by Robert Henriques | Contributing Writer
James Wright: A Life in Poetry
It’s a great fortune that James Wright’s story fell to Jonathan Blunk to tell. Blunk has been as careful a reader and student of Wright as anyone alive. Beginning in 1990, he has gathered an oral history of the poet through interviews with some of our most notable writers, making wonderfully evident what it was to experience Wright on a personal level. With the loss of many of Wright’s colleagues—including Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Kizer, Hayden Carruth, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell— this biography proves just-in-timely. Combining these interviews with Wright’s letters, poem drafts, and journals, with travels to the poet’s creative loci, with finding the people central to Wright’s life, Blunk excels at informing us how Wright became a dominating figure of mid-century American poetry.
Jonathan Blunk’s book is a lucid, provocative, and supremely absorbing story of a most vivid literary creation: the poet James Wright, person of American letters, an exuberant, tortured, generous, and deeply human phenomenon. As Blunk quotes the filmmaker Irv Broughton, “James Wright was too much, and not enough. He was the proverbial wise-guy; the orator; the comic; the tragedian; the brilliant scholar; the old shoe; he was the quickest to follow the updraft of one’s words; and a most thoughtful and quiet listener.” Later descriptions of the poet complete the portrait. Wright was in a very real but problematic sense a muse for Anne Sexton. He was the brawling “Professor” at the Mixers bar in Minneapolis who entertained all with his renditions of Irish curse poems. He was the teacher who had—as he once said of his great mentor, Theodore Roethke—“the magical ability to shock a student into being himself.” Mary Oliver, in a letter sent to Wright upon reading The Branch Will Not Break, even seemed to inhabit one of the personae from his poems when she wrote:
Tonight, in a room the size of a cupboard, I am broke, I am getting a cold, intermittently I am thinking of someone who never comes anymore, and nothing really matters. I am radiant with happiness because James Wright exists.
In this biography, Blunk recounts how Wright astounded those around him with lengthy quotations from Dickens and Yeats and extemporaneous translations of Horace and Goethe (after first reciting poems in their original language)—an ability that Blunk attributes to his phenomenal tonal memory. Many around him were not only “exhilarated” but also “exhausted” by his “intensity” (“intensity” being a very common descriptor of a close encounter of a Wrightsean kind), by a being who lived poetry with utter devotion. But Wright was, paradoxically, also a great listener, with an unbounded generosity for humanity that imbues his poetry with moral urgency. Such is the vitality suggested by Blunk’s subtitle, “A Life in Poetry.”
James Wright’s life was, however, ripped by torment and turmoil. His poetry formed a response to a wound, to a rift, to a radical disjuncture between flesh and word, between a life-in-poetry and life-in-itself. As described in a letter to Robert Bly, Wright “abominated the Ohio Valley,”
that unspeakable rat-hole where I grew up … the slag heaps and the black trees and the stool-washed river and the chemicals from the factories of Wheeling Steel, Blaw Knox, the Hanna Coal Co. which … are the only images of childhood I can ever have.
Wright’s poems nevertheless frequently hearken back to the mill-town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, where he was born and raised. He never stopped searching for ways to accept his origins, much as they pained him. He would no more abandon his working class roots than he would take his own life. He did come very close to doing both. So what did he mean when Wright proclaimed that his sole objective in being a success was to “get out”? Perhaps Wright meant to get out from pain, that is, to find a response to that pain, through writing, to find a poetry-in-life.
If there is healing in poetry, it must be embodied in a voice, a voice that can be heard in the world. For Wright, “a poem is never a poem until read aloud.” This was the word made flesh, and this word was meant to be sung. This was, in its essence, a spiritual quest, a journey, to find “the pure clear word.” As Wright often quoted his teacher Stanley Kunitz, “What other morality has the artist but to endure?” Wright’s struggle to heal that wound was a struggle with death, with meaning. It created great turbulence in his affairs. After surviving the crucible, he would look back and say, “It is a wonder I didn’t get killed. No, that’s melodramatic. It’s a wonder I’m alive now.”
