James Wright reads from The Branch Will Not Break (Wesleyan University Press, 1963), Saint Judas (Wesleyan Press, 1959), and from Shall We Gather at the River (Wesleyan University Press, 1968).

James Wright


Well, I feel about poetry in a curious way, I guess.  I have a very strong classical streak in me, I think, I like poems that are very regular, and poems that rhyme, and poems that are passionately intellectual, and I think that I feel this way because the poems that are the most passionately intellectual have a way of spilling over into something which is completely free in its feeling.  Oh here's a little poem by Ben Jonson.  It's called "On My First Son."  A little elegy.




Reads "On My First Son" by Ben Jonson


James Wright


Poor old Ben Jonson, in a pig's eye.  The next poem I would like to say is by an American poet, W.S. Merwin, who has just published his selected translations, and of course in addition to the very beautiful poems of his own that Merwin has, he's been a prolific translator, and he, he really does know the languages.  I've loved his poetry always because he has such a beautiful ear, it was very interesting to me when I saw him in New York a few weeks ago, when he said that his Selected Translations were about to appear.  I asked him if he remembered the transla--well of course he remembered, I just told him I always liked very much the poem he had translated, a later poem by Garcia Lorca called "Garcela of Unforseen Love."  What a weird thing!  He didn't remember that he had done it.  And it's not in his book.  Well, I wish it were.  "Garcela of Unforseen Love."




Reads "Garcela of Unforseen Love" by Federico Garcia Lorca


James Wright


Can't imagine doing that in English and then forgetting that you've done it.  Maybe it was frightening. Here in Montreal I've been thinking about what in the United States we hear about Montreal, about the English background, and the French background, and the Canadian, all of which are very vital and alive, but what do you make of the Irish up here?  Are there any Irishmen in Canada? [pauses for response] Just on March 17th. Only on March 17th, fine.  My own family background is kind of complicated.  I'm an Ohioan, which is a kind of hell in itself.  But both sides of my family have roots in the south, but they have a strong streak of Irish behind them; it wasn't until I was quite old that I found out about some of Irish literature, of course we've all of us read Yeats.  The son of a bitch.  He not only did everything first but he did it best.  We all feel that.  But really he didn't do it all first.  He may have done it best but there are some Irish things that I found that perhaps he grew out of it.  Do you know for example, the poems of, of all people, Jonathan Swift?  Jonathan Swift is a wonderful poet.  He published Gulliver's Travels in 1725, and I found a little poem of his called "On Burning a Dull Poem."  Of 1729.  And it has a, it's a wonderful expression of the Irish art of the curse.  I shouldn't lean on this.  I don't mean the poem, I mean the lecturn.  [Laughter.]..but it's a wonderful example of the Irish art of the curse, what is supposed to be very regular and it's almost like a prayer.  The art here is that you should decide first of all whether or not what you feel annoyed by really is worthy of a curse.  And then if it is, you should not come out and blast it directly, but exercise some indirection on it.  So here we have Swift, "On Burning a Dull Poem."




Reads  "On Burning a Dull Poem" by Jonathan Swift


James Wright


I can't help bringing that a little closer to our own time.  We all know the very beautiful plays of John Millington Synge.  Perhaps people haven't so widely enjoyed his poems.  He didn't write a great many, but to my mind he wrote enough.  He also, he made a translation of Petrarch into the same language as those people, as those women on the Erin Islands who used to clean his room.  He said he learned something about the rhythm of his language just by listening to them.  So that in the sound of the Petrarch after Laura is dead and is appearing in heaven, and the angels are astonished by her beauty, the sestet of that sonnet, in Synge's translation, the angels see Laura and suddenly say, "What rare beauty is that now?  What rare beauty at all."  So that those old women who cleaned his room on the Erin Islands have the voices of the angels.  Well, after “The Playboy of the Western World” was first produced, he was criticized and he wanted to write something about the criticism.  He didn't know whether the, who the critic was, really, he didn't know anything about him, he didn't know whether or not the critic had a sister.  But there was the poem, and since he realized, as Aristotle said, that 'poetry is a higher and more philosophical thing than history'--history being limited to what is or was, and poetry having available to it what ought to be, what might be...Synge invented a sister, and he wrote a little poem called "Upon the Sister of the Critic who Attacked the Playboy."  [Laughter.]  This is a prayer.  [Laughter.] And blasphemy also is a very delicate art.  "Lord"...no I have to say, that you have to understand, really what "Mountjoy" is.  Mountjoy is a place on the edge of Dublin, a kind of charity place where the Skid Rowers go.




