A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright

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9780819568724: A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright
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“There is something about the very form and occasion of a letter—the possibility it offers, the chance to be as open and tentative and uncertain as one likes and also the chance to formulate certain ideas, very precisely—if one is lucky in one’s thoughts,” wrote James Wright, one of the great lyric poets of the last century, in a letter. A Wild Perfection is a riveting collection that captures the exhilarating and moving correspondence between Wright and his many friends. In the letters to fellow poets Donald Hall, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinnell, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, and Robert Bly, Wright explored many subjects, poetic and personal, from his creative process to his struggles with depression and illness. Bright threads of wit, gallantry, and passion for describing his travels and his beloved natural world run through all these letters, which together form an epistolary chronicle of a significant part of the mid-century American poetry renaissance, as well as the clearest biographical picture now available of this major American poet.

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About the Author:

JAMES WRIGHT (1927–1980) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1972 for his Collected Poems, published by Wesleyan. His other Wesleyan books include Saint Judas (1959), The Branch Will Not Break (1963), and Shall We Gather at the River (1968). ANNE WRIGHT is a retired teacher in the field of early childhood education, and James Wright’s widow. SAUNDRA ROSE MALEY is the author of Solitary Apprenticeship: James Wright and German Poetry. She teaches at Montgomery College and Catholic University.

