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Poems by James Wright


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
September 27, 1998

I have been reading the poetry of James Wright this week. Partly to deflect my attention from the public spectacle we've all been dragged through, partly because Wright despised the self-righteousness and prurience in American public life. He wrote of Eisenhower's visit to Franco in 1959:

The American hero must triumph over
The forces of darkness.

He wrote of his countryman Warren Harding:
He died in public. He claimed the secret right
To be ashamed.

Wright, who died in 1980, grew up in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, in the middle of the Depression. He knew what hard times were in a factory town in
America in those years when his father worked for Hazel-Atlas Glass and
his friends' fathers worked for Wheeling Steel and their sons lurked
aimlessly on Saturday nights along the banks and among the sinkholes of
the polluted river whose name – Ohio – meant "beautiful" in the native
language of the place.

When I started reading him, thinking I might find something to sum up the
week's event, I found myself reading the poems that turn away from public
life, lean, clear poems that take something from the simplicity and
strangeness of the Spanish poetry he read and translated:

Trying to Pray

This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
There are good things in this world.
It is dusk.
It is the good darkness
Of women's hands that touch loaves.
The spirit of a tree begins to move.
I touch leaves.
I close my eyes and think of water.

Or this one, which could be thought of as a commentary on public events which were a lot like bad art:

Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me

Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

His work can be found in "Above the River: The Complete Poems," published jointly by Farrar Straus Giroux and the University Press of New England.

(James Wright's "Trying to Pray" and "Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me" from "Above the River: The Complete Poems" 1990 by Anne Wright, Wesleyan University Press. Used by permission of University Press of New England. Originally printed in "The Branch Will Not Break," 1963, Wesleyan University Press.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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