Reads "Upon the Sister of the Critic who Attacked the Playboy" by John Millington Synge




Loud laughter follows the poem's last line, "And I'm your servant, J.M. Synge."


James Wright


I came to like those Irish poets, so much, because they enjoyed poetry.  My God, you've got to do something, life is a mess.  Well, alright, I want to say one more poem that I care about.  I know I'm going on too long with this business.  One more.  Let me say it in English first, and you can't say that I'm translating at sight, but perhaps by ear, and it'll be very awkward, but it's not awkward in the German.  When--it's a poem that doesn't have a title.  I don't think I'll tell you who wrote it.  The poem goes: "When the clocks nearby strike as if their own hearts were beating, and things--that is, material objects--things, with hesitant voices say to me softly, "Are you there?"  Then I am not the same man who woke this morning, for the night has sent me a name which no one to whom I spoke by daylight can listen to without being deeply frightened.  Every door in me opens, and then I know that nothing dies, neither gesture, nor prayer.  Things are too heavy for that.  My whole childhood stands always around me.  I am never alone.  Many who live before me, and many who spring forth from me--which I would also, I suppose, translate as 'many who spring forth out of my body'--wove, wove into my being.  And if I sit down opposite you and say, lightly, I have been suffering, do you hear?  Who knows?  Who murmurs that voice with me?"




Reads German original of untitled poem ["When the clocks nearby strike"...]


James Wright


Oh, no that's corny, of course it's by Rilke.  I mean it's corny to hold back the name.  It's one of those lyrics that Rilke wrote between those New Poems and the big terrible ones, the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets.  Well, let me proceed now to some poems of my own.  The first one I think I will read is a poem called "A Note left in Jimmy Leonard's Shack."  I've been thinking about that poem a little bit recently for a lot of reasons.  I think I should tell you something about what's behind it.  There was an old guy called Minnegan Leonard who, or maybe Francis Leonard, who grew up--no, [laughs] I mean he was old, I grew up--he was already there.  Back in Martin's Ferry, Ohio.  The story about him was that he had been a very well-educated man and he sort of deteriorated, everyone said.  One night, a couple of friends and I found him in the, when the snow was starting to fall.  And his, he wore a pair of overalls, the ones that cross behind, and they were too big, my friends and I helped him get home.  We were very much afraid of his brother, Jimmy.  Minnegan had drunk so much that his brain was practically gone, and he had nothing left to say to the universe except "God bless my soul."  We were stupid, we were afraid of his brother Jimmy, because his brother Jimmy, although drunk, was still mean.  He still had some of his humanity left.  And we were afraid of him.  I thought about this poem as being spoken by a boy, I was about twelve years old.  I also wanted to see if I could get away with swearing in a poem, and give the word, give the profanity some of its true force.  The only thing that I deplore about the open use of profanity is that very soon, when the four-letter words are used commonly, they start to lose touch with their old, magical, dark force.  When I was in the army, twenty years ago, I realized that this happened.  You couldn't say "fuck" to refer to anything dark or anything interesting.  It became a musical notation.  Merely a musical notation, like a comma, when you were having chow.  [Laughter]  But then there came those necessary moments when one absolutely needs to curse, and what does one do then?  Then I saw all sorts of people around me, floundering, turning to what Wordsworth would have called the "poetic diction," and finding that to say "fuck" had about as much effect on the release of one's feelings as the Finney crew had on anybody who was trying to read about fish in the end of the 18th century.  Then I met a poetic genius named Mark W. Patrick from Crafton, Alabama, who was not hobbled by this.  Someone asked him once, no he had invention, true invention.  He knew how to swear.  My wife has heard this before.  Alright, I'll say it again.  Someone said to him, "Where are you from?"  And he said, "I come from so far back in the country, they have to fan the coon-farts out of the kitchen to keep from making” [Loud audience laughter; inaudible.]  No, wait a minute, you didn't hear the rest of the conceit.  Now listen to this carefully and think of it as in Shakespearian.  "I come from so far back in the country they have to fan the coon-farts out of the kitchen to keep from making ring-tailed biscuits."  [Laughter.]  I thought, let us somehow rescue through invention our power to curse.  Well this poem is called, "A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard's Shack."  It's about taking Minnegan Leonard home when he was helpless in the snow.




