Revisiting James Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River at Fifty-One

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Blue cover with a spiral and the outline of a person within the spiral, reading "Shall We Gather at the River" by James Wright2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of American poetry’s most beguiling books: James Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River. Published by Wesleyan University Press in 1968, Shall We Gather at the River is the follow-up to Wright’s landmark collection The Branch Will Not Break, which appeared five years earlier and was universally hailed as a breakthrough for both the poet and American poetry. That volume contains three now-canonical poems: “A Blessing,” “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Almost every creative writing student in America is reading one of these poems this semester, and perhaps also “The Jewel,” arguably the loveliest of the bunch. The totality of Branch, with its then-fresh foreign echoes of Chinese pastoral poetry, the dark despair of Georg Trakl, and the surrealist flair of Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo mixed with Midwestern syntactic flatness, is cited as one of the best examples of so called “deep image poetry” that came to embody the 1960s. Branch became the exemplar of an entirely new sub-genre and altered the terrain of American poetry.

How, then, if you are James Wright, do you follow such a book? How could your subsequent volume not be a letdown? It is an understatement to say that Shall We Gather at The River had its work cut out for it, and it is no surprise the reception of the book was dramatically and passionately mixed. As it happens, Wright’s legacy is itself dramatically and passionately mixed. At one end of the spectrum is the perspective of the influential poet and critic Michael Robbins with his now-infamous categorization of Wright’s poems: “It is easy to feel that, if fetal alcohol syndrome could write poetry, it would write this poetry.” This one sentence, seemingly reprinted in every review of his 2017 study Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music, summarily dismissed Wright’s entire oeuvre. 2017 also saw the publication of Jonathan Blunk’s well-received biography, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, which makes a strong claim for Wright’s greatness. In painstaking detail, Blunk chronicles the poet’s many successes despite the many hurdles—depression, self-doubt, alcoholism, poverty—that would have hindered or even killed someone less talented. Both Robbins’ quip and Blunk’s tome have reinserted Wright and his reputation back into the larger conversation regarding American poetry.

Thematically and tonally, Shall We Gather at the River does not deviate much from The Branch Will Not Break. The style Wright forged for himself in Branch—spare, free-verse, aphoristic lyrics that alternate, randomly at times, between short and long enjambed lines—actually did change his life, so not surprisingly, he stays the course in River. The poems in the latter book, however, are more ambitious in scope and scale, more overtly confessional, and, oddly enough, less stylized. The lyric pressure that lifts many of the poems of Branch out of sentimentality and into the sublime appears less often in River. Instead, Wright opts for a paradox that might only apply to him—an overstated understatement.

Many of the most celebrated poems of Branch contained or ended with a kind of observational wonder: I have wasted my life . . . Suddenly I realize . . . And I see that it is impossible to die . . . Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for/ Was a wild, gentle thing . . . Suddenly,/ A pheasant flutters . . . Most, if not all, of these epiphanies are personal. Lyrical. Internal. The self of the early ’60s learning through formal liberation, through descriptive (rather than autobiographical) confession. That mode of personal discovery gives way, in River, to a sense of personal ailment—as in these lines from “Before a Cashier’s Window in a Department Store:”

I slump deeper.

In my frayed coat, I am pinned down

By debt. He nods,

Commending my flesh to pity of the daws of God

 

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Am I dead? And if not, why not?

The lapidary line break after “down” is classic Wright. Ending the line on “down,” forces the reader to acknowledge the word’s (and the line’s) double meaning. Here, though, the poet doubles down on feeling squeezed, pressed, squashed. Similarly, consider this stanza from “An Elegy for the Poet Morgan Blum:”

Morgan the lonely,

Morgan the dead,

Has followed his only

Child into a vast

Desolation.

When I heard he was going

I tried to blossom

Into the boat beside him,

But I had no money.

When you read “blossom” in a James Wright poem, you can’t help but think of the luminous last lines of “A Blessing.” But there is no blessing here. In Branch, the landscape was dappled with horses, golden dung, and the ruddy cheeks of Robert Bly; here, there is only a dead poet, a broke poet, and a sad boat. Very little blossoming. Both of these poems from River reveal a sense of worthlessness that goes beyond the darkness and loneliness of Branch.

