The love song of James Arlington Wright: an essay and interview with Annie Wright.
Shortly after we had completed editing her interview, Annie sent me a copy of James's original draft of his poem "Hook" dated February 24, 1974. It contained key lines and stanzas of what would become two of his most famous poems, "Hook" and "To a Blossoming Pear Tree," both of which were published in his 1977 book To a Blossoming Pear Tree. Annie commented in her accompanying note that James wrote this poem just after she and James had returned from an eight-month sojourn to Europe and seven months before James suffered a severe bout of depression in October, for which he was hospitalized for a month. In her postcard that accompanied the original draft of "Hook" and "To a Blossoming Pear Tree," Annie concluded, "But he resurrected it." In retrospect, James's "resurrection" appears all the more remarkable in light of both the emotional and professional duress he experienced beginning in 1973, when his father, Dudley, died while he and Annie were in Europe and unable to attend the funeral, followed closely then by the harsh events mentioned above, including also a dismissive review of Two Citizens by a reputable critic in the Hudson Review. Little did Wright know how true his words from a 1972 Paris Review interview would ring true over the next few years: "Being a poet sometimes puts you at the mercy of life, and life is not always merciful."
By 1975, Wright had stopped drinking and turned his attention away from his detractors to concentrate on his newfound love for prose poems, his enduring identification with outcasts, and the pastoral beauty of the Italian countryside. Never again would he openly rail against his "eastern" critics in his poems with such lines as "Ah, you bastards, //How I hate you" (from "Ars Poetica, Some Recent Criticism," the first poem in Two Citizens). Indeed, he had resurrected from what could have very easily been an ongoing descent into alcoholism and infectious Philippics. But he "rose out of [his] body," as he put it in "Son of Judas"--a poem that appeared in Two Citizens just prior to his rehabilitation--to a new lookout of fresh observation for which his beloved "sycamore tree" served as a favorite trope and his abiding relationship with Annie, his strong commitment to AA, and his newfound attention to "the details about the details" (Annie Wright's phrase), the literal grounding of his reformed life.
Wright's behavioral and poetic "resurrection" in 1974 lasted until the end of his life in 1980. The changes he made to his first draft of "Hook" that resulted in the separate but complementary poems "Hook" and "To a Blossoming Pear Tree" features a compassionate, transpersonal speaker who betrays a renewed emotional capacity to transform his anger into empathy. Here are the two poems in the order they appear near the end of To a Blossoming Pear Tree:
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. 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. 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? 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. 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.
To a Blossoming Pear Tree Beautiful natural blossoms, Pure delicate body, You stand without trembling. Little mist of fallen starlight, Perfect, beyond my reach, How I envy you. For if you could only listen, I would tell you something, Something human. An old man Appeared to me once In the unendurable snow. He had a singe of white Beard on his face. He paused on a street in Minneapolis And stroked my face. Give it to me, he begged. I'll pay you anything. I flinched. Both terrified, We slunk away, Each in his own way dodging The cruel darts of the cold. Beautiful natural blossoms, How could you possibly Worry or bother or care About the ashamed, hopeless Old man? He was so near death He was willing to take Any love he could get, Even at the risk Of some mocking policeman Or some cute young wiseacre Smashing his dentures, Perhaps leading him on To a dark place and there Kicking him in his dead groin Just for the fun of it. Young tree, unburdened By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms And dew, the dark Blood in my body drags me Down with my brother.
The accurate empathy Wright displays for his outcast brothersin these two poems echoes his career-long record of witnessing toAmerica's underside and the forsaken, the very subject matterthat had "hurt [him] into poetry" (W. H. Auden'sphrase for what "mad Ireland" did to Yeats) at the startof his career. Despite his stylistic shift in 1963, when he publishedhis ground-breaking book of highly imagistic free verse, TheBranch Will Not Break, Wright not only maintained his strong identification with thedowntrodden, but refined his vision of it in new reified ways. Hiscontroversial sympathy for the killer George Doty and Judas in his firsttwo books, The Green Wall (1957) and Saint Judas (1959), continues in each of his subsequent books in such poems as"Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry" (from TheBranch Will Not Break, 1963), "The Minneapolis Poem" (from Shall WeGather at the River, 1967), "Many of Our Waters: Variations on a Poem by a BlackChild" (from New Poems, Collected Poems, 1971), and "In Memory of Charles Coffin" (fromTwo Citizens, 1973), reaching an heroic apotheosis in "Hook" and"To a Blossoming Pear Tree."
In his new sobriety, Wright regained his radicallycompassionate vision while simultaneously defusing his verbal tirades,at least in his poetry. Annie comments in her interview that Jamesstarted "to accept it" in 1974 with the newfound sensethat "maybe I'm worth it after all ... maybe I deserveit." This reaffirmation of his innate compassion helped him"rise up" with the paradoxical purpose of descending backfrom his ecstatic state to what he called "my own body" inhis poem "Son of Judas," that is, his groundedreintegrated self, and in so doing designating, for the first time, thatactual human substance which distinguishes him from the"beautiful natural blossoms and dew" of the pear tree,namely "the dark / Blood in my body that drags me / Down with mybrother" (from "To a Blossoming Pear Tree"). Thefact that "Hook," "To a Blossoming PearTree," and "Beautiful Ohio"--another poem about theironic "beauty" of "what we call it most of thetime," that is, the polluted waterfall of the sewer main inMartins Ferry--appear as the last three poems in To aBlossoming Tree points to the importance these poems represented to Wright as end notesfor this clear-eyed book following the publication of TwoCitizens in 1973. Yet, despite his new direction toward more pastoral andmetaphysical subject matter in To a Blossoming PearTree, Wright was also implicitly identifying with what Robert Frost'sspeaker in "Into My Own" forecasted for his future self:"They [both readers and critics] would not find me changed fromhim they knew--/ Only more sure of all I thought was true."
Here is the original 1974 draft of "Hook,"complete with typos but minus the name, at Annie's request, of acritic in stanza five. Rather than title this poem "Hook"initially, Wright curiously wrote "I will call it Hook" inthe title space.
Feb. 27, 74: I will call it Hook It was thirty five degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, for my English friends. Too cold for the snow to fall Anymore. I don't Have to be told Any more somebody Hates us. As I ran, slowly, I saw I would miss the bus to Saint Paul. I missed it. I was only and young man In those day, 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. I stood on that streetcorner perfectlyx awre Of nothing except the dead fact. Another bus to Saint Paul would arrive In another three hours, if I was lucky. Oh, I am plenty lucky. At somewhere, a bell Then beating one, an old man On the way to Harry's Paused and stroked my face, Please Give it to me, he said, I'll give you anything. Get away from me, leave me alone, I am standing here Trying to write a book review of the exquisite Villanelles and pantoums in the dead Radiance of -- 's Body? The old man went away to Harry's, And then the young Sioux appeared. Ain't got no bus here a long time. He said. You got enough to get home on? What did they do to your hand? I answered. I had a bad time with a woman, he said, here, You take this. Did you ever see a man hold sixty-five cents In a hook, and lay it on your shoulder? I took it.
