The Branch Will Not Break: Poet James Wright

I find it difficult to separate James Wright the poet from James Wright’s poetry. I wonder if such a thing is truly possible. A poet’s body informs their work. It certainly informs whether their work gets read. Wright reminds me of Hemingway: stoic, deceptively simple, un-self-consciously macho. When I first discovered Hemingway, I fell in love with his style and emulated it. But once my eyes opened to the dynamics of gender, I wasn’t able to experience his work with the same unconscious enjoyment that I had before. I discovered James Wright’s work after that awakening. And, as with Hemingway, cognitive dissonance arose. Wright’s race and gender no doubt eased the way for his success. And yet the work itself merits that success. Wright says with confidence and simplicity what I would like to say. His spirituality is rooted in silence and the natural world, as is mine. He thinks and sees in metaphors, as do I. He uses surprising language, as I strive to. “The Jewel” embodies perfectly our shared world-view:

There is this cave

In the air behind my body

That nobody is going to touch:

A cloister, a silence

Closing around a blossom of fire.

When I stand upright in the wind,

My bones turn to dark emeralds.

Wright grounds the reader with the image of a cave before he ventures into the intangible, airy heart of the poem. The cave exists “in the air behind my body.” While the heart of the poem is cloistered, airy, silent, Wright surrounds it with imagery we can grasp: “a blossom of fire,” bones turned “to dark emeralds.” Last semester, I wrote a series of poems about the void and discovered a problem that Wright solves here. In order to evoke the void, the cloister, the silence, you must surround it with non-void, non-silent things. Negative space doesn’t exist without positive space around it. Wright manages that dichotomy in this poem: the cave, the blossom of fire, and the bones of emerald surround his void. Cloister here seems a particularly appropriate word: cloisters in monasteries held spaces for quiet and contemplation within walls, often beautifully crafted ones like the Cloisters in New York.

Wright’s approach to poetic line and meter has a lot to do with the contemplative pacing of his poetry. He end-stops almost all of his lines, which slows them down. And he capitalizes the first letter of each line—a usage which generally fell out of favor in the 20th century—so that even when he does enjamb lines, the reader’s eye slows at the capital letter. Wright also understands the various nuances of white space and punctuation—the different pauses that happen with line-breaks alone, with commas, with periods, with stanza breaks, and with numbered stanzas. He often starts lines with prepositions to heighten the feel of silence and stillness. But the pacing of his poems isn’t monotonous: he uses short and long lines and differences in meter to vary it. Consider the first stanza of “Fear is What Quickens Me:”

                                                                                                Line #

Many animals that our fathers killed in America                   1

Had quick eyes.                                                                       2

They stared about wildly,                                                       3

when the moon went dark.                                                     4

The new moon falls into the freight yards                              5

Of cities in the south,                                                              6

But the loss of the moon to the dark hands of Chicago          7

Does not matter to the deer                                                     8

In this northern field.                                                              9

Each line break in this stanza comes at the end of a phrase. In the first two lines, the break is between the subject and the verb of the sentence; in the third and fourth, between the action of the sentence and its subordinate clause. The period at the end of fourth line serves as a transition from the past to the present. The poem speeds up with an anapest at the end of line 5, but the shorter line that follows, started with a preposition and ended with a comma, slows it down. On line seven, three anapests speed up the poem with their running meter. The rhythm breaks with the even stress on “dark hands” before returning to its anapest-ish rhythm, one that spills over into the next line. The anapests in the following line keep the pacing moving, but the line breaks earlier than its predecessor, creating a pause. And the final line, with its two trochees and final stress, bring the poem coasting to a halt.

Wright’s poems often feature motion, but always with stillness at its center. I see that paradox clearly in the second part of “Two Hangovers:”

In a pine tree,

A few yards away from my window sill,

A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down,

On a branch.

