The Letter Project

March 30, 2016

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 3:28 pm
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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,

Amber Withey

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February 24, 2016

Special Delivery (629)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:12 am
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A letter from my student, Lucas Denzler to his former teacher Bruce Weigl. –Theresa Williams

Professor Weigl,

I have spent the last several hours furiously typing and even more furiously deleting (what an easy thing it is to do; I must remember never to succumb to the urge to type first drafts of my fiction and poetry) what was meant to be heartfelt correspondence centered around the corpus of James Wright and ended up being yet another academic essay. I doubt you want to read my overwrought analysis of Wright’s decision to include a specific place in his poem “A Blessing”, and I don’t really want to write that either. But that is what was coming out from my fingertips after long stretches of planning and care, so I will try another tact. To hell with calm reason! First instinct it is. Perhaps I will at least get some poetry out of the exercise, if nothing else.

In a letter to Donald Hall in July of 1958, Wright gives up poetry. One of the last lines of the letter is “For me to try to write poetry is in bad taste.” But just a few lines beforehand, he writes an incredibly interesting string of sentences: “Whatever it was in me that got poems started looks and feels like a large, defenseless, blanket-bombed city. The sewer-rats march with tubas and bass drums through the soccer field, and cathedrals are pitched headfirst, like unfrocked saints dizzy with bay rum and canned heat, into the garbage dumps, and devalued coins of finance darken the gutters of the black market of my self, and have like a rain of artificial blood.” This is unlike any of the poetry I have read by the man, a crazed roil of surrealist imagery that I do not think is reached even in his 1968 poem “The Minneapolis Poem” (sidebar: the man was either brilliant or horrible at naming poems; I cannot decide), with its “…beggars…carried away/By white birds.” There is something raw in the letter-poem-thing, and I think, with him at his basest, his most depressed, which has to be the basis for his multipage letter to Hall (he is denouncing his great ambition, for goodness sake!) that this brief glimpse of the pure emotion from within the man can really give a good lens through which to view the his poetry. They are very contained, very simple, very unassuming, I would say, at first glance.

So we come to “A Blessing”, which, on a cursory reading, is a really boring, trite poem. A couple of guys hang out with some ponies and think it’s pretty cool. It only needs a kaleidoscope or a rainbow. But, thinking about it in the aforementioned way, it becomes something else entirely. Or, I should say, the reaction to it changes. It is still the same poem, of course.

To start, let’s look at the last three lines: “Suddenly I realize/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom.” That last line break just kills me. It goes from complete isolation, fear of the other, a thought that anything out of the norm might annihilate the speaker to transcendence. I actually naively said to myself that the rest of the poem was not needed, that the last three lines could be a poem on their own. I still think maybe they could, but not as nearly a good a poem as what there is now. This part is so powerful because of the preceding lines. The journey from the road to the moment with the one pony is slight, but there is a progression to that final moment of revelation.

To stop a moment and talk about the moment with the pony: first of all, the choice of “…delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist” is one of those brilliant moments of poetry that I would not have thought of except if Wright had given it to me. My first thought is an erotic one, imagined the soft brush of a hand as it slides up a woman’s arm to clasp her hand in the moment of passion. My second is a completely different one, the image of a father holding his daughter’s hand as they walk somewhere. Now, they seem to me to both apply and mesh together in my mind in a single sweet, soft moment, because there is the deep passion, the deep emotion that comes from this moment (he immediately notices he might break, remember) but there is the softness of the shy pony that grounds the poem, keeping the moment from becoming too overdone.

Secondly, to bring us back to the breaking, the speaker pets the pony because “…the light breeze moves [him]…” He is on a tipping point at this moment, in between two states. Throughout the poem, there are very blatant dichotomies: between the road and the field, between the men and the ponies, between the light and dark of twilight, between loneliness and union. There is even the very stark image of the men stepping over a barbed wire fence to reach the ponies. I cannot think of many symbols of division more potent than that.

I feel as if I am drifting dangerously close to the academic side of things, so I want to take a step back for a moment and talk about one of the first things you taught us last semester, before beats and meters and all that technical stuff. You told us “a poem means what it says it means”, and, while it has taken some time for me to accept that fact, the more I go in with that mindset, the better poems seem to get (at least the good ones!). I bring this up because this is actually the reason I thought of writing to you. In class, we were broken up into small groups of three or four to talk about Wright’s work, and I overheard several groups discussing “A Blessing” in a way that shocked me. I was reading the poem as a visit with some ponies, and they were reading it as some kind of metaphor for Wright’s love life. Let us even put aside for a moment the fact that, in a speech at the inaugural James Wright Poetry Festival in 1981, Robert Bly describes a trip him and Wright took where they stopped on the side of the road and hung out with some ponies. To look at the poem as having so many layers dilutes its power, I think. The reader is immediately overworked, spending far too much time parsing out what is a symbol for what and then you have to decide who each of the ponies and the friend stand for and then the reader has lost sight of the beauty of the poem. “They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness” ceases to describe the sinew beneath a wondrous beast’s fur, “They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other./There is no loneliness like theirs” ceases to evoke that breath-taking image of a pair of horses standing in a vast field, munching on grass that I have seen many times traveling across the farmlands of Ohio. Instead of celebrating the ponies, instead of celebrating nature, reading it all as metaphor makes it a worse poem. And, thankfully, I had you to teach me that before I got to this point, or I would have been baffled as to why the teacher had assigned such a boring poem.

One last thought: I find it interesting that, after thinking so much about the poem, I still find it to be sad. The title is “A Blessing”. The ponies give the speaker a great gift of transcendental knowledge. The ponies are kind, their eyes “Darken with kindness.” The speaker is with a friend. Perhaps the sticking point is that the speaker does not step out of his body, that he does not blossom. I wonder where Wright is coming from, to recognize this gift but not act. There is nothing in his letters that I have read that seem to address this. It strikes me particularly hard because the poem above it in the anthology we are reading out of is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”, another poem that deals with the beauty of nature, and ends with the sobering “I have wasted my life.” If he knows that his life is being wasted, and has been given the gift of knowledge of how to achieve something greater by the ponies, why does he not take it? Perhaps this is me over analyzing again.

I hope all is well with you. Again, I would be most gracious to be able to see what James Wright wrote to you back in the day, and also what the circumstances of the letter were. Did you write to him, or did he notice a poem of yours somewhere? My professor here almost had a heart attack when she heard that I might get to see a letter from Wright to a young poet (and to you no less! I forget occasionally what a stroke of luck I had in having someone of your talent as my instructor into the realm of poetry), and, if it is alright with you, wondered if she might be able to see the letter as well.

Regards,

Lucas Denzler

Bruce Weigl is an American poet born in Lorain, Ohio in 1949. Enlisting in the US on his eighteenth birthday, he spent 3 years in the service, one of which he served in the Vietnam War, during which he earned the Bronze Star. Returning home, he received a BA from Oberlin College, an MA from the University of New Hampshire, where he studied under Charles Simic, and a PhD from the University of Utah.

Weigl is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including Song of Napalm (1988) and The Abundance of Nothing (2012), both of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He has also written a memoir, The Circle of Hanh (2000), and has published translations of Vietnamese and Romanian poetry. His work is widely published and anthologized.
Weigl’s awards include The Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, The Robert Creeley Award, the Poet’s Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and two Pushcart prizes, among others.
Weigl currently hold the position of Distinguished Professor at Lorain County Community College, where he is the Director of the Creative Writing Institute and founded and co-edits the online journal North Coast Review.

January 31, 2011

Special Delivery (73)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:51 am
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In his last letter to his friend Ricky, Mike Judge explains how Wright’s poems are a manifestion of “lost love.”  –TW

Dear Ricky,

Well, sir, the end is upon us. After months of exploration and letter writing, my extensive pursuit of James Wright is coming to a close. It has been a wonderful adventure. This course was my first intentional experience with poetry, and a grand one it was. I’ve begun to understand what goes into good poetry. As to be expected, I feel as though I’ve learned a great deal about poetry in the past few months. However, what I was not expecting to learn about, although learn about I did, was character and passion.

Wright repeatedly surprised me with his compassionate nature and with his persistent fervor throughout this entire semester. Every time I would pick up A Wild Perfection (the compilation of his letters that I own), I would feel inspired on some level.  Even within his letters, his words would regularly form something of great beauty and authenticity.

One of my favorite examples of this is in a letter that Wright wrote to a young Janice Thurn. Thurn is a 17 year old who decided to (without any previous contact with Wright) send him a couple of her poems to get his feedback on them. Wright displays great character within his response to her. He opens with, “I trust you received that somewhat crumpled postcard that I sent you a couple of weeks ago from Cleveland. I promised you an adequate letter, and I’m afraid that this note will not be quite adequate.” In response to a random letter asking for a favor, Wright not only responds but he responds with a postcard, a letter with feedback, and the promise of future letters. He even asks her to keep on sending him letters! What a selfless heart! Wright, a professional poet and educator, is making time for a stray writer. But this isn’t the only time he strikes up this type of relationship, either. His wife records in his biography that this was a regular practice. He did this exact same thing with countless others throughout his life. Cool!

That alone is impacting, but the feedback that Wright responds with is equally as striking. In his letter to the young Thurn, he writes:

In a way I am sorry that you told me that you are 17 years old, because now I am almost in the position of having to say that your two poems…are splendid poems, “even though they were written by a poet only 17 years old.” And that is certainly what I don’t mean to say. The fact is that they are splendid poems by any standards, and I am grateful to you for letting me read them. Anybody who can write the line “gravestoned on a cold sky” has a magnificent and unmistakable gift for poetry, I don’t give a damn how old the poet is.”

As I said before, there are a couple things about Wright that jump out at me as I read this paragraph. First, is Wright’s authentic presentation. He is entirely genuine the entire time. Everything from the apology at the beginning, to the passionate line at the end, speaks of his character. The second thing that strikes me is his giving nature. He is very quick to offer praise to this other poet. It would be very easy for a poet to criticize and speak against a different poet in order to “feel better about himself.” Wright casts his pride aside and pours out lifting compliments to the young writer.

Authenticity and selflessness are two great attributes to have. I believe that a life lived behind a wall, is a life not worth living. So often people get stuck trying to fit in and following the “safe path.” However, there are many times that life isn’t just about people pleasing: times where people need to be true to their hearts. Wright’s genuine and unreserved spirit is one that carried him far in life, and it is something that has earned him both my own respect and the respect of others.

Selflessness is possibly even more significant to authenticity. A man who’s concerned only with himself is hardly a man at all. Wright’s general attitude towards others is one of service. He gives life to those who he connects with. This attitude not only brings out the best in others, but it even brings personal satisfaction. In my life, I’ve found that the more I give, the more I actually get. Every time I help someone, the more satisfied with life I am. It’s a truly spectacular cycle, that, when used by many people, has the potential to really make a difference. This might sound far-fetched to some people, but I believe that authentic selflessness is the key to happiness in this life.

Wright truly is a great man. While the previous few paragraphs may seem excessive or tangential, I want you to know that there is a reason behind them. It is important to know about a writer’s background before discussing his or her work. I feel as though it helps readers get into the writer’s head, and thus understand their art better. As you’ll soon see, understanding these aspects of Wright’s personality will help you to better appreciate the rest of this letter and especially his poetry.

Now, there is something that I really want to draw your eyes too: a theme inside of his writing that has really captivated my heart.

Throughout this entire course, I’ve come to value one of Wright’s poems above all of his others. It caries the theme that has me impacted so profoundly: the theme of brokenness and the yearning for and discovering of redemption. It is something that I can relate to in great magnitude through my spirituality. Because of that, and the similarities between each of our individual lives, it is something that I imagine you can relate to as well. The poem is called Hook.

Hook

I was only a young man

In those days. On that evening

The cold was so God damned

Bitter there was nothing.

Nothing. I was in trouble

With a woman, and there was nothing

There but me and dead snow…

So already we can see signs of the narrator’s brokenness. In this poem, readers have the opportunity to take a glimpse at the hardships that this particular narrator has been challenged with. For him, at this moment of his life, he was struggling (as many of us have) with lost love. The words portray him to be experiencing a great sense of hurt because of the repetition in hints of emptiness and frustration. Have you not lost a loved one, either to death or to some other cause? I know I have, and the emotions that follow are ones that I would wish upon even the worst of men.

His tale continues:

I stood on the street corner

In Minneapolis, lashed

This way and that.

Wind rose from some pit,

Hunting me.

Another bus to Saint Paul

Would arrive in three hours,

If I was lucky.

The broken man now explains that he’s at a Minneapolis street corner, waiting for a bus to take him away from his present place. But there’s more here. As we work our way through the poem, it becomes apparent that it is layered with many deep symbolisms. A few of these we have already began to see. The first of them is the “cold” “wind.” This wind is a symbol for the sorrow and heartbreak that is chasing and pursuing the narrator. It is the physical manifestation of his lost love. As the passage says, this negative entity actually “hunts” him. The wind is so piercing that he is almost overwhelmed by it. All he wants is for the bus to come take him away to Saint Paul; to find his emotional freedom. I believe that that’s what the bus is: the path to the freedom. The bus is what we seek after every time we get hurt. It’s what every man’s heart yearns for when times are rough.

Everybody experiences hardships from time-to-time, and often times we overcome them. However, if we look back on them, we’ll often find that our hardships require us to go to someone else in order to help us find our freedom from our burdens. Sometimes our struggles are so heavy that we cannot find the way out on our own. These types of themes come up repeatedly in Wright’s work, both in his poetry and his letters.

Probably the thing that I struggle with the most is my pride. Often times I find that I don’t want to think of myself on a realistic level because I want to believe that I’m better than I actually am. I get so caught up in being “Super Mike” that I lose track of reality. Unfortunately for the world, I know that I’m not the only one with this struggle. James Wright also deals with it at one point in his life; he even wrote a letter that captured his very moment of realization and the emotions tied to it quite beautifully. For Wright, the moment that he realized his pride was holding him back was relatively early on in his writing career. Although I mentioned it briefly once before, I would like to bring it up once again because it has served as such an awesome example of humility in my life. The moment I’m speaking of is, if you remember, the time when Wright and his good friend-to-be, James Dickey, first corresponded.

As you may recall, Wright had just published one of his early books and the time had come for critics to come in and have their words about it. Dickey was one of these critics, and he didn’t care for Wright’s work very much at all. This is because he felt that Wright wasn’t even a real poet. Wright’s initial response to such a review was one of stubbornness and great pride. He wouldn’t allow himself to even contemplate the idea that maybe he wasn’t as good of a poet as he had initially thought. His eyes’ perception were distorted to truth; for, after writing a very harsh letter to Dickey, and Dickey writing one in return, Wright actually realized that there was great truth in Dickey’s words. After coming to his senses, Wright wrote back to Dickey, saying, “As I sit here, I think I know why I was hurt. You simply said that I was not a poet. This remark of yours only confirmed what – obviously enough – is a central fear of mine, and which I have been deeply struggling to face for some time.” Like Hook’s narrator, Wright too was being pursued by his own great “wind.” Wright’s pride had been preventing him from being the truly astonishing writer that he grew to be after that point in his life.

What’s spectacular about Wright is that, having learned a thing or two about dealing with struggles, he tries to assist other people who are experiencing “winds” of their own. For one of Wright’s fans, the struggle was loneliness. In a letter to D. Groth (yet another one of Wright’s fans), Wright explains what happened with his lonely acquaintance a while back. One day, Wright received a letter and some poems the unknown and lonely poet. Wright remarks that the man was an “absolutely unmistakable genius;” yet, having also read the poets letter, Wright is concerned about him. In the poet’s letter was the note, “I am so lonely I can’t stand it. Solitude is a richness of spirit. But loneliness rots the soul.” Seeing a good man in deep trouble, Wright takes immediate action. He sends the foreign poet a reply saying, quite simply, that he would be traveling to his Chicago apartment in a few days, and that with him he’d be bringing two women and, oddly enough, a large bag of bananas. Having never met him, Wright follows through and gives the lonely man a time to remember.

Now, I want to comment on the fact that in both cases the broken or struggling individual is deep in their sorrows until someone else comes into their life to pick them up. This is the power that positive community and relationships can have on one’s life. It reminds me of a marvelous song that Bowling Green’s Men’s Chorus sings every semester called “You Were Born.” The song challenges its listeners to take up the task of flying through life. The song climaxes at the the phrase, “You were not meant for crawling, you have wings. Use them to fly.” So often we find ourselves crawling on the ground struggling through life in ways we are not supposed to be. It’s almost as if there’s a harness on our wings with a latch binding it shut that is just out of our reach. No matter what we do, we can never reach it ourselves; someone else must come and open it for us. Sometimes we have troubles that are just too great for us to resolve on our own. Sometimes we can’t see clearly and need an honest individual to be our glasses. Sometimes our hearts grow so dim from being secluded that it takes another person to illuminate our heart’s room long enough for us to find our way back to the light switch. Sometimes we need each other.

It’s is this community that keeps us going; this power that keeps us strong. In order to spread our wings, we must let others into our lives so that we may be redeemed from that harness that has befallen upon us. As Wright says in the end of his letter to Groth, “…we need one another in deep, strange ways.” Words could not be truer.

Out of all of Wright’s letters that I have read, there is one segment that he wrote that I will remember above all others. He speaks on this very topic in brilliant metaphor: where one man’s passion has the ability to bring out another’s; where one man’s boldness has the power to strip another man free of his hindering harness. He writes, “Everybody surely hears some kind of song inside of himself. How amazing if he could only be brave enough to sing it out loud. If he does, often he gets back from other people something like an echo-an echo changed and transfigured by the secret songs of the very people who have heard him sing in the first place.” There are a number of ways that one could view this excerpt. However, for this instance, let us only focus on Wright’s point on man’s ability to affect one another. Each person’s “song” is their strengths, gifts, and spirit bundled together to form one entity. Wright explains that, as we overcome our fears, we have the ability to unleash our true selves. But, as he also says, we aren’t always brave to overcome our struggles first. Sometimes we must be inspired by the songs of others before we have what it takes to spread our wings and truly fly.

This is exactly what happens in Hook.

If you recall back a couple pages ago, our narrator was waiting for the bus to take him away from the Minneapolis street corner and its heart wrenching wind that would perpetually wash over him. He was consumed by his troubles and thirsting for them to go away somehow. Fortunately, that path opens just in the nick of time.

Then the young Sioux

Loomed beside me, his scars

Were just my age.

Ain’t got no bus here

A long time, he said.

You got enough money

To get home on?

A new acquaintance comes along right when the narrator needs him most. Not only does the Sioux offer a conversation to the hurting young man, but he even goes as far as to offer help. Immediately the Sioux offers the narrator some advice and hints at the gift of bus fare. It is also important to note that the Sioux has noticeable scars on his body.  These will tie into the next section. Have just been offered money, the narrator responds by saying:

What did they do

To your hand? I answered.

He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight

And slashed the wind.

Oh, that? he said.

I had a bad time with a woman.

