When I received this month’s Poetry Foundation’s online newsletter, I immediately clicked on a link that led to a list of winter poems. There, below Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” and William Carlos William’s “Blizzard,” the title of a poem by James Wright caught my eye. I read it once to make certain that my eyes hadn’t tricked me and a second time to be sure my memory hadn’t failed, but there it was: “A Winter Daybreak above Venice.”
The early dawn in 1978 that left James Wright feeling as though he were “sitting strangely on top of the sunlight” was written in southern France, not northern Italy. The city below him was Vence, not Venice. The error, which originally appeared in two places on the Poetry Center website, has since been corrected in one, but not the other. As of December 10, the copyright notice at the end of the poem still erroneously identified it as “A Winter Daybreak Above Venice.” My eyes narrowed and squinted as they homed in on the treatment of letter “a” in the word “above.” It appears in lowercase in the title directly above the poem as stipulated in Chicago 8.157, but has been capitalized in the initial list of winter poems and the copyright notice. This is not meant to be a criticism of the Poetry Foundation website, which adheres to very high standards, but rather a confession of a possessed copy editor who never stops scanning texts for infelicities, not even while reading a few poems to relax before turning off the computer at the end of the day.
As I buried my head in my pillow that night, “A Winter Daybreak above Vence” sparked reveries of poets staring out at the Mediterranean Sea and contemplating the splendors of Venice (for Wright, in fact, also wrote poems in Venice) as well as reflections about how people move from one point to another in their lives. Wright studied English at Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill after leaving the army. As I lay in bed, I wondered what chance the children of working class parents anywhere in the world today have of growing up to be university professors, receiving Guggenheim Fellowships or Pulitzer Prizes, traveling to other countries, or translating poems from other languages. I felt a sudden, sharp pang of gratitude for the scholarships granted to American World War II army veterans to study whatever they wanted – including the humanities, even if the main purpose of the G.I. Bill was to control post-war unemployment rather than educate university professors and poets. I thought about Wright’s translations of George Trakl, César Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, and I struggled to recall fragments of his poem about Dwight Eisenhower’s detente with Francisco Franco (Antonio Machado follows the moon down a road of white dust . . .) and reconstruct his description of Indian ponies in “The Blessing” (the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear that is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist . . .) One of the last things I remember doing that night was chuckling to myself over the title of his poem “Depressed by a Book of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward an Unused Pasture and Invite the Insects to Join Me” before I drifted off to sleep lulled by the music of the dark cricket he captured in that verse. I too have occasionally trotted off to a deserted pasture somewhere in my mind to recover after a long session with a less than perfect text.
The short excerpt below about one of Wright’s many trips to Europe is from a long and fascinating conversation between Wright and Peter A. Stitt published in The Paris Review No. 62.
We’d planned a trip to Europe, but it was late spring and I was trying to finish up the Collected Poems. I felt empty, but Annie kept me going. She even did all the typing. So we finished the book, the contract was signed, the manuscript delivered, and off we went. And for the second time in my life I thought I was done with poetry forever. I always think I am done with poetry forever. We stayed several days in Paris, where we would walk out in the morning. We would go to market, then we would go to a cathedral to see what was going on in town. Then we would go with our cheese, our paté, our wine, and have lunch. Then we went to bed. Then in the late afternoon we would go out and have an aperitif. And to my utter, miraculous astonishment, I started to write poems again. And they turned out to be love poems, love poems of gratitude. And that went on all summer, all the way drifting down through from Paris to the south of France, and then to Italy.
James Wright died of cancer in 1980. His son, Franz Wright, is a fine poet in his own right. They are the only father and son to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category.