Reads "A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard's Shack"




shuffling, silence


James Wright


Now for a while I think I would like to read from my new book.  There are a couple of city poems in this new book, well, more than a couple, and many of the things that I had written before were about the country, more or less, in Ohio, and in Minnesota.  But I developed a certain feeling about cities, I guess, and... I didn't have a very happy time in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but I lived there for about eight years, and before I left I thought I ought to say farewell, somehow.  I couldn't think of a title for this poem that would convey or suggest what I really felt, and the true title came to me.  I wanted it to be a poem about, not only about Minneapolis but about many American cities, and what has been happening in them.  Minneapolis is my favourite because I lived there for quite a while, and they had a very big Skid Row there, and the Skid Row was cleared out by the city administration, the last, the most recent one.  It was a very big Skid Row, between the Great Northern Railroad Station and the Mississippi River, right a strip across there, several blocks wide.  And they sort of flattened it.  They put up an insurance building and the rest were parking lots.  And it never occurred to them that the people who lived there would...well, even existed.  And I know where those people went, they went down Nickolet Avenue, scattered down there.  It's a very strange thing.  Spiro T. Agneau, our new American Vice-President said, during the campaign, "The reasons the slums are so over-crowded is that there are too many people in them."  [Laughter.]  Well, this is my city poem.  It's called "The Minneapolis Poem."




Reads "The Minneapolis Poem"




Cut/Edit in tape.   Sentence begins and then continues, repeated at lower sound quality--presumably a tape change.


James Wright


The next poem is called, "In Terror of Hospital--" [Cut/Edit. Sentence continues a moment later, at lower sound quality:] "In Terror of Hospital Bills."




Reads "In Terror of Hospital Bills"


James Wright


This poem is called "The Poor Washed Up By Chicago Winter."  It's about leaving Chicago.  I went down there for a long Thanksgiving weekend to visit a man whose poetry I had seen, I had never met him, I admired it very much.  His name is Bill Mott.  He has finally published a first book.  He lived in an area down there where there were some sort of poor people...I don't mean poor people in the sense of being savagely poor, really really put down, but just sort of drifters, the guys who go into the, who go in on Thanksgiving and get a dinner there from the Salvation Army and look at it and then sweep up and leave.




Reads "The Poor Washed Up By Chicago Winter"


James Wright


You know, George Orwell remarked in Down and Out in Paris and London that when he got back to London from France where he'd been a dishwasher, he had so little money that he realized that he would have to beg, only somehow his clothes, ratty as they were, were still too good to beg with.  And so he, he sold what clothes he had, or traded them, rather, for a really crummy suit of clothes, and when he got those old, really poor man's clothes on, he noticed all sorts of strange things.  The way people looked at him.  The way women looked at him.  As well as other men.  And the fact that he was poor had an effect on the way people's souls were shaped, somehow.  I only had a very slight experience of that in my life, and I don't want any more of it.  Because it's not very romantic.  For a while I had a sort of, an account at a department store in Minneapolis, and I was behind in my payments.  At that time I had an old green coat my father had given me, it didn't quite fit but a coat is a coat.  So I had it, and I was, in order to keep myself going one way or another, I went up to the cashier's office at this department store and tried to cash a small cheque for twenty dollars, or something like that.  There was a very beautiful girl there, the cashier, and she looked at me, and she disappeared for a moment and she came back with a fellow who had a crew cut.  And he evidently was the Grand Vizier, or something.  Well, they were about a foot and a half away from my face while I waited, and they talked about me, without paying any attention to me.  And I realized something I had never realized before.  That I'm, I am content simply to think about it, I don't want it to happen to me again.  I thought, Jesus Christ, there are millions of people in this country who are treated like things, every single intimate moment of their lives.  And it's not pretty.  Well.  "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store."  The poem is in different parts and I think I'll indicate the numbers.