This melodrama did, however, produce some of the finest poems ever written. Blunk engages his reader in the close reading of Wright’s poems, contextualizing them with Wright’s letters and following their evolution through Wright’s drafts and journals. Blunk’s back and forth investigation of place and poem, of person and character, works a heady effect on the reader. We see Martins Ferry, Mukilteo, WA, and Verona, Italy, not just as places in his life but as poetic landscapes. Paddy Beck, Crum Anderson, and Aunt Agnes are characters first and historical persons second. Are we engaged in story or history? While Wright would never want us to detach ourselves from the moral demands of true history, it is perhaps this ultimate fiction that calls us to live up to our ethical principles. And here the reader might find herself elated, freed, and affirmed; for who among us is ready to say that our writings, our lives, do not matter? We are engaged and then made accomplice to Blunk’s own embroilment with the James Wright project. As Blunk writes in his opening preface,
The speaker welcomes us into these poems, and readers feel acknowledged and respected … [Wright] wants to tell the human, often painful, truth. … [He] used poetry as a way to survive.
Here Blunk exhorts us to hear his subject’s truths. As forceful as any great polemic, we come by the end of this biography to feel these truths as our own.
My name is James A. Wright, and I was born
Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,
In Martin Ferry, Ohio, where one slave
To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.
He tried to teach me kindness.
With his tremendous intellect, enviable store of thoughts from so many others, and an undeniable musical and imaginative gift, Wright would stand—as Whitman’s Colossus stands—before the rift that he would strive to heal. Sometimes he called this abyss hell, sometimes death, and sometimes the Ohio River. Wright would look beyond the failures of Martins Ferry’s working folk to that other shore where “all we want is to explore kindness the enormous country where everything is silent.” He would hear the ghost of Apollinaire call to him from that country, that “voice out of the many voices, that bids me stand and live,” that called to him to be the poet that “has to choose to become himself.” And then James Wright would belt back with a long pull from a tumbler full of bourbon.
“Being James Wright was a real job,” said Harry Weber, who, as a friend to the poet, witnessed some of the most prodigious drinking binges in literary history. Maybe the “real job” was too big for anyone. Maybe the alcohol helped. Maybe it was his genetic history or his unaccountable self-loathing. Maybe it was hard to live with his choices, marrying his hometown sweetheart burdened with her own demons, knowing the marriage was a failure even before their first child was born, and then suffering with the guilt of his fatherly duties abandoned. Maybe he drank because his drinking was the excuse that his Department Chair used to deny him tenure, when he knew that really it was just envy; it wasn’t the class sessions that repeatedly he was too drunk to teach; it wasn’t the carousing with students; it was his own genius that blighted Wright’s hope for a stable career. Maybe, as Blunk tells us, Wright drank the way he did because he could:
Alcohol remained a staple of literary society; it was assumed that writers drank. … A poet must indulge to excess in order to court the Muse. In America, the idea that the country was too massive and tough for a poet to survive reinforced the romantic figure of self-destructive genius.
In the age when the pickled poet was seen as superhuman, Wright was determined to be the last one standing—at the bar. This preternatural capacity to wrestle with these coarser spirits earned a measure of grudging awe from his fellow writers. There’s the story that Philip Levine tells that, after polishing off a fifth of bourbon by the mid-afternoon poetry reading, Wright grabbed a random book, as a prop, and proceeded to recite, from memory, another faultless performance of his own and others’ poetry.
Whatever rhetorical flourish that Wright might come up with, it was alcohol that in the end became its own reason. It would take AA meetings and hospitalizations and years of coaxing by his second wife before he would make the changes he had to make to get sober. At a party Wright once declared that he suffered more than other people, to which Anne retorted, “No, James, you drink more than other people.”
The “real-time” justifications that can be given for Wright’s willingness to come to a shaky truce with sobriety did not dissuade Wright from seeing his recovery as one of his many resurrections. After he had achieved sobriety with an absolute finality, he would live for only a few more years. But James Wright wrote in his last book, This Journey, a dedication that would give no clue that he was writing it on his death bed; he claimed instead to be healed, and in new-found health:
To the city of Fano
Where we got well,
From Annie and me
Fano was not just the small fishing enclave on the Adriatic where Jim and Anne Wright had returned to as a respite during their last trip to Italy in 1979. Fano was a different country, and Wright was inviting us to join them there.
“I was trying to move from death to resurrection and death again, and challenge death finally,” he said in one interview. These were words lived. As a child, he understood privations and cardboard in-soles that covered the holes in his winter boots. He knew the sunless anger of the blast furnaces at Wheeling Steel. Wright knew the insides of the asylum, where as a 15-year-old acutely psychotic boy he was strapped down under the fluorescent lights of a carbolized ward-room and submitted to repeated shock treatments produced by insulin-induced hypoglycemia. As an adult, Wright would return to those psychiatric wards. Wright knew despair. He knew the desperation of the hobos along the Mississippi in Minneapolis whom he met just before they took the plunge.