No surprise, then, that the critical reception was divided over Shall We Gather at the River. Some critics saw this book as the rightful heir to Branch, proof of Wright’s evolution as a poet and his visionary greatness. Others, however, found the book self-indulgent and flat, lacking the strangeness and surprise of Branch.

The most enjoyable and best-written review was by the British poet and novelist Barry Cole. After sitting down to Shall We Gather at the River, Cole found himself still hungry. He ends his review empty and bored: “Despite an almost manic intensity of feeling (this comes through strongly) the poems, again, fail to move or excite.” Although William Dickey, writing for The Hudson Review, found River slightly more palatable, he too left the Wright table unfulfilled. For him, the poems were “as sad as ever. But they seem less entirely convinced of their sadness.” He goes on to make the compelling observation that “Wright’s poems are in a way less good as poems and better as symptoms”; “What is done well here was already done well in The Branch Will Not Break,” he says. After a similar series of complaints as Dickey, Robert Stilwell arrives at a similar assessment in the Michigan Quarterly Review:

I must confess immediately that I do not sense myself cut to the quick by any of the work that [Shall We Gather at the River] contains . . . his flat, rather lazy diction and syntax can’t wrap themselves around slight but memorable emotions . . . Mr. Wright remains too firmly and too obviously under the tutelage of his professed masters (especially Mr. Bly, the modern Spanish poets, Chinese and Japanese verse, and ancient Greek lyric fragments), too deeply and too obviously bent upon re-conjuring vistas and situations already visited in The Branch Will Not Break. Once you have gone through that book you will perceive tedious repetition, instead of consolidation and advancement, within Shall We Gather at the River.

This preoccupation with originality, growth, and progress is fascinating. Most read Wright’s poems through a formalist lens, focusing on his diction and emotional registers. They fail to notice or appreciate Wright’s pivot outward. The movement from Branch to River is one of perspective. His eye shifts, between these two books, from the desolation of the self toward the desolation of 1960s America and the urban poor that is a context for the self.

Because of this evolution, many prominent poets and critics loved the book. In his review of Wright’s Collected Poems (1972), which included River in its entirety, James Seay suggests that River does what it should have done: “Shall We Gather at the River (1968), was everything that it should have been: a natural and skillful extension of those lines of approach he discovered in preparing for and writing the poems of The Branch Will Not Break and a continued assimilation of the foreign influences that, in large part, made possible those discoveries.” Peter Stitt, arguably the most important friend and scholar of Wright, has always claimed River is his favorite and Wright’s best book. Roger Hecht and Robert Mezey are also on record championing its preeminence. Robert Penn Warren wrote to Wright praising River as “a book of beauty and power,” and in his radiant review in The New York Times Book Review, David Ignatow argues the book confirms Wright’s importance, asserting that River is “the most personal and affecting” of any Wright collection. He goes on to say that Wright’s book is “a metaphor for our land.”

If this is the case, if the book is even better that Wright’s canonical volume, why aren’t undergraduates reading three or four poems from Shall We Gather at the River? Shouldn’t they—shouldn’t all of us—be reading a book that is a metaphor for our land? Especially now? And, why don’t we know more poems from River? Is our quotient for James Wright poems taken up by those from The Branch Will Not Break? Are greatness and canonicity largely about timing?

One reason we know so many poems from The Branch Will Not Break is because they are all in The Branch Will Not Break. Like W. S. Merwin’s The Lice, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, individual poems become metonyms for the book, which is itself a metonym for an era, a moment, a period. Linked to that is what many students would call the book’s “theme”—in this case, Wright’s utter obsession with poverty and economic class. If you make a list of the many social issues that define the ’60s, economic class would likely be absent; that was, however, the main reason I revisited Shall We Gather at the River myself a few years ago.

In 2012, during the worst parts of the Great Recession, I became particularly interested in the ways in which poetry had addressed and might respond to economic issues. Many American poets find themselves in an odd situation in terms of class—on the education and aesthetic measuring stick, poets tend to skew toward the elite. Most have graduate degrees, and most spend their time working (either as vocation or avocation) in rarified areas. On the other hand, many poets are also in the bottom quartile in terms of individual or even household income. This was certainly the case for Wright, who always felt poor. I mean not just short on cash but poor—wholly and completely impoverished. Throughout his career, Wright transfigures his sense of economic poverty into a sense of personal poverty. It was as though he felt did not possess the resources to lift himself up into any realm of comfort (in all its associations).

