The life and work of a major American poet described in his own words.
"There is something about the very form and occasion of a letter--the possibility it offers, the chance to be as open and tentative and uncertain as one likes and also the chance to formulate certain ideas, very precisely--if one is lucky in one's thoughts," wrote James Wright, one of the great lyric poets of the last century, in a letter to a friend. The Great Conversation is a compelling collection that captures the exhilarating and moving correspondence between Wright and his many friends. In letters to fellow poets Donald Hall, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinnell, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, and Robert Bly, Wright explored subjects from his creative process to his struggles with depression and illness.
A bright thread of wit, gallantry, and passion for describing his travels and his beloved natural world runs through these letters, which begin in 1946 in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, the hometown he would memorialize in verse, and end in New York City, where he lived for the last fourteen years of his life. Selected Letters is no less than an epistolary chronicle of a significant part of the midcentury American poetry renaissance, as well as the clearest biographical picture now available of a major American poet.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 01, 2005
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from A Wild Perfection by James Wright
A Wild Perfection
I began in Ohio. I still dream of home.
--from "Stages on a Journey Westward"
At Fort Lewis, Washington, Twelve years ago, when I was eighteen, We fired all day long at practice targets And wounded one of our own men. When I ran to help him, I saw a whole gray earth Opening in a vein of his cry: From full green to emptiness, A mile's field of dead fir stumps High as the level of adolescent waists, Low as a man's knees. We had mown a grove down. I was one of the State's gardeners.
--from "The Trees in Minnesota"
As far as the school proper is concerned, Jack and I both are supremely satisfied. The caliber of the teachers is evidently very excellent, and consequently the requirements are stiff. We shall be expected to wrestle with the books often and with energy if we want to retain our feeling of intelligence.
--from a letter to the parents of Jack Furniss February 29, 1948
The earliest of James Wright's letters to be found were written in the spring of 1946. One is to his high school English teacher, Elizabeth Willerton, and the other is to her friend Professor James L. McCreight. In each letter James discussed plans to enlist in the service and presented personal views on Latin poetry, his great love.
James enlisted in the army that summer. After completing basic training, he served with the peacetime army in Japan. He continued to read, study, translate the works of Catullus, and admire not only Latin poetry but poetry in general. He also wrote to his parents, Jessie and Dudley Wright; Susan Lamb; and Elizabeth Willerton.
Susan Lamb, later Graham, was a classmate from Martins Ferry High School. She and James had worked together on the yearbook staff of the 1946 Ferrian, he as editor and she as assistant editor. He often included a sonnet or translation in his letters to her. Elizabeth Willerton, later Esterly, was portrayed by James as a teacher who "introduced her high school students to literature with a clarity and intelligence, a kind of summons to enter whatever nobility there is in the human race, with something very like genius."
After he was discharged from the army, James returned to his family, who had moved from Martins Ferry to a farm at nearby Warnock. "As for home," he wrote Susan Lamb, "I am situated on a farm, plopped down in the wilderness about fifteen miles out of Bellaire. The atmosphere suits me famously. I have music for passivity, books for activity and a free-thinking mother for conversation."
James met Jack Furniss, a young man from Ohio, while in the army. Furniss recommended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to James, and they both were accepted, enrolling as freshmen in January 1948. James formed close friendships with many fellow classmates, includingAlbert Herzing, E. L. Doctorow, Roger Hecht, Robert Mezey, and Eugene Pugatch. Equally strong bonds were formed with his teachers John Crowe Ransom, Philip Timberlake, and Andre Hanfman. Most of these friendships were to last throughout his life.
The letters written during his four years at Kenyon reveal James's scholarship, growing interest in music, and broadened exposure to literature. After graduating from Kenyon in January of 1952, James married Liberty Kardules, a fellow student at Martins Ferry High School. The young couple went to Center Point, Texas, where James taught for a semester at the Tenney School, and then sailed for Europe that fall, as James had been accepted at the University of Vienna in Austria as a Fulbright Scholar. Their son Franz was born there on March 18, 1953.
