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
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,
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
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,