The first half of Shall We Gather at the River is more preoccupied with poverty than any other collection I can think of. In fact, four of the first seven poems in Shall We Gather at the River don’t just contain the word “poor”—the concept serves as an axis for the poems. In “A Christmas Greeting,” the first poem of the collection, Wright writes:

Good evening, Charlie. Yes, I know. You rise,

Two lean gray spiders drifting through your eyes.

Poor Charlie, hobbling down the hill to find

The last bootlegger who might strike them blind

Then, “The Minneapolis Poem”:

I want to be lifted up

By some great white bird unknown to the police,

And soar for a thousand miles and be carefully hidden

Modest and golden as one last corn grain,

Stored with the secrets of the wheat and the mysterious lives

Of the unnamed poor.

In the fourth poem, “In Terror of Hospital Bills,” we read:

I still have some money

To eat with, alone

And frightened, knowing how soon

I will waken a poor man.

Finally, in the collection’s seventh poem, “The Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter,” Wright writes:

Eight miles down in the secret canyons and ranges

Of six o’clock, the poor

Are monstrously blind and invisible.

There are resonances between these stanzas and a line like “I have wasted my life”—especially with the pecuniary associations of wasted. The poems from River, however, are much harsher than those from Branch. They are bleaker, more self-pitying. This is an irony, of course, since River is also Wright’s most outward-looking collection. It is this unusual combination, I suspect, that divided critics and disappointed anthologizers. Readers found (and continue to find) Wright’s epiphanies from Branch affirming and beautiful. Indeed, those poems full of magically surreal descriptions of the pastoral Midwest, with its lovely butterflies, horses, and trees. In contrast, so much of River is set against impoverished urban winter landscapes where the lyric self is assaulted by the police, Capitalism, bad luck, dark water, hobo jungles, and the death of the poet’s invented muse, Jenny. Where Branch transformed a politics-free landscape into a source of solace and even rejuvenation, River found in the landscapes an infinite mirror reflecting social and personal economic shortcomings onto each other. Put another way, Shall We Gather at the River is less “poetic” than The Branch Will Not Break, in part because the latter is rooted in the Romantic pastoral tradition.

There is something solidly middle class about the pastoral. It is reassuring, wholesome, nature-y. Those qualities are easier to get behind as a reader than urban poems of self-abnegation and social critique. Poets like Ignatow and Bly who were socially minded and politically active saw the move from the big I of Branch to the small i of River as not only a collection representing personal growth but one of poetic growth. The space of the poem, in River, became enlarged, taking in more than the self’s uncertainties and fears; the self in these poems moves beyond individual anxiety to a kind of national despair.

Our current political climate has made me think of the third stanza of Wright’s beguiling “Confessions to J. Edgar Hoover,” one of the weirdest poems from River:

I labor to die, father,

I ride the great stones,

I hide under stars and maples,

And yet I cannot find my own face.

In the mountains of black furnaces,

The trees turn their backs on me.

Confessing to J. Edgar Hoover is both strange and senseless. And yet, the putative power of the figure’s (and the institution’s) regulatory authority is not to be overlooked—that is a surveillance pun, but almost nothing in this book is funny. In River, Wright is scared of police, bill collectors, university administrations, and the government. In 2019, many of us are scared of these things as well.

I think the critiques of Wright’s diction are minor misreadings. Where Dickey and Stilwell find “flat” or “lazy” diction, I find thrifty modes of communication. River is marked by what we might call an inexpensive poetics—a mode of poetry that for both writer and reader is economical and accessible. The poems are raw, candid, and at times a little desperate. They may lack the recuperative gestures of those from The Branch Will Not Break, but they are more direct. Epiphany gives way to sincerity. The latter is, of course, less poetic but not less honest. At a moment in American history when sincerity and truth appear to be at their nadir, when diction and the common good seem to have gone missing, Wright’s entreaty has never been more relevant.