I think Wright would be mortified to say aloud that poetry as an activity had saved his life. But he did suggest as much in letters and in conversation. And here I will consider whether we should take that claim seriously. Blunk tells us, as brief example, that Wright had at one time even written out a suicide note, detailing arrangements for his body, giving instructions on disposing his worldly possessions, and writing out his epitaph; but then, just before the dénouement of this crisis, Wright was invited by a publisher to submit a chapbook. He became so rejuvenated by this new creative direction that he gave up thoughts of suicide.
His peculiar relation to the Word started early in life. As a preadolescent he was shouting out poems to anyone who would listen. Then his grandmother introduced him to the Word in the Bible. Wright became fascinated and Wright became devout, only to be confronted by the agnostic’s doubts promoted in popular scientific paperbacks. His family and his family doctor attributed this 15-year-old’s descent into insanity to a combustible mix of ideas rather than to a misfiring neuron. The Bible was banished from the home and never brought up again as a source of material fact.
Wright does not, however, abandon the word. The cadence and metaphor of the King James Bible continued to nourish the body of his poems. And then words themselves would redeem the young Wright. At sixteen his English teacher encouraged him to write and his Latin teacher introduced him to Catullus, Horace, and Virgil, which he would memorize and translate. He would grow with robust good health for many years … that is, until his next literary crisis.
As a young graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, married and with a young child, he received a letter from a teenage student asking for advice on how to become a successful writer. And so it happened that Wright had found his Muse. There were a few other muse-like figures in his life with whom Wright would make extended letter-writing relations, but none as poignant and ridiculous, beautiful and chaste, and none as important to his poetry as the one he had with this literary projection onto a somewhat flummoxed, skeptical young woman who had only asked him to help her find her own identity in the modern world. He dedicated his second book to her as his student, but then he began transfiguring Sonjia Urseth into “Jenny,” pouring out his most secret thoughts to her. “Somehow I feel more myself with words that I can form on a page,” Wright told her in the first of nearly two hundred letters—each many pages, with 2 or 3 sometimes written in one day. Wright modeled their relationship on that of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet; he would praise and critique her work, transcribe huge sections of books “necessary” to her education and give her commentary on many others. He was enthusiastically supportive of her writing, and trusted her to read drafts of his poems and translations, and to her he voiced his innermost thoughts on art. Like many of the people who “loved him for his words,” Sonjia would try to honor him. She would “be what he wanted me to be,” signing many letters as “Jenny Mapleleaf.” She was kind to him. She offered him a life-preserver that lifted him from despair:
Poetry’s been keeping you alive for years, right? Well now it’s your turn to keep it alive. And for God’s sake, give yourself time. You told me to be patient. You must be, too.
The vestal robes proved discomfiting for the young woman. Sonjia would never see Wright without a friend to escort her. He was infuriated at hearing that she would marry. With a decision grounded in psychological health, she broke away; she would never write him back. Wright collapsed, back into despair, addiction, and the wreckage of his life, bereft of the unconditional love that he sought. He would tell interviewers that she had died long ago. The figure of Jenny would haunt many of his poems for years to come: now she was ghost, now she was a figure face-down on the river bed that he would seek to resurrect, now she was a broken drunk wandering the night streets of an indifferent America.
The chthonic powers of the Muse could not be contained in their squirmy, fraught relationship. At some level, James Wright knew this. His letters are made largely of drafts of poems and voluminous disquisitions into poetics. This strongly suggests a certain necessary instrumentality to the exchange with Sonjia and to his relationship with “Jenny.” Sonjia herself was also clearly aware of the parameters of their relationship: it was, first and foremost, a literary relationship. The critical character trait of the Muse was that he had something to say to her.
For years afterward he wouldn’t stop talking to her, even after Sonjia was not listening. She became someone else. When at last he realized he had no more to say to her, he began another act of transformation, and Wright himself became someone else. Even though Wright was already a fully developed poet, he outgrew “Jenny.” Or maybe it was his poetic world that grew. Like those of us who find a way to survive the unspeakable grief of losing a loved one, our greater world welcomes us in and cradles our grief. “I’m getting sort of tired of the darkness,” he told one interviewer. “There is something to be said for the light, also, after all.”