The narrator’s response to the offer of money is hardly appropriate. However, it is significant because it draws attention to the title object of this poem, the hook. Wright is trying to get the reader to focus in on the significance of the hook: of the Sioux’s scars from his own hardships. The Sioux even goes on to say that he got his wound from the same sort of thing that the narrator experience, only his burden was now physical. But what is the most significant part of this portion of the poem, I would argue at least, is the in the action that the Sioux makes. He slashes the wind. The wind: that which has been plaguing him! Having born his scars for a long time, the Sioux’s action shows that he has figured out how to conquer his struggles; conquer his own “wind.” I love these lines, “He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight and slashed the wind.” So powerful. So rejuvenating. Is this not what Wright was speaking about when he wrote about “singing?” The Sioux has discover his song and, for it, he is singing it to another. The narrator’s response is so genuine that it is hardly forgettable.

The Sioux offers the bus fare, again:

Here, you take this.

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.

The narrator is astonished by the selfless and confident nature of the Sioux. The poem makes it out to be as if he is left completely without words. In the second to last line it becomes clear that it wasn’t the money that was needed to board the bus to freedom; but rather, it was an acquisition of enlightenment. The narrator needed to open up himself to the truth that healing can be found, and that, in this case, its price was the act of surrendering to someone who could show him the way: a savior. Just from a few words and a small depiction of his personal nature, the Sioux was able to instill hope and courage inside the wind stricken young man; to be the first one to help take off the harness that was binding the narrator’s wings. This is a great example of the power of fruitful community, but I would also argue that this is a great example of what it looks like to be a true savior.

In many ways, the Sioux makes for a perfect parallel of Christ. The Sioux, having conquered extreme hardships, has the heart to share that his desirable freedom with others. At his own expense, he worked to bring others into the light that he was standing in. Knowing and understanding the emphasis of Christ’s similar role makes this poem far more personal than every other poem by Wright that I’ve read. Having experienced Christ’s love and sacrifice in my own life through a relationship with Him, I can understand the surreal response that the narrator must have been feeling after his interactions with the Sioux.

Now, I don’t want to take away to the value of community with normal people. Relationships with others can have all of the profound effects that I spoke about before. They are wonderful and life changing. However, Ricky, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that having a relationship with Christ is far more exhilarating than any traditional relationship. I love the way that Wright depicts this experience. Brokenness to redemption. It is the most wonderful thing that I have ever come across, and I highly doubt anything will ever again come close. The day that I surrendered myself to Christ, let Him take the harness that had been restraining my restless wings, was the best day of my life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my experiences with Wright and this course in general. Having journeyed with me through it, and through so many other parts of life, I think that it is the only fair way to end this letter.

This course and the exploration of James Wright’s life have taught me more than I ever thought it could. I still remember walking in on the first day of class and feeling absurdly hesitant about what this semester would bring. Having only taken highly structured and uptight literature courses for years, this class, and the things that I’d be pursuing in it, scared me a bit. I was out of my comfort zone. But as I settled in, the initial fear dissipated. I began to realize that, although this poetry course seemed a world apart from all of the other English courses I’d experienced, that it has a remarkable beauty that none of the other courses I’d taken offered. It has shown me a free and wonderful side of literature that has been almost impossible to see in other settings. This course provided me with a place to be passionate; allowing me freedom to incorporate and discuss my personal values into discussion and analysis; something that seemed shunned in all of my other classroom environments.

Ricky, I know that you’re a much more free-spirited individual than I am. But I’d encourage you to always take steps out of your comfort zone from time to time; for if you do, you are bound to come across something beautiful. Sometimes greatness waits just beyond the mysterious door that we never choose to journey through. This course has certainly been a journey for me. Everything from discussing and analyzing poetry, to sharing my heart in a classroom setting, and, of course, to exploring just a few of the great depths of James Wright’s life has been monumental in my march through the literary world.

If there is anything in your life that you haven’t gotten around to, or anything that you have maybe been hesitant to explore, I’d encourage you to take this opportunity and give it a shot. You only live once, and this lifetime has more joys to be found than one man can ever experience.

At the same time, however, I’d remind you of one of my favorite Bible verses. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The reason I bring this up, is because I don’t want you to take my challenge too far. Be bold, be risky (I bet you never thought you’d hear me say that), take great strides with your life, but never veer from the path that you know you are called to follow. As this verse reminds all who read it, never forget about your heart and what will cater to its well being.

You are a true friend, and a true brother. Thank you for journeying with me as I’ve journeyed through this ominous literary forest of new beginnings. Thank you for being a great friend for me since day one. Thank you for just being you!

I treasure you dearly.

Forever your brother,

Mi

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Mike Judge writes to his friend Ricky about James Wright’s poems.  Mike offers a very personal interpretation of Wright’s “First Days.”  –TW

 

Dear Ricky,

I’m very excited to write to you today! On this special occasion, I’m going to be discussing in detail one of James Wright’s poems that I very briefly mentioned to you in my last letter. I have come to realize that the poem, First Days, really holds a lot of value to me. Perhaps, after I have shared my thoughts, then you will understand the reason behind the depths of my infatuation.

One of the greatest reasons as to why I treasure this poem as much as I do is because I can see a lot of connections between this poem and the fall of man from the Bible (the actions that took place in the Garden of Eden). Even if one were to look at the poem’s title alone, they would discover the theme of the creation the world. “The First Days” is an easy parallel to the beginning of mankind.

Within this poem, the narrator plays the voice of God and the bee is the representative of humanity. As I know that you are well read on this topic, perhaps you can look out for them as well.

The First Days

The first thing I saw in the morning

Was a huge golden bee ploughing

His burly right shoulder into the belly

Of a sleek yellow pear

Low on a bough.

Before he could find that sudden black honey

That squirms in there

Inside the seed…

Already, in this poem, we can see this idea that it is the beginning of time being played out. This is exhibited through the first line of the poem, “The first thing I saw in the morning” (keep in mind that this is God speaking so that the poem makes sense). Then, God goes on to explain that he had found a “golden bee ploughing” into the center of a pear in pursuit of the “black honey that squirms around in there.” As I’ve emphasized, Wright is careful illustrate the current state of the bee: “golden” and pure. The bee is not yet tainted, but it is growing awfully close. Once it has reached the “black honey” that he is after, he will be truly golden no more. It is interesting to note the commonalities in the object of fruit being that which led to both the fall of man and to the fall of the bee; for, in the next line, the bee will quite literally plummet.

…the tree could not bear any more.

The pear fell to the ground,

With the bee still half alive

Inside its body.

The bee has fallen. His pursuit of “black honey” has led it to a broken state, as noted in the line, “The pear fell to the ground, / With the bee still half alive / inside its body.” This is exactly like man’s fall. Before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were fully alive in their same exact bodies. However, once they had sinned they were left fractured, without the direct community with God that they had previously had. Sin entered the world, although their physical bodies stayed the same.

Wright goes on to explain God’s grace in the next portion of the poem. He writes:

He would have died if I hadn’t knelt down

And sliced the pear gently

A little more open.

As we can see, both the narrator and God are gracious enough to give the fallen creatures another chance. Both the bee and mankind did not deserve a second chance; each of them selfishly pursued their own desires rather than their superiors. Even so, the fallen still receive the gift of another chance to live. How wonderful it is to have been given such an opportunity!

The poem continues with:

The bee shuddered, and returned.

Maybe I should have left him alone there,

Drowning in his own delight.

Here we see the bee’s response. It acknowledges its mistake and returns to its everyday life as a changed be. This passage also comments on an alternative path that the narrator or God could have taken. He could have left us there alone to die; trapped in the prisons that we placed ourselves in. Like before, this exhibits God’s grace for us even through our errors. Without God coming along and freeing us we would still be as the bee, “drowning in” our “own delight:” each of the selfish things that we humans get involved in.

Wright tastefully concluded his poem with a reflection on the poem’s title and a thought on the bee’s future.

The best days are the first

To flee, sang the lovely

Musician born in this town

So like my own.

I let the bee go

Among the gasworks at the edge of Mantua.

Again, “The best days are the first to flee,” is an unfortunate truth that Wright comments on. We then see him transition into the bee’s future. The bee, a fallen creature, is left to live amongst the obstacle-natured “gasworks.” Similarly, we, broken humans, are left to live within a “half alive” world. These gasworks are Wrights choice way of explaining the struggle that both the bee and humanity must face since each of their respective falls.

I have a question for you to ask yourself. What would have happened if the bee had chosen to return to his fruit instead? Or, what would have happened if the bee would have resisted the narrator in the first place? What would its life be like now? These are questions that are helpful to think about, and questions that I want to discuss with you in my next letter that will be arriving sometime in the near future.

I wish you well, Ricky. I hope that your studies keep on going well, and that your time spent reading this letter was enjoyable.

Take care, my friend!

Sincerely,

Mike

October 17, 2010

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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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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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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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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

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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

September 5, 2010

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Caitlin Griscom responds to her mother’s letter and delves into the subject of James Wright’s letters.  Caitlin speculates on what purposes letter writing served for Wright:

Given their confessional quality, I think the letters certainly served a cathartic purpose for Wright, much like a diary might, but they also demonstrate how passionate Wright was for his art. It is clear from his letters that he had what could only be described as a thirst for knowledge; whenever he read a work by an author, he sought out not only other works by that author, but also works about the one which he had just read.  As a self-proclaimed English nerd, I can relate to this passion for the written word.

Dear Mom,

Thank you again for the letter you sent. As I said, I feel a little disloyal to the art of letter writing for calling you immediately after receiving it rather than waiting to thank you in this letter, but alas, we live in a world of instant gratification.

