Reading Poems

I pulled out Above the River: The Complete Poems by James Wright. When I bought it last year, the poems resisted me, except for “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” and “A Blessing.” After listening to the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast (April 2013), in which Idra Novey discusses poems by James Wright and Irene McKinney, I understood Wright as an Appalachian poet. Now I’m drawn in completely.

Wright’s voice is a blend of Latin American, midwestern, and Appalachian influences.* I know something about all three literary traditions. Today when I picked up his book, it felt like an impediment had shifted. That may not be an uncommon experience when reading poetry. Maybe the anthologies have got it backward. Start with contemporary poets** and trace them back to the posthumous greats. All the tumblers click. At least this time.  
*Chinese influences too. Else where did this come from? I breathe / The waters poured out by snow hills / That are gone.  From “To the August Fallen.”

** What could be more delightful than to find something in James Wright that my teacher Tom Montag echoes? It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field / on the other side of the road. (From “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway”). That’s one thing I learned from Tom: read and emulate the great ones. Let yourself be influenced by the poetry that came before you. Dive into its deep waters. 

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