POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY

POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY
Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley

POETRY FROM PARADISE VALLEY web page

Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.


Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, February 3, 2008

James Wright: "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"

As much of the nation today prepares to celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, an occasion that has grown over the years to rival most official holidays—only on Thanksgiving do Americans eat more food, and hardly ever does any other event draw the communal television audience anywhere near that enjoyed by the telecast of the Super Bowl—I am again reminded of one of James Wright’s best-known works, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” perhaps the most famous poem concerning football.

Although written about fall and the atmosphere surrounding high-school games in his old hometown, Wright’s poem subtly suggests a fascination with sport exhibited regularly by many Americans. In addition, the poem addresses issues of distinction or contrast based upon individuals’ wealth, class, ethnicity, race, and gender, while seemingly presenting a straightforward report with minimal intrusion by the speaker. The poem’s observations evoke emotional responses on the part of its readers, and the deceptively plainspoken narrative gradually reveals those corrosive conditions existing in the lives of citizens in similar towns across the country.

James Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, in 1927, the same year in which Galway Kinnell and W.S. Merwin were born, and only a year later than his influential friend, Robert Bly. Indeed, Wright belongs to that generation of American poets who matured during the mid-twentieth century and made the transition from traditional rhetorical poetry or conventional forms to a free verse style during the century’s second half.

Wright’s father was employed in a factory for the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company all his adult life, and his mother toiled for the White Swan Laundry. Apparently, neither experienced an education beyond the elementary level as each was forced to work at an early age. Across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia, Martins Ferry fit the stereotypical description of industrialized towns along the Ohio River. Its citizens led quiet lives that often were consumed daily by difficult labor and economic worries.

The poet knew he had been fortunate to escape the confining environment of such a situation when he left the army, in which he’d enlisted after high school, and took advantage of an education at Kenyon College as afforded by the G.I. Bill. Although Wright studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon, a greater impact on Wright’s development as a poet may have been provided by Theodore Roethke, under whom Wright studied during his graduate days at the University of Washington and whose influence sometimes shows through Wright’s lines.

Success arrived pretty quickly to James Wright as he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award with his first manuscript, The Green Wall, in 1957, and his second collection of poems, Saint Judas, appeared from the prestigious Wesleyan University Press in 1959. Nevertheless, as Wright readied his third volume for publication, he abruptly shifted style, moving away from the more formal characteristics of traditional meter or rhyme, as well as the complex syntax of his initial works, toward a free verse that sounded a greatly relaxed and overwhelmingly authoritative voice.

As Robert Lowell had done earlier—with Kinnell, Merwin, and a number of others following later—and swayed by the influence of his close poetic association with friend Robert Bly, Wright believed in the need for a more conversational tone with less language that might be perceived as artificial in his lyrical pieces. At the same time, Wright continued in his third book, The Branch Will Not Break, to focus upon important issues that most readers noticed in his first two books, especially the impact of economic hardship borne by numerous individuals or the deprivation of funds felt by many communities, and the accompanying emotions of despair or despondency.

The Branch Will Not Break proved to be a stunning collection of poems, and it served as an artistic breakthrough for James Wright. The works included in this book shook up an entire generation of young poets who soon discovered they were looking to Wright and his transformed style for guidance. Although James Wright had found in his education—eventually settling down as an academic teaching at Hunter College in New York City—a means to escape the rough existence of his birthplace and the lifetime of factory work his father had done, among the collection’s group of outstanding poems that have become anthologist’s material for the last four decades, Wright had written a poem that recalled through the use of metaphor both the ambitions and the anxieties he’d witnessed amid the townspeople he’d known so well:


AUTUMN BEGINS IN MARTINS FERRY, OHIO

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.


This brief but engaging poem with its simple litany of images often lingers for a long time in the minds of readers. Although the speaker quickly acknowledges the scenes he shares are all thought (“I think”) rather than personally witnessed contemporaneously, his details convince readers of their authenticity. Thus, when the narrative comes to a conclusion, it does so in the manner of an intellectual argument, beginning the final supposition with an emphatic “Therefore,” the word isolated on its own line for even greater attention.

The speaker introduces himself as sitting at a football game in his old high school’s stadium, perhaps as if someone attending a homecoming or class reunion. The season is autumn, a time for harvesting in the Midwest, but also a time for fresh starts with the opening of a new school year. However, rather than relaying any of the festive activities one might expect at such a gathering, the poet instead confides, frequently in stark language, his concern for those he has left behind.

He notes the conditions of individuals in various positions on a layered social structure. Wright displays compassion for men stuck in dead-end jobs or possibly laid-off workers burdened by poverty as they face the responsibility of supporting a family. He also identifies with loners or outcasts in much of his poetry, and here he specifies the plight of “Polacks” resisting any urge to move on, “Negroes” working in hellish surroundings, and the “ruptured night watchman” whose job imposes a dark isolation upon him.

Some are “nursing long beers,” either unable to afford to order a fresh mug or unwilling to leave a place where some companionship is assured. Perhaps like the “proud fathers,” they also are “ashamed to go home,” embarrassed by the failures they have endured in contrast to the figures they once imagined they could become. The men even appear impotent, incapable of providing the love their wives now find lacking. Indeed, the lives of the women, powerless and helpless, appear to be slowly eroding as well: they are depicted as “starved pullets” who are “Dying for love.” Contrasting their present place with the hopes they may have possessed when they were high-school students anticipating a promising future has harmed the self-image held by the husbands and seemingly weakened their confidence as men.

“Therefore,” the community turns its eyes toward the young athletes on the football field, whose promise still exists and whose youthfulness recalls the better years most of the adults once happily experienced, when the blank slate of their lives lay ahead, and when they believed an unknown and uncharted future offered grounds for greater expectations. The fathers also participate vicariously as their sons now harbor hope and demonstrate the vigor of youth. The men who have spent their entire lives in this small Midwestern town wish a different outcome for their sons, maybe even an opportunity brought by an athletic college scholarship. As in much of America, the myth exists of success in sport as a ticket to freedom for the poor, even though the odds often are about as improbable as winning a lottery.

As a result, James Wright presents the sons’ actions as “suicidally beautiful.” He details their violent physical contact and deems them in natural terms, comparing them to animals that “gallop” against one another, while he slips in the persuasive “terribly.” He recognizes the inherent allure of youthful energy and the glory some may achieve, though fleetingly, perhaps even preserve as fond memories some day when they are family men laboring in factories, perchance feeling failure, and possibly as they continue to feel the aches and pains of injuries suffered during the pounding endured on the playing field.

Wright might likely have seen the violence and the battering competition in football as a metaphor for the kind of economic and social difficulties many from his hometown would later face in the larger world of business or personal affairs. Nevertheless, he also recognized the status of ritual that football, and now many other sports, had attained in America.

As millions of Americans turn their eyes to the gridiron on their television sets and watch players many consider their heroes competing for a championship worth millions of dollars, supported by enormous corporations represented in commercials costing about $90,000 per second, Wright’s vision of football as an American metaphor can only be enhanced on a much grander scale than he possibly could have imagined. Certainly, I acknowledge I will be watching as a born and bred New Yorker, supporting an upset by my old hometown team, the Giants. However, I also will think of this powerfully persuasive poem, which visitors can hear, as read by James Wright in 1964 at the Guggenheim Museum, on an Academy of American Poets web page.

5 comments:

Christopher Kempf said...

Great post.

I actually (as a Wright fanatic and Ohioan) spent some time in Martins Ferry this summer and, despite the fact that the main street through town is named for him, when I talked to people in the area (even at the library where his picture is on the wall) most had never heard of him.

It's one of the problems the poem itself alludes to, vis-a-vis the issue of class and how poetry attempts to speak for a group of people who simply do not read it.

It was wonderful, though, walking around the WPA Swimming Pool, the bridge on the cover of "Above the River," the football stadium, lost in poetry's own little world.

Edward Byrne said...

Thanks for your notes, Christopher. Your comments confirm Wright's presence continues to exist in his home region, as do some of the details he used in his poetry; however, as you report, the atmosphere and attitudes to which Wright's work often alluded remain as well. Again, thanks for passing along this information.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the comments, and as a native Ohioan -- born and raised in Martins Ferry -- I can say that Wright's work hasn't been lost on all of the natives. When I was in high school (which has recently moved to a new, fancy building; no longer Strieve HS), we read Wright's poetry and participated in a poetry festival named for Wright. I believe that the Martins Ferry Public Library keeps a special collection of Wright's work. Though I've moved away from "The Valley," Wright's poetry takes me home.

Tim Elhajj said...

This is one of my favorite poems.

The first time I heard it I was a sophomore in high school, in a little mill town in PA, back in the 70s. My math teacher, Mr. Baronowski, (who insisted Wright was a "racist," or at least prejudice, for using the word Polack) recited it from memory, and I can still remember the hush that fell over our typically rowdy classroom, especially when Mr. Baronowski got to the line "Therefore." It was as if those few stark images at the start of the poem had convinced everyone that Wright had some authority, that he knew something and, more importantly, was about to reveal that something to us with the next stanza. I'll never forget that hush. We were all spellbound.

Thank you for your post, which I enjoyed very much.

Will said...

Two high school football players from Steubenville, up the Ohio River from Martins Ferry, were convicted this week of raping an unconscious girl. Thinking of that case, Ohio poet Diane Kendig has parodied Wright's poem: http://newversenews.blogspot.com/2013/02/st-agnes-eve-arrives-in-steubenville.html
Also see her essay about her own poem at
http://dianekendig.blogspot.com/2013/02/talking-back-to-james-wright-during.html