Feb 17, 2014

James Wright: Dog, Horse, Gopher, Blessing

Here is an excerpt from Peter Stitt's 1972 Paris Review interview with esteemed poet James Wright (1927-1980), whose eloquence here makes clear why his finished poems are so widely admired.
Snowy Egret
(The Bly to whom Wright refers is poet Robert Bly, who had—still has?—a farm in Minnesota, which Wright sometimes visited).

The book that followed, of course, is The Branch Will Not Break. How do these things show up there?
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 prairies of South Dakota, and Simon would sit down beside him, and they would stay there for hours. And sometimes, after I sat on the front porch and watched them, sometimes I went and sat down beside Simon. Neither Simon nor David looked at me, and I felt blessed. They allowed me to join them. They liked me. I can’t get over it—they liked me. Simon didn’t bite me, David didn’t kick me; they just stayed there as they were. And I sat down on my fat ass and looked over the corn fields and the prairie with them. And there we were. One afternoon, a gopher came up out of a hole and looked at us. Simon didn’t leap for him, David didn’t kick him, and I didn’t shoot him. There we were, all four of us together. All I was thinking was, I can be happy sometimes. And I’d forgotten that. And with those animals I remembered then. And that is what that book is about, the rediscovery. I didn’t hate my body at all. I liked myself very much. Simon is lost. David, with what Robert called his beautiful and sensitive face, has gone to the knacker’s. I wish I knew how to tell you. My son Marsh, the musician, is in love with animals.
I’m posting Wright's passage today simply because I find it stunning, but also because some regulars here are animal lovers, as am I.  I can’t imagine a piece of writing that better captures what I find beautiful and comforting about the furry and the feathered (and lizards and bugs, though less so). 

True, animals can be crazy and mean (with or without pollution by humans), and I question the popular, romantic notion that animals kill only to feed themselves. A few months ago, a television piece showed an adult female lion (or was it a tiger?) who ate so much of her prey that her stomach exploded and killed her. 
I’m wary of sweeping generalizations, even when they seem to come from reliable sources and tell me what I think I want to hear about nobility in nature. 
However, what James Wright says here captures animals at their best, which is what they are most of the time—plus the benefit of a human with convincing humility and admiration.  

For those who are interested, here is the entire interview, about various aspects of writing poetry, not just animals:


If you have the time, see also James Wright’s poems, “A Blessing” and “Lying in a Hammock,” which are rather directly related to the passage above.
Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Female
A Blessing by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation

See and hear Wright reading the poem here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpQU79sda3Q

Visitors and I discussed these poems here a few years ago:

 "Lying in a Hammock":

"A Blessing":

Feb 5, 2014

Jane Kenyon's "Happiness"

There is much to love about Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Happiness,”

Happiness by Jane Kenyon : Poetry Magazine

especially if we violate the New Criticism and read her life into her lines—her death from cancer at age 47 and, according to Poetry Foundation, “the depression that lasted throughout much of her adult life.” We might expect such a person and such a poet to challenge the whole notion of Happiness.

However, if we look only at the poem itself, as it centers on one of life’s trickiest, most amorphous subjects, happiness, there’s not a single false note, and there are brilliant gifts along the way.

The first two stanzas are dangerously general and discursive; they resemble an essay’s thesis or topic sentences. But the calmly bold opening line is much more profound and perceptive than we might have thought. How often have occasions that were supposed to be happy turned out otherwise?

The reverse is even more important. As serious readers of poetry, we might be inclined toward a gloomy worldview, which is easy to support with examples of death and destruction. But Kenyon is not the easy thinker that we are. She argues that happiness shows up just where and when we’d least expect it—or deserve it, perhaps. The comparison of happiness, a condition, to the Bible’s prodigal son, a human, is so unlikely I think it deserves the label of conceit (an extremely far-fetched metaphor or simile).

Like other good conceits, Kenyon’s argument holds. The prodigal son does not deserve forgiveness, and it seems we should not be happy to have him back. After all, he’s wasted everything we gave him. However, if for no other reason than an abatement of our loneliness in his absence, we are happy he’s returned. Our love for him outweighs, or simply negates, any anger we feel.

It’s a peculiar logic that I, for one, had never thought of, but in the end, it makes sense. It’s also brutally honest: we don’t necessarily forgive because we’re generous, or good, or selfless, but because we were bereft without the offending person in our lives.

If Jane Kenyon were in a workshop these days, I bet someone would have suggested that her poem really begins—and really takes off—with the third stanza and she should delete the first two. In many cases I might be that critic because most abstractions don’t have Kenyon’s power of surprise, freshness and important insight into human nature.

Still, once she begins the specific details, she maintains her perceptiveness and originality. Who else would have thought to introduce an unknown uncle? Who else would have placed him 
An Unknown Uncle Flies into Town
in a single-engine plane on a grassy air strip, would have him hitchhiking into town and knocking on doors?

This guy is a bit of an avatar, out of the blue, yet I believe in him completely. If he’s fictional, I don’t care—then it would be the world’s fault for not containing such an airstrip and such a hitch hiking uncle, who loves an unseen niece that much, that daringly. In fact, does he sound just a little like Jesus?

I also believe in Kenyon’s monk, her sweeping woman, the child of the drunk mother—and my favorite single image, for this human might most resemble us all:  “the clerk stacking cans of carrots / in the night.” 

From there Kenyon makes another daring move—she personifies inanimate objects and acts out John Ruskin’s famous concept of the Pathetic Fallacy, or the attribution of human qualities to nature.

At the same time—near the end of the poem!—she develops the new theme of labor, first with her catalogue of humans, and concluding with inanimate subjects. Beginning with the monk, everyone works, has a function. In the final four lines, that labor, that fact of being, expands to the boulder, the rain, and the wineglass. They all do their jobs, and maybe they all become weary. At least the wineglass does, explicitly, holding up wine—or is that blood, in the biblical sense of blood?

But it’s also true that all the characters and objects receive happiness. Happiness ministers to them, perhaps because they labor and have functions. Maybe we are left with the implication that the destiny of the prodigal son’s family is the labor of receiving him back into their arms and hearts, 
and that labor is their happiness, or at least happiness is the reward for their labor.

With the ordinary word happiness, maybe Kenyon is talking about grace—grace made evident for those not inclined to believe it. I’d like to think so.

Happiness by Jane Kenyon : Poetry Magazine

Lovers' Lane