In the spring of 1953 James sent a highly detailed six-page letter to Robert Mezey. It was handwritten in the cramped but neat style that James would employ throughout his life. The first four pages contain extensive comments on a group of Mezey's poems, including one very long one. The last two pages, which are included here, offer both advice and encouragement to Mezey. The end of the letter divulges James's own thoughts on Vienna and America as seen from a new and distant perspective. The letter closes with loving words about his new son.
To James L. McCreight
Martins Ferry, Ohio Spring 1946
Dear Professor McCreight:
Of course, by this time, you have forgotten our discussion of Latin and English poetry. Still, ponder a moment and recall me as the rather wild-eyed young man whose conception of the Muses stirred you to send him a volume of Catullus.
As I told you, I discovered Catullus in a Caesar book during my second year of Latin, and the white gush of nobility in his lines ate at me considerably. Perhaps his ability to create poetical images could not approach that of Virgil, or even that of the more sensible Horace, but his cries, such as:
--nam tui Catulli; plenus sacculus est aranearum.
--charged me with a weird hunger, such as that created by Chopin or Poe.
I have included with this letter a few translations, or paraphrases. They do not cling to his purity; no translation, however perfect, can do that, for a poet's balancing of his native tongue is shocked by a translation, and can scarcely be reconstructed.
Your kindness in sending me the books has given me the courage to include, also, a work which I consider my most mature. The defects in my "Elegies" are very apparent. I am conscious, in my re-reading of them, of a clumsy straining after effect. But in no other attempt have I so utterly succeeded in speaking for myself, and I am convinced thatany originality which exists in them is valuable enough to overshadow their weaknesses. As you read them, you will be conscious of the absence of a syllable here and there, and even of the discarding of iambics altogether. I would rather sacrifice technical skill than sincerity. And I have let the rhythm of emotion govern many of the lines rather than the rhythm of Milton.
Within a few days I shall undergo a physical examination for the Navy. If I pass, I shall be two years removed from a formal education. However, I hope to become well situated, so that I may work more with Catullus, and thus keep Latin alive within me.
If you will pardon the colloquialism, I don't understand why I continue my writing of these damned verses. I tell myself that I care little or nothing for people's opinions, but my vanity prods me toward attempts at publication.
Most likely, I shall starve, a degenerate.
Thank you again for your consideration in sending the poems of Catullus. His songs are pure gold, and he will live forever.
Thank you, Jim Wright Kuckuck Lane, Stop 4 Martins Ferry, Ohio
To Elizabeth Willerton
Martins Ferry, Ohio Spring 1946
Dear Miss Willerton:
Having nearly lost count of time and space, I have no idea when this letter may reach you. Yet, the thing must be written, and the boil must be squeezed.
John Harrison and I have been barred from the Navy, because of our eyesight. Whether or not we shall pursue the Army, I cannot say. For God's sake! I don't know where to turn. If I attempt to attend school, the draft will surely suck me up. Still, I am almost certain that I can scrabble through one year on what I have saved. My longing for Latin is deeper than ever now, since I have assembled a vocabularylarge enough to read the beautiful volume of Catullus not only with pleasure, but with a great deal of fire.
Among his lyrics I discovered a sweet little song which weighs the merits of a lovely Gallic maiden with the beauty of Lesbia. His hendecasyllables are without blemish, and so I used the same meter in my translation. The spondee, the dactyl, and the three sparkling trochees ripple quickly but in a loosely hung rhythm, like a flicker of light. Also I have paraphrased his "spring song" into iambics, which hardly do justice to its purity. O for a tongue like Latin, full of thunder, each word being supported by its separate classical marble column!
You will be interested to hear that I have only recently completed the reading of Thomas Wolfe's novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I have nothing to say. Only I would give my tongue for a chance to review it with you. It confirms a wild idea of mine: that Tom Wolfe and William Saroyan are two of America's greatest poets, although their genius ran, and is flowing, through the medium of prose.
I found Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy" as nauseating as you declared, but I turned thereupon to his sonnets, and again I found him to be what a low and ancient whisper had long before claimed: that, regardless of any allusion to degeneracy, William Wordsworth was a noble poetic spirit, and his sonnets rank with any cry in their weird simplicity of effervescence. Damn the disillusion after the French Revolution! Damn the reversion to the Tories! Damn the "Idiot Boy"!