I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do

That the branch will not break.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wright plucked the book’s name from these lines. The branch is in motion, but at some fundamental level it offers unailing support to the jay—and, by extension, to the speaker. This stanza is one of my favorites, along with “A Blessing,” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

In the spirit of due diligence – and because I’m always curious about how a poet’s work develops over time – I picked up Wright’s Collected Poems as well. They gave me some hope. I saw how his work moved away from the formally careful, stilted quality of his earlier books into the confident, simple language of The Branch Will Not Break. If Wright was able to find such a powerful voice, perhaps I can too.

Works Cited

Wright, James. The Branch Will Not Break. Wesleyan University Press, 1963. Print.

Blue jay photo credit: Steve McLeod from Pixabay

Poems in a Strobe: D.A. Powell’s Repast

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.


[NOTE: The original version of this paper was set to landscape orientation to accommodate D.A. Powell’s long lines. Viewing this article on a large monitor will preserve the longer lines]

D.A. Powell’s work teaches me about the power of taking risks and trusting one’s own voice. Reading him reminds me of reading C.K. Williams, a poet who helped me break out of tightly controlled lines and hyperfocused subject matter and made it possible for me to write something sprawling like “Pastoral, Pougkeepsie” – a poem that is far from finished, but one that is much more ambitious than anything I would have attempted before I started at Lesley. But where Williams’s vignettes carry within them a consistent narrative, Powell’s move much more at the speed of thought – a phrase I’ve heard used to describe lyric poetry more than once. That’s not to say that Powell’s work doesn’t carry a narrative, but it’s one told via strobe light: short bursts of language, associated by sound or image or seemingly random leaps of intuition that make sense after the fact. I respond to it because it’s the way my own mind works.

As I reported in a previous essay on the subject of narrative poetry, literary tastes in the poetry world bent toward the associative mode in reaction to the ascendancy of the post-confessional narrative form. But Powell shows how powerful this mode can be as a form of storytelling. Says Powell of his work in the introduction to Repast, a collection of three previous books titled Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails:

Because I was unable to contain the first lines I wrote, I turned my notebook sideways, pushing into what would traditionally be thought the margin of the page. These lines, with their peculiar leaps and awkward silences, became the strangely apt vessel into which I could pour my thoughts. I took fragments and made new statements from them, just as I wished to reshape my life from its incomplete bits.

I first came across the idea of re-membering the dismembered (and the silenced) while researching my undergraduate thesis on Adrienne Rich’s work. It dovetails nicely with Powell’s comments about his words entering the margins of his notebook, word spoken from the margins of society and a community dismembered by the AIDS epidemic.

Powell’s mature poems have a logic of their own; they’re not simply rapid-fire, random phrases. He leaves the majority of his poems unnamed, allowing the first line of the poem to stand in as a title. Lines contain two to three distinct parts separated by white space, and stanzas generally run from one to three lines. You can see him still developing his distinctive voice in Lunch, which he wrote prior to Tea and Cocktails.

I notice a certain Anglo-Saxon alliteration stitching together his lines. From “[epithalamion],” one of the few titled poems in the book:

say amen somebody.     the pews are hickory-hard I’m sick of sitting.     sick of hazy secondhand god

I’m gawky and greedy.     full of longing like frankie in “a member of the wedding,”     here comes andy

alabaster betrothed: his pierced wooden groom casts a doleful glance.         his eye is on the sparrow

Sibilant S’s run through the first line, as do hard H’s. G’s pull together the first third of the second line, and “longing” echoes “gawky.” F’s alliterate the second third of the second line. In the third line, B’s repeat in “alabaster betrothed” and O sounds run through “betrothed,” “wooden groom,” and “doleful.”[i] This poem also has a clear narrative: the title “epithalamion” indicates it’s a celebration of a marriage; it’s taking place in a church (“the pews are hickory-hard”); they are singing hymns (“his eye is on the sparrow”) and performing the ritual of the Eucharist (Powell gives the ritual a twist: instead of bread, “they took my heart gave thanks and brake it.     they are wounded by love”). The narrative takes an unexpected turn in the last few lines: “andy is lifted by outstretched arms,” can be read as either the blessing of the congregation or the act of pallbearers, especially when considered within the larger context of the collection, set during the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Is this truly a wedding or is it a funeral? “I’m no more afraid / secretly I’ve brought my valise …. together we’ll steal away steal away.” Is the speaker planning to elope with the groom? Or anticipating his own mortality?

