Raina Von Waldenburg

Loaded Contradictions, James Wright's Poetic Technique

James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, give me the impression that I’m in the presence of someone perched on the wilting petal of life, amazed by and terrified of the fleeting beauty around him. The juxtaposition of contradicting emotions in Wright’s poems is both exalting and agonizing. In his poem "Lying in a Hammock/at William Duffy’s Farm/ in Pine Island, Minnesota", for example, I am caressed by splendid images of a "bronze butterfly,/ Asleep on the black trunk,/ Blowing like a leaf in green shadow". The speaker observes life closely, noticing details in simple things, and he loves what he sees. Even horse shit has glory:

	In a field of sunlight between two pines,
	The droppings of last year’s horses
	Blaze up into golden stones.

The speaker seems to be able to see into things, past surfaces and into the beauty of horse droppings. The short poem unfolds: "A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home". When I read this I feel as though I am driving through a stunning landscape, and before I know it, my car has driven off a cliff. In mid-air, I hear the last line: "I have wasted my life".

Wright surprises me with the last line because it is loaded with contradictions. For one thing, the undertone of the poem sings: ‘everything is so alive and beautiful, oh God, 'it’s so beautiful’ I'm humming that tune with him until the very last line when the music is changed completely. Expecting the poem to end in a glorious: 'I am so happy to be alive!’ I am suddenly shocked to hear that the speaker has wasted his life! The first thing I feel is deep sorrow; I empathize immediately with his having experienced some beautiful, simple moments on that farm which were so pure and natural they caused him to wonder: "Why the hell haven'’t I lived my life that way?"

Another contradiction presents itself when I realize that it is impossible for a human being, who is able to live his life so deeply by calling forth the innate beauty in everything he touches and sees, to have wasted his life.

The First Commandment of art is: ‘show, don’t tell’. The speaker in this poem moves unexpectedly from ‘showing’ the beauty around him in lines such as "A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home" to ‘telling’ us that he has "wasted his life". By doing this he shatters The First Commandment. However, it feels completely appropriate to have the speaker ‘tell’ what he felt. If an editor had cut that line on the basis of he First Commandment, the poem would have sat on a one-dimensional plane, politely, with its legs crossed. I feel that the line has guts. I feel the speaker’s passion.

The line is authentic and effective because the speaker was feeling something deeper than mere bliss. If the poem had ended with: ‘I’m so happy to be alive!’, then the speaker would have been ‘telling’ in a redundant way weakening the poem. But he was feeling anguish as well. The anguish appears in the speaker’s heart just as it does in the poem: right at the end, as a shocking afterthought. If the last line does indeed reflect the movement of the experience, then a direct and pithy ‘telling’ is more honest. The line comes from a deeper place; a place where one can experience dichotomous feelings simultaneously. There is no redundancy in his ‘telling of the contradicting emotion.

The most stunning example of Wright’s juxtaposition of contradicting emotions and images is in the poem "Beginning". After having described a series of beautiful moments, he says:

		Suddenly I realize
		That if I stepped out of my body I would break
		Into blossom.

What makes this line so powerful is the juxtaposition of dichotomous actions. Firstly, Wright presents the image of the speaker stepping out of his body with which I associate death or astral projection. It is a soul that I see stepping out of his body. The image of breaking which follows, "I would break" is therefore a contradiction. An amorphous, ethereal soul cannot break-- if anything it would dissolve