Wordsworth is alive.
Finally, I acknowledged Professor McCreight's gracious act in sending me the Catullus volume. In response to his invitation I sent him my nine "Elegies," together with a few translations from Catullus.
Forgive me for being so damnably self-centered in this letter, but this siege of walking the streets, cursing through teeth, browsing nervously through the library, and speaking Latin into the wind while riding in an automobile will wreck me thoroughly unless I speak.
I still have two of your books in my possession, and somehow I must return them. Speaking of books, I have obtained a copy of Housman's posthumous poems. Among them is included a review of Housman by Christopher Morley
Please, O please be patient with the two or three sonnets I send. They are weak, but I cannot escape writing them.
And please write to me. Touch me with your beauty, the longed-for, the sought-for, the found beauty; for it is an ancient beauty, such as a man, being a diluted poet, may scarcely come upon in a world like the one into which I have fallen.
Your warm friend, Jim Wright
To Jessie Lyons Wright
Fort Lewis, Washington July 28, 1946
Since this is the weekend, and since I passed yesterday's inspection all right, I'll write again today. I just returned from church, and I am enclosing the bulletin. The chapel here is a beautiful building, built just like any simply constructed church. The men fill it for every Sunday morning service.
Weariness and fatigue are rapidly losing their grip on me, and only the quick, heavily striking tiredness remains. But this tiredness comes only in spasms. We go to sleep after a rough day, thinking that in the morning we shall be so damned stiff that we won't be able to make reveille, and yet, when the CQ charges and gallops through the barracks at 5:30 a.m., beating his gums and blaring his varied screams, we leap from bed, dress, wash up, sweep, mop, make beds, and fly out to formation and to chow in such a crazy hurry that we forget that yesterday we were tired. By that time, it is too late. After healthy exertion, sleep seems to charge a man's battery.
I hope things are fine at home. My mail is beginning to seep through a little, but I could use more. You must understand how much even one flimsy letter means, after hearing the soft purrings of the drill corporal.
I'll write again later. I just wanted to let you know that everything is fine.
Love to everyone, Jim
PS. Get Jack and Pop to write.
PPS. Don't forget to tell Marge to write, too.
PPPS. And, most important, you write!!
Fort Lewis, Washington August 5, 1946
I received letters from you and Pop today, and in yours you told me to ask for anything I wanted. My wishes are still for the same things: Miss Willerton's address and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Don't forget that, if you cannot find that particular poet, I want you to send my copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These would certainly make me feel much better.
Don't misunderstand. Physically and mentally I am in fine condition. I can toss the heavy rifle around now like a toothpick. But, being my mother, you know that I am a little off balance, and that I require vast chunks of fuel to sate my imagination, which very often rushes hot as a furnace.
I see Sebastian about every night, and we surely have enjoyable talks.
I must hit the sack now. Please write soon, and tell the others to do the same. I would write to each of them, but my minutes are jammed completely full.
I am sending Sunday's Chapel bulletin.
To Susan Lamb
Fort Lewis, Washington August 7, 1946
Finally I have torn away from the company area, for the sake of writing in peace. To sit in the Service Club Library is a relief, because my bones still ache from today's detail. The First Sergeant caught a few of us who had hung up our trousers without buttoning them, and he had us scrub-down the outside of the barracks. Next time I'll remember.
Susan, have you ever read the poems of Thomas Chatterton? He lived just before the time of Keats, and he wrote some lyrics that are marvelous. But the fact that shocked me sharply was that he was onlyseventeen years of age at his death! John Keats was devoted to his writing, and dedicated an exquisite sonnet to him.
This afternoon I sat alone in the barracks behind my bed near the wall, and I was just weary enough to permit remembrances of beauty [to] flood over me. I was so lonely and lost, and so desperate for love of Something unknown, misunderstood, that I thought of Keats--not of the poet of sensuous color, but of John Keats, the confused little boy who loved his life, but was more passionately devoted to his death.
Verse, fame, and beauty are intense indeed, But Death intenser; Death is Life's high meed.
And suddenly I wanted to see him, to talk the whole mess over with him, for he would understand. But I called, and he was dead.
