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.

Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery

Photograph of a bowl of multicolored roses

In The Discovery of Poetry[i], Frances Mayes breaks imagery into three categories: literal imagery (the thing itself), figurative imagery (images used to describe the thing), and symbols (an image or action that stands for more than itself). A symbol differs from a literal or figurative because of the far-reaching semantic ripples that surround it. The red wheelbarrow is an image; the American flag is a symbol.

Rilke’s work returns again and again to the symbol of the rose.* What sorts of associations does the symbol of the rose evoke? Love, femininity, openness, vulnerability, romantic and sexual love, impermanence. The rose is a symbol for the Madonna in Catholic tradition, and was a symbol for her predecessor Venus. The medieval French poem, “Le Roman de la Rose,” tells an allegorical story of courtly love. At the heart of Dante’s Paradiso lies a rose. On St. Valentine’s Day, lovers give one another red roses as a symbol of their love for one another. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet, exhorting her lover Romeo to give up his family name.
Continue reading “Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery”

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”

Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry

by Frances Donovan

One usually hears about point of view as a craft technique in the context of prose. Students of poetry tend to focus on the speaker – “the eye of the poem,” as Frances Mayes puts it. But the two are linked. The mode of narration (first person, second person, third person limited or third person omniscient) informs the kind of “I” from which the poem unfurls. All poems have a speaker; it may be a strong presence that affects the whole tone of the poem, or it may be unobtrusive, a hidden narrator presenting facts without editorializing.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Voice and Point of View in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry”