To the Editors:
I looked forward, with great eagerness, to reading Stephen Spender’s comments on James Wright’s Collected Poems (“The Last Ditch,” July 22). I have been disappointed by his casual dismissal of a book that contains almost twenty years of poetry; but more, of a poet who has, with each new volume, become more significant for the credibility of poetry in the United States. After a patronizing compliment: “beautiful in his way,” Mr. Wright’s poems are tagged “academic”—a word which has no real meaning but a few bogus implications. The poems are fitted to their sources, then passed over: Frost and Yeats for the earlier ones; Spanish poets for the later. And as for the later ones, quoting two and a half lines, Mr. Spender writes, “One does not believe it could be made by an American poet unless he had been reading Spanish poetry”!
This is extraordinary stuff! These poems afforded him the opportunity for (at least) three things: first to discover how a better-than-average poet has become one of the best of his generation, not by any significant change in themes, but by developing a language with an increasingly greater simplicity while investing his poems with a deeper genuineness and profounder truth of feeling. Secondly, how Wright’s “development” is an important touchstone for the massive directional changes in much American poetry since the mid-Fifties (but having its roots back in Whitman). Thirdly, and perhaps most paradoxically, had Mr. Spender read these poems, they may have provided the vital contrast to what is his main concern, the “partial failure” of Ted Hughes’ Crow.
It is interesting that the English critics who have been out to “get” Hughes have found their ammunition in his “lack of development,” i.e., in his not getting out of the bestiary game. What many seem to have ignored is that the thump and boom of words, detached from any initial objective reality, mythed up and constructed, smack of the “literary”: it becomes increasingly more difficult to suspend disbelief. And it is the constructionism of Crow which is the dead-end that the Eliot/Anglo tradition has been leading to and which some few American poets, recognizing it—intuitively and critically—have tried to find alternatives for. It is the dead-end where poems are not the carriers of feeling but the barriers; where words are asked to do all the work while the poet/Svengali yanks the strings—or in Crow, the ax. The English literary tradition has provided, and of course continues to provide, the great poets to read and learn from; but as for new directions, for escaping the cul-de-sac, it has not been nearly enough. Spanish poets may be no answer by themselves; but they provide draughts of freshness and an art which is not dissociated from the business of living in the world.
James Wright’s poems are an attempt to reach out beyond the provincialism of the United States and a sometimes stifling attachment to England—they demonstrate implicitly the necessity to “make” an American tradition, not to carry the burden of an English one.
Stephen Spender replies:
I read this letter on vacation, so asked for another copy of James Wright’s Collected Poems to be sent to me. I have read the whole volume very carefully again, three times. I am certainly ready to apologize for not having devoted more space to the work of a lifetime, so will expand what I wrote before, though my impression of the merits and defects of these poems remains scarcely altered. Of the early poems I think the best are either those which are straight-forwardly autobiographical or those which are journeys of the imagination from a starting point which is some close and literal observation. Of such is the beautiful “Elegy in a Firelit Room,” in which the poet fantasizes about associations of imagery and memory and feeling suggested by the ice frozen on a windowpane. Mr. Wright’s early poems are nearly always successful because they are simple, clear, and pure, which I suppose him to be, whatever complexities may have been imposed on these fundamental qualities.
I am taken aback by the suggestion that I am not qualified to discuss Mr. Wright because he is so American, precisely because one of my reservations about his poetry is that I feel it is, in sensibility and a kind of diffused inhibitedness, much too English. By this I don’t mean that his meters are basically iambic, but that the imagination working in the poem I have just cited is very close to that of Walter de la Mare, whilst his observations of the countryside and country people seem also close to the kind of poetry written in England early in the present century, though I suppose an early influence is Robert Frost. English poets, though dreamers, have rather overeducated dreams (in their poetry, I mean). When I say that Mr. Wright’s poetry strikes me as academic, I mean that the influences of other poets in his work sometimes seem to me to strangle his authentic individual expression. It is as though instead of starting from the kind of poetry which influences him, he arrives at it. This is most evident in his Hispanicisms which often produce in me an effect of utter incredulity. I do not see why I am blamed for quoting only one Hispanicism. I might have quoted many, and ones that are, in my view, much more damaging. For example:
Her knee feels like the face
Of a surprised lioness
Nursing the lost children
Of a gazelle by pure accident….
To me, this conveys more the feeling of a kind of poetry that Mr. Wright has read than of an experience he can really have had. He may, of course, have encountered a lady with a knee that feels like a surprised lioness which was nursing gazelle children. My point is that he makes it sound more convincing as a literary than as a lived experience.
It is difficult to discuss Mr. Wright’s poems because they often give me the sense of an extreme sadness and of personal loss behind the poetry, which makes me reserved about criticizing them. The feelings I mention, though poignantly present, seem incompletely transformed in the poetry; that is the trouble. One feels that Mr. Wright has a great wish to break away from his semiconfessional, afflicted kind of poetry and to make some tremendous statement about life, but when he does make such a statement, I feel embarrassed (this may be because I am so English). To be perfectly candid, I don’t go along with this:
Man’s heart is the rotten yoke of a blacksnake egg
Corroding, as it is just born, in a pile of dead
I have no use for the human creature.
He subtly extracts pain awake in his own kind.
I am born one, out of an accidental hump of chemistry.
I have no use.
It is certainly distressing that Mr. Wright should entertain these sentiments, which, I am sure, are perfectly sincere. But coming from him, “I have no use for the human creature” is a kind of pessimism of the same order, though in reverse, as Margaret Fuller’s optimism in saying: “I accept the universe.” The trouble about this kind of tremendousness is that it reflects back on the speaker who, one feels, has been looking too closely at horse droppings recently. Such sentiments (as I am sure some reader will point out) are, of course, Lear-like, but then before Shakespeare allows him to utter them, we are given Lear’s whole situation. I have the utmost respect for Mr. Wright but there is something in me which rebels against “I have no use.” Sometimes even the critic is tempted to ask: “So what?” I repeat that I find many things to admire in this book, but there are readers who think that if one has serious reservations about an oeuvre one’s expressions of admiration for portions of it are either patronizing or insincere.
November 4, 1971