In this 1974 draft of "Hook" and "To aBlossoming Pear Tree," we see only Wright's disgust andrejection of the gay man who approaches him on the street on his way toHarry's. "Get away from me," he abjures the gay manharshly, "leave me alone." He then comments sardonicallywith an eye toward a harsh critic that he is busy writing "a bookreview of the exquisite villanelles and pantoums." So, whathappened between this early draft of what he initially called"Hook" and Wright's final draft in which he, in aseparate poem called "To a Blossoming Pear Tree," shamesthe pear tree with an agapeic conceit? The final version of "To aBlossoming Pear Tree" testifies to an emotional sea change thatthoroughly abrogates Wright's initial homophobic sentiments withlife-affirming imagery and dramatic savvy. His solipsistic brown studytransforms into a secular poetic homily that not only acknowledges butaffirms his relation to the gay stranger.
Beautiful natural blossoms. How could you possibly Worry or bother or care About the ashamed, hopeless Old man? He was so near death He was willing to take Any love he could get, Even at the risk Of some mocking policeman Or some cute young wiseacre, Smashing his dentures, Perhaps leading him on To a dark place and there Kicking him in his dead groin Just for the fun of it.
Humanity for Wright in all its brokenness and desperationbecomes more beautiful in this final draft than the "beautifulnatural blossoms" of the pear tree for the ironic communion itevokes. Wright performs a similar transpersonal trick in"Hook" by allowing a "young Sioux" with onlyone arm to give him money for the bus, although Wright didn'tneed it. Wright's act of acceptance validates the Sioux'sdignity in the face of his "trouble."
In both poems, Wright encounters men who have had"trouble" and suffer alienation. His compassion for bothredounds on his own trouble and deep sense of alienation.Wright's speaker receives much in accepting the Sioux'sgift, acknowledging his need to express his charity. He also derives anessential sense of his human superiority over anything that is merelybeautiful, like the pear tree, with transparent rhetoric. Each of thesestreet encounters contained too much narrative and distincttransformation for a single poem.
With his attention turned back to his genius for the calculusof empathy in the last five years of his life, Wright felt freed up asnever before to exercise his extraordinary talent for describing hisnatural surroundings with what Robert Lowell called "thethreadbare art of [his] eye"--such things as the piccolini in theGrotte de Catullo," the sumac in Ohio and the secret of light.Both of Wright's last books, To a BlossomingTree (1977) and This Journey (1982), are replete with painterly and compassionate poems. Perhaps thelast stanza of his last poem in This Journey, "A Winter Daybreak above Venice," which came outposthumously in 1982, best captures Wright's restored wholenessby bearing dramatic testimony to just how far he had journeyed both as apoet and man since salvaging his life five years earlier.
Look, the sea has not fallen and broken Our heads. How can I feel so warm Here in the dead center of January? I can Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is The only life I have. I get up from the stone. My body mumbles something unseemly And follows me. Now we are sitting here strangely On top of the sunlight.
What Wright achieved in his last two books is what Robert Hess,in his essay on Wright simply titled "James Wright," calls"the poetry of a grown man ... the poetry of light," inwhich Wright now soars with "two wings," one of which is"Jenny, who is beauty, loneliness, death, the muse ...,"and the other of which is "his art." I would add only thatthe poetry in Wright's last two books is also a poetry ofdisinterested concentration in which he, through his hard-won sobrietyand discovery of new pastoral subject matter (Giotto, the Italianlandscape, the ocean off Misquamicut, fishing with Richard Hugo, etc.)gains a triumphant ascent to full maturity, complementing hiscompassionate testimonies for the forsaken with mystical epiphanies."Now I know nothing, I can die alone," he writes with whatsounds like Buddhist cognizance at the conclusion of "The Heightsof Machu Picchu" in This Journey. This integrated maturity betrays the coalescence of both personal andartistic growth, inspiring the language of a new, more integrated musethat witnesses to Wright's open secret so simply yet profoundlyit sounds almost religious. Gone is his anguish that prompted him towrite to Jenny at the conclusion of "To the Muse,""Come up to me, /or I'll come down to you." He hasmade peace with himself by reconciling his agon-ridden sense of himselfas a compassionate reprobate with his professional success, hisloneliness with his happy marriage to Annie, his alcoholic past with hissober present. His passage from the hell of Martins Ferry to hisprofessional success at Hunter College and then his light-filled days inFano, Italy, with Annie replays a Dante-like accomplishment at thecompletion of his journey "on top of the sunlight." (Inmany of the same romantic ways, Jenny was to Wright in late-20th-centurysecular America what Beatrice was to Dante in 13th-century CatholicItaly, with the difference that Jenny remained in the Powhatan Pitrather than ascending to heaven; if any woman embodies Beatrice toJames, it is Annie.) Wright's peace imbues his reader with thesatisfaction of witnessing a realized life in a poetry that is mostgenerous for its harrowing honesty and plain expression of a fullydefined and highly evolved self.
Annie Wright is humble in saying she did not"save" James, that "no one saves someoneelse's life unless you pull them out from drowning." But,clearly, she did provide an untiring, transformative love that helpedJames change his life. He acknowledged his reciprocal sentiments towardher in his 1973 poem "On the Liberation of Women," inwhich he confessed with characteristic economy: "I love youbest."
Interview with Annie Wright
(This interview was conducted by Chard deNiord on May30, 2012, at the summer home of Annie Wright in Westerly, RhodeIsland.)
CD What was it like being married to James Wright?
AW An adventure. We had fun together.
CD The romance endured.
AW The romance endured, absolutely.
CD You were a poetry lover and had written poetry yourselfbefore meeting lames. You obviously loved his work, so that was part ofthe romance, but there must have been something about his work inparticular you loved, along with his manner.
AW His manner; his sense of play, his humor.
CD He was, from what I've heard, very funny.
AW Very, very funny.
CD Someone once compared him to the comedian JonathanWinters.
AW He loved to imitate him.
cD James did his dissertation on the comedy of CharlesDickens.
AW I mean of all things for him to choose, you know? So he hada wonderful sense of humor. He had a photographic memory. He wasvulnerable. He was romantic. Of course he was also deeply haunted. Thatwas fascinating too--his part mystery and his part very-much-there. Heloved children, and I worked with children. He would come over to theWest Side Community Nursery School at snack time. I mean there were justso many endearing things about him, and he was lovely to my nieces andnephews. He treated them as his own children.
CD He'd had a difficult first marriage.
AW Difficult, I think, is the word.
CD Can you comment on his mother's behavior towardhim?
