In his last letter to his friend Ricky, Mike Judge explains how Wright’s poems are a manifestion of “lost love.” –TW
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.
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,
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
In a hook,
And place it
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,