to me. He doubled back after he had passed me, stopped his bike beside me, and asked if I was okay. He said he had wanted to ask but felt weird asking someone he did not know that well, but that he would rather feel silly asking than not ask at all. I was deeply touched that not only had someone wondered to himself if one of his classmates was okay, but that he had sacrificed feeling comfortable for the sake of asking me. I told him I wasn’t okay, but that I was working on it. Afterwards I sent him a message thanking him for being a Hook. I asked the next week if he had received it and he said yes but seemed to brush off what I had said. I think he thought I was trying to be clever in applying something from class to myself, when it seemed like the only accurate description of his action. Perhaps I was just looking for my own connection to the poem, but nevertheless what my classmate did was a compassionate act and did not go unappreciated.

A similar “Hook” experience happened again recently when I was not looking for it. Recently I have been spending time with a new mutual friend. As he already has a girlfriend and is just looking for a friend, the friendship has been very refreshing. He is currently having his own troubles with his girlfriend, and has struggled with whether the relationship can last. We have talked at length about his situation. It has made me feel good that I can offer some kind of support through this, no matter how small. When he told me the other day that talking has made it easier, I felt like I was helping someone.

As you know, the breakup with my ex-boyfriend has been a recurrent source of trouble for me. I told him I needed to stop talking to him so that I could get out of this state between letting go and holding on. It has been difficult to maintain this “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when he keeps contacting me. The other night I was studying with some friends, my new one included, when I again received a message on my phone from my ex-boyfriend, a week after he agreed not to talk. I read the message, groaned, and showed my friend. He took the phone and said “do you know what we need to do? We need to delete this.” And he did. Then he sat beside me and rubbed my back.

Based on his character, I’m sure this was an automatic reaction for him. I, on the other hand, was blown away. There was nothing he could have said that I have not already heard or thought myself. Instead, he did something that I could not have done myself, and he did it just because it was best for me. I thought about this for the rest of the night and I thought of it again when I woke up the next morning. I am not sure why, but I really felt like his simple, responsive action was one of the nicest things someone had done for me. This breakup, although it may sound trivial to others, has been nothing short of an obsession for me. I have gone back and forth between whether things ended as they should or could have, how I have changed, what it meant for me to do something that caused me discomfort and distress, what my relationship with him should be now, and the fact that part of my life is now a question mark. As you know, I have talked to you at length about these things, as well as several of my close friends. Even though the breakup took place a while ago, it happened amidst many other transitions and still affects me today. Talking to others has helped, but I think it can sometimes do more harm than good because it perpetuates the idea that it is something worth talking about.

It was not until class the next evening (when I still had not settled on a poem for my letter) that I had a moment of realization. We were discussing another poem, Philip Levine’s “Belle Isle, 1949,” and its redemptive connection to “Hook.” This brought me back to Wright’s poem. My thoughts soon drifted to thoughts about my friend. By doing something so small as deleting that message, he made me avoid any further over-analyzing of words than was necessary, and he did what I needed to do rather than what I perhaps wanted to do. Despite the fact that he is going through his own difficulties and had been that very night, he was still able to offer compassion to me by doing something I would not have been able to do myself.

It may seem like I am reaching in my attempt to connect Wright’s poem to my own situation. But just as the poem is elementally about compassion, so was my friend’s action. In our initial discussion of the poem, we talked about having a “Hook” moment. I realized—not decided, but realized—that deleting one little message to help me move on was the same as giving me some coins to get home. Had this friendship not happened at exactly the moment it did, I would have missed out on this moment. I hope that makes sense.

Love you and see you soon,

c

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:01 am
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In this letter to her mother, Joan Fraser, Caitlin Griscom discusses the influence of Georg Trakl on James Wright’s work.  (TW)

March 12, 2010

Mom,

Again, thank you for your last letter. I love reading them because they are responses to my accounts of Wright, but they also delve more deeply into personal connections that you and he have, that he and I have, and—most significantly to me—that you and I have. The topic of this letter will be Wright’s poems. I am starting it at home over break, although I doubt I will finish it here because lately I haven’t been able to focus on anything for an extended length of time.

Back at BG, and hopefully better able to focus. I think it is interesting that I first introduced you to a poet through his personal and professional letters rather than through his poetry. I think that with a person such as Wright, this is the only way to do it. I have found that it is more difficult for me to understand and relate to poetry than to prose, so it was helpful to know Wright as a person before knowing him as a poet. I think the letters give an invaluable context to his writings. It is especially revealing to read and consider Wright’s poems in conjunction with his letters. Though in the next letter I will focus on one or two poems specifically, in this letter I would like to give you an overall understanding of Wright’s work.

Very early in class we talked about an Austrian poet named Georg Trakl who had lasting influences on Wright. Trakl provides a great insight into Wright’s work because Wright sought to emulate many of Trakl’s writing tenets. In order to fully grasp the significance of Wright’s work, you must first know something of Trakl. James discovered Trakl at a rather vulnerable time in his life. He felt that he had no connection to the poems he had just written, saying they could have been written by a dead man. Discovering Trakl seemed to renew his passion for writing. This was very likely due to the powerful subtlety of Trakl’s words. It might surprise you to know that Trakl only lived to be 27, yet he managed to have a significant, lasting effect on Wright. Wright believed that patience was the key to understanding Trakl’s poems (as I read Wright’s poetry, I have found the same to be true for his). Wright was drawn to Trakl because of their likeness in sensibilities, and he did in fact seek characteristics of Trakl’s work for his own—including the stillness that can be found in Trakl’s work. Wright found that a person does not read Trakl’s works, but explores them. So far I have been trying to explore Wright’s poems patiently, but sometimes I just want to know their meaning right away. It is reassuring to know that Wright himself experienced a similar situation with a poet he admired.

As you could probably predict, James Wright’s battles with depression and alcoholism are reflected in much of his poetry. But there is also a discernible hopefulness in the poems. While Wright did struggle very much with these difficulties, he persisted in channeling them into a creative outlet. As a result of his persistence, there is a certain bravery and courageousness reflected in his poems on the part of the speakers. I have found that in Wright’s willingness to be honestly weak, there is strength.  I have had little difficulty relating to Wright’s poems. Based on my experience with reading his poems, I can understand why Wright felt patience was the key to understanding Trakl’s poems. In reading Wright, not only is there the opportunity to explore the poems for what they are, but if I delve deeper than that, the poems allow for—and even encourage—self-exploration. Therein lies the power of Wright’s poems—their ability to be so personal to their author, yet able to relate to readers, as well. They are also personal enough to be able to relate to, but broad enough to allow for multiple individual interpretations. Often, speakers will encounter a moment of transcendence or epiphany in Wright’s poems—another characteristic he admired in Trakl’s. (In the poem I discuss below, one such epiphany occurs.)

As I said, this letter is meant to give you an introduction to Wright’s poetry so I won’t go too in-depth into one poem, but I would like to ground what I am saying in something. Based on my knowledge of Wright’s background and my own circumstances, I expected to read many of his poems as melancholy and somber. I have found the opposite, actually. In one poem we read in class called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” the speaker makes observations about the natural world around him, noticing a butterfly, cowbells, a field of sunlight. In the final line, he says “I have wasted my life.” This poem was written in 1963, so Wright would have been 36. In class it seemed as though many felt this poem was rather gloomy in tone. I think the speaker’s epiphany connotes hopefulness, however. It seems like there are two ways to take the last line. The speaker could be reflecting back on his life with regret, or he has realized his mistake while there is still the opportunity to rectify it. When we read this poem, part of me wondered if Wright was experiencing a moment of awakening from his alcoholism and/or depression when he wrote it because it seems too hopeful to be melancholic. We read this poem alongside one of Trakl’s, called “Summer,” which had a similar, although less explicit, moment of transcendence. In “Summer,” the speaker shows the gradual subduing of light and sound that comes with night until we are left with a dark room, a candle as the only source of illumination, and the speaker. Finally, a silver hand puts out the light. The last line tells us it is a “Windless, starless night.” I saw this as a moment of epiphany similar to the one in Wright’s poem. The void created as a result of putting out the light is not one of emptiness, but openness—to observation, realization, and self-discovery. It is clear when reading both authors’ poems that Wright received a kind of artistic rejuvenation and inspiration from Trakl.

Many of Wright’s poems concern his struggles with depression and alcoholism, but another major theme is his experience growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio. He had an ambivalent relationship with Martins Ferry—describing it as “suicidally beautiful” in one poem—because he feared the kind of life he would have there. Wright appreciated Martins Ferry for its role in his raising, but he had to push himself to keep moving forward so that he would not get stuck in the stagnation that would have been implicit in his staying. His family was poor and his father worked in a factory, so he feared this fate for himself. I couldn’t help but think of your childhood in Risingsun when we were talking about Martins Ferry, considering both towns’ small sizes and your desire to move on to bigger things like going to college and moving to a city. Similarly to you, I think Wright valued where he came from, but it would not have been the place for the life he wanted to live. Wright also frequently made the subjects of his poems outsiders—he wrote one about a convicted murderer with surprising compassion. His focus on people who may not necessarily “belong” further shows his ability to relate to others through his poems. Someone desperately seeking to be on the inside might read his poems and be reassured that it’s okay to be who and what you are—even if that means growing up in an underprivileged household during the Depression, with depression…and a passion to write.