AW She was discontented with life in general, I think. She wasvery proud of her boys. And they all did amazingly well. Both lack,James's brother, and James went to college.
CD But their life wasn't her life.
CD As a keenly intelligent and literate woman, she must havefelt that life had treated her harshly, burdened by her job as alaundress.
AW She guarded her family, the nuclear family--I can'tstand that phrase, but you know what I'm talking about--and sheonly really let her own family members into her house. She quarreledconstantly with neighbors and her husband's sister,Lillian.
CD Guarded in what sense?
AW She was overprotective. She had the attitude of us againstthe world. When I first went to the James Wright festivals,James's Aunt Lillian said to me, "I come to thesefestivals to get to know you, Annie, and to get to know my nephew JamesWright, because Jessie excluded us. She pushed us away." Jessiewas James's mother's name.
CD Do you think this overprotectiveness was a personalitytrait, or was there a practical reason?
AW I don't think there was a practical reason, no,because Lillian was a wonderful person. She would have been a goodfriend for Jessie, I think.
CD What do you think she was protecting? Why isolate thefamily?
AW I don't really know. I never understood that. Jessiedidn't even like James to visit his grandmother, Elizabeth Lyons,Jessie's own mother. Nevertheless, he did anyway. He stopped byher house every day after school. In an autobiographical sketch writtenin high school, he wrote that he had a mother at the farm in Warnock,Ohio, to talk to. She was witty with a sometimes sharp, sometimes harshside to her. She was always welcoming to me but found it hard to expresswarm emotions or affection. I have the impression she didn't hugher children or kid around them in a playful manner. In later years, shepicked on Dudley, her husband, bossed him around, ran him down verbally,which upset James. I think she wanted to be a loving person butdidn't know how. She was very bright and loved to read but leftschool when she was only 14. to help out her family.
CD James had a nervous breakdown his senior year of highschool.
AW Yes, he did.
CD Do you think that had anything to do with Jessie'soverprotectiveness?
AW It could have. I wasn't around his family when he wasgrowing up, of course, but James once said to me, "It was mymother that should have gotten help, but I was the one who had thebreakdown." He was very sensitive.
CD He must have identified so closely with her. Her name wasJessie, and Jenny is the name of the dead girl in the poem "Tothe Muse," but no critic or friend of James seems to know whoJenny was.
AW No. I don't know either. Jenny was just a muse toJames. I don't mean just a muse, but ...
CD Why would he pick the name Jenny?
AW He loved that poem "Jenny Kissed Me" by JamesHenry Leigh Hunt. I always thought that might have something to do withit.
CD I have it here.
Jenny Kissed Me Jenny kissed me when we met, Jumping from the chair she sat in; Time, you thief, who love to get Sweets into your list, put that in! Say I'm weary, say I'm sad, Say that health and wealth have missed me, Say I'm growing old, but add, Jenny kissed me.
AW Yes, that's the poem James loved.
CD So maybe he fell in love with the idea of a girl named Jennywho he first envisioned as this woman in James Henry Leigh Hunt'spoem. Perhaps she represents poetry itself to him, or his anima, whichis also his elusive muse. If that was the case, then Jenny was more apart of James's psyche than an actual other or beloved. That lostself he called by a feminine name in "To the Muse," who heso desperately wanted to raise from the depths of the Powhatan pit. Justmy speculation, but does this seem at all plausible to you?
CD Not an actual other woman to be concerned about, but perhapsreal enough as an "interior paramour," as Wallace Stevenswould say.
AW Yes, I think also she was his ideal of the woman he kepthoping he would meet.
CD His Galatea who materialized as a revenant or bardo figure.Critics and biographers have speculated whether a flesh-and-blood Jennyattended lames's high school.
AW I don't think she did. No. He never mentionedone.
CD She also appears in several other poems: "The Idea ofthe Good" in the Collected Poems, "Jenny Sycamore that is now the one wing/the only wing"in the poem "Son of Judas," and "Jenny cold, Jennydarkness" in the poem "October Ghosts." In abrilliant essay he wrote in the early eighties on the arc ofJames's poetry, from The Green Wall to ThisJourney, Robert Hass defines Jenny in this multifarious way: "Jenny ...is beauty, loneliness, death, the muse, the idea of the good, a sexualshadow, a whore, the grandmother of the dead, the lecherous slit of theOhio, an abandoner of her child, a 'savage woman with twoheads... the one / Face broken and savage, the other, the facedead,' the name carved under a tree in childhood close to thequick, a sycamore tree, a lover, the first time he everrose."
AW And he dedicated Shall We Gather at theRiver to her. There were certain things he just couldn't tellanyone.
CD You and James were married in 1967.
AW Yes. His poem "The Lights in the Hallway" isabout me and where I lived. That was one of the newest poems he includedin Shall We Gather at the River.
CD Yes, a beautiful love poem to you. What a leap he makes inthis poem from the "lights in the hallway," your hallway,to what he feels in his "clasp" of you:
Terrified by the roundness of the earth, And its apples and its voluptuous rings Of poplar trees, the secret Africas The children they gave us.
There is also a fascinating poem in TwoCitizens, called "Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in theMountains," in which he turns away from his interior muse, Jenny,to you, his actual beloved--"that body I long for / The Gabonpoets gaze for hours / Between boughs toward heaven, their noble faces /Too secret to weep."
CD In "Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in theMountains," he openly discusses your secret and his secret:
If only I knew how to tell you. Someday I might know how. Meantime your hand gathered me awake Out of my good dream and I pray to gather My hands into your hands in your good dream. What did you find in your long wandering in the snow? I love your secret. By God, I will never violate the wings of the snow you found rising in the wind. Give them. Keep them. Love.
In this constant back and forth between announcing his secretand refraining from telling it, he seems to be saying that if he toldyou his secret, it would violate his love. Yet he is addressing youthere as his beloved, instead of Jenny, who can't "comeup" to him, as he implies in the last lines of "To theMuse," "Come up to me/or I'll come down toyou."
AW Yes. He felt he would be too open if he told the secret. Iwonder, just a speculation, if he, as a small child, had exchangedthings with his mother and she made fun of him or teased him, or mockedhim in some way, so he thought, I'm not telling my secretthoughts to anybody.
CD Do you think his secret, which is unsayable, has more to dowith the concept of the secret than the secret itself?
AW That was it.
CD I'm also struck in some of these poems--in the laterpoems especially in This Journey and To a Blossoming Pear Tree where he often approaches the unsayable before deferring to it--withwhat Robert Bly has called "the interstices between words, themysterious events that happen when simple words are placed next to oneanother." In his later poems especially, the more he's onthat precipice of the unsayable, the simpler and even more prosaic hiswriting becomes, while somehow remaining poetic. A good example of thisoccurs at the end of "On the Liberation of Women," wherehe writes, "What is going to happen when we both die? / I loveyou best." Such simple yet effective lines.
