Dear Aunt Krista,
I hope my last letter found you well and I’m glad you got the chance to read it! I’m happy that you enjoyed the last one, so I’ll address this one to you as well. This time around I want to talk to you about a poem that perhaps is a good deal less optimistic than “Small Frogs Killed On The Highway,” the other poem I wrote you about, but is nevertheless one of my favorites by James Wright that I have read so far. It is called “The Minneapolis Poem.”
The first thing that struck me about the poem was the first image that the poem presents: the old men who have committed suicide in the river. I appreciate his connection to these men; he refers to them as his “brothers” and wonders about their fates (“The police remove their cadavers by daybreak/ And turn them in somewhere./ Where?”). Wright mentions suicide in many of his poems but never mentions it in relation to the person speaking, which makes me think that it is a concept that he can relate to if not act out himself. He struggled with depression for most of his life, but he didn’t commit suicide; he died of cancer in 1980.
There is a certain kind of dark beauty in this first stanza that I always love in a poem; the speaker says (in one of my favorite lines in Wright’s poetry) that “by Nicollet Island I gaze down at the dark water/ So beautifully slow./ And I wish my brothers good luck/ And a warm grave.” Although this is a very grim idea (staring at the river where, apparently, desperate souls have taken their own lives), Wright is able to evoke an almost tranquil image of the water, drawing a moment of beauty from such a ghastly thing as suicide. This is something that I believe Wright does well and frequently in his poetry.
There is a term for this kind of imagery in poetry, and I’m glad to have a word for it because I love it so much in practice. It is called Deep Image poetry or “Duende” and it is concerned with this very forging of beauty from moments of pain. “Duende” was the idea of a poet named Federico Garcia Lorca, and it tells of heartache, suffering, pain, and other deep feelings in a beautiful way. Lorca thought that a good example of Duende was American Blues music, and I see traces of this concept in “The Minneapolis Poem,” not only in that first stanza with the imagery of the dark water but in other places throughout the poem, such as “the soul of a cop’s eyes/ Is an eternity of Sunday daybreak in the suburbs/ Of Juarez, Mexico” which inspires fear but in an aesthetically pleasing way.
Aside from the dark and beautiful aspects of the poem, another main thing I love about “The Minneapolis Poem” (and something that, poetry geek as I would like to think I am, makes me unnaturally excited) is the connections that I see between it and the works of Walt Whitman. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Whitman’s work or his style of writing, but it is something that I see echoes of especially in this poem. My initial comparison of “The Minneapolis Poem” to Whitman’s body of work was confirmed when I found out, in a biographical article about him, that Wright considered Whitman one of “the two American poets who mean the most to me as an individual human being.”
In case you’re not familiar with Whitman’s themes, I’ll try to connect them for you. Whitman was very concerned with ordinary people and seeing people from every walk of life as beautiful and important; a prostitute for Whitman was just as important as a politician (he’s kind of a hippie like that. I bet you’d like him). Wright also liked to focus on marginalized groups and people; he even wrote one poem from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. I see a similar focus in “The Minneapolis Poem” in Wright’s portrayal of these oppressed groups: he mentions the
“Chippewa young men,” the “split-lipped homosexuals,” and the “tall Negro girls from Chicago.” These all paint a diverse picture of Minneapolis, although admittedly in a darker light than Whitman would have portrayed them. The Chippewa men are behaving violently toward one another, the homosexuals “limp in terror of assault,” and the Negro girls must navigate their way through policemen, lest they get caught and suffer whatever consequence they fear. The poem, then, does not paint Minneapolis in a very good light, but rather as a place where the people within it long to escape oppression and, especially, the police (who are likened to cockroaches). The speaker himself dreads being stuck in the city (and mentions Whitman directly) when he states: “The old man Walt Whitman our countryman/ Is now in America our country/ Dead./ But he was not buried in Minneapolis/ At least./ And no more may I be/ Please God.” The speaker begs god not to let him die like others have in Minneapolis, where those who are outcast suffer these fates.
In addition to these lines being sort of a divine invocation as well as a pained cry for help, I see something akin to dark humor in this “Please God”. I find something funny in the idea of a place being so dreadful that you don’t even want to die there. It’s similar to a line in another poem of Wright’s called “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned” that literally made me laugh out loud the first time I read it: “For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,/ Has only two shores:/ The one in hell, the other/ In Bridgeport, Ohio.// And nobody would commit suicide, only/ To find beyond death/ Bridgeport, Ohio.”
I also saw a similarity between “The Minneapolis Poem” and Whitman’s work in the separation of body and soul. Whitman saw the soul as an entity that was separate from the body but equal to it, which at the time was controversial because in Christian ideology, the soul is far superior to
the body, which is seen as the home of sinful pleasures. In “The Minneapolis Poem,” Wright’s speaker refers to his body as “his brother” which he “could not bear” to leave behind in Minneapolis. He also expresses a desire to move beyond this world full of troubles, not in the sense that the old men did when they committed suicide, but in a more spiritual sense: “I want to be lifted up/ By some great white bird unknown to the police,/ And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden/ Modest and golden as one last corn grain,/ Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives/ Of the unnamed poor.” The speaker has a wish to leave his physical body and exist on a different level, safe from the perils of this treacherous Minneapolis (and, further, life itself).
“The Minneapolis Poem” at one level seems to be about social problems; the textbook I use for this class points out that Wright was always renewing his style of poetry (he didn’t have much faith in himself as a poet and was constantly trying to perfect his craft, as wonderful as his poems may seem to be), and that during the time he wrote this poem, he was concerned with these social inequalities. On another level, it is (a more Whitmanesque) desire to break free of one’s reality and reach a different level of being that is free of troubles. What’s sad about this poem to me is that the speaker wants so badly to be free of the suffering that surrounds him, but it is never realized in the poem.
Sorry to leave you on a less optimistic note than the last letter. I can’t promise that the next one will be much better! Hopefully I’ll see you over Spring Break before you even get a chance to read this letter. I miss you!
Bunches and bunches and bunches of love,