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,


October 10, 2010

Special Delivery (68)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 6:04 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Joan Fraser shares her thoughts on writing and mental illness in this letter to Caitlin Griscom, her daughter.  (TW)


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,

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