AW So if you're offended by what I'm saying aboutwomen, don't forget, I still love you.
CD And he did.
CD You were born in New York City, correct?
AW Yes. My parents moved out to Greenwich, Connecticut. And mybackground was so incredibly different from James's. Theybelonged to a little group of friends. They had cocktails every night.There were a lot of parties that they went to.
CD Hardly Martins Ferry.
AW Hardly Martins Ferry. No, just another world. We had a maid,a live-in maid.
CD So a difference in class as well.
AW Totally different class. My grandparents were very differentfrom his parents.
CD Can you describe your attraction to him?
AW See, my attraction to him was that he was a poet, and thathe was so brilliant.
CD But there are a lot of brilliant, attractive poets.
AW I hadn't met any! (Laughs.) In a way we were on the verge of other worlds. I mean, when I marriedJames, my life changed a great deal. I was in the company of such poetsas Galway Kinnell, Anthony Hecht, W. S. Merwin, Isabella Gardiner, JaneCooper, and, of course, Robert Bly. I often went with James when he gavereadings, gatherings with his fellow poets in New York, many at the homeof Betty Kray, an incredible woman who gave so much to poetry, and somewonderful trips to the Bly farm.
CD You must have sensed his vulnerability.
CD He needed help, you thought.
AW Yes. I think it was the second time we went out on a date, Iopened the door--I lived in a railroad flat then, it had lights in thehallway, that's where I lived--and he had his hand held out, andthere was a button in it. He said, "It just came off myraincoat."
AW Yes. Well, immediately, out comes the sewing kit and...
CD I can fix that! Right?
AW Long after we had married, he confessed that he had wrenchedthat button off his coat. He knew.
CD In his poem "Voices Between Waking and Sleeping inthe Mountains," he writes about his ineffable love for you in thecontext of his love for trees.
There used to be a sycamore just Outside Martins Ferry Where I used to go. I had no friends there. Maybe the tree was no woman, But when I sat there, I gathered That branch into my arms. It was the first time I ever rose. If only I knew how to tell you. Some day I may know how.
And in the very next poem, "On the Liberation ofWoman," he does seem to tell you by repeating the line "Ilove you best." He's writing about embracing the tree ashis beloved here, alluding obviously to the myth of Diana as anobjective correlative for his own loneliness--as he does also later in"Entering the Temple of Nimes" and "Leaving theTemple of Nimes" in his posthumous book ThisJourney--although he comments that the tree is no woman.
AW Also in his poem "Defense of Late Summer" hewrites of "a Japanese girl far from home" as amaple.
CD He tells and doesn't tell you his secret in"On the Liberation of Women," writing initially,"What you found on that long rise of mountain in the snow / Isyour secret, but I can tell you at last," then declaring hecan't tell you, "If only I knew how to tell you. / Someday I may know how."
AW Or perhaps he never wanted me to know how lonely he feltbecause that would make him more vulnerable.
CD Loneliness and embrace, solitude and gathering, saying andnot saying, in his poems as well as his life, remained in constanttension throughout his career. Both his albatross and his poeticdialectic. Although he never seemed completely willing to give up his"secret," he did in a way; his secret really becomes anopen secret when he writes such lines as these:
In the middle of my age I walked down Toward a cold bloom. I don't give a damn if you care. But it half rhymes with blossom. And no body was ever so kind to me As one woman, and begins spring In the secret of winter, and that is why I love you best.
CD Which says to me that he didn't receive someessential love in his childhood.
AW Yes. The comfort. The nurture.
CD In his poem "Lying in a Hammock on WilliamDuffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," the"red-tailed hawk, heading for home" that appears near theend of the poem seems to trigger his survivor's guilt and thesudden leap to his startling last line, "I've wasted mylife." A confession that perhaps implies how regretful he feltabout leaving Martins Ferry.
AW How do I dare? When I'm not working, I'm lyingin a hammock.
CD I love the way you speak for him now, throwing your voiceinto his, admitting things that he probably never would have. How doeshe know that the red-tailed hawk is searching for a home?
AW I speculate that it was James searching for home.
CD So, the gulf that existed between the actual other--you--andhis loneliness he couldn't resolve remained an ironic source ofhis inspiration, shame-ridden as it was at times.
AW Yes, because to admit, even to someone, even someone who youlove and adore, that you feel incredibly lonely ... that's a hardsecret to let go of.
CD Robert Hass makes the point in the same essay I mentionedabove that James's loneliness was actually less about lonelinessper se than what he called "the "solitariness of being, ofbeings going about their business," like the red-tailed hawk, forinstance, "searching for home." But he did admit hisloneliness to you in a way, it seems, by writing about the"solitariness of being" he observed in things both animateand inanimate, which I don't think meant he didn't needyour company.
AW In a way, but not coming out and saying it plainly.
CD "If only I knew how to tell you."
AW See, he didn't.
CD What? I'm lonely? What other way is there to say itthan "I'm lonely"?
AW But he couldn't. Somehow he couldn't.
CD Because the solitude and even alienation he felt so deeplyas a kind of state of being was ineffable. Yet he hopes that"someday [he] may know how." Do you think he ever got tothat point?
AW I think he was working his way toward it, yes.
CD James's personal life was quite a mess when you methim. His first marriage, to Liberty Kardules, his high schoolsweetheart, had dissolved, and he had been denied tenure at theUniversity of Minnesota in 1964 after spending seven years there.
AW I was never told very much about that side, but I heard fromother people he was doing a lot of heavy drinking. No drugs, butdrinking.
CD Allen Tate, one of the eminent fugitive poets and author of"Ode to the Confederate Dead," was Chair of the EnglishDepartment at the University of Minnesota at the time.
CD He denied James tenure.
AW Yes, it was a terrible time.
CD Do you think it was because of the tumult he was goingthrough as much as anything else?
AW Oh, I think he was certainly unstable, and I don'tknow what things he was saying to students. He was going out drinkingwith them, which was not a good idea.
CD And then he ended up at Moorhead State for a littlewhile.
AW He went there for a summer. And that was wonderful. But thenMacalester College saved him. The University of Minnesota didn'ttake away his tenure until he got that job at Macalester. He went as atransfer to Macalester, taking a year off from the University ofMinnesota to go there. I'll never know how fair or unfair it was,but for him losing tenure was devastating on top of everythingelse.
CD Really, it's amazing he didn't give up.
AW Or take his own life.
CD But something kept him going; he had a powerful lifeforce.
AW Yes. That's a good way of putting it.
CD Despite the fact that he must have suffered terriblediscouragement and even depression at times, along with his bouts ofdrinking.
AW He had a terrible breakdown in 1959 and washospitalized.
CD That occurred after his breakup with Liberty, correct?