More soon,

love you muchly,

c

October 10, 2010

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 6:04 pm
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Joan Fraser shares her thoughts on writing and mental illness in this letter to Caitlin Griscom, her daughter.  (TW)

4/14/10

Dearest Reader and Chil’ O Mine

Such a tardy response: I apologize.  I wrote a letter to you in response to yours dated March 12th.  I wrote so beautifully and eloquently relating great insight into writers, their personal lives and how they influence us….oh, yes, I also solved the issue of global warming in that letter.

Truth be told: dividing my time between two households has taken its toll.  I find myself in Powell today tending to the youngster or, as you know him, the eating talking machine.  I do have a letter typed for you at home on my computer but I felt the need to be more timely and not wait until I was at home again.

In your letter, you shared that Wright was influenced by Trakl: “Wright sought to emulate many of Trakl’s writing tenants.” I think it interesting that they had several things in common.  Trakl struggled with addiction and mental illness.  There are those they believe that  Trakl had schizophrenia that was never diagnosed.  It is certain that he struggled with depression.  There is no doubt that his depression became more severe as he was forced to provide care for severely wounded soldiers in WWI. I don’t know if you are aware of this- Trakl committed suicide.  I believe that there are those among us who are so acutely aware of the pain in living, the pain in dying, and the loss in stagnation that they carry that insight and pain to the point of self destruction.

There is one thing I have in common with Trakl; he and I both began writing poetry at young ages. I started when I was 12 and it is reported that he began around age 13.  I am not sure I have any of my early writings.  As an adult, I read them and felt a sense of sorrow for the young girl who wrote them.  Many of those early writings were about death and dying and about having a sense of being homeless in the world.

Okay…how to segue into a lighter subject….distracted by the eating, now hyperverbal talking machine … no, not the child, his father came home….

For you…dear writer…I noted “I have found that in Wright’s willingness to be honestly weak, there is strength.”  That is such a true line for writers as well as the general population.  Today I reread your letter and that line made me stop.  I had just experienced something that made your sentence take on a true and verifiable meaning.  I was involved in assisting with interview at the hospital today.  I was asked by another discipline to help interview candidates.  It was the second round of interviews. This particular interviewee did not preform well in his first interview but was given a second chance due to someone advocating for him.  He came into the boardroom finding himself facing 8 people.  He was nervous as evidenced by his difficulty with eye contact and struggles gathering his thoughts.  I noticed that he had a beanie baby on the table.  In my head, I knew my question would be,”Hey dude, what’s up with the beanie baby?”  (Okay, I wouldn’t have said “hey dude.”)  But without any one asking, he picked up the beanie and said, “I bet you’re wondering why I have this.  My daughter gave it to me this morning and told me to relax and be myself. It is to remind me that she believes in me.”  He went on to explain that one of his challenges is his need for approval from others. He shared that when he focuses on that area of concern, he does not present his authentic (my word) self.  He brought out his “weakness” and it gave him strength.

There is one last thing I wanted to write about regarding your letter.  You wrote about the poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island Minnesota.” I won’t address Wright’s need to shorten his titles at this time:  by typing the complete title it makes this letter that much longer.  His last line,  “I have wasted my life” is left for each reader to ascertain its meaning for him or herself.  That is the beautiful thing about poetry, each reader has the ability to gain something from it that is unique. There is much to learn from those in our would who have a talent for writing.  They can give the reader the ability to experience all range of emotions without actually going through the trying experiences.

I love your writings,
maj

October 3, 2010

Special Delivery (67)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 5:53 pm
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Joan Fraser writes to her daughter, Caitlin Griscom, about her own love of literature.  (TW)

2/22/10

Caitlin,

Shampoo in the hands washing the hair. That is how this letter begins. Have you ever noticed how much you think about things when your taking a bath or shower? It’s amazing. I thought about the church bells I heard early this morning and the line “…for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” came to mind (John Donne). Before I knew it, I started to think about how often we use literary references everyday.

Then I thought of your letter waiting to be read. I decided to save it like you would a desert…to be savored at a time when you can enjoy it. I imagined what it would say and felt quite confident that would contain references to writings.

Mind continued wandering…thinking about the influence of poetry and literature, how it touches our lives. I remembered my mother taking me to a poetry reading at BGSU when I was young (junior high or younger). A woman read a poem about a friend who had committed suicide in her apartment. The writer shared her anger that her friend had left blood stains. She wrote with such clarity that I understood her hurt and anger. Not that her friend left blood stains, but that her friend had left her and had left a reminder of the loss. The power of poetry.