Blunk sensitively chose this critical juncture in the poet’s life to be the focal point around which his book revolves. It occurs dead center in a 400-page book. The first half of the book is a mostly affirming bildungsroman, in which we see Wright climb to the most celebrated status he would achieve during his life. He had published The Branch Will Not Break and was on the cusp of releasing Shall We Gather at the River, the two books that many feel have ensured his legacy. “He is the poet,” his friend Robert Bly exulted, and Bly was far from alone in this fulsome praise for Wright, even before he received the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems in 1972. And yet, at this very height of acclaim, Wright was still climbing out from the ruins of his personal life—and still drinking. The second half of Blunk’s book also starts here, with Wright’s difficult ascent, as he slowly made peace with his life and found forgiveness for himself. Traveling with his second wife, Anne, in Europe, he stayed largely away from the merciless light of the public eye and found a different home in a different kind of light, the light of Italy and of an abiding love. Blunk finds the beginnings of Wright’s healing in his creation of a poem, in a poem to Jenny, in Wright’s eloquent appeal “To the Muse.” In his reading of this poem, Blunk quite rightly identifies the poet as Orpheus, descending to reclaim Eurydice who has been re-visioned a suicide to whom Wright beckons: “Come up to me, love, / Out of the river, or I will / Come down to you.” Blunk continues,
the only Muse that could sustain him must be true to the reality and the place he knew, with all its pain and desolation. … Rooted to American soil and language, Jenny embodies what Lorca called duende—the terrifying, vitalizing awareness of death, the essential shadow figure and source of inspiration that Bly and others have called the daemon.
The entire poem is a terrible gamble and proof of enormous confidence. … Wright is best understood as a dramatic poet and Sonjia Urseth … dismissed any simple identification of herself with the figure of “Jenny.” … The poet declares his allegiance to the place of his birth, but he can’t be sure the Muse will answer him. As death-haunted as the poem can seem, there is a complexity of emotion and a range of tones, not least the stubborn will to survive. “I’ve gone for a long time in a kind of compromise with despair, not conscious of having written much, just conscious of several kinds of defeat,” Wright had told [Donald] Hall … “And yet, somehow, the poems have appeared now and then, accumulating in a darkness.”
Similar to Wright’s relation to the Muse is his relation to his Voice. At once circumspect and wildly inebriate, Wright was not seduced by his own voice. The mid-century white male poet-god, lying on his grimy cot in Minneapolis, staring at the spider on his ceiling at 2 AM, was one type of fiction. There is a different James Wright, one of great wit and compassion, who steps into the light and recites “The Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle” and “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62.” The sweep of that voice, of that genius, was driven by experimentation, development, and growth, a growth born from (to hearken back to that Kunitz letter to Wright) that “ultimate discontent” that artists bear toward themselves. As Kunitz wrote once to Wright, “The fiercest hearts are in love with a wild perfection.”
Artifice and affectation, forms of rhetoric, relics, and refurbishing by the tool-maker: with these instruments the ground is prepared in this world, in this reality, to make a poetic landscape. Rather than despair when confronted by the absurdity of the task, by the breadth of the abyss, poets will grow, will change, “simply doing, / from the deepest // spurs of their being, / what they are impelled to do.”[modern_footnote]Mary Oliver, from “The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water,” in New and Selected Poems (1992).[/modern_footnote] They are those among us “in love with a wild perfection.” In an unpublished interview with Blunk in 2011, the poet Li-Young Lee offered an allusive empathy for the necessity of Wright’s purposes: “I think he’s creating a speaker, paradigmatic for him, even, to live up to. … I feel as if he was living toward that voice. It was almost like an image of God that you try to live toward.”[modern_footnote]Lee-Young Lee, unpublished interview by Jonathan Blunk, June 24, 2011. Copyright 2017 by Jonathan Blunk; used by permission.[/modern_footnote] Without this vision, Lee believed, Wright would have perished. The sense of possibility Lee heard in Wright’s voice—that such a way to be in the world is possible—helped sustain him as a young man: “I feel as if, quite frankly, without his work, I would have perished.”
This quote informs the thematic direction of the biography. We first experience the challenge that Wright faced, the challenge to find his Voice, his Vision, when we meet him in the prologue, entitled “At a Point of Beginning.” There he re-creates a crucial literary crisis in Wright’s life, a point betwixt and between. The readers find themselves in medias res, between the completion of Wright’s first two books, The Green Wall and Saint Judas, and the beginning of The Branch Will Not Break. This is the imaginary place betwixt, where Wright has been misunderstood—infamously misunderstood—to have abandoned traditional prosody and begun a “free” verse. Brilliantly, Blunk has chosen to collapse this rarefied debate down to the making of a single poem, but it’s not just any poem (can it possibly be any one poem?); it is instead the poem to end all the poems, the poem with which Wright meant to murder his Poetic self, as modeled on Robert Herrick’s “His Farewell to Poetry.”
The poem that would eventually be titled “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium” is written beneath the air ducts and spider webs of an unfinished basement buried in a little box of a house, Wright sweating in a Minneapolis swelter, beneath the foot-falls of his estranged and strangely pregnant wife and their son Franz. Wright himself is in a morose, obsessive rage for having been denied a teaching position in his “paradise” in Seattle, while his Dickens characters chatter at him to finish his dissertation and be done with it. An unremitting self-loathing stalks him with such vehemence that he would be hospitalized nine months later for the first time in his adult life. But as horrific as his situation might seem, none of these existential insults are sufficient to produce the crisis that would provoke him to kill his own poet. Wright is experiencing a literary crisis.
We have learned paradoxically (again!) that this young poet’s career could not have looked more sunny: W. H. Auden had chosen Wright’s first book for the Yale Younger Poets Award, and Auden’s praise virtually guaranteed that it was published to general acclaim. So naturally Wright is in despair! The Green Wall is written with an exquisite ear and faultless prosody. But the critic James Dickey had condemned it as conventional; its themes were stilted; its tone, too sincere. Blunk draws for us the intolerable dissonance of Wright’s attempt to reconcile this critique: those poems are very dear to him, they are his soul; but he knows at once, somehow and irreconcilably, that Dickey is largely correct. Our young poet does not see the two arms of a dialectic; he instead reduces them to an ineluctable syllogism: he must be a very bad poet, with even worst taste! Is there any other option but to suicide his poet? This time he will succeed: he will stop speaking, stop writing, “even if [he has] to tape [his] fingers and thumbs together.”
Then, just as he begins drafting “His Farewell,” Wright is gobsmacked with the first issue of The Fifties, a magazine whose editors make the notorious claim that American poems of the day were encrusted in device and prosody, they are “old-fashioned.” One of those editors, Robert Bly, championed Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Federico García Lorca, and Juan Ramón Jiménez as the new models, poets who use a natural diction to manifest intuitively understood truths. Wright immediately writes back to Bly, initiating one of the most fruitful correspondences and enduring friendships in 20th-century poetry. The period where they were closest would correspond for both poets to the writing of their most memorialized poems. Bly’s support for Wright would also prove physically life-saving as well, many times. But at this introduction, Wright still believed he is finished with poetry, and his letter expresses gratitude to Bly that at least someone else would be there to carry on.
Wright does of course finish the poem, though Blunk creates great drama from the turmoil surrounding the poem. We are given to believe that the success of this poem is not only decisive for Wright, but that the motive for the entire biography to follow is to elucidate that success. Blunk prods us further: How can it be that this poem would prove redemptive, would amount to the Lazarus trick that kept him writing? For if there is any “theme” to be scooped from the skull of “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium,” it is that Wright is forced to confront his failure, both in this poem and in the ultimate failure, his life. Its title suggests the lapidary adumbrations of an arthritic hand. The voice tells us it is overwhelmed, drowned by the “tiller of waves”; it is too stunned to even describe the “whatever” that will kill it; Wright finishes the poem with the voice saying, “Look. I am nothing.”
In a later appreciation of Neruda’s poetry, Wright would offer an understanding of the re-vivifying force of this poetry of descent.
If great poetry means anything, anything at all, it means disturbance, a secret disturbance. … It is bad enough to be miserable; but to be happy, how far beyond shock it is. To be alive, with all one’s unexpected senses, and yet to face the fact of unhappiness. … I want poetry to make me happy, but the poetry I want should deal with the hell of our lives or else it leaves me cold.
Wright found inspiration through the work of translating the great Latin American and Spanish poets that Bly and others celebrated. It was Wright’s nature, in fact, as Blunk writes, to “follow his ear.” Blunk makes an excellent case for linking Wright’s religious devotion to “the pure clear word” to a mystic’s passion for music. From the beginning of his poetic education in high school Latin class, Wright applied this passion to translating poems. He later described the joy of this work as that of an anonymous apprentice. The translations he chose to publish are a tremendous gift to English speaking people. It was not only Robert Bly who considered Wright to have been “born with a most superb literary intelligence—that’s the most amazing fact about him, I think—so fine that it cannot be distinguished from a musical intelligence.” We can therefore know why it was that Wright moved away from self-immolation, away from abandoning the project of poetry. Simply put: Wright had just heard some new music.
