The Letter Project

October 17, 2010

Special Delivery (69)

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


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,


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