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Monday, December 13, 2010

W. H. Auden, Robert Bly, and James Wright on the questions and forms that define an age

From his first book, something in the poems of James Wright (who would have turned 83 today) seemed to capture the age. W. H. Auden launched Wright’s career by selecting The Green Wall, his first book of poems, as the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition for 1957. In his foreword Auden wrote:
One way of perceiving the characteristics of an age is to raise certain fundamental questions which human beings have always asked and then seeing how the poets of that age answer them, such questions, for example, as: “What is the essential difference between man and all the other creatures, animal, vegetable, and mineral?” “What is the nature and human significance of time?” “What qualities are proper to the hero or sacred person who can inspire poets to celebrate him and what is lacking in the churl or profane person whom poetry ignores?”
Auden found Wright’s attitude to nature and time distinctive, but “even more striking [was] the kind of person” Wright chose to speak of:
. . . the persons who have stimulated Mr. Wright’s imagination include a lunatic, a man who has failed to rescue a boy from drowning, a murderer, a lesbian, a prostitute, a police informer, and some children, one of them deaf. Common to them all is the characteristic of being social outsiders.
These questions and characters recur through more than two decades of Wright’s poems—but the change in how he approached them would define his work. Wright felt stuck after publishing his second book, Saint Judas (1959). But reading a translation of a poem by Georg Trakl in the first issue of The Fifties prompted Wright to write a sixteen-page, single-spaced letter to the magazine’s editor, Robert Bly. Bly’s response was simple: “Come on out to the farm.” Wright went and credits Robert and Carol Bly with saving his life.
[Bly] made it clear to me that the tradition of poetry which I had tried to master, and in which I’d come to a dead end, was not the only one. He reminded me that poetry is a possibility, that, although all poetry is formal, there are many forms, just as there are many forms of feeling.
The result was The Branch Will Not Break (1963), the book in which Wright developed what Peter A. Stitt calls his “distinctive voice.” The poet described the importance of Bly’s farm to the book in his Paris Review interview with Stitt:
At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about. Every Friday afternoon I used to go out to Bly’s farm, and there were so many animals out there. There was Simon, who was an Airedale, but about the size of a Great Dane. There was David, the horse, my beautiful, beloved David, the swaybacked palomino. Simon and David used to go out by Bly’s barn. David would stand there looking out over the corn fields that lead onto the prairie of South Dakota, and Simon would sit down beside him, and they would stay there for hours. And sometimes . . . I went and sat down beside Simon. Neither Simon nor David looked at me, and I felt blessed.
Readers familiar with Wright’s best known poem, “The Blessing,” may recognize the horse and the setting. In 1971 Wright’s Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes “The Refusal,” “The Blessing,” and “Saint Judas” by James Wright)

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