Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Letter From James Wright

Reading the blogs in recent days, I remember what I hoped the writing life would be-- and what I hoped the community of writers might be like--when I became a poet. Sometimes, it helps to go back to the great epistles for courage. Sometimes, reading them and thinking about the current state of the poetry world makes me sad. Here's one by James Wright, from A Wild Pefection: The Selected Letters of James Wright (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Malley.

New York City
September 6, 1975

D. Groth,

You kind letter made me happy. Poetry is a strange adventure: at crucial times it is––it has to be a search undertaken in absolute solitude, so we often find ourselves lost in loneliness––which is quite a different thing from solitude. America is so vast a country, and people who value the life of the spirit, and try their best to live such a life, certainly need times and places of uncluttered solitude all right. But after the journey into solitude––where so many funny and weird and sometimes startlingly beautiful things can happen, whether in language or––even more strangely––in the silences between words and even within words––we come into crowds of people, and chances are they are desperately lonely. Sometimes it takes us years––years, years!--to convey to another lonely person just what it was we might have been blessed and lucky enough to discover in our solitude.

In the meantime, though, the loneliness of the spirit can be real despair. A few years ago, when I lived in St. Paul, Minn., I received unexpectedly a short note from a young poet* who was bitterly poverty striken in Chicago. He had never published anything; but it so happened that he had sent a few poems to a close friend of mine, Robert Bly, who in turn showed them to me. I thought then, and I still think, that the Chicago poet was an absolutely, unmistakable genius. I am not using the word loosely. But when he wrote to me in St. Paul, I did not know him personally. As I say, it was some years ago. I have long since mislaid or lost the short note to me, but I can still quote it, and I believe I will remember its words, its absolutely naked truth, until I die. He didn't even address me by name. Luckily, he did sign the note, and the envelope included his home address. Here is exactly what he said: "I am so lonely I can't stand it. Solitude is a richness of spirit. But loneliness rots the soul." I have made so many mistakes in my life, from the superfically silly to the downright stupid and destructive and self-destructive, but when I die and report to get my just deserts, I figure I ought to deserve at least six months or so in purgatory for my response to that young poet's short note. In the first place, I wrote him a reply without even rising from my desk. It so happened that his note had arrived on about a Sunday; the first day of Thanksgiving week. It also happened that I was living alone myself, and lived too far away from my home in Ohio to get home for Thanksgiving with my parents who were still alive at that time; and the kindly parents of one of my students had invited me to spend Thanksgiving day with them in the little town of Ogden, Iowa, which is within reasonable distance of Chicago. And so, without asking anyone's permission or making any plans whatsoever, I promptly wrote a reply to the young poet in Chicago, and within an hour I had posted my letter to him by air-mail special delivery. I had no more idea what he looked like than Howard Hughes. Nevertheless, this is what I told him I was going to do: without making the slightest reference to his remarks about his loneliness, I bluntly informed him that at approximately 2 p.m. on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I was going to arrive at his furnished room in Chicago (a very poor section of the city, by the way), and I informed him he could be absolutely certain that I would be accompanied by (1) two vivacious and pretty girls and (2) a large bag of fresh bananas.

And by God, I did it!

The poet was waiting for us. He was very poor as I said above, and he worked a night-shift at a charity hospital in a skid row. Nevertheless, he had received my letter. His faith never faltered. There he sat on a broken three-legged chair at a rickety table in the center of his single room, and in the dead center of the table sat a gleaming unopened bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey.

I suspect that anybody who ever really tries to write poetry secretly hopes that at least once he will be strucken by the Muse of inspiration in a way so unpredictably nutty that not even Shakespheare or Dafydd ap Gwyllam would have imagined such an insiration even in his weirdest dreams. As for me, the thought of cheering up the lonely Chicago poet by visiting him with two pretty girls was merely conventional, though of course pleasant. But the bananas still fill me with such total delight that I sometimes mention them in my prayers. God knows how much second-rate bilge I have written in my many books. But a bag of bananas! Think of it on a tombstone: "He cheered up a lonely, unhappy poet with two charming girls and a bag of bananas."

Yes, we need one another in deep, strange ways. Thank you for writing me your kind words. Now: will you do me a special favor? Will you send me a couple of your poems? And by the way, will you please indicate whether or not you're a girl or a young man? "D. Groth" could be either, and left me off balance.


James Wright


*The poet was Bill Knott


Blogger Andrew Shields said...

If Bill Knott was like me, then he would not have eaten the bananas (I can't stand bananas). But I still would have appreciated the beautiful gesture.

May we alway be given bananas by our fellow poets when we need them.

2:51 PM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

Yes! At the very least, they are a good source of potassium!

All the best,

Greg R.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Thanks for this.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Ivy said...

What a supremely gracious letter. Thanks for typing it out. :-)

6:47 PM  
Blogger rams said...

Damn it, he could at least have named the girls! (He wasn't the only one being charitable...)

9:19 PM  
Blogger ryan said...

What luck that you posted on my blog right when I needed to read your post. Thanks and thanks.

1:06 AM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Beautiful, beautiful. Thank you!

4:37 AM  
Blogger Brian Campbell said...

Thanks for this...

1:15 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

"Poetry is a strange adventure: at crucial times it is––it has to be a search undertaken in absolute solitude, so we often find ourselves lost in loneliness––which is quite a different thing from solitude."

"I am so lonely I can't stand it. Solitude is a richness of spirit. But loneliness rots the soul."

Bill Knott indeed - fascinating. Thanks for posting this.

2:53 PM  

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