Reads "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store," Part I




Reads "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store," Part II




Reads "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store," Part III




Reads "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store," Part IV




Reads "Before a Cashier's Window in a Department Store," Part V


James Wright


I think that I'll read a couple of nature poems.  Nature, in poetry and song.  One of the parts of the United States that I like very much...I came to like, I've spoken kind of harshly about Minneapolis, and I have harsh feelings about that city, but actually I love the West, out at the edge of Minnesota, you have, there's Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and that part of the country there is sort of the, it's not really flat, it's a little rolling, but it's the beginning of the prairie, and the prairie is a beautiful thing.  I spent a summer up around Fargo, North Dakota, and I like Fargo, I like to walk there in the summer evenings, I would go even out to the other end of town, and, well it really is a real city, there are about eighty-thousand people, but you could walk out to the edge of town, and just a little beyond the town the prairie would begin.  There is something about that sudden opening that I like.  This is called, "Outside Fargo, North Dakota."




Begins to read "Outside Fargo, North Dakota."


James Wright


No, may I start the poem again, I miss, I made a mistake.




Begins "Outside Fargo, North Dakota" again.


James Wright


Now this one is called "A Poem Written Under an Archway in a Discontinued Railway Station, Fargo, North Dakota."  I love those old trains, we were talking about this earlier, there's a certain thing about trains, especially in the West, west of Chicago.  It's not true in the East.  One of these days somebody's going to get a train from New York to Conneticut or something and that train will never return, it'll keep coming back, every forty years with ghosts on it, flying Dutchmen.  But it's different in the West, and...there's a discontinued railroad station.




Reads "A Poem Written Under an Archway in a Discontinued Railway Station, Fargo, North Dakota"


James Wright


I think I'll read...I think I'll read just a few more very short poems, perhaps two or three, and they're kind of nature poems, I guess.  Nature indeed, one of them is a love poem.  This is called "A Light in the Hallway."




Reads "A Light in the Hallway"


James Wright


And then a couple out of my previous book.  This poem is called "Mary Bly," it's for my goddaughter, and I stood up there in the church and they said, well, I went through the ceremony and I am her godfather, Mary Bly, it's the first child of my old friend, my old friends, Robert and Carol Bly.  I feel very proud of this poem, but it's one of those times that, it signifies one of those times in my life when I really thought of something nice to do and did it.  So many things I want to do that would be nice, and usually they turn out to be something either asinine or too late, or something.  But I wrote this poem for little Mary's christening, and I had it, it's the only time I've ever done this, I had it specially printed on very nice paper and print and had it put in a little silver frame, and gave it to her mother, on the day of the christening.  What a calm thing to pull on an audience, how can you help but like it.  [Laughter.]  If you don't like it, it means you don't like motherhood or small children.  "Mary Bly."




Reads "Mary Bly"


James Wright


And I think I will conclude with a poem which is just a description.  There were some other descriptive poems in my last book which, for some weird reason, drove some reviewers to distraction.  For example, in one poem, there was a poem about being at a bus stop at a place in Ohio and looking out the window and seeing a farmer at the beginning of a rain calling his cows in, and one reviewer got terribly upset about this and said, how...he's only stopping there on the bus, how did he know that there were a hundred black and white Holsteins.  [Laughter.]  And Robert Bly urged me and urged me to send the reviewer a postcard.  I never did it, I wish I had.  It was to have said, "I counted the tits and divided by four."  [Laughter]  Well, no but, just, I just want to present this poem.  It's called "A Blessing," and for what it is, it's just a description of something.




Reads "A Blessing"


James Wright


Thank you.




Applause concludes reading.




I'd just like to express all our thanks to James Wright for sharing his poetry and his curses and blessings with us tonight, and to remind you that the next reading in the series is by Mary-Lou [?] Kaiser, on Friday, January 24th.






Works Cited

Cambridge, Gerry. "Wright, James”. The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Jay Parini (ed). Oxford University Press 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Concordia University Library, Montreal. November 11, 2009. <http://0-www.oxfordreference.com.mercury.concordia.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t197.e0335>.

Wright, Anne & Saundra Rose Maley & Johnathan Blunk (eds). A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005.

Wright, James. Collected Poems. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

--. Two Citizens. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1973.

"Wright, James [Arlington]". The Oxford Companion to American Literature. James D. Hart (ed.), Phillip W.

Leininger (rev). Oxford University Press 1995. Oxford Reference Online. Concordia University Library, Montreal. November 11, 2009. <http://0-www.oxfordreference.com.mercury.concordia.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t123.e5278>.