AW Oh, that breakup was on and off for about three or fouryears. I'm just learning about it now, going through the letters.His most intimate letters were written to Donald Hall. I think he feltDon was more sympathetic to his personal problems than Robert was.
CD Donald Hall is a great letter writer. He must have been agreat help to James.
AW It was wonderful that he had Donald Hall to write to. Theystarted writing to each other long before he met Robert Bly in1954.
CD I forget where they met.
AW Donald Hall was working for the ParisReview and wrote lames to ask for poems, and that is how it all began. Theirletters, like all of James's correspondence, started outformally: Dear Mr. Hall, Dear Mr. Bly. But by their third correspondencethey were on a first-name basis.
CD So you married lames about a year after you met him?
AW A year and a day after I met him.
CD He had gone through a very rough time for about six yearsbefore that.
AW That's right. Through the whole Minnesota thing. Andthen for a year after that he was just wandering. He stayed withElizabeth Esterly in California. He stayed with his parents in Concord,Ohio. He stayed with the Blys on the Bly farm in Minnesota.
CD So he didn't have a job at all?
AW He didn't have a job, and he didn't have ahome.
CD What year was that?
AW His time of wandering, from 1964 to 1966.
CD And he was probably drinking quite a bit.
CD So this leads up to the obvious question: How did he manageto get such a good job at Hunter College after so much"wandering"?
AW I have no way of knowing why he was chosen, but I'msure those on the hiring committee at Hunter College were impressed byhis interview and realized how bright he was. Also, he was a popular andwell-respected poet.
CD A huge break. I'm suddenly realizing I haven'tasked you how, when, and where you met James.
AW I met him at a party in April of 1966 when he was in town tointerview for the job at Hunter. Before he had actually been hired. Theparty was given by the Stevensons. David Stevenson was Chairman of theEnglish Department at Hunter, and his wife Joan, a good friend, taughtwith me at the Walden School. The poet Josephine Miles gave a reading atthe Guggenheim Museum, and the party, which was at their home, was inhonor of her. Allen Mandelbaum, a colleague of David's, broughtJane Cooper and James to the party.
CD Did James introduce himself to you at this party?
AW Actually we didn't talk to each other at the party.He was sitting across the room from me, and I was sitting on the floortalking to Josephine Miles. James was reciting poetry by heart: some inGerman, some by Irish poets, as well as many American and English poets.We eyed each other but didn't speak until we met outside on thesidewalk after the party. He said, "I already know your name, butI want your telephone number, to take you home, and to take you out todinner sometime." Actually, we got into a cab with about 15 otherpeople, and he did ask me out, but not until six months later, in Aprilof 1967.
CD But he hadn't forgotten.
AW No, he didn't. He got the job. However, that summer,I left New York to do civil rights work in Georgia. Before I left, I didget the Mentor Book of Irish Poets to take with me because I was very interested in this poet. And I alsotried to find a book of his teacher, Theodore Roethke, but Icouldn't spell his name and never did get the book. That fall,after I got the book and started teaching again, the Stevensons hadanother small dinner party and James was invited, but he didn'tcome. Allen Mandelbaum, was there, however, and I thought I had nothingto lose whatsoever, so I went right up to Allen and said, "How isyour friend James Wright enjoying teaching at Hunter?" And Allensaid, "Oh" (his ears perked right up), "he'sgiving a poetry reading at the Y. You ought to go, dear." And soI said, "Well I will, I will. Let me know, but I'll lookit up." Allen Mandelbaum called James Wright and said that girlwas asking about you and you'd better do something. So what hedid was he called David Stevenson and said, "I'm giving apoetry reading in November, and I'm reserving three tickets, onefor you and Joan and one for your friend Miss Runk." Runk was mymaiden name. It's a Dutch name. And that was how it started. Imean, it was all very planned.
CD So, without Allen Mandelbaum's assistance you mightnever have met James.
AW Well, I think the Stevensons would have had us over fordinner because they knew I was interested.
CD Right. So then you went to the reading with greatexpectation.
AW Yes, and after the reading to a party at GalenWilliams's apartment. She was in charge of the 92nd Street Yreadings at that time. When I got there with the Stevensons, lames wassitting in a big armchair, and he saw me come in and took my arm andpulled me onto the arm of his chair. And I didn't leave thatplace for the rest of the evening. And that was it. I always describe itas two incurable romantics meeting each other.
CD He must have been just as romantic as he was haunted.
CD Even though you were in love with James, you discoveredfairly soon just how severe his drinking problem was, which in turn musthave caused you to have a few second thoughts about the future of yourrelationship with him.
AW Yes. I was worried about his drinking because I had drinkingproblems with my own family, but once he admitted he knew he had aproblem with drinking, I thought, well, that is the first step.
CD Did you bring up his drinking problem with him?
AW Yes, I did, and he said, "Yes, I know it's aproblem."
CD And you asked him what he was going to do about it?
AW I don't think I even said that, I just thought, Ididn't want to pursue that. To get him to admit it was a bigdeal. Then I thought, well, we will work on that.
CD So you started seeing him pretty regularly, and he did dosomething.
AW He did.
CD Pretty soon?
AW About a year after we were married he decided to go to atherapist, and I thought that was the beginning, and it was. But it wasa long time before he joined AA. When he got his honorary degree atKenyon, the president of Kenyon said in the little talk before theypresented him with the degree that James Wright had fulfilled thepromise of his youth. But James said, "No, I haven'tbecause I'm an alcoholic and that wasn't the promise of myyouth." I have an aunt who was in AA, and he called her up notlong after his trip to Kenyon, and she took both of us to an open AAmeeting. I went to a lot of open meetings with him for the first six orseven months.
CD I imagine he spoke pretty eloquently at his AAmeetings.
AW As a matter of fact, I never heard him talk. I have itwritten down somewhere what he wrote in his journal about his firstmeetings at AA, but afterward he wanted to start going to meetingswithout me, and that made sense.
CD If we could backtrack a bit to 1958, which was such acritical year for James in terms of discovering his own voice andfree-verse style amidst the crowd of his formalist peers.
CD After the success of his first two books, TheGreen Wall and St. Judas, both of which were noteworthy for their formal skill and empathicwitnessing to the lost and forgotten of Martins Ferry, James wrote toRobert Bly complaining about the crisis he was having with writing inblank verse. I found this passage in A WildPerfection, the 2005 book of James's letters that you and Sandra Rose Maleyso meticulously edited and published with Farrar, Straus andGiroux.
I mentioned having written a "Farewell to Poetry" even before I saw The Fifties .... The new imagination is so important, to all living human beings and not just the literati, that I am going to continue to search for it--and if I can find it in myself (though I believe I can), then I will identify and fight for it in others. And this is not mock humility--I see blood in the matter. I really do.