As I mentioned briefly in the last letter, James Wright wrote a multitude of letters throughout his lifetime to family members, friends, and colleagues. Wright’s correspondence will be the focus of this letter. Though it would be incredibly reductive to attempt to discuss all of Wright’s letters in a two-page letter of my own (and I feel that I am betraying Wright for attempting to do so), I would like to give you an idea of the content and form of his letters. Specifically, I would like to express to you how honest these letters are and what purpose they served both to Wright and to his readers, past and present. Given their confessional quality, I think the letters certainly served a cathartic purpose for Wright, much like a diary might, but they also demonstrate how passionate Wright was for his art. It is clear from his letters that he had what could only be described as a thirst for knowledge; whenever he read a work by an author, he sought out not only other works by that author, but also works about the one which he had just read.  As a self-proclaimed English nerd, I can relate to this passion for the written word. I think the past few years at BGSU have cultivated the desire in me to read whatever I can get my hands on, much like James Wright devoured poetry.

What is so touching about Wright’s letters is his complete, and even vulnerable, honesty. He wrote very affectionate notes to his sons, revealed struggles with his mental health and alcoholism, and unapologetically asked other writers for their opinions on his work. He actually cultivated several relationships this way. In an early letter to his friend and colleague Robert Bly, he asked bluntly if Bly minded if he wrote “as often and as long as the spirit” moved him, saying he was aware that it was an imposition. We have talked in class about how Wright’s letters exude a kind of social awkwardness—most noticeably in the earlier letters. As he continued to write, the letters lost some of their awkwardness but never their honesty. As a letter writer myself (if my summer letter writing merits that title) I can understand the confessional quality of letters. Writing a letter it, to me, is more like writing in a private journal than it is like writing an email or talking on the telephone. This is due in part to the physical act of writing, because it gives me the opportunity to articulate my thoughts through my hand rather than voicing whatever comes to mind, but it is also due I think to the purging of thoughts onto the page and the ability to fold up those thoughts neatly into an envelope for one other set of eyes to read.

Like Wright did to his many recipients, I have imposed my letter writing onto you. Though I wavered slightly between family members, people I’ve lost connection with, and old teachers as potential recipients, I think I knew you were the only one who I could write so openly to, and who would appreciate the letter’s literal and confessional weight. I am approaching this letter differently than the last. Though keeping in mind this is an assignment, I am attempting to overlook the page requirement or its affect on my grade, and instead write a letter to my mom about the letters of James Wright. Because of this approach, the letter may not be as organized or scholarly as it could be, but I hope that it will make up for that in thoughtfulness.

Although I would not consider myself a writer, I have in the past found solace in writing, and nearly always through a journal or diary. I give Wright credit because he shared many thoughts with his correspondents that I would be too afraid to; although I am glad he had the courage to do so because it shows how talented he was in spite of (or perhaps because of) his imperfections, as well as how genuine he was. At times he presents his circumstances shamelessly, such as when he sent a letter to Robert Bly despite its “tone of nervous instability.” He wrote that in looking over the previous pages, “I see how hysterical and profane I’ve been—and of course I have absolutely no right to send you this letter” but Wright sent the letter in the hopes that its tone would convey more to Bly than its content alone might. In the same letter he goes on to talk openly about his depression, something which makes me feel a sense of pride and reverence for his honesty. His ability to refer to a stigmatized disease makes me want to reclaim the word, myself. In other letters, Wright expressed himself more self-consciously, like when he asked an advisor not to laugh at his “melodramatic tone” because “These are the terms in which my life presents itself to me all the time.” It is clear that Wright was conscious of his emotional struggles in nearly all of his letters. Whether he felt like revealing these struggles or not likely depended on his relationship with the recipient and the circumstances in which the letters were sent; although if my experience is anything like Wright’s, I am sure there were times when it made no difference how desperate a letter sounded just as long as someone was there to read it.

I alluded previously to Wright’s letters to his sons, in particular. I think these letters are the ones that give the clearest indications of Wright’s character. As I said, despite the distances brought on by age and locale, Wright was able to maintain an intimate relationship with both Franz and Marshall. Something I found quite endearing in these letters is their adaptation to his sons’ ages and comprehensive abilities. The first letters, sent when the sons were young, are tailored for a little boy’s eyes. As the boys aged, Wright crafted his letters for a more mature audience.

Franz (who later became a poet) is Wright’s oldest son. Franz received one of his first letters from Wright when he was about eleven years old. At this point, Wright was still married to Franz’s and Marshall’s mother, Liberty. Wright was away from his family in St. Paul and described to Franz the events of the day while including references that surely had sentimental value for the boy. In later letters, Wright could be more forthcoming to his sons, but the letters never lost their intimate tone. Regardless of the boys’ ages, Wright was sure to include how much he loved them and what they meant to him.

As this letter has again been perhaps something of a downer, I would like to leave you with a particularly touching excerpt from one of Wright’s letters to his younger son, Marshall. He sent the letter for Marshall’s sixth birthday and included a poem he wrote for the occasion. I hope what I have included makes sense by itself. I will leave you to make your own thoughts about Wright’s words, but I wonder if you would agree that he was perhaps writing them as much for himself as he was for his son. The letter reads:

A good poem is a poem that says “I love you.”

A saint is a person who (really) loves everybody he knows, whether he gets paid for it or not.

A great saint from India, named Shree Ramakrishna, got sick when somebody called him a saint.

All that means is that a saint is more interested in other people than he is in himself.

Ramakrishna said that we should love one another whether we are good or not. Then, we will all

be good. If you love somebody, your love makes him good.

I know perfectly well that you are a good boy, because I know I love you. If I know anything on

this earth, I know I love you.

I know you love your momma, and your brother Franz, and me.

That is why I feel so good. Thank you, my dear, dear Marsh. Happy Birthday.

Talk to you soon,

Love,

c

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Joan Fraser, Caitlin Griscom’s mother, responds to Caitlin’s letter.  Excited to receive Caitlin’s letter on  frigid Ohio night, Joan shares with her daughter her own love of literature and more.  She reveals what she sees as the writer’s purpose:

They [writers]  allow us to find ourselves through their work, feel less alone in the universe, or take a trip to another time or place.

Dearest Caitlin,

I arrived home later than usually tonight.  I bundled up against the frigid weather as I ran from my car to the mailbox (sometimes referred to as a post box).  And there, with perfect penmanship, I found a letter addressed to me with a BGSU return address.  As it didn’t have official university logos on it, I felt pretty confident it wasn’t a letter of discipline regarding my daughter.  No indeed…it was an informative and yet personally revealing letter from my dearest daughter.

I read the letter and then began reflecting on its content.  I am once again reminded of the similarities between us (some I have never even shared).  I decided to begin a letter in response in hopes of completing and mailing it tonight as I will be traveling by plane tomorrow and you never know….It’s not the falling from the sky that worries me, it’s the landing after the fall.

So the computer lights up…check the email…read the news headline that pops up…stopped.  JD Salinger died.  I became lost in the story…remembering his written words…odd how I just mailed a copy of Cater In the Rye to my stepson in college two days ago.  Literature…great literature.  The love of reading…oh yes, my daughter Caitlin.

You mentioned so many things in your letter.  In regard to Wright’s struggle with depression, Uncle Dallas and I questioned if being artistic and insightful made one mentally ill or did mental illness help with the creativity (this was when we were young, younger than you are now).  I recently completed the book Touched By Fire in which Kay Jamison (An Unquiet Mind) talks about madness and the creative impulse.  What a gift that comes from tragic internal struggles.

Wright is a perfect example of self-medicating his mental illness.  Alcohol is the most commonly used substance for self-medicating..for literary geniuses, the business man or the elementary school teacher.  You are related to some self medicators (please note: none are in you immediately family). 

You wrote of Wright’s ability to channel “his feelings into his poetry.”  I think that is true of so many writers.  I feel that often the reader enjoys a work because the writer either has touched upon something that strikes a familiar chord with the reader or the writer has written in a way that one is able to escape the difficulties of life, even if only for one reading of a poem or novel.  Writers write for themselves be it cathartic, egotistical, or for money.  But, good writers (as decided by individual readers) have the ability to give a gift to so many.  They allow us to find ourselves through their work, feel less alone in the universe, or take a trip to another time or place.

The most enjoyable thing for me in reading your letter is the reminder of how much you love to read.  As you know, Grandma Em encouraged her children to read.  I remember staying up all night reading (Really, all night.  You know, those books that are just too great to put down.  You have to remember to lift your head away from the book every once in a while as your vision becomes blurry and you feel you can’t readjust it…good times).  Our home videos demonstrate how important I feel that reading is…Picture in my head: my daughter sucking her fingers as we’re reading I Went Walking? And hearing you say with your special voice “What did you see?”

So..tomorrow I will get on the plane and have a sense of relief knowing that this letter will make its way to you regardless of the earth’s gravitational pull and it’s desire to have me sent hurdling to the ground.  I will think of you often during my trip.  As I pick-up my book to read on the plane, plug in my Ipod and hear a song that reminds me of you, or even as I take a side trip to Fort Meyers and go to Strandview and have memories of you as my Maid of Honor.  I love you.  I love the gifts that you share with me and with others.  I love that you enjoy reading.  And..I love reading what you write.

With the largest hug,

Mom

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Caitlin Griscom, from Reynoldsburg, Ohio seeks connections between herself and James Wright in the following letter to her mother.  At the same time, Caitlin begins an incredible journey through letters, a journey which helps mother and daughter to bond in unforeseen ways. 

I think my recent experiences help me relate to someone who, on the surface, I would appear to share very few similarities with.

Dear Mom,

 … I find it interesting that I was debating whether or not even to take the class because in reading Wright’s letters and biography, I’ve found that he too experienced emotional struggles throughout his life. I think my recent experiences help me relate to someone who, on the surface, I would appear to share very few similarities with.