Images from club life and disco songs run through Powell’s poetry, most strikingly in the section of Tea called “Tea Dance,” which he prefaces with a list of “Eleven Disco Songs that Equate Sex and Death through an Elaborate Metaphor Called ‘Heaven.’” One that particularly resonated with me was “[now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered light: I once entered the world through dryice fog.]” “come let me show you a sweep of constellations,” says the speaker, recounting ages 16 through 20 with the characteristic brief, strobing images, each one tagged with a disco song. In Cocktails, he uses a similar structural tool with sections named “Mixology,” “Filmography,” and “Bibliography”[ii]– although the poems often stray far from their starting points.

Sometimes it’s not just alliteration but also an image that holds a poem together, as in “[he’d make my bed jumble and squeak. a parrot must have lit inside. potty mouthed].” In this poem, the speaker is the parrot, saying “quaquaquaquaqua,” blessing “the beak the tiny beak,” while the “he” of the poem carries darker imagery: “buzzarding,” with “long black lashes like wings.”

In addition to his fractured, layered style, Powell uses wordplay to leaven his work’s serious subject matter. Surprising associations of sound and meaning abound, but also puns: “we rubbed each other out: a pair of erasers,”[iii] “you who have more to spend than the rest of your life: busfare for instance,”[iv] “love in the time of caulifleur,”[v] “o that this tutu of solid flesh,”[vi] “I take my drinks stiff and stuffed with plastic. like my lovers.”[vii]

One of the things that strikes me about Powell’s work is the sheer joy it takes in language, both in meaning and in sound. It’s a quality that first drew me to poetry. I hope I never lose sight of it. He also shows that there is more than one way to include narrative in one’s work, and that alternatives to straightforward narrative can produce powerful results.

Works Cited

Powell, D.A. Repast: Tea, Lunch, Cocktails. Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.

[i] A epithalamion is a poem celebrating a marriage. When you consider the historical context of this poem—written long before the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States—its alternating notes of snark and longing make it especially poignant.

[ii] The “Biblio” in this case is not just any book book, but the Bible, and he retells the familiar stories in his characteristic strobe-like, layered, and sensual voice.

[iii] [what happened to “significant” out of bed: abolished in the act of standing. like a “lap”]. p. 41.

[iv] [what direction will you take when the universe collapses. you who when you go must go someplace]. p. 45.

[v] [not just that I got starry-eyed—an epidemic of romanced was sweeping around us. a falling]. p. 58.

[vi] [we all carry signs of our obsessions]. p. 131.

[vii] [the cocktail hour finally arrives: whether ending a day at the office]. p. 143.

Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems

Ross Gay’s poetry is lush with sensual pleasure. He uses strong imagery, musical language, and an unusual approach to poetic line to achieve this lushness. He eschews punctuation in many of his poems, relying almost entirely on white space and line breaks to achieve his phrasing. I’ve tried doing some similar with my own work, but Gay commits himself entirely to this technique, forcing it to do the work of commas, periods, capitalization, dashes. In “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” —the first in his latest collection, catalog of unabashed gratitude— his short lines stutter down the page, slowing the eye at points both expected and unexpected. With no punctuation and no capital letters, he relies on the reader to suss out where one sentence ends and the next begins. This elision works both in concert with and counterpoint to his line breaks. The opening lines rush forth with enjambment through three separate thoughts:

… probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a

Continue reading “Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems”

Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative

This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.


