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This article is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

With the Cheated and the Weak: The Poetry of James Wright Tony Roberts

The oak above us shivers in the bleak
And lucid winter day; and, far below
Our gathering of the cheated and the weak,
A chimney whispers to a cloud of snow.   
                                    (‘Sparrows in a Hillside Drift’)

When James Wright’s first book, The Green Wall, was published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1957, W.H. Auden noted in his foreword that Wright’s imagination was stimulated by social outsiders. In fact, with his industrial Ohio roots and a lifetime of personal problems, Wright’s identification with the marginalised and the defeated was to be his most enduring theme. Along with the ‘deep image’ poems of The Branch Will Not Break (1963), it is also responsible for his best poetry.

In the early poems Wright is at times lulled by his own music. He has, as he once acknowledged, ‘a tendency to get too lush with sounds’ and ‘a tendency to get lost in the confusion of certain figures of speech’. The writing is romantic and sensual (‘Soft, where the shadow glides, / The yellow pears fell down’; ‘Odor of fallen apple / Met you across the air’). Apostrophes to autumnal fruit and young women aside, however, the work is redeemed by the gritty compassion Auden noted. There is, for instance, an ill-conceived attempt to focus the reader’s attention on the loveless life of an Ohioan murderer (‘A Poem about George Doty in the Death House’), a subject Wright returned to more successfully in Saint Judas (1959) with ‘At the ...

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