Howard Fink List of Poems:

James Wright

Information from the Howard Fink Print Catalogue, Concordia Archives:
Title: James Wright reading his own poetry at Sir George Williams University
Date: December 13, 1968
Source:  one two-track, mono, 5” reel, @ 3 ¾ ips, duration 1 hour

1. a poem by Ben Jonson “On My First Son”
2. a poem by W. S. Merwin “Nobody understood the perfume…”
3. a poem by Jonathan Swift “On Burning a Dull Poem”
4. A poem by John Millington Sing “Upon the Sister of the Critic who Attacked the Playboy”
5. A poem by Rilke “When the clocks nearby…” (trans. James Wright)
6. Title: “ Note left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack” | first line: “Near the dry river’s watermark…”
7. Title: from his book Minneapolis Poems | first line: “I wonder how many old men…”
8. Title: In Terror of Hospital Bills | first line: “I still have some money…”
9. Title: The Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter | first line: “Well I still have a train ticket”
10. Title: Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store | first line: “The beautiful cashier’s face…”
11. Title: Outside Fargo, North Dakota | first line: “Along the…”
12. Title: A Poem Written Under an Archway in a Discontinued Rail Road Station | first line: “Outside the great…”
13. Title: The Light in the Hallway | first line: “The light in the hallway…”
14. Title: Mary Bly | first line:  “I sit here…”
15. Title: A Blessing | “Just off the highway…”


Transcription by Rachel Kyne

Print Catalogue, Research, Introduction and Edits by Celyn Harding-Jones

James Wright at SGWU, 1968

Catalog numberI006-11-157
Sound qualityGood
SpeakersJames Wright
DateDecember 13, 1968

00:00- James Wright introduces reading and poem by Ben Jonson “On My First Son”.

00:52- Reads poem by Ben Jonson, “On My First Son”.

01:55- Introuces poem translated by W.S. Merwin, by Frederico Garcia Lorca, “Garcela of Unforseen Love”.

03:35- Reads poem translated by W.S. Merwin, by Frederico Garcia Lorca “Garcela of Unforseen Love”.

04:30- Introduces poem by Jonathan Swift, “On Burning a Dull Poem”.

07:29- Reads poem by Jonathan Swift, “On Burning a Dull Poem”.

08:25- Introduces poem by John Millington Synge “Upon the Sister of the Critic who Attacked the Playboy”.

11:06- Reads poem by John Millington Synge “Upon the Sister of the Critic who Attacked the Playboy”.

11:43- Introduces and reads poem by Rilke, first line “When the clocks nearby strike as if their own hearts were beating...”.

11:14- Reads in German poem by Rilke, first line “When the clocks nearby strike as if their own hearts were beating...”.

15:28- Explains Rilke poem, introduces “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack”.

21:07- Reads “A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard’s Shack”.

22:58- Introduces “The Minneapolis Poem”.

26:11- Reads “The Minneapolis Poem”.

30:39- Cut/edit in recording, sentence begins and then continues, repeated at lower quality sound, perhaps a tape change?

30:50- James Wright introduces “In Terror of Hospital Bills”.

30:51- Reads “In Terror of Hospital Bills”.

32:36- Introduces “The Poor Washed Up By Chicago Winter”.

33:53- Reads “The Poor Washed Up By Chicago Winter”.

35:34- Introduces “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store”.

38:45- Reads “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store, Part I”.

39:17- Reads “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store, Part II”.

39:44- Reads “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store, Part III”.

40:20- Reads “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store, Part IV”.

40:38- Reads “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store, Part V”.

41:11- Introduces “Outside Fargo, North Dakota”

42:45- Reads “Outside Fargo, North Dakota”.

44:04- Introduces “A Poem Written Under an Archway in a Discontinued Railway Station, Fargo, North Dakota”.

44:53- Reads “A Poem Written Under an Archway in a Discontinued Railway Station, Fargo, North Dakota”.

46:30- Introduces “A Light in the Hallway”.

47:07- Reads “A Light in the Hallway”.

48:06- Introduces “Mary Bly”.

49:51- Reads “Mary Bly”.

50:42- Introduces “A Blessing”.

52:28- Reads “A Blessing”.

54:02- Thanks audience

54:21- Unknown introducer thanks James Wright and introduces next reading, Mary-Lou Kaiser on January 24th.