Wright was born in 1927 in Martins Ferry, Ohio, which incidentally is only two hours East from where we live (less than the distance it takes me to drive to Bowling Green). He had an older, adopted sister named Marge, an older brother named Ted, and a younger brother named Jack. Though I could go into all the specifics of his childhood, including his schooling, hobbies, and whether he preferred his ice cubes crushed or cubed, I think it is more interesting to focus on what motivated him to pursue writing and what provided the inspiration for his poems. Of course this will demand the inclusion of major life events such as his marriages, children, and career.

Wright first encountered poetry at the age of twelve through Byron. I think this fact calls for a quick rewind into my own childhood when I discovered books just as soon as I could read. Wright’s discovery catalyzed a successful career in writing, while mine has led me to study his works. I wonder if Wright’s mother took away books from him when he talked back…

In any case, his appreciation for established poets led Wright to create his own poetry.  Between his discovery of poetry and when he began to write his own (with the intent of publishing), Wright suffered through the death of his maternal grandmother. This caused extreme distress for Wright and actually led to his first nervous breakdown. I’m not sure if I could call last semester a nervous breakdown, but nevertheless I feel as though I can empathize with Wright on some level. He persevered through his emotional struggles and returned to high school with the intention of graduating and advancing to college. Between high school and college he enlisted in the Army.  After graduating from Kenyon College he married his first wife, Liberty Kardules. With Liberty, Wright had two sons, Franz and Marshall. His children were frequent recipients of Wright’s letters. I will go into more detail later on regarding these letters, but in reading the ones to his sons it seems as though the letters allowed Wright to express himself more honestly than he would have been able to verbally. The letters were a way for Wright to maintain intimacy with his sons as they grew into adults, rather than allowing for a separation due to age and distance to take place.

Based on Wright’s own accounts, it seems as though his personal stresses put a strain on his marriage with Liberty. In fact, it seems as though Liberty too suffered emotional hardships, as he described her in one instance as having a nervous collapse that called for a series of electric shock treatments. Perhaps the tragic flaw of their marriage was the fact that both partners suffered these episodes. In any case, the marriage ended officially in 1962, ten years after it had begun. At this time, Wright’s and Kardules’ sons were 9 and 4. Wright found love again in 1966 after becoming an English professor at Hunter College. Wright married Anne Runk a year later, and the two were together until Wright’s death in 1980.

Throughout his life, Wright fought constant battles with himself; he struggled often with the notion of suicide. It is clear from Wright’s letters that he had some manifestation of depression, but his turning to drink as self-medication most probably did more harm to his health than good. I think that people who haven’t experienced depression aren’t able to understand how debilitating it can be and so they may be inclined to look down on Wright for his “weakness” in reverting to drink. Because I have depression, I feel like I can better understand the desperation which drove Wright to seek any possible relief from his pain, no matter how self-destructive the one he turned to may be. Very fortunately for himself, his family, and his work, Wright resisted the urges he had to end his life and instead channeled his feelings into his poetry and into countless letters to friends, family, and colleagues. These letters were certainly a source of catharsis for Wright. Not only did they succeed in building strong relationships with others, but they also no doubt influenced Wright’s poetry. He often wrote letters to other writers he admired, asking for their advice and suggestions.

Wright remained active with his poetry until the end of his life, when he passed away at the age of 53 from cancer of the tongue. Though this is clearly too soon for anyone to die, let alone a man who still had so much to express, it is evident from Wright’s later poetry that he died with a sense of contentedness and hopefulness that he had not previously been able to reach.

Though Wright’s poetry is without question inspirational from a writer’s standpoint, I like to think that his hopefulness and refusal to give in to the tempting option of suicide is what makes Wright an inspirational man.

See you soon,

Love,

Caitlin

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In this letter, Mike Judge works out a very personal interpretation of one of James Wright’s poems.  Mike’s excitement invites us to a close reading of the poem and reminds of how deeply pleasurable reading poetry can be:

First Days, really holds a lot of value to me. Perhaps, after I have shared my thoughts, then you will understand the reason behind the depths of my infatuation.

Dear Ricky,

I’m very excited to write to you today! On this special occasion, I’m going to be discussing in detail one of James Wright’s poems that I very briefly mentioned to you in my last letter. I have come to realize that the poem, First Days, really holds a lot of value to me. Perhaps, after I have shared my thoughts, then you will understand the reason behind the depths of my infatuation.

One of the greatest reasons as to why I treasure this poem as much as I do is because I can see a lot of connections between this poem and the fall of man from the Bible (the actions that took place in the Garden of Eden). Even if one were to look at the poem’s title alone, they would discover the theme of the creation the world. “The First Days” is an easy parallel to the beginning of mankind.

Within this poem, the narrator plays the voice of God and the bee is the representative of humanity. As I know that you are well read on this topic, perhaps you can look out for them as well.

The First Days

The first thing I saw in the morning

Was a huge golden bee ploughing

His burly right shoulder into the belly

Of a sleek yellow pear

Low on a bough.

Before he could find that sudden black honey

That squirms in there

Inside the seed…

Already, in this poem, we can see this idea that it is the beginning of time being played out. This is exhibited through the first line of the poem, “The first thing I saw in the morning” (keep in mind that this is God speaking so that the poem makes sense). Then, God goes on to explain that he had found a “golden bee ploughing” into the center of a pear in pursuit of the “black honey that squirms around in there.” As I’ve emphasized, Wright is careful illustrate the current state of the bee: “golden” and pure. The bee is not yet tainted, but it is growing awfully close. Once it has reached the “black honey” that he is after, he will be truly golden no more. It is interesting to note the commonalities in the object of fruit being that which led to both the fall of man and to the fall of the bee; for, in the next line, the bee will quite literally plummet.

…the tree could not bear any more.

The pear fell to the ground,

With the bee still half alive

Inside its body.

The bee has fallen. His pursuit of “black honey” has led it to a broken state, as noted in the line, “The pear fell to the ground, / With the bee still half alive / inside its body.” This is exactly like man’s fall. Before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were fully alive in their same exact bodies. However, once they had sinned they were left fractured, without the direct community with God that they had previously had. Sin entered the world, although their physical bodies stayed the same.

Wright goes on to explain God’s grace in the next portion of the poem. He writes:

He would have died if I hadn’t knelt down

And sliced the pear gently

A little more open.

As we can see, both the narrator and God are gracious enough to give the fallen creatures another chance. Both the bee and mankind did not deserve a second chance; each of them selfishly pursued their own desires rather than their superiors. Even so, the fallen still receive the gift of another chance to live. How wonderful it is to have been given such an opportunity!

The poem continues with:

The bee shuddered, and returned.

Maybe I should have left him alone there,

Drowning in his own delight.

Here we see the bee’s response. It acknowledges its mistake and returns to its everyday life as a changed bee. This passage also comments on an alternative path that the narrator or God could have taken. He could have left us there alone to die; trapped in the prisons that we placed ourselves in. Like before, this exhibits God’s grace for us even through our errors. Without God coming along and freeing us we would still be as the bee, “drowning in” our “own delight:” each of the selfish things that we humans get involved in.

Wright tastefully concluded his poem with a reflection on the poem’s title and a thought on the bee’s future.

The best days are the first

To flee, sang the lovely

Musician born in this town

So like my own.

I let the bee go

Among the gasworks at the edge of Mantua.

Again, “The best days are the first to flee,” is an unfortunate truth that Wright comments on. We then see him transition into the bee’s future. The bee, a fallen creature, is left to live amongst the obstacle-natured “gasworks.” Similarly, we, broken humans, are left to live within a “half alive” world. These gasworks are Wrights choice way of explaining the struggle that both the bee and humanity must face since each of their respective falls.

I have a question for you to ask yourself. What would have happened if the bee had chosen to return to his fruit instead? Or, what would have happened if the bee would have resisted the narrator in the first place? What would its life be like now? These are questions that are helpful to think about, and questions that I want to discuss with you in my next letter that will be arriving sometime in the near future.

I wish you well, Ricky. I hope that your studies keep on going well, and that your time spent reading this letter was enjoyable.

Take care, my friend!

Sincerely,

Mike

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Mike Judge writes to Ricky of James Wright and the deep image poem.  His excitement about learning to enter poetry is very evident in this letter:

This line makes me envision a community of people searching for someone or something that is lost. Such imagery rekindles a sense of yearning and anxiousness inside of me.

Dear Ricky,

The time has come, once again, for me to write to you further on the highly interesting James Wright. I truly hope that you have been enjoying the letters that I’ve sent to you thus far. As you know, literature is one of my greatest passions and this is such an enjoyable way to discuss it!

Today, I want to write to you about James Wright’s poetry. Before this class, I had not read very much poetry at all; and even having read the few poems that we have been able to analyze and discuss in class, I can promise you that I have come to regret my previous inexperience with this wonderful style of art. I have learned that good poetry holds much more that pretty words and artistic meter; it takes wonderful ideas and emotions and weaves them together into a great tapestry of mind-rattling depth. Throughout this course alone I have found a number of such tapestries, and the author of many of them is James Wright.

Later on in his career, James Wright began to write deep image poetry. In this style the writer tries to communicate his or her meanings or messages through images rather than abstract phrasing. When done successfully, the images evoke strong emotions that the reader may have associated to the images or even new ones that the reader hasn’t experienced before. To be honest, at first I wasn’t too fond of this approach of poetry. But, like coffee, it has grown quite a bit on me. My favorite example of this is in Wright’s poem, Hook. However, I don’t want to give too much away, as I will be writing you a separate letter on that poem specifically in the near future. So instead, I’ll explain this to you through another one of Wright’s poems, Rain.

