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)