I’ve been approaching this semester with an alternating focus on the lyrical and narrative modes of poetry. But how exactly does one differentiate between the two? And is it even a valid dichotomy? As with the prose-poetry divide, the more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. In an essay published in 2006, Tony Hoagland writes about “a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” He also acknowledges the difficulty of defining the term: “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”

Published in 2004, Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative certainly demonstrates the zeitgeist Hoagland describes. At first pass, the title seems like a joke on the reader. Zucker’s language is disruptive, fragmented. It uses not only syntax but white space and idiosyncratic punctuation – all to skillful effect, but hardly the definition of what most people would call a clear narrative.

Continue reading “Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative”

Craft Annotation: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

Image of spiral clock credit: Chris Limb via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place. Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure”

Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction

As I discussed in my craft annotation on Rilke, modern poetry favors a particular aesthetic quite the opposite of the era preceding it. The rise of the Imagist movement in the early 20th century heralds this shift. As the name implies, the movement was toward concrete, visceral imagery and away from sentimentality and meditations on abstract concepts such as love or death – or if the poem is a meditation on love or death, it’s never explicitly named as such. In the preface to the 1915 anthology Some Imagists Poets, the school listed some of its common principles. These two in particular stood out for me:

  • To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
  • To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite. [i]

William Carlos Williams explores this principle in his long poem “Paterson,” Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction”

Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music

When I first picked up Heather McHugh’s work[i], I delighted in her witty use of language – the way she was able to pick out a word’s multiple meanings in the course of tightly musical and lyrical verse. Some examples:

From “Spectacles:”[ii]

I don’t move
but the grass in the window
does an utter
smear campaign…

From “Politics:”[iii]

The dog pauses before the fire,
watches, gains
weight, can’t make
light of it, lies
heavy down…

By themselves, these puns and surprising twists of language might suffice, but McHugh combines this wordplay with an unerring attention to the sound and rhythm of her lines as well. Continue reading “Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music”

Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams

EDITOR’S NOTE: No discussion of WCW’s approach to poetic line would be complete without mention of his notion of the variable foot, or triadic line. While this essay touches upon it, I recommend the following further reading:

The poet Robert Hass says “the metrical poem begins with an assumption of human life which takes place in a pattern of orderly recurrence with which the poet must come to terms, the free verse poem with an assumption of openness or chaos in which an order must be discovered.”[1] This fundamental shift in the craft of poetry coincides with – and some would say arises out of – fundamental upheavals in Western civilization, most notably the erosion of traditional, rigid class systems that followed the World Wars.

If a poet abandons both rhyme and meter, how does she give a poem shape or music? What elements of craft remain, and what new tools must we create? Without meter, poetic line becomes one of the primary means of affecting a poem’s trajectory.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams”

The Martha Collins Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first met Martha Collins at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’ve spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth in a way that frank talk about sex is not.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem that spirals around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “The Martha Collins Race Trilogy”

Craft Annotation: Denise Levertov’s Use of Argument and Rhetoric

The concept of argument and rhetoric as craft elements of poetry is very new to me and still feels slippery in my mind, which is why I wanted to focus on it. It’s a novel way to approach the art form and calls attention to a poem’s ability to persuade. According to Wikipedia, literary argument is a brief summary at the beginning of a section of poetry or prose, often used to orient the reader within a larger work. Another definition of argument is a poem’s central idea or thesis. Argument is the thing being said, and rhetoric is the way it’s being said.

In his book Poetic Argument: Studies in Modern Poetry, Jonathan Kertzer writes, “poetic thinking demands an intricate display of reason, which must call forth and submit to its mysterious double, known variously as unreason, the irrational, visionary, intuitive, or transcendent.” This extra element, which gets beyond the purely prosaic and into the realm of unconscious beliefs, yearnings, and desires, is the one that seems to baffle those who “don’t  understand poetry.” Prose writers also employ rhetoric and appeals to emotion, but poetry allows for leaps of intuition and seemingly random association more difficult to sustain in prose.

William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things.” The poetry of Denise Levertov illustrates this aesthetic. While her poems easily evoke a particular feeling or even an idea, it can be difficult to tease out a poem’s argument, especially without converting it to dull prose. Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Denise Levertov’s Use of Argument and Rhetoric”