Susan, will you please read my sonnet?1 I am conceited and self-centered with no justification, but please hear my outpouring.
And will you write soon?
Fort Lewis, Washington September 3, 1946
For several weeks now I have pummeled my head bluntly against a wall. There were a hundred million words in me, each one separately raising its singular hell, but finding no medium of effluence. Now it seems that, since I have released from myself the puerile foolishness, the uncontrollable impossibility of which I wrote in two or three letters, the words are flooding outward like venous blood. Indeed, this afternoon I felt so fluidly facile that I dipped into a rhythmic form which I had come to consider not only lost to me, but irrevocable. This is the hendecasyllabic line, the peculiarly marvelous hippety-hop cadence which Catullus popularized in his love lyrics. I have not forgotten much of the dear purity of Catullus. Just before I came to the Army, I wrestledwith many translations which I had already completed, and with a few that somehow I had missed, endeavoring to retain in English a larger share of Catullus' spirit by utilizing his own favorite metre.
The poem which I enclose is not a translation, nor is it even a paraphrase. It is merely more outpouring of guts on paper, concerning which I received your permission several weeks ago.
It is not a poem, nor a lyric of any sort, but only a release. I hope you will not receive it as more of the silliness which you have probably already laughed off. Just read it, aloud or silently, hide it in an old dictionary, burn it, sell it to one of the 10� pulp magazines, or whatever you like. At least it is out of me, and through it I can more clearly recall Catullus. I must surely not be akin to him, because, although he most deliciously soared upon his physical and spiritual consciousness, he never was the brutal sensualist which my corruption of his form has shown me to be.
Yours, apologizing for this interpolation of boredom, Jim
Washington, D.C. October 5, 1946
The whole weekend is mine, and at the moment I am in the United Nations Service Center in Wash., D.C. This afternoon my two friends, from Missouri and California, and I floated around the city, and we are very tired. I feel as though I must write now to someone, not concerning anything in particular, but only for the sake of pouring, pouring, pouring.
I wonder if ever, in my whole idea of things, I can trade with someone, this whipped-up agony of love of life. Now, in music I have found in you a deeply gratified passion. In poetry for poetry's sake I have sent echoes down the entire universe through Miss Willerton. Believe me, if I hadn't been able to write to you, I would have died. But there is something else, and I don't even understand how to describe it. I shall try.
I love to be alive. For me it was ever a rare holiness to lie down at night, and to draw into my breast a long deep breath, just before I went to sleep. There was an open sidewalk, laid bare to wind, along the streetcar line parallel to Wheeling Steel in Martins Ferry, and in therain I used to walk straight against the wind, and lashed into a shakiness by its breath, I sang and prayed and cried to myself a hundred thousand times. It was because I love the earth and my chance to live on it that I used to lay my rifle down in the Washington forests, and stroke my fingers through the needles and dirt. Lines of poetry from Thomas Wolfe, mighty, burly cries by Caesar, a fiery scream by Byron or Brooke--all used to set me pacing the floor.
Flooding my tired feet with hot water--tasting buttermilk after awaking from sleep--listening to "Claire de Lune"--smelling newlyground coffee--singing as I washed my face--touching a dog's fur--seeing hair blow in the wind, glittering in the sun--these describe the undescribable for me. I love them, but such is common. The miracle is that often I hate them, too, only to run back blindly, falling at their feet with a more fierce love than ever.
Do you see? Do you understand? I love it, the whole wild, senseless, confused, dying mess of my life, and I don't even know why.
Please answer--O, please, Susan. Answer often, if you can, because I need you, more deeply than I can write or you can realize.
Is my reasoning so blasphemous?
Fort Belvoir, Virginia October 13, 1946
Yesterday afternoon my two friends and I crossed the long bridge beyond the Lincoln Memorial, and wandered silently through the stillness of Arlington Cemetery. As we stepped up the marble shelter encircling the amphitheatre the autumn heaven throttled the air with a gloom, and we only slid past the columns when the rain began. Even with the gnarled groves bent down by the sheets of wind and water, and the yellow leaves shot like bullets beneath the huge marble panel, whereon is carved the thoughtful remark of Horace:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
--we beheld it: the bed of that nameless young man who is asleep, and cannot very well enjoy his honor.