Memories coming back like fireworks on the 4th of July….Remember another time a discussion about literature changed my life. This story requires a trip back to May of 1980. I was approaching graduation. I had a tendency to date men older as I didn’t fit in with boys my age. I liked thought provoking conversations. In May of 1980, I was asked to care for my visually impaired uncle as he had recently had a heart attack and my aunt felt she could not leave him alone but was required to take a trip. After many days, I returned to my home. I crawled into bed around 2:30 a.m. glad to be in my own beds. I woke to my mother gently shaking me around 5 a.m. and telling me that I needed to get ready, “We’re supposed to go river rafting this weekend and your brother isn’t going, I’m not going to waste $40.” I got up, dressed and threw some things in a bag. Off we went to the New River. There was another group of people who joined us. While our group set up camp, a man approached me. The conversation felt forced….until we talked about literature. I remember that we talked of Kafka, Camus, Vonnegut, and others. I enjoyed the discussion. We went separate ways for the remainder of the trip. He called several days after the trip as he remembered my last name and found it in the phone book. 3 1/2 years later we married. And it all began with a discussion about literature.

2/23/10

I opened your letter today with great anticipation. I was amazed at how it paralleled a discussion that I had will Bill last night. He found me sitting in front of the computer typing away. He apologized for interrupting me and literally backed out of the room. I called him back and related that I was writing a letter to you. He and I then began a discussion about the letters I was writing to you and how they naturally lend themselves to revealing personal information that you may not have known previously. Similar to the “confessional” qualities that you talk about with Wright.

My entry for yesterday (funny, the use of the phrase “entry of yesterday” as though I was writing in a diary: another correlation to your letter) made reference to a poetry reading I attended. I’m not sure if you know that I use to write short stories and poetry on a regular basis (confession, I still do). I had no idea that it was interesting until I began to read for my classmates. In Junior High, we would sit in the back of the gym at lunch time and I would read my stories or poems aloud to some of my closet friends. They particularly like the short stories.

I was selected to go to Girls State at the end of my Junior year in high school. Girls State is a program that involves developing a mock government. Girls from around the state would write an essay and send it to their local Daughters of the Revolution club for review. Their committee would then select a girl to represent them. I entered the contest only to see if I could write something they would select: I had no desire to participate in Girls State. It truly was about wanting my essay to be selected. Well, mine was selected. I was so happy and had a brief delusion that writing would be a big piece of my career. I was contact by one of the committee members. I asked how may other girls had entered and was quite dismayed to find I was the only one….so much for the elation I had been feeling.

As so I went…I found myself crying in my dorm room (It was held at Capital University) after my brother Dallas dropped me off. I felt alone. And here is something you wouldn’t expect…I lit a cigarette and sat by the window. Breathe….It is true. I had dabbled in smoking when I was under 18. The forms for acceptance to Girl State allowed parents to give you permission to smoke there. Yes, to your question: I did have consent of one of my parents, my dad. Let the shock sink in. Now my confession. My father was distracted at the time. I handed him the paper along with other consents: he signed it not realizing that it allowed me to smoke at Girls State.

I quickly decided that I didn’t want to have a miserable week in the program so I snuffed out the cigarette and went out into the hall to begin that awkward dance of meeting people. I’m not sure how it came up that I wrote stories and poems, but one night there was a rather large collection of girls sitting in the hallway sharing what we had written (Yes, you may be an English nerd but I was a writing nerd. I took my short stories and poems with me…we’re nerds in kind). I was so touched that they liked what I had to contribute. For the first time, I found a group who could understand my poetry. It was a very rewarding experience.

Someday I tell you about the ride home with Uncle Dallas and his friend and how we were caught by security as we tried to get into an entertainment event without a ticket (I really was innocent here). It was that experience that began my “see it in a headline” experience. As they talked about climbing the fence I saw the headline, “Girls State representative from Risingsun caught breaking the law.” Later in life, it became, “Mother of two….(enter your activity here).

I have now finished your letter in it’s entirety. You know that a letter has been meaningful when, upon it completion, you find that you have smiled, shed a tear, and felt that you have been connected to another. Your letter touched me.

I loved the way you wrote about “…purging of thoughts onto the page and the ability to fold up those thoughts neatly into an envelop…” I often write “invisible letters.” Sometimes they take the form of a letter in my head; sometimes typed and saved for only me.

As we continue this journey of writing, I need to share some things. I have often worried about how others perceive my writings. I worry about a critical appraisal of their content, formation, and overall correct use of the English language. I don’t want to languish over each one and worry about typos or ending a sentence with a preposition. I need the freedom to write without regard for proofreading to perfection. I write this because I want to be able to write freely and I know that you have a proofreaders mind. I admit openly that I will purposefully use punctuation in a way that suits me, not scholars.

And the last… I had decided with the first letter that I would write to you as an adult, not a child. I entered this knowing that I would use it as a way to share who I am with you.

I love you and thank you for including me in this experience,

And now I will read your letter once again,

m

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