BOOK REVIEW / My own private Ohio: 'Above the River: The Complete Poems' - James Wright: Bloodaxe, 9.95 pounds: Lachlan Mackinnon on the anger and compassion in the poetry of the late James Wright

IN THE course of The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald wrote memorably of 'the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio'. To go back to them was to feel 'unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again'. It was out of that boredom and industrial torpor that James Wright emerged: this edition of his Complete Poems shows us a man in flight.

Having served in the Second World War, Wright benefited from the GI Bill, which enabled him to study at Kenyon under John Crowe Ransom, among whose earlier pupils were Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell. This education was well beyond what the meagre circumstances of Wright's family would have allowed, and this break with his past is reflected in the strongly formal nature of his earliest poems.

Influenced by Ransom in form, they are heavily symbolic nature-pieces, usually devoid of other people, presenting an 'I' that sees, knows, stands and sleeps a great deal, but rarely changes its state. They have a laboured polish which now reads very poorly, except in two instances. 'Saint Judas', the title poem of a 1959 collection, presents an Iscariot who, on his way to hang himself, finds a man being beaten up and runs to his aid: 'Flayed without hope, / I held the man for nothing in my arms.'

This compassion, beyond any conceivable reward, sounds a note of horror at the sheer conditions of living which echoes through Wright's work. Whenever he mentions the Crucifixion, for instance, his focus is always on the tortured body.

In 'At the Executed Murderer's Grave', the poet begins:

My name is James A Wright, and I was born

Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,

In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave

To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.

Naming himself, his birthplace and his father's employer, Wright becomes identifiable as a particular American. Later, this will enable him to write with a political anger clearly grounded in his own life. Here, however, the personal voice rhymes awkwardly, and the regular metre makes the fourth line peter out as it concludes.

Wright only came to a full poetic identity in The Branch Will Not Break (1963). In 'Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio', where Wright is 'In the Shreve High football stadium', he thinks colloquially of the town's minorities, 'Polacks nursing long beers' and the 'gray faces of Negroes'. His vision of defeat extends to the point at which 'All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. / Their women cluck like starved pullets, / Dying for love.' The male world of football becomes an escape from the desires and vulnerability of women, an almost conscious expression of sexual failure and hunger, 'Dreaming of heroes'.

'Two Poems about President Harding' find Wright 'drunk this evening in 1961, / In a jag for my countryman'. Remembering Harding, who died in office as the Teapot Dome scandal was breaking, Wright tells us that 'He died in public. He claimed the secret right / To be ashamed.' The underdog tugs at the poet's heart. In the second of these poems, Wright thinks of Harding's grandiose tomb:

America goes on, goes on

Laughing, and Harding was a fool.

Even his big pretentious stone

Lays him bare to ridicule.

I know it. But don't look at me.

By God, I didn't start this mess.

Whatever moon and rain may be,

The hearts of men are merciless.

Wright could now employ regular form with an ease that his earlier work almost entirely lacked. The flurry of feeling here, the poet's angry disclaimers and the way they end in the judgement of the last two lines, have a compelling humanity and toughness.

Donald Hall's introduction to this collection gives a useful outline of Wright's life. He stresses how Wright, in his academic career, taught literature rather than creative writing - a reticence about the creative process which is not uncommon. On the subject of Wright's mental instability and frequent need of psychiatric help, however - things not referred to directly in the poetry - neither Hall nor the poems can explain what, in Auden's phrase, hurt James Wright into poetry. His acute, aghast response to suffering suggests an early wound, deeper than his father's miserable life, and Wright's failure to confront this means that his weaker poems are portentous with unearned grief.

Hall also observes that Wright belonged to 'almost the first literary generation in American history for whom Europe was no issue'. Wright translated a great deal from German and Spanish, but the poet who seems most germane to his own work is Georg Trakl (1887-1914). Trakl's poems brood on a symbolic inner landscape as Wright's brood over an imagined Ohio, although he lacks the German's lacerating austerity. Wright was also drawn to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose extrovert passions led him into a diffuse middle period.

But the poems in To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977) and the posthumous collection This Journey (1982), often set in Italy and France, have an appreciative hedonism and remembrance of his past ('the gasworks at the edge of Mantua') which lend a new tension. There might have been more, and his death from throat cancer in 1980, at the age of 52, seems peculiarly wasteful. At two points in his career, Wright makes us aware of his identity with his country. Two such strange hours are more than most poets are granted.


Flocks of green midges and the frail

Skeletons of mosquitoes hang

Hidden and calm beside some wall.

No matter why the swallows sang,

Last evening, and no matter now

Why they cavort, flutter, and soar.

They are not hungry anyhow.

There are no insects any more.

Far down the hill the Tuscan hawks

Fly wide awake. They surely see

Swallows scattering above blind rocks,

Daring the dreadful risk of joy.

A little while, the hawks will come

And shatter two or three or four,

The rest die where they started from.

There are no swallows any more:

Only a hundred fluttering by,

A million midges green and gone,

Two hawks amazing the blind sky,

And earth leaving itself alone.

From: 'Above the River'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer


Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life


Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital