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James Wright

On December 13, 1927, James Arlington Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His father worked for fifty years at a glass factory, and his mother left school at fourteen to work in a laundry; neither attended school beyond the eighth grade. While in high school in 1943 Wright suffered a nervous breakdown and missed a year of school. When he graduated in 1946, a year late, he joined the army and was stationed in Japan during the American occupation. He then attended Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill, and studied under John Crowe Ransom. He graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952, then married another Martins Ferry native, Liberty Kardules. The two traveled to Austria, where, on a Fulbright Fellowship, Wright studied the works of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. He returned to the U.S. and earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Washington, studying with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. He went on to teach at The University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and New York City’s Hunter College.

The poverty and human suffering Wright witnessed as a child profoundly influenced his writing and he used his poetry as a mode to discuss his political and social concerns. He modeled his work after Thomas Hardyand Robert Frost, whose engagement with profound human issues and emotions he admired. The subjects of Wright’s earlier books, The Green Wall (winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1957) and Saint Judas (1959), include men and women who have lost love or have been marginalized from society for such reasons as poverty and sexual orientation, and they invite the reader to step in and experience the pain of their isolation. Wright possessed the ability to reinvent his writing style at will, moving easily from stage to stage. His earlier work adheres to conventional systems of meter and stanza, while his later work exhibits more open, looser forms, as with The Branch Will Not Break (1963). James Wright was elected a fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1971, and the following year his Collected Poems received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. He died in New York City on March 25, 1980. (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/james-wright)

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I chose this poem for today because it fit so well with the post I reblogged from Denise at My Life in Retirement on Tuesday. They both have to do with cultivating compassion and connection with others — especially the marginalized — for it wasn’t Wright who needed something in this moment, it was the other man who needed to give. I loved this poem. I’d not read anything by Wright before, but I’m going to be checking him out. What a tender and receptive soul he seemed to have been.

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The Hook

I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and dead snow.

I stood on the street corner
In Minneapolis, lashed
This way and that.
Wind rose from some pit,
Hunting me.
Another bus to Saint Paul
Would arrive in three hours,
If I was lucky.

Then the young Sioux
Loomed beside me, his scars
Were just my age.

Ain’t got no bus here
A long time, he said.
You got enough money
To get home on?

What did they do
To your hand? I answered.
He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.

Oh, that? he said.
I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
You take this.

Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook,
And place it
Gently
In your freezing hand?

I took it.
It wasn’t the money I needed.
But I took it.

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Picture Source: buckeyemuse – WordPress.com

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