When James started reading Pablo Neruda, Theodor Storm, GeorgTrakl, and other modernist European and South American poets, herealized, like Bly, that there was really nothing preventing him fromwriting outside the formal tradition of English prosody except traditionitself and his rather academic critic's expectations. He feltenormously liberated and proceeded to abandon the iambic line, aliberation that lasted throughout the rest of his career. I thinkreaders and critics of James's work don't fully appreciatehow masterfully and quickly he shifted from formal to free verse,mastering his own enjambments and line breaks within a year or two afterpublishing St. Judas. One can only marvel at the inherent skill in his free verse thatinstilled his poems with a vital new breath and oneiric inspiration. Itwas as if he had discovered a gift that had been there all along butfelt he couldn't accept until Bly and the modernist"dogs" of Europe and Central America--Bly's termfor the international poets contemporary American writers and criticswere ignoring--convinced him otherwise.
AW Right. James actually discovered Trakl when he was in Viennaon his Fulbright Scholarship. He wandered into the wrong classroom andheard his first Trakl poem. He began translating Trakl then. That lovefor Trakl was a strong bond between him and Robert. With regard toRobert Bly's journal, The Fifties, going to that mailbox and finding it there was one of the mostexciting things that ever happened to him. It was the turning point ofhis life, the fulcrum. Those letters to Robert, their early exchanges inthe late fifties, were truly remarkable.
CD Bly was such an invaluable friend and mentor to him then, aswell as throughout the rest of his career. He continues to comment onhow much he still misses James.
AW He opened the door; he was his liberator.
CD What would have happened to James at that point in hiscareer without Robert Bly's hospitality and mentorship?
AW I think maybe he really would have stopped writing.
CD There were several American poets writing exquisite formalverse in the late fifties. In addition to James, I'm thinking ofRichard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, Maxine Kumin, JamesMerrill, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, ElizabethBishop, John Berryman, W. S. Merwin, and even John Ashbery. Althoughmost of these poets turned to free verse and their own idiosyncraticforms in the mid-sixties and seventies, they started out as skillfulformal poets.
CD But also many lesser academic poets who felt compelled towrite formally, or as James might have put it, "like slaves tothe iambic line."
AW Well, that was the way one wrote then.
CD Most poets, except for the beats, were polishing their blankverse in the fifties and early sixties to gain the approval from theacademy and its academic critics. James had the nerve, as well as theirrepressible need, to find a way out of the academic, formal rage thathad a chokehold on his colleagues, although he had already written someof the most accomplished formal verse of this era and maintained abrilliant ear for the ghost of form. He broke into free verse,concocting variable lines and ingenious enjambments, thumbing his nose,like Bly, at the traditional prosody he felt was antithetical to"the new imagination" and free verse. Bly likes to referto this poetic rebellion as "letting the dogs in," thoseEuropean modernists and South American poets--Pablo Neruda, AntonioMachado, Georg Trakl, Garcia Lorca, Theodor Storm, Juan RamonJimenez, Cesar Vallejo--who most American poets andreaders had never heard of. Also, his classical influences from Japan,China, and Italy--Po Chu-i, Tu Fu, Li Po, Catullus, and Horace. I thinkit's a little-known fact that James spent a year on military dutyin Japan following the war before heading to college at Kenyon on theG.I. Bill, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom. At the end of hispoem "Ars Poetica, Some Recent Criticism"--the first poemin Two Citizens, which was published in 1973--he angrily dismisses the champions ofreceived forms by the authority of his own self-abnegation:"Hell, I ain't got nothing. / Ah, you bastards, / How Ihate you." As raw as this attack might have been, one gets thefeeling he needed to say it.
AW Yes, exactly.
CD You were really the first woman then who provided stabilityin his life.
AW I helped him organize his life, and I did all the financesbecause he was quite helpless with that! And then we had all of thesewonderful trips to Europe.
CD So from Martins Ferry.
AW Quite a leap!
CD He dedicates his last book, ThisJourney, to the town of Fano in Italy, then adds, "where we got well,from Annie and me." What did he mean by "where we gotwell"?
AW We went to Bari. We went down to Apulia, and it was veryscary for him. We had had a very bad experience in Bari. Someone hadtried to snatch my purse and pushed me to the ground. We didn'tlike the city anyhow. We liked some of the things about it, but it wasreally a scary city. And we were warned. Don't go out.Don't keep your purse on your shoulder. Don't do this.Don't do that. And I heard later that there were gangs there, thedrug gangs. And it was a port city. He tended to be very frightened ofthings like that.
CD So you started going to Italy in the mid-seventies?
AW Our first trip was in 1970.
CD That early?
AW We went to Paris first. James wanted to show me his Viennabecause he had studied there. And I wanted to show him my Italy becauseI had taught there.
CD Vienna is where he went after receiving his Guggenheim,right?
AW No, he had a Fulbright during our first trip. He had aGuggenheim during our last trip to Europe. And I wanted to show him myItaly.
CD You had been to Italy?
AW I taught there for two years, at the overseas School ofRome.
CD I always wondered why he went to Italy instead of France orEngland or Spain.
AW Yes. And I loved Italy. And I wanted to go to Italy withhim, to a place where I had never been before because I didn'twant to be the guide. So we went to Bologna, and it was just a beautifulcity. It was the perfect city. He just fell in love with it. And it justbecame our country. He called it "the country of myheart." After we had that bad experience in Bari, we went back toFano, where we had a wonderful time in 1972, and it hadn'tchanged. It was safe. It was calm. And we liked where we stayed.
CD So there was suddenly this ...
AW Resurrection. And there was nothing to be scared of.
CD What do you think he had been scared of before?
AW I think--I'm just guessing--in Minneapolis there wasthat kind of lowlife that put him on guard.
CD Where he wrote so many superb raw poems, poems like"Hook," which actually appeared in To aBlossoming Pear Tree in 1977, many years after he lived in Minneapolis.
AW "Hook"--such a poem! In doing some researchwith the papers at the Andersen Library Manuscript Department at theUniversity of Minnesota this October, 2012, I looked through many draftsconnected with both Shall We Gather at the River and To a Blossoming Pear Tree. James didn't actually begin work on "Hook" untilhe began preparations for the manuscript of To a BlossomingPear Tree in 1974, a very tough year for him. [See the original draft of"Hook" in the preceding essay.] His parents died thatyear, and he had a breakdown after we returned from Europe. I discoveredfrom the drafts that both "Hook" and "To aBlossoming Pear Tree" were originally sections of the same poemhe started in 1974.
CD Remarkable. Both poems express such transcendent empathy. Ialways assumed James had left "Hook" out ofShall We Gather at the River, which was published in 1968, and then included it later in To aBlossoming Pear Tree. Its style and theme are so consistent with severalof the poems he wrote while living in Minneapolis in the mid-sixties,such poems as "The Minneapolis Poem," "A PoemWritten under an Archway in a Disconnected Railroad Station, Fargo,North Dakota," "Speak," "The Poor Washed Upin Chicago," and "Rip."
AW He found life menacing in Minneapolis and even morefrightening in Bari.
CD But you would never know from his poems that he wasfrightened by the lowlife in Minneapolis. He seems to embrace thedowntrodden in the same way his character Judas embraces themugger's victim in his poem "St. Judas." He seemsto transform his fear of the downtrodden characters he encounters inMinneapolis into compassionate elegies, as in these lines from theconclusion of "Speak":
I have gone forward with Some, a few lonely some. They have fallen to death. I die with them. Lord I have loved Thy cursed, The beauty of Thy house: Come down. Come down. Why dost Thou hide thy face?
And also stony resolve, as in the concluding lines of"Inscription for the Tank": "I have heard weepingin secret / And quick nails broken. / Let the dead pray for their owndead. / What is their pity to me?" Did you notice this sort ofemotional vacillation in him between compassion and resignation? And wasFano a place that healed not only his fear but a life-long wound ofphysical and psychological hardship?
Aw I'm not sure why I went on about the lowlife. I thinkJames was always aware of what dark, menacing things go on in all citiesand towns. One may not see or experience this kind of life, but we knowit's there. Perhaps he felt the only thing he could do about itwas write. After his losses in Minneapolis--his marriage, his job, hischildren who moved to California with their mother, his house on ComoAvenue--he lived in dreary places on miniscule funds. He hung out at thebars on Seven Corners, an area now spiffed up, which was a verydifferent life than that of academia. It wasn't skid row, but hemay have felt he ended up there. Yes, I agree, he moved betweencompassion and resignation. I think the return to Fano, a place we hadloved back in 1972, made him feel safe. It hadn't changed, and heknew his way around and what to expect.
CD In his poem "Piccolini," which appears inTo a Blossoming Pear Tree, James writes, "But those tiny fish which tickle the skin of myankles are so diminutive that they would have dissolved altogether intodroplets of mist at a mere touch of Catullus's fingertip. Ireckon that is why he never wrote of them by name, but left them tinyand happy in their lives in the waters where they still have their livesand seem to enjoy tickling the skin of my ankles." Such adifferent poem than a poem like "Beautiful Ohio," in whichhe celebrates the polluted waters of his hometown.
AW Oh, entirely different.
CD So he moves both psychically and geographically from thepolluted Ohio River to the dazzling piccolini at his ankles in a clearItalian river.
Aw Mingled feelings ... very mingled feelings in"Beautiful Ohio" that he didn't have about Catulluscountry in Italy. Catullus was the first person he ever translated whenhe was in high school.
CD So there is a ...
CD But it is almost as if he is realizing for the first timethat life can be this way--no longer as complicated and conflicted as ithad been for him in Martins Ferry and Minneapolis.
AW He dared to let himself be happy.
CD In his last two books, To a Blossoming PearTree and This Journey, there is, as Keats would say, such little "irritablereaching" in his poems. It seems as if his newfoundhappiness--his revelation that he really could be happy--was asimportant to him as writing poetry itself. Life and poetry seemed onefor him. His "new imagination"--the phrase he had readfifteen years earlier in Robert Bly's journal TheFifties and latched onto as a liberating term that helped him break out ofwriting blank verse--seemed more focused on actual events in hislife--his love for you, his professional stability at Hunter, his loveof such bucolic details and metaphysical topics as the piccolini,"a field outside of Pisa," and the "secret oflight"--than on fictive or figurative subject matter.
AW All his late poems, the attention to detail ... to theinsects, the lizards, even the mosquitoes. Although he also wrote aboutdetails in The Branch Will Not Break, but in a different way, I think. He's writing details about thedetails in To a Blossoming Pear Tree.
CD So, he no longer felt the need to witness in such apersonal, visceral way to the downtrodden of Martins Ferry andMinneapolis, as he had in his first four books. You must have seen achange in his behavior as well. He wasn't drinking anymore, andhe was finding a home for himself outside the Midwest in New York andItaly.
AW And in Europe he was also away from the pressures ofteaching.
CD As angry and frustrated as James still was at his academiccritics, by the time he wrote Two Citizens, in 1973, he was also growing more and more devoted to you. Hisjuxtaposition of philippics with love poems to you in this book isstriking. He moves from such public tirades as "Ars Poetica, SomeRecent Criticism" and "I Wish I May Never Hear of theUnited States Again" to deeply private love poems--"HotelLenox," "Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in theMountains," "On the Liberation of Woman"--aboutyou. He gives the impression that his marriage to you has become themost important thing in his life. You two are, in fact, the two citizensof Two Citizens.
AW Yes. And a lot of that book is about our trip to Europe.There are some wonderful poems in that book, and then some thataren't so great.
CD He risked pulling out all the stops.
AW He dared to do it. He really got slapped on the wrist forit, too.
CD What do you think?
AW I think some people thought the language was too simple.There was one line where he said, "Put that in your pipe andsmoke it." The critics were very critical of that.
CD In response to this criticism, he remarked in aParis Review interview with Peter Stitt, "My family background is partlyIrish, and this means many things, but linguistically it means that itis too easy to talk sometimes." Did he ever wonder if you had areaction to his loquaciousness or plain language?
AW No. No, he didn't.
CD He just wrote? He didn't talk that much aboutit?
CD You went to Europe four or five times?
AW Twice on big, long trips.
CD You loved Italy more than Paris.
AW We loved Paris too, but there was the whole country ofItaly. Tuscany and Verona, Venice.
AW It was.
CD And of course he had translated Catullus, so he must havefelt excited to be in Catullus country.
AW We went to Sirmione because of Catullus and alsoJames's Latin teacher from Martins Ferry High School, HelenMcNeely Sheriff.
CD She must have been a kind of substitute mother to James,along with Ms. Esterly. Also, his mentors.
AW Right, they were. I was lucky to spend time with ElizabethEsterly. Elizabeth and Henry had moved to Cupertino, California. Jamesstayed with them during his time of wandering (1964-66). During thesummer of 1968, we visited them together. Both Elizabeth and MissSheriff "discovered" him at Martins Ferry High School andencouraged him to pursue a classical education. Elizabeth invited him toconcerts and discussed literature with him. Later, I finally met MissSheriff. She lived in a beautiful old house in Cadiz, Ohio. James and Iwent there to dinner during one of the summers we visited Ted and HelenWright in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1976 or '77. She was amazing. Verysharp. She remembered the very place in her class where James sat. Inever saw Martins Ferry until after James's death. We did go toNew Concord and Zanesville, the town his parents moved to when they leftMartins Ferry.
CD Did they receive you okay?
AW Oh they were wonderful, yes. His mother said, "Ithank God for you every day."