Rain is a dark poem about misfortune. It is a wonderful example of deep image poetry because throughout the entire poem, there is only one line of that does not solely serve as an image (but even that line does if you choose to look at it in a certain perspective). Here it is:

Rain

It is the sinking of things.

Flashlights drift over dark trees,

Girls kneel,

An owl’s eyelids fall.

The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley

Of strange rocks.

I like to view each line as its own scene in a movie. Every time that I progress to the line below, I see a very new and distinctive shot filled with emotion. The first line sets the stage for the rest of the poem. Rather than saying, “It is misfortune,” Wright carefully chooses to say “It is the sinking of things.” Instead of just acknowledging a fall through normal words, Wright empowers readers to be able picture someone or something sinking that they have a personal connection with. This personalization is what makes deep image poetry so moving: it brings past experiences to the forefront of one’s mind.

From there, Wright continues with his image driven lines. He first writes, “Flashlights drift over dark trees.” This line makes me envision a community of people searching for someone or something that is lost. Such imagery rekindles a sense of yearning and anxiousness inside of me. It makes me think about moments that I’ve lost things and had to search through figuratively dark places to find them. What a powerful tool, this deep image poetry is! The rest of the poem follows suit, I just wanted to include an example so that you can understand how profound it really is. Perhaps you can try reading the poem again and reflecting on the emotions and associations that you may have with each of the lines. I think you would find it valuable and potentially enlightening.

Wright wrote on many other topics, as well. One of his more re-occurring topics is that of hardship. Like in the poem Rain, James Wright regularly writes to explain various forms of troubles that people face. Wright is certainly qualified to do this, as he had a rough upbringing and was an alcoholic for a decent amount of his life. One of my favorite illustrations of hardship that Wright presents to his readers is in his poem, The First Days.

This poem discusses an individual who stumbles across a “…huge golden bee ploughing / His burly right shoulder into the belly / Of a sleek yellow pear / Low on a bough.” The individual watches as the bee writhes his way through the pear trying to find the “sudden black honey” that resides within the center of the fruit. With all of the force combined with the added weight of the bee, the pear crashes to ground. The bee almost dies because of his pursuit, but the observing individual cuts the pear open and lets the bee go free because it was almost dead and trapped inside of the fruit. After freeing the bee, the individual reflects, “Maybe I should have left him alone there, / Drowning in his own delight.” What a powerful line! How often do we pursue our very own forms of “black honey?” In other words, how often do we pursue things that ultimately bring us down, sometimes to the brink of destruction? All of the time. It is a curse; and worse, it is a curse that we bring upon ourselves.

I have come to realize that the poems that I have chosen to illustrate Wright are not of the most cheerful variety. However, their applicability to any person’s lives, as well as the fact that they are personally impacting drew me to them. I hope that you won’t assume that all of his poems are of his nature, for they certainly are not.

Sadly, I must cut my letter off here for now. I very much value you as a friend, and would encourage you to check out some more of his work. Should you desire to, I do have a small collection of some of his poetry that I could easily lend to you.

Take care, brother,

Mike

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In his second letter to his friend Ricky, Mike Judge writes  about James Wright’s letters.  Here, Mike explores Wright’s desire to be a “life giver” : 

With the goal of pulling from your own “song,” you can hit the highest marks in life. Not only that, but you can inspire others to do the same.

Dear Ricky,

I hope everything has been going well! It’s been some time since we last spoke! Life for me has been pretty well, although school and work are always heavy burdens to bear. I imagine you are as ready for the approaching Spring Break as I am. Anyways, the reason that I’m writing you, on this occasion, is to discuss with you some of James Wright’s letters. You see, there is a very interesting and enlightening story that I have pieced together throughout Wright’s letters which I would like to share with you. I’ve done my best to give you a brief overview of the relevant information that leads up to the point of my letter. It may not make complete sense until the end, but I would encourage you to stick with me until we arrive at that place of revelation.

Throughout James Wright’s lifetime, he wrote countless letters to his friends, family, and acquaintances. These letters serve as a window into the man’s rather intriguing life. Wright loved to write. He did it every day, and it was easily one of his favorite activities. With such compassion for his work, he eventually published a number of poetry books. After the publishing of one such book, Wright received a rather unfavorable review from a literary critic, James Dickey. In response to his bad review, Wright wrote a very angry letter to Dickey. One especially notable excerpt from this letter is when Wright is criticizing Dickeys approach to his review. Wright writes:

Sometimes a man tries to write poems and fails. I think the critic has fulfilled his responsibility when he says so and explains what he means. Sometimes good critics explain the standard by which they judge (I said explain, not merely state), and sometimes they go so far as to admit that there may possibly be, somewhere in the universe and in human history, standards different from their own. But if the versifier (like myself, as you well know) fails to achieve a poem, I don’t see why the critic has to kick him in the balls.

As you can see, James Wright is furious about this review. It has struck a chord so deep inside of him that he is riled with anger. But we don’t get to understand this anger until Wright’s next letter to Dickey.

Once Dickey has received this hateful letter, he responds with a justly angry letter of his own. This letter basically calls Wright out on all of his shortcomings to the point where Wright begins to actually consider the fact that he is not a good writer. In fact he even admits it to Dickey. He confesses, “You (Dickey-in his review) simply said that I was not a poet. This remark of yours only confirmed what-obviously enough-is a central fear of mine, and which I have been deeply struggling to face for some time.” This is where Wright admits his shortcomings and explains the furious tone in his previous letter, but he then goes on to explain this struggle’s history. Wright reflects that, as soon as his book was published, he “looked into it and knew at once that it contained merely competence, and that competence alone is death.” Wow, what profound words! Such an expression implies that Wright’s standards were well below the level of excellence because he was ok with taking the easy way out and not shooting for the winning mark, just the passing one. Now we can see that Wright was not quite the literary master that he had made himself out to be at that time of his life. He had been enslaved to mediocrity, with “competence” as his goal.

In a separate letter to Wright’s friend, Donald Hall, Wright reflects on his experience with Dickey’s response letter by saying, “I read his letter, and realized finally that my own message had been written to myself, to that part of myself which had betrayed poetry by complacency.” This is Wright’s way of saying that he had disgraced the world of poetry by contributing with uninspired work that was just good enough to scrape by. At this point in his life, Wright cared more about pleasing the literary field with passable work, than with creating masterpieces bred from deep within his soul. His work was shallow, and it was fueled on fumes rather than raw energy.

But things changed. Wright discovered a truth that set him free from the bondage of mediocrity. This is what I want you to see, Ricky. It’s a beautiful truth that has power to inspire and challenge a man to reach above the level of competence.

Much later in Wright’s lifetime and career, he wrote a letter in response to an educator name Laurence Green who had asked him, “What inspires you to write poetry?” Wright gave a truly amazing response. Not only is it amazing, but it is also quite different from the response that he would have given before Dickey’s original book review. Wright responds by explaining that deep inside of every individual, there is a deep and profound “song” that represents each person’s individual spirit and inspiration. Here is the core of his response, “Everybody surely hears some kind of song inside of himself. How amazing if he could only be brave enough to sing it out loud. If he does, often he gets back from other people something like an echo-an echo changed and transfigured by the secret songs of the very people who have heard him sing in the first place.” What Wright poses here is that true work and true life are fueled by the heart and soul of an individual. Through his early years, James Wright was fueled by the goal of achieving competence. He was pulling from an alternate source that, while it was easy to tap into, ultimately yielded “death.”

I would propose to you that James Wright’s great success that occurred later in life came from this revelation. With the goal of pulling from your own “song,” you can hit the highest marks in life. Not only that, but you can inspire others to do the same. In Wright’s words, “If he does, often he gets back from other people something like an echo…changed and transfigured by the secret songs of the very people who have heard him sing…” Ricky, this is what being a ‘life-giver’ is all about. When we don’t hold back and distort our own songs, our songs resonate and inspire others to sing as well. We should use our deepest passions and our greatest inspirations to fuel our pursuit for God and life. It’s so easy to get caught up onto the easy path as Wright did early on in his life, but I believe that it is possible to hold true to the songs buried inside each of our souls. Every time we deny competence, we grow stronger as men and become more capable of reaching our greatest dreams.

Well that’s all that I had to share with you this time. I hope that you have enjoyed these snapshots of James Wright’s life as much as I have. Take care, my brother. Sincerely,

Mike

April 4, 2010

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In his first letter about James Wright to his friend, Ricky, Mike Judge  addresses James Wright’s “strong and unyielding passion for writing and reading literature.”  Mike also writes of Wright,  “It becomes very clear in his work that it was his fuel. It was what got him through wonderful days, and even through days of great trial.”   –TW

January 25, 2010

Dear Ricky,

 Hello again, brother! I’m so excited to be sharing my thoughts with you on this fine day. Today marks the embarking of a personal exploration of an old, yet new, form of communication. Yes, this is the first time that I have ever written a personal letter to anyone aside from a thank you note, and I’m glad that you get to be my recipient. As I explained to you briefly in person, throughout this semester I will be getting to write a series of letters in response to a remarkable man by the name of James Wright. In future letters I will be reflecting on his highly artistic letters and poems. However, today I simply wish to discuss his life with you. Through reading some of his work, as well as the foreword and preface of his combinative book of his personal letters to friends and acquaintances, A Wild Perfection, and engaging in class discussion, I have acquired a medley of intriguing information on the man and the path of life that he chose to follow. He has proven to be an abstract and rare breed of man, but it is for these qualities that he steals so much admiration from my heart.

