I Have Wasted My Life

J.-Wright
James Wright

“Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom. ”

James Wright

Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm

by James Wright

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

 


One of the things I appreciate about James Wright, is the slight fog which permeates even his most sunny days.   On a week that saw me turn a rather harmless late 50’s birthday, I have had that thought more than once in the past month, “I have wasted my life.” Hasn’t every late 50’s something man and woman thought that at least once? However, maybe not in the way you might think. When I read the last line of Wright’s poem, what I think he is saying to me is, “I wasted my life” not by doing nothing or not doing more, but by not doing nothing more often!

There is a symmetry to my late 50’s. My children are the ages that I was when I had them. My surviving parent is likely older than the age I will be when I die. It feels like I am at a juncture where I can see the past and the future and the question is what is yet to be done?  It certainly isn’t climb the corporate ladder or build a bigger house or buy typical retirement toys, in other words do the things many people aspire to do as a measure of success at this stage in their lives. For me its strive to still write a few more good poems, nourish my irresponsible self and be the person sitting in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm and do absolutely nothing but think, read and look at the beauty around me.  My greatest ambition the next 30 years is to do less more often and do it in peace.

Wright is an interesting character. He wrote more than one masterful sonnet, but metrical structured poetry was not his best legacy.  Wright’s poetry fit the era in which it came forth: a celebration of fly over land, the unremarkable Midwest and a reconciliation of the beginning of when working class, middle class unexceptional white men began fading into obscurity, or so it has felt, maybe they were always in obscurity and Wright’s poetry was finally just stating the obvious. Reading Wright always feels to me like I am so grateful they hadn’t invented medications for depression yet, because a placated, medicated Wright would have been a boring writer I fear.

If you could waste your life more brilliantly, what would you do? What unremarkable thing do you still aspire to achieve? Where do you need to hang your hammock  and let the clouds and bronze butterflies float by? During this time of working from home, ask yourself this question?  How hard should you really be working right now? Is your 70% good enough at a time when productivity and all measures of it by an economist are not going to improve our national economy and GDP, unless we define GDP as Good Devoted People. Be good to yourself. Do good for others. Let that be our measure of GDP and if you take a few minutes to read or write some poetry today, look at it as the most productive thing you did all day.


Saint Judas

by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
a pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry.  Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh.  Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

It Won’t Always Be Like This

franz_Wright
Franz Wright (1953 – 2015)

Spell

Some fish for words from shore while others, lacking in such contemplative tact, like to go wading in up to their chins through a torrent of bone-freezing diamond, knife raised, to freeze-frame incarnadine and then bid it as with hermetic wand flow on again, ferociously, transparently, name writ in river.

By Franz Wright

To Myself

by Franz Wright

You are riding the bus again
burrowing into the blackness of Interstate 80,
the sole passenger

with an overhead light on.
And I am with you.
I’m the interminable fields you can’t see,

the little lights off in the distance
(in one of those rooms we are
living) and I am the rain

and the others all
around you, and the loneliness you love,
and the universe that loves you specifically, maybe,

and the catastrophic dawn,
the nicotine crawling on your skin—
and when you begin

to cough I won’t cover my face,
and if you vomit this time I will hold you:
everything’s going to be fine

I will whisper.
It won’t always be like this.
I am going to buy you a sandwich.


I have an affinity for James Wright’s poetry in part because of his connection to Minnesota and the landscapes and sentiments expressed of the Midwest.  James and Franz Wright are the only father and son to win a Pulitzer Prize in the same category.   It is hard for sons to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, particularly fathers that are celebrated for their achievements.

Poetry is a unique terror to impart as a hereditary legacy to one’s child, poetry rooted in desperation that connects the Wright’s poetic accomplishments. A criticism of their work is there’s a thread of self pity that runs through it, a contrition that lacks discipline.  I don’t see it that way.  I see their starkest poetry as the courage to write what they feel. The question is whether readers have the courage to feel those same things along side them.

James died of lung cancer from smoking.  Franz died of tongue cancer, also smoking related. Self destruction is an art form all of our own creation and as individual as the individual. Is poetry the instruction manual left behind for the puzzle keepers to reassemble the poet as flesh and blood, even if only for a second in our own minds?


In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned

by James Wright

I will grieve alone,
As I strolled alone, years ago, down along
The Ohio shore.
I hid in the hobo jungle weeds
Upstream from the sewer main,
Pondering, gazing.

I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.

I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?

For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.

And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.

 

The Older We Get, The Less We Count

lynch
Thomas Lynch

Refusing At Age 52 To Write Sonnets

by Thomas Lynch

It came to him that he could nearly count
How many Octobers he had left to him
In increments of ten or, say, eleven
Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.
He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six—
Humanity’s advances notwithstanding
In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens—
What with his habits and family history,
The end he thought is nearer than you think.

The future, thus confined to its contingencies,
The present moment opens like a gift:
The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,
The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—
All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?
At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.


 

 


Northern Pike

by James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)

All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine and a pain
I don’t know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,

 

Breaking Into Blossom

Robert Bly
Robert Bly  (1926 to present)

Seeing The Eclipse in Maine

by Robert Bly

It started about noon.  On top of Mount Batte,
We were all exclaiming.  Someone had a cardboard
And a pin, and we all cried out when the sun
Appeared in tiny form on the notebook cover.

It was hard to believe.  The high school teacher
We’d met called it a pinhole camera,
People in the Renaissance loved to do that.
And when the moon had passed partly through

We saw on a rock underneath a fir tree,
Dozens of crescents—made the same way—
Thousands!  Even our straw hats produced
A few as we moved them over the bare granite.

We shared chocolate, and one man from Maine
Told a joke.  Suns were everywhere—at our feet.

 


Is poetry a monologue or a dialogue?   An old question, easily answered from my perspective;  it is a dialogue, poetry is a conversation, its up to you to figure out the response.

Robert Bly was born in Madison, Minnesota and continues to live and work in Western Minnesota to the present day.   Robert Bly and James Arlington Wright were friends, and helped put Midwestern poetry on the map in the 1950’s.  Bly’s life work as a poet is vast, expanding the wealth of English literature by translating a diverse range of poets across many languages with a focus on the spiritual in addition to his many collections of his own poetry.

I worked in Lac Qui Parle County, the landscape of much of Bly’s poetry, for 7 years in the 1990’s.   Bly may travel the world within his writing, but it is all grounded in the rich clay silt loam of the prairie.  I find it reassuring to see a glimpse of the land I have traveled as an Agronomist for 30 plus years within the poetry of both Bly and Wright.

Bly and Wright traveled very different personal paths in using poetry to wrestle with their demons. Bly being older by one year and yet outliving Wright by 38 years and counting.   Wright’s depression is palpable within his poetry, but rather than lessen the experience it heightens it.  Both Bly and Wright poetry invite a discussion on the wonderment of this planet and the human condition.


A Blessing Poem

by James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.