CD So she felt, maybe, you were providing something shecouldn't.
AW I think she thought I was saving his life, but Idon't want to take responsibility for that.
CD Well, you did.
AW No. No one saves someone else's life unless you pullthem out from drowning.
CD But you almost did.
AW You can provide a life that helps them. Another woman whohelped him was Carol Bly. She was fantastic to him. He said when he wentout to the farm, it was the talks with Carol that were so comforting.The work with Robert was very stimulating and exciting, but Carol wasdown to earth. She was very kind to James, an intellectual companion,too. She was very bright, and also a writer.
CD He seemed to love these women who wrote powerful narratives.Carol did, and so did Leslie Marmon Silko, who corresponded for yearswith James and whose letters you also edited in the 2009 book,The Strength and Delicacy of Lace.
AW Right. They had fun. They did jokes. They did pranks, realpranks that were Carol's idea, I think. One year he was there forEaster, and she made bunny costumes for them, and they got dressed up intheir bunny costumes and went into the town of Madison, Minnesota, witha huge basket of hardboiled eggs and gave them to all the shopkeepers.They came to the drug store where Robert had been having a fight withthe druggist about who knows what, and James took an egg out and droppedit, and it wasn't hardboiled. James loved that story. He used totell it over and over again. But Martins Ferry was with him all thetime. He carried that baggage with him until the end.
CD And what was that like for you?
AW It was fascinating!
CD Did you ever visit Martins Ferry with James?
AW I never saw Martins Ferry until I attended the James Wrightfestivals after James died.
CD But you visited his parents with him when they were livingin another town in Ohio.
AW They were living in New Concord, Ohio, when we visited them,and then they moved to Zanesville.
CD What was that like for you, meeting them the firsttime?
AW It was another world.
CD Did he prepare you for the visit?
AW Well, he was always so negative about Ohio!
CD But also deeply in love with Ohio.
AW I know, I know. It was a love/hate relationship. When wefirst went, all the fields were filled with Queen Anne's lace. Itwas so beautiful.
CD As you say, Ohio stayed with him until the end.
AW Definitely. Absolutely. You see it in poems like "TheFlying Eagles of Troop 62," in which he refers to his friendsfrom high school who were trapped there.
CD As well as in his poem "The Old WPA Swimming Pool ofMartins Ferry, Ohio."
AW He didn't talk about it so much, but it wasdefinitely there. There were times, I think, he couldn't believethat he was a tenured professor with a Ph.D., with the admiration of hiscolleagues and his students.
CD And a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot.
AW Yes, and living in a beautiful apartment.
CD And going to Italy with you.
AW And going to Italy. It was like, who is this person?
CD So he was just pinching himself the whole time he was atHunter.
AW Yes, but I think very gradually learning to accept it. MaybeI'm worth it after all. Maybe I deserve it.
CD When he got sick, was there anything he said that hinted athow he actually felt about the arc of his life and career from humblechildhood in Martins Ferry to nationally renowned poet in his thirtiesand forties?
AW You know, when he got cancer, we never talked about it. Icouldn't bear ... we couldn't bear to talk about it. Ijust thought I'd start crying and that wasn't going tohelp him.
CD Right. When you say "it," you mean theillness.
AW The illness. The fact that it was terminal.
CD He was so courageous in his letters, announcing hiscondition so candidly to his close friend Leslie Marmon Silko. In aletter to her dated December 18th, 1979, he wrote:
I have learned that I have cancer. It is very serious, but it is not hopeless. My doctor is a good man and a highly skilled specialist, and he has assured me and Annie that the operation--radical surgery in the throat--will save my life. I will emerge from the surgery with a diminished capacity to speak, and this will create a problem, since I make my living by speaking. But there is a good chance that I will be able to continue teaching all right.... I have found that I have a number of considerable powers to help me. I have always been happy with my marriage to Annie, for example, but I suddenly have a deeper understanding of how very strong the marriage is.
AW He was very courageous. He couldn't ... wecouldn't talk about the fact that he was going to die.
CD Understandably. And yet he maintained his humor to theend.
AW Oh, when Edgar Doctorow came to see him, he wrote--hecouldn't talk--he wrote, "The leaves are falling."And apparently that was some joke they had at Kenyon College. PhilLevine and Mark Strand came together to visit him, and he wrote to them,"I'd rather be in Philadelphia."(Laughing.) So he didn't miss his sense of humor.
CD Donald Hall tells the story of James handing him a note thatsaid, "Don, I'm dying." Then writing another notethat said, "for a dish of ice cream."
AW His humor was indestructible.
CD You both summoned enormous emotional strength in dealingwith this sudden bad news.
AW I don't know how I did it. I call it having emotionalNovocain. Like a big shot. I didn't feel anything. I mean,that's not quite true.
CD You were both still so young.
AW Fifty-two. Very young.
CD Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, and Hayden Carruth helped himprepare This Journey for publication?
AW Yes, and also his good friend Roger Hecht, who came almostevery day to the hospital.
CD How did James know Hayden Carruth?
AW We met at Galway's when James and I spent a weekendwith the Kinnells in Sheffield, Vermont. Hayden came over for dinner.Then Hayden and James began a correspondence, and they came to know eachother well through the exchange of their letters. Hayden sent a postcardto James every single day he was in the hospital.
CD He and James had a similar trait; they both had such anenormous capacity for feeling so deeply for others.
AW Yes. That never ceased.
CD He seemed to have reached a higher awareness in the lastfive years of his life that afforded him well-deserved equilibrium anddisinterested objectivity. Was that something you realized, too?
AW I realized a change.
CD Lines like "mercy on me," and "my nameno mind," and "I love you best" are just so plain,naked, and powerful.
CD But if somebody isn't reading closely here, failingto understanding who James Wright is at this point in his life, orwhat's happening to him, the import and nature of this changemight easily elude them.
AW Those lines about the chickadee.
CD You mean from "To the Creature of theCreation"?
c o The chickadee appears in the last stanza of that poem,lines that could certainly be a homage to Theodore Roethke,James's teacher. I have it here.
What have I got to do? The sky is shattering, The plain sky grows blue. Some day I have to die, As everyone must do Alone, alone, alone, Peaceful as peaceful stone. You are the earth's body. I will die on the wing. To me, you are everything That matters, chickadee. You live so much in me. Chickadees sing in the snow. I will die on the wing. I love you so.
AW That's the one.
CD Thank you, Annie, for meeting with me today.
AW Thank you.
CHARD DENIORD is the author of four books of poetry, mostrecently The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and NightMowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. His book of essays andinterviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone,Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Jack Gilbert, and MaxineKumin), titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, StapledSongs, was published by Marick Press in 2012. He is a Professor of English atProvidence College and lives in Putney, Vermont, with his wifeLiz.
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|Title Annotation:||A Special APR Supplement|
|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
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