Early in 1972—following the publication, in April 1971, of his Collected Poems—James Wright was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets. The latter was awarded “for distinguished poetic achievement” by a panel of judges consisting of W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Richard Wilbur.
Thus, a considerable measure of public recognition was given to a poet already widely admired, especially on college and university campuses. In an age when, much to our loss, many fine poets find their books out of print, Mr. Wright’s earlier volumes—The Green Wall (1957), Saint Judas (1959), The Branch Will Not Break (1963), and Shall We Gather at the River (1968)—all have gone through more than one printing.
The following interview took place at Mr. Wright’s Manhattan apartment in early spring. The apartment is on the ground floor, and so, as we sat talking, we were able to look out through the (inevitably) barred windows at the small back garden and see, occasionally, the sunlight slanting between the surrounding buildings.
On the first day we held two sessions, separated by a walk in a nearby park on the East River and an excellent lunch prepared by Mrs. Wright. On the second, a misty, rainy day, we held one long afternoon session. On the table between us lay the tape recorder, the interviewer’s notes, a diminishing and then replenished gallon of wine, and Mr. Wright’s cigarettes and ashtray.
During the interview, Mr. Wright quoted many poems and prose passages as examples of points he was making. The interviewer later spent several hours in the library looking up and checking these quotations. The effort was unnecessary, as, except for a word here and there, Mr. Wright’s versions were always accurate. In the interest of conserving space, and because most of them are readily available elsewhere, several of these pieces have been cut. Those which are especially important to the interview as a whole remain as illustrations of Mr. Wright’s remarkable memory.
The unedited transcript of the interview typed out to eighty-three pages. Rigorous, and painful, editing brought this down to a manageable size, and the resulting version was sent to Mr. Wright. He returned it two weeks later, having added a few sentences and deleted a few others. That version, finally, is the one printed here.
Mr. Wright, you taught at the University of Minnesota with John Berryman. What is your feeling about him as a poet?
John Berryman was a very great poet and I think his work is going to endure. And not just because he was a good craftsman, but because he was demonstrating in his poetry, I think without realizing it completely, the fact that a poem is not only a single thing that can be made and very beautifully constructed, but that poetry is also something that can go on being made and it can almost reach a point where it recreates itself. By the growth of his work, and he never stopped growing, he was showing that there is something about poetry in the human imagination which is like the spring. Dr. Williams is a great poet for the same reason.
Tolstoy worried about this question. He was asked in a letter by a pacifist group if he could give them a definition of religion and, if he could do that, to explain to them the relation between religion, that is, what a person believes, and morality, that is, the way he acts in accord with some notion of how he ought to act. Tolstoy worried about this letter, and then as I recall it, he said: “I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question. He cannot avoid asking it—it is forced upon him. And his answer to that question is his religion. If he says the relation between me and this thing is nothing, then his religion is nihilism. As for morality, what ought I to do? I wish I knew.” That was a great letter.
Berryman’s greatness included of course his utter mastery of the craft of the language. But he also was demonstrating that poetry is not simply an ornament, that poetry has some deep-rooted relation to life itself, the way we go on living.
What is it to be a poet?
I can only tell you what it is to me. I regard myself primarily as a craftsman, as a Horatian. My favorite poet is Edward Thomas, and the person whom I would like to be my master is Horace—Horace, who was able to write humorously and kindly in flawless verse. I’ve achieved that maybe twice in my life, but that is what I would like to be.
Of course there are many other kinds of poets. There is Jack Finnegan for example. Jack Finnegan is a friend of mine, a learned gentleman whom I sometimes meet at Jack Loftus’s bar. There is a tradition in Irish poetry in which the poem itself is an answer to a question which someone has posed. Somebody says to a guy who is standing in a bar: What are you doing with those dice? The guy turns and says:
God rest that Jewy woman,
Queen Jezebel, the bitch
Who peeled the clothes from her shoulder-bones
Down to her spent teats
As she stretched out of the window
Among the geraniums, where
She chaffed and laughed like one half daft
Titivating her painted hair—
King Jehu he drove to her,
She tipped him a fancy beck;
But he from his knacky sidecar spoke,
‘Who’ll break that dewlapped neck?’
And so she was thrown from the window;
Like Lucifer she fell
Beneath the feet of the horses and they beat
The light out of Jezebel.
That corpse wasn’t planted in clover;
Ah, nothing of her was found
Save those grey bones that Hare-foot Mike
Gave me for their lovely sound;
And as once her dancing body
Made starlit princes sweat,
So I’ll just clack: though her ghost lacks a back
There’s music in the old bones yet.
Which is a way of saying, “You sing your business and I’ll sing mine.” The poem, by the way, is “Song for the Clatter-Bones” by the Irish poet F. R. Higgins.
Well, I thought it was only a literary convention, and you’re not going to believe this, but I swear in the sight of God that it is the truth. I went over to Loftus’s the other day, and I saw Jack Finnegan. I said, “Jack, how are you?” “OK, Professor,” he said, “how are you?” Then I asked him a question—and by God it turned out to be a living thing. He could not have known what question I was going to ask him. I said, “Jack, what do you think about Nixon’s visit to China?” And he turned to me and very beautifully sang:
In Peking’s fair city
Where the girls are so slitty
Twas there I met witty
Miss Molly Wong Wong.
She drove a wheelbarrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Singing Szechwan, Peking,
Alive a long dong.
Alive a long dong,
Alive a long dong,
Crying Szechwan, Peking,
Alive a long dong.
He sang it on the spot. What was I going to say to him? Jack, you made it up? Of course he made it up, he made it up on the spot. I was present at the creation.
There is another Irish tradition I’d like to mention. It is based on sheer arrogance, the determination to live. Poetry can keep life itself alive. You can endure almost anything as long as you can sing about it. Do you know Raftery? Anthony Raftery, from the eighteenth century, blind and illiterate, who carried a hand harp. He was standing in a bar and someone asked, who is that poor, frail old man leaning there in the corner with a harp in his hand? Raftery turned around and said: “I am Raftery, the poet, full of hope and love, with no light in my eyes, and with gentleness that has no misery, going west upon my pilgrimage by the light of my heart, though feeble and tired to the end of my road, and behold me now, with my back to the wall, playing music unto empty pockets.”*