We watched the guard change, and in a few moments we charged wildly down through the torrent to the bus stop.
Susan, a little earlier I had stood beneath a column at the rear of the Lincoln Memorial, and gazed across the Potomac at the wooded area wherein is enclosed the monument to Sheridan. And a wind was blowing, and over the bridge a bird was fighting it, and I heard music that I had believed dead in me.
Because I was moved yesterday, and because I thought more clearly than usual, this morning I wrote something for you. It seems that all the beauty and nobility which I have seen have given me a little conviction. Finally, I have a solidness on which to stand [ ...]
Goodbye for the moment.
Fort Belvoir, Virginia December 2, 1946
Will you be patient with the brevity of my letter? I am in the latrine, only a few moments ago having beaten the last line of Ovid to the floor.
This afternoon I received your letter of Nov. 30. Thank you, Susan. I was damned sure that the absence of your letters was due only to the fact that you were busy. Did you enjoy Thanksgiving? I believe you must have done so, for you have a splendid capacity for enjoying your life. Please continue to write to me, and always tell me of your love of life. You have no idea how it keeps me at ease.
I intend to write again the first chance I get.
I have enclosed my little tale from Ovid.2 I want you to read it first, for I have discovered your warmth in the same manner as Pygmalion found his--in the soundless depth of beauty, in the singular echo of understanding.
To Elizabeth Willerton
Zama, Japan January 6, 1947
Tonight I felt lousy. Therefore I turned to Catullus for a sea in which to drown. This lyric (other side), an ode by a very sensitive and young poet to Lesbia's pet sparrow, is the first paraphrase I have attempted in weeks.3 I tell you, Catullus is as dear to me as are sleep and music.
Please look for neither ecstasy nor a moral in my paraphrase. It is only a softly mournful remark, and the Latin is unspeakably gorgeous. Catullus therein created a line which sings thus:
Et solaciolum sui doloris.
Elizabeth, read this line aloud. The relationship between the "I's" and "o's" is a miracle of liquid floating ecstasy.
Forgive me. I told you my mood was crazy again.
The lights are going out.
I shall not sleep well. Catullus and I are pacing the floor.
To Susan Lamb
Zama, Japan March 24, 1947
There is nothing this evening except the usual thrum of silence. Honestly I have endeavored to quell the spasm of my writing for the sake of reading the darker realisms which I have so long evaded for more explosive thoughts. Susan, I have plunged deeper into Dostoyevsky; I have tried to absorb some of the brutal richness of the Negro, Richard Wright; I have undertaken an analysis of the style of John O'Hara; and tonight I intend to begin a churning dive toward reading and studying Thomas Wolfe's last novel, You Can't Go Home Again. If myletters savor of any undue unhappiness, it is surely a reflection of my reading and of my struggle against the romanticism toward which I tend. How I long for realism! On the other side of realism, somewhere, lies the Nirvana.
Please do not think me aimless. I fully realize that there is no door for my writing. So desperately I need to be alive that somehow I believe my whole life to be only a long heavy period of studying and writing and drowning in the sensualism which is the surest pivot for the piercing dream.
You must know that I shall need to attend school when I leave the army. Of course, I shall not remain for long; but nowhere else will I ever find a single chance of sleeping beneath the controlled brilliance of Catullus, for whom I own an honest and a genuine love.
I am lost, Susan. I feel that I am pretty far gone by now. But I want to be sure that you know and understand this: In my dreaming, in my reading, in my writing--in my every concept of the undissolved ghost which must be the answer and the hope to my life, and thus to the life of everyone who lives, and has lived, on the earth--you are the warm body of a girl, the comfortable face, the sleep, and the smoothing pool into whom I have been sure that I can pour unrefined all of my longings, my physical passions (of which the spiritual are only projections), my frustrations, and the unhappy, strange explosions of beauty and truth which through your letters have quickened these quavering days of my early manhood. For these reasons, I love you, Susan. If you do not desire to have me love you to such a length, please write of it to me. There it is, as clearly as I can say it.