Wright might nearly have abandoned himself to the disordered maelstrom of a wordless life, but he never once doubted the salutary, the necessary writings by others. He would reprise this closely held faith often in his praise for other writers, perhaps most poignantly expressed in the published exchange between him and Leslie Marmon Silko, as collected in The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: “I am extremely glad, and, in a way, relieved, that you exist.”
While catholic in his love of poetry, Wright was expansive in his appetite for literature from all sources; he was an omnivore ranging far removed from the European dining rooms of “the canon.” He was inspired by Spanish Civil War poems and poems from the Chinese of the T’ang Dynasty; he was a fierce advocate for the Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer and the more recent work of Michael S. Harper. Wright’s audiences often heard more poems by others than they did of Wright’s own work, recitations of Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. A. Robinson, Edward Thomas, and dozens more.
And consistent with that, Wright never accepted the pronouncements of critics who claimed he had made some radical or opportunistic or ideological shift when he moved from traditional prosody to free verse. Rather he said,
There wasn’t a truly radical change taking place between the books Saint Judas and The Branch Will Not Break. But it was just that I hadn’t previously tried to subject myself to the discipline of writing real, good free verse. I thought it was about time to do that. I wanted to—and I continue to try to—listen to as many kinds of music in our language as I could.
Such insight might help us to understand some of Wright’s more obscure statements on the nature of his work and of poetics generally. “What is the form of poetry?” he once asked an audience.
It really goes beyond the rhetoric into the discovery, I suppose, of the shape of one’s own life. And if one can discover the shape of one’s own life, then one is dealing with poetry. He’s discovered, or has started to discover, the true shape of poetry.
Wright expressed impatience with those who asked him to explain “the deep image” in his poetry, for this was a label he never used. I do think, however, he might have understood me when I say that Wright was a lover of the deep grammar of poetry, of what is, really, nothing more than the human voice.
Wright’s poetry continued to grow, organically, until the very end of his life. There is no clue that This Journey was a destination. Wright was not given the time to make his own defense for his later work. If Wright had been able to recite his late poems to audiences, I am sure that an appreciation for his last book would not have been so slow to accumulate. Wright had gained a marvelous fluency in prose, but he never abandoned other forms of poetic expression, including the classic sonnet. Blunk tells the story of Wright’s final months with poignancy and dignity. After his voice was taken away from him by a permanent tracheostomy, Wright still struggled to work on his poems from his hospital bed, making the final changes to his final book before a terrible battle consumed a terribly brave man.
Jonathan Blunk’s book could not, after 38 years of honest effort, appear to be more timely—we never needed the critical biography of James Wright more than now, in this cynical, suffocating time. We must re-open ourselves to the search for a moral ground. With this in mind I suggest the prose poem, “May Morning”:
Deep into spring, winter is hanging on. Bitter and skillful in his hopelessness, he stays alive in every shady place, starving along the Mediterranean: angry to see the glittering sea-pale boulder alive with lizards green as Judas leaves. Winter is hanging on. He still believes. He tries to catch a lizard by the shoulder. One olive tree below Grottaglie welcomes the winter into noontime shade, and talks as softly as Pythagoras. Be still, be patient, I can hear him say, cradling in his arms the wounded head, letting the sunlight touch the savage face.
This poem is filled with artifact, with ghosts, with ancient conceits, but it is told to the clear salt air in bright-green daylight. We hear in it a natural, relaxed speech, a strong, frequently iambic rhythm. Blunk tells us that Wright would alternate between prose and verse as he wrote and re-wrote the versions of his late poems before he settled finally on their final form. With line breaks restored, “May Morning” is, in fact, a sonnet.
I am going to go out again on yet another interpretive limb that I cannot possibly defend: Wright chose to print this poem in prose because it is not meant to be seen, to be read; it is meant to be heard. I suggest that you memorize the 94 words of this poem. You can do this if you take it outside some crisp morning and recite it to yourself a few times. The poem will breathe for you. It will find its own line breaks for you. Then, you will have rubbed and polished this poem into the grain of your mind. Then, you will be given permission to start to trust yourself. Then, you can take it with you to where it really belongs, into the dark. Some insomniac night when you are “spinning in such bewildered sleep,” you then can give it your voice.