 Without a doubt, what strikes me most about James Wright is that he had such a strong and unyielding passion for writing and reading literature. It becomes very clear in his work that it was his fuel. It was what got him through wonderful days, and even through days of great trial. Included in A Wild Perfection is a letter that James wrote to his mother as a teenager in the military. From it, the reader can see hints of Wright’s love for letters even as a youth. He writes, “My mail is beginning to seep through a little, but I could use more. You must understand how much even one flimsy letter means…” Here, Wright writes that even though he is getting a steady stream of letters, his hunger for them is not satisfied. As I said before, letters (along with literature in general) are his fuel. In a large number of his early letters he urges his friends and family to write more regularly. Letters are what got him through the days. They were his connections to the outside world, and a place for him to lay out his constant flow of philosophical ideas. Literature was easily one of the greatest treasures of his life, and what a beautiful treasure it is to have. 

 I truly respect Wright’s passion for giving back to others as well. His wife, Anne, talks about how he would, for hours at a time, give feedback to all sorts of aspiring poets regarding their poems in progress. As an acclaimed poet, it would be easy for Wright to neglect his fans in this manner. Sure, reading fan mail isn’t too bad, but spending the countless hours that it would take to respond to all of his fans’ poems that they wanted to be proofread is a much larger task. Such selflessness is to be admired of a man. As you are well aware, Ricky, it is one of my greatest ambitions to live a life of serving those around me. I want to be a man who works to constructively build up others even at my own expense. I love service and would never choose a life without it. This is why Wright strikes an even deeper chord in my heart: he seems to be a man of great character.

 From what little I’ve read of his work thus far, I can already identify another key piece of his character. His philosophical and deep thinking mind was constantly musing over different aspects and realities of life. Thus, I see now that Wright was a man of great depth. Even if the topic of his writing was dark, he would write his art anyways; never overly offensive, yet never censoring his topic to the point where it no longer held its same meaning. He was real and he was deep. This approach is one that I wish to apply to my future work as well. I feel that in order to both impact and transform the world in a way that I wish to requires such authenticity and truth that no man can earnestly deny it. I wish to strike deep chords in the hearts of men and have them connect with the realities that I present to them. It is my goal to be honest and real in the books that I have planned, sermons I wish to give, and in the biblical studies that I actively develop.

 Learning about this man’s life has truly given me some inspiration for my own writing career. In Saundra Rose Maley’s (scholar) introduction to the book, she wrote one simple line that struck out to me significantly. In regards to Wright, she says, “He read widely and wrote daily, mostly sonnets, while enduring the rigors of army life.” For me personally, I read very regularly in a large gamut of topics (“read widely”). However, I seldom get to write for pleasure because of the way my life is currently set up. Almost all of my time each day is committed to school, work, or ministry responsibilities. Reading this single line sets my brain into a cyclone of thoughts about how my life might be if I, like Wright, made great efforts to write for pleasure on a daily basis. How would I evolve as an author? What could I accomplish then? My heart races. I wish to find out, to receive the treasure that is hidden behind this wall.

 It is interesting to see how simply reading about another man’s life can trigger such thoughts about one’s own life. I suppose analyzing and thinking about the things that Wright lived for makes me think about the things that I live for; and similarly, reflecting on the principles that Wright made most president in his life causes me to think of the values that I hold dearest. I would be happy to live a life where I would write every day; and I would be happy to live a life where I could help and serve other people and, most importantly, the God whom we both serve. I don’t know for certain if we’ve yet spoken of this, but reading of Wright’s life ambitions certainly causes me to think of my own. For years I have known that I’ve wanted to use writing to communicate Truth to the world, but I haven’t always known what writing conduit I would use. Frankly, this is because there is no one conduit that I plan on using. Why should a man who carries such a passionate heart for writing confine himself in one spectrum of it? There is no reason to. Rather, I plan on exploring in each one of the varied forms of writing that I hold dear and use them to accomplish both of my greatest ambitions. Hopefully the day is near for this adventure to unfold, for my heart is anxious to set off on its course.

 Ricky, I challenge you to think about the man who you are setting yourself up to grow into. What kind of man do you desire to be? Who, today, are you taking steps towards becoming? Simply exploring fragments of James Wright’s life has inspired me to ask myself these questions, and having just explored them to myself, I would also encourage you to do the same.

 Fare thee well, brother. As always, you are in my prayers.

 Your brother,

 Mike

February 14, 2010

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 12:01 am
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"Suddenly I Realize": From R. J. to Theresa

Mixed media on small canvas.

This post-card size canvas was inspired by our class letter project on James Wright.  On the reverse side of the card R. J. writes:

Theresa,

I knew it is a little hard to read but I was excited to find a connection between “A blessing” by Wright and this trading card illustration by Lockwood.  –R.J.

Suddenly I realize / That if  I stepped out of my body I would break / into Blossom.

December 27, 2009

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:00 am
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Marian Veverka writes to Professor Emeritus Larry Smith about James Wright and the creative process.   Marian is a retired library worker who has a BFA from BGSU.  She has spent a lot of time writing poetry & reading books.  She has lived most of her life on the shores of Lake Erie. –TW

On his blog, Larry Smith says of himself :   

I am the author of 8 books of poetry, 3 books of fiction, 2 literary biographies on Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and co-produced three documentaries on Patchen, James Wright, and d.a.levy. I am professor emeritus of Humanities at BGSU Firelands College. As founder-director of Bottom Dog Press/ Bird Dog Publishing we have published 105 books. I come from a working-class family in the industrial Ohio Valley. I believe in growth and change. 

Marblehead OH 

 17 November 2009

 Hi Larry

Theresa Williams’s letter project interested me because in the days before e-mail and internets, I enjoyed writing and receiving letters.  As the subject matter of the letterproject concerned writers and writing,  you seemed a likely correspondent as we have had many discussions on the subject at the Firelands Writing Center.  The next problem, the subject of my correspondence was solved when I visited our local bookstore/library and saw a copy of James Wrights’ poems Above the River.  We shared an interest in James Wright – I was introduced to his work at various Ohio Poetry Day celebrations and I knew you were from the same “neck of the woods” and also wrote of the once thriving economy along the Ohio River valley, now a haunted echo of its former prosperity.

When I studied poetry in my first attempt at college in the early 1950’s, the course we studied was called “Modern Poetry”, which was the poetry written in the beginning years of the 20th century.  Robert Frost and Edna St.Vincent Millay are the poets I remember as among the best,  I took out my books I had saved from those years and James Wright was not included.  However, the poems he wrote in his early years were those of meter and rhyme  They also echoed the rural sensibility of Frost and many, now all but forgotten others.  As I read those early poems, another theme emerged – Wright’s desire to leave the industrial Ohio valley.  St. Judas  & The Green Wall also contain hints from the surfacing “beat” poets,

What I consider the most interesting part of Wright’s career was the 5 year period he spent traveling and translating and writing very little that survives.  When he began publishing poetry again, it was not the conventional poetry of his earlier years.  Donald Hall, the poet who wrote the introduction to  Above the River ,

In July 1958, he wrote me a letter in which he announced he was through writing poems.’  Which may have been true at the time, but he began translating other poets, especially German & Spanish and continued to read, read, read, the modern stylists and when he  resumed his writing, the old rhyme and meter had been taken over my the styles of the post-world war 11 poets, influenced by the beats/  His subject matter continued to center around that region of south-east Ohio, once busy with industry, now a backwater, rusting & overgrown with weeds – the opposite of the boosterism so prevelant in the early 1950’s .

What I find interesting about James Wright is his ability to change his style of poetry writing.  During my years as a “writer” I had several periods where I did no writing at all.  When I resumed writing (always slowly)–the results were better poems and prose than I had written before the fallow period.  As a writer, do you think it is helpful to stop writing for a while–perhaps spend the time as Wright did, traveling & translating and studying the work of others.  Could there be something going on in our subconscious brain that still carries on the craft of putting words together to make some kind of sense and then presenting our version of that sense to the world?  Do you know of other poets and writers who have had the same experience ?

I have read some of your newer poems and there is a difference there,  a little deeper and perhaps a little darker than your earlier work.   But is this a normal process, is this the body and all its many parts in  a “wind-down” mode?.  I an curious about creativity.  There are many times I have written things & reading them later, had trouble believing that I actually wrote that. 

James Wright’s fallow period produced better poetry.  I hope mine and others can do the same.

Best wishes

Marian Veverka

 

June 1, 2009

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Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 10:15 pm
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This letter is written to a  former teacher, Mr. Conrad, in response to an assignment I gave Contemporary Poetry students at BGSU.  In this letter, Luda writes insightfully, intelligently, and with compassion about James Wright, his poetry, and poetry’s potential for saving lives.  –TW

April 1, 2009 

Dear Mr. Conrad,

 Today, we meet again with the passing of paper, ink, musings and words. I’m curious to the places this letter will take me, as each letter-writing session over the past few weeks has been a pleasant surprise and simply unplanned expedition. It was very nice to hear back from you via email, and I’m relieved to find that you’ve been receiving my letters—hopefully you enjoy reading them as much as I do writing them.  Though James Wright has been the main topic of discussion, exploring his poetry and letters has led me into an exploration of myself. I highly encourage you to look into reading his letters, and maybe learn a little more about yourself within them. There is a quote I love by John Donne, that says, “Letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.” Wright did so through his letters, and it is incredible to read the way he bare his soul to his correspondents.

What I believe to be most magnetic about Wright’s letters is their confessional quality. He so openly explores the depths of himself, from the extremes of his happiness to the profundity of his loneliness. I remember reading a speech by Robert Bly, Wright’s close friend and correspondent, given at the first annual James Wright Poetry Festival in Martins Ferry, Ohio, 1981. “There is an immense loneliness surrounding him,” he said. “So you felt this immense loneliness you feel around him, and then you feel a tremendous dignity in the middle of that loneliness… All around him—the loneliness.” In his correspondence, Wright admits to the depths of his loneliness, and attempts to understand its role in his poetry and life. But the loneliness, like Bly said, is dignified—not once does Wright ask for pity or consoling—he accepts it as a part of himself. This ‘dignified loneliness’ can be seen in Wright’s poetry, but it is never overbearing—his poetry explores his own personal alienation. I’m reminded, now, of one poem in specific, called Beginning

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the fields.

The dark wheat listens.

Be still.

Now.

There they are, the moon’s young, trying

Their wings.

Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow

Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone

Wholly, into the air.

I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe

Or move.

I listen.

The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,

And I lean toward mine.

To me, this is Wright’s honesty—embodied through poetry—at his best. He acknowledges that he has his own personal demons to explore, just as we all have our own. Wright openly acknowledges the idea of entering his own darkness. I love the last two lines especially, “the wheat leans back toward its own darkness/And I lean toward mine” –they send shivers down my spine. In a more technical sense, it is refreshing to see that Wright does not rely on a line break to bring surprise, but more on the narrative itself. As I mentioned in a previous letter, Wright did many translations of world poets (Juan Ramon Jimenez, Pablo Neruda, Victor Hernandez, Karen Hesse, Joy Katz, Georg Trakl) and this poem certainly shows their influence on his writing, as he imagines the wheat, shifting in the wind, as if back and forth from its own demons. 

Wright wrote to his old friend Eugene Pugatch (Sept. 30, 1960) who was also experiencing depths of loneliness. “I will not enter your own loneliness with smug moralism and pieties,” he wrote. “The ability to face and endure and—most of all—to acknowledge each suffering in its reality is what makes you a great man.” You see, Wright did not aim to give pity or a pat on the back to Gene, but to relate to him the acceptance he himself felt of his own loneliness, or what he beautifully called it “poverty of the heart.”  What Wright conveyed to his friend was that accepting and admitting one’s shortcomings is most important: “To be one’s true self, and yet endure. That is everything,” he wrote. It is not the shortcomings that define us. Many people forget this, and focus on faults. In closing, he wrote something that still resonates within me: “Remember: our life does not turn on trivialities, but on the stars.” I love, love, love this—what a great thing to remember—to not dwell on shortcomings, but simply overcome by admitting them to yourself. It’s a reminder we could all use on a daily basis.

 There was one letter that I really connected to, when Wright wrote to Donald Hall (June 26, 1973) about a feeling of detachment. He described that he had been feeling disconnected with himself: “I seem to be losing touch with myself, if you follow me,” he confessed, “I don’t mean I’m boozing (I’m not) or that I’m ill. . . I just seem to have lost touch with poetry and don’t know quite where to turn. I feel low about it.” You see, to be disconnected from poetry must have been incredibly difficult for him, as it was his voice and outlet. I know what he meant, in my own way. There are just some days where I find myself struggling to connect with anything. This letter really let me realize just how important poetry was to Wright’s life.

Wright found great comfort through his own poetry, and that of his friends. He once wrote to James Dickey after reading some poems (Nov 19. 1959):

Maybe now I can just face the fact of my own alienation, maybe I can realize… that you too have your own alienations and yet are able to fulfill your humanity, your (I can’t withhold the word, and I hope it doesn’t embarrass you) greatness, in those poems that you read, poems that, in the face of all the hostility and blindness and deafness and absurdity around us, make sense in some kind of ultimate and tragic and triumphant way… what I mean to say is that I feel changed – perhaps restored, saved. I think I can go on now.

There is a poem in particular that reminds me of this ‘restoration’ he speaks of.

 Milkweed

While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,

I must have looked for a long time

Down the corn rows, beyond grass,

The small house,

White walls, animals lumbering towards the barn.

I look down now, It is all changed.

Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for

Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes

Loving me in secret.

It is here. At a touch of my hand,

The air fills with delicate creatures

From the other world

In the speech I mentioned earlier, Robert Bly referred to this poem as “a praise poem.” I admire this description, as I truly see Wright’s hope shining through the lines. He writes of a struggle, internalized:  “Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for/Was a wild, gentle thing.” But it is all changed, and he became open to the world around him by overcoming self pity and blame. I can relate to the first few lines extremely, as I’m sure most people can. How many times do I catch myself staring into space, internally reliving experiences passed and worrying? I really do love this poem–it has many levels, some which remain unspoken.

It is true that there are utterly incredible moments to be found in Wright’s letters—moments when he felt lucky to be alive and connected with everything around him.  A quote of his that I really enjoyed was in a letter to James Dicky: “I am not dead! This joyful thought fills my mind each morning when I waken”  (Aug. 25, 1958). How I wish this thought instantly popped into my head on those days when I can hardly wake up for my 9:30AM class. It’s true—we are all lucky to have each day and live in it! There’s a story about James Wright that I really enjoy, when he was spending a few days at Robert and Carol Bly’s farmhouse. One night after the Blys were asleep he got quite drunk and snuck into the chicken coop. He later wrote about it to Dickey (Dec. 18, 1960):

Sitting here alone in this warm chicken house, I have an indescribably sense of warmth and love,” he described, “I am as it were basking in the golden blades of light, the imagination, the friendship, the truth to the spirit…those precious things I had forgotten to love; and now at the very least I love them, and I know my love is true; so I feel very happy.

What a simple yet beautiful realization he had come upon—I can just imagine him sitting in a chicken coop, scribbling poetry with a grin on his face. What a great image!

Poetry is what really gave Wright a sense of self—I think because it was how he really expressed himself easiest. He found great solace through poetry, and felt most like himself when writing. Poems gave him freedom, as he wrote in a letter to Robert Bly of Bly’s poems (Feb. 18, 1960), “…they always give me an awful sense of liberation. I don’t know quite why, but it is a feeling that the best poetry can give.”  Anne Wright, his wife, once found a short note with a scribble of the beginnings of a poem on it. It perfectly describes what I have wished I could say about poetry. In its uncompleted state, it is great nonetheless:

Poets pass on a chill spring

and a dying fire to one another,

but poetry is not a cheap trick.

It is the true voice. It isn’t an

ornament flung random on life. It’s

The flowering of life, as Guillén said.

The note reflected thoughts on a book he had just finished reading by Gibbons Ruark, and Wright was quite shaken by the work—he had also written, “This man is real. So he’s a real poet. There is no other kind.” Another letter to W.D. Snodgrass (Nov. 7, 1960) captured Wright’s revitalizing attitude: “I do not know how things are working out as poems. But I will say this: I feel alive with them, and I am seeing things I never saw before. And, though it sounds (and probably is) immoral, I am having a hell of a good time with poetry. I had lost that, and to get it back is worth everything.”

Wright and his first wife, Libby, did not have the best relationship. In many of his letters he confesses their physical and emotional separation. There was an incredibly poignant letter between them  (Aug. 12,1960) that particularly resonated with me. It showed true tenderness of love past, but also relayed Wright’s passion for poetry. In it, Wright writes of how he came across a poem that he wrote a while back, and the effect it had on him. It’s incredible to think that simply finding an old poem could affect him to such a degree, but the poem was actually about his wife and unborn child, and took him back to an incredible place in his memories. I’m including quite a longer passage of it because I couldn’t bear to weed any of it out:

I looked at the poem, and was able to say: whatever I have to give—as man, poet, as living creature on this earth—is here, and it is good…As I sit here, I have no way of knowing myself at all: for all I know I am a hired liar who has already gone insane and is convinced that his lies are truth; so this old poem is a kind of reassurance, like a compass in the hand of a man lost in a strange forest, or like a signpost in the midst of the desert.

How confidently he writes, and how beautifully! I can’t get over the fact that he realizes this poem is a testament of himself, of his creation, and of his art. He tells Libby, “even if I can’t hang on, even if I go utterly to pieces, I wish you would look at the poem anyways, because I wrote it once and it was as near to secure truths as I ever came of maybe ever will come again before I die.”Such powerful words. I often spoke of an element of transformation in Wright’s poems. I saw this element within his letter—the idea that his poetry outlasts himself, and that within this single poem he discovered truth and meaning. “For at least once in my life,” he concluded, “all I had to give in love, sharing of pain, and poetry, all of these came together in one single and whole moment of life.”

I’m running out of time and paper, but there is one last letter I’d like to tell you about. Wright not only kept correspondence with his close friends, but also with his students and readers of his poetry. This letter to Wendy Gordon, on September 6, 1975 asked Wright the simple question of why he writes poetry. His reply was stunning:

Why? Because we live in a horrible century, and poets have been able to keep one another alive. How? I don’t know how. I do know this much: when I moved to Japan thirty years ago with a bayonet on my shoulder, another boy named Toshitada Iketani was waiting…with a bayonet on his shoulder. Somehow—don’t ask me how—he and I didn’t kill each other. Three years ago he translated one of my books into Japanese. In our correspondence, it turned out that he too had carried Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with him in combat.

It may seem silly and cliché to say, but in this case, didn’t poetry save lives? It is without a doubt that Rilke saved these two men from killing each other, although they had no idea at the time. I am constantly reminded of how small of a world it is, and it is these little connections that prove my point time and time again. What are the odds that this would have happened? Kismet.

Oh how I’ve rambled on, Mr. Conrad. There is just so much to say. Reading James Wright’s letters has been so…indescribable… to me, so maybe this letter has shown you why. I send you my best, to yourself and your family. Congratulations on your second son, it was a wonderful surprise to hear the news.

All my best,

Luda

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