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A Wild Perfection
Beginning1946-1953I began in Ohio. I still dream of home.--from "Stages on a Journey Westward"At Fort Lewis, Washington, Twelve years ago, when I was eighteen, We fired all day long at practice targets And wounded one of our own men. When I ran to help him, I saw a whole gray earth Opening in a vein of his cry: From full green to emptiness, A mile's field of dead fir stumps High as the level of adolescent waists, Low as a man's knees. We had mown a grove down. I was one of the State's gardeners.--from "The Trees in Minnesota"As far as the school proper is concerned, Jack and I both are supremely satisfied. The caliber of the teachers is evidently very excellent, and consequently the requirements are stiff. We shall be expected to wrestle with the books often and with energy if we want to retain our feeling of intelligence.--from a letter to the parents of Jack Furniss February 29, 1948 
The earliest of James Wright's letters to be found were written in the spring of 1946. One is to his high school English teacher, Elizabeth Willerton, and the other is to her friend Professor James L. McCreight. In each letter James discussed plans to enlist in the service and presented personal views on Latin poetry, his great love.James enlisted in the army that summer. After completing basic training, he served with the peacetime army in Japan. He continued to read, study, translate the works of Catullus, and admire not only Latin poetry but poetry in general. He also wrote to his parents, Jessie and Dudley Wright; Susan Lamb; and Elizabeth Willerton.Susan Lamb, later Graham, was a classmate from Martins Ferry High School. She and James had worked together on the yearbook staff of the 1946 Ferrian, he as editor and she as assistant editor. He often included a sonnet or translation in his letters to her. Elizabeth Willerton, later Esterly, was portrayed by James as a teacher who "introduced her high school students to literature with a clarity and intelligence, a kind of summons to enter whatever nobility there is in the human race, with something very like genius."After he was discharged from the army, James returned to his family, who had moved from Martins Ferry to a farm at nearby Warnock. "As for home," he wrote Susan Lamb, "I am situated on a farm, plopped down in the wilderness about fifteen miles out of Bellaire. The atmosphere suits me famously. I have music for passivity, books for activity and a free-thinking mother for conversation."James met Jack Furniss, a young man from Ohio, while in the army. Furniss recommended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to James, and they both were accepted, enrolling as freshmen in January 1948. James formed close friendships with many fellow classmates, includingAlbert Herzing, E. L. Doctorow, Roger Hecht, Robert Mezey, and Eugene Pugatch. Equally strong bonds were formed with his teachers John Crowe Ransom, Philip Timberlake, and Andre Hanfman. Most of these friendships were to last throughout his life.The letters written during his four years at Kenyon reveal James's scholarship, growing interest in music, and broadened exposure to literature. After graduating from Kenyon in January of 1952, James married Liberty Kardules, a fellow student at Martins Ferry High School. The young couple went to Center Point, Texas, where James taught for a semester at the Tenney School, and then sailed for Europe that fall, as James had been accepted at the University of Vienna in Austria as a Fulbright Scholar. Their son Franz was born there on March 18, 1953.In the spring of 1953 James sent a highly detailed six-page letter to Robert Mezey. It was handwritten in the cramped but neat style that James would employ throughout his life. The first four pages contain extensive comments on a group of Mezey's poems, including one very long one. The last two pages, which are included here, offer both advice and encouragement to Mezey. The end of the letter divulges James's own thoughts on Vienna and America as seen from a new and distant perspective. The letter closes with loving words about his new son.To James L. McCreightMartins Ferry, Ohio Spring 1946Dear Professor McCreight:Of course, by this time, you have forgotten our discussion of Latin and English poetry. Still, ponder a moment and recall me as the rather wild-eyed young man whose conception of the Muses stirred you to send him a volume of Catullus.As I told you, I discovered Catullus in a Caesar book during my second year of Latin, and the white gush of nobility in his lines ate at me considerably. Perhaps his ability to create poetical images could not approach that of Virgil, or even that of the more sensible Horace, but his cries, such as:--nam tui Catulli; plenus sacculus est aranearum.--charged me with a weird hunger, such as that created by Chopin or Poe.I have included with this letter a few translations, or paraphrases. They do not cling to his purity; no translation, however perfect, can do that, for a poet's balancing of his native tongue is shocked by a translation, and can scarcely be reconstructed.Your kindness in sending me the books has given me the courage to include, also, a work which I consider my most mature. The defects in my "Elegies" are very apparent. I am conscious, in my re-reading of them, of a clumsy straining after effect. But in no other attempt have I so utterly succeeded in speaking for myself, and I am convinced thatany originality which exists in them is valuable enough to overshadow their weaknesses. As you read them, you will be conscious of the absence of a syllable here and there, and even of the discarding of iambics altogether. I would rather sacrifice technical skill than sincerity. And I have let the rhythm of emotion govern many of the lines rather than the rhythm of Milton.Within a few days I shall undergo a physical examination for the Navy. If I pass, I shall be two years removed from a formal education. However, I hope to become well situated, so that I may work more with Catullus, and thus keep Latin alive within me.If you will pardon the colloquialism, I don't understand why I continue my writing of these damned verses. I tell myself that I care little or nothing for people's opinions, but my vanity prods me toward attempts at publication.Most likely, I shall starve, a degenerate.Thank you again for your consideration in sending the poems of Catullus. His songs are pure gold, and he will live forever.Thank you, Jim Wright Kuckuck Lane, Stop 4 Martins Ferry, OhioTo Elizabeth WillertonMartins Ferry, Ohio Spring 1946Dear Miss Willerton:Having nearly lost count of time and space, I have no idea when this letter may reach you. Yet, the thing must be written, and the boil must be squeezed.John Harrison and I have been barred from the Navy, because of our eyesight. Whether or not we shall pursue the Army, I cannot say. For God's sake! I don't know where to turn. If I attempt to attend school, the draft will surely suck me up. Still, I am almost certain that I can scrabble through one year on what I have saved. My longing for Latin is deeper than ever now, since I have assembled a vocabularylarge enough to read the beautiful volume of Catullus not only with pleasure, but with a great deal of fire.Among his lyrics I discovered a sweet little song which weighs the merits of a lovely Gallic maiden with the beauty of Lesbia. His hendecasyllables are without blemish, and so I used the same meter in my translation. The spondee, the dactyl, and the three sparkling trochees ripple quickly but in a loosely hung rhythm, like a flicker of light. Also I have paraphrased his "spring song" into iambics, which hardly do justice to its purity. O for a tongue like Latin, full of thunder, each word being supported by its separate classical marble column!You will be interested to hear that I have only recently completed the reading of Thomas Wolfe's novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I have nothing to say. Only I would give my tongue for a chance to review it with you. It confirms a wild idea of mine: that Tom Wolfe and William Saroyan are two of America's greatest poets, although their genius ran, and is flowing, through the medium of prose.I found Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy" as nauseating as you declared, but I turned thereupon to his sonnets, and again I found him to be what a low and ancient whisper had long before claimed: that, regardless of any allusion to degeneracy, William Wordsworth was a noble poetic spirit, and his sonnets rank with any cry in their weird simplicity of effervescence. Damn the disillusion after the French Revolution! Damn the reversion to the Tories! Damn the "Idiot Boy"!Wordsworth is alive.Finally, I acknowledged Professor McCreight's gracious act in sending me the Catullus volume. In response to his invitation I sent him my nine "Elegies," together with a few translations from Catullus.Forgive me for being so damnably self-centered in this letter, but this siege of walking the streets, cursing through teeth, browsing nervously through the library, and speaking Latin into the wind while riding in an automobile will wreck me thoroughly unless I speak.I still have two of your books in my possession, and somehow I must return them. Speaking of books, I have obtained a copy of Housman's posthumous poems. Among them is included a review of Housman by Christopher MorleyPlease, O please be patient with the two or three sonnets I send. They are weak, but I cannot escape writing them.And please write to me. Touch me with your beauty, the longed-for, the sought-for, the found beauty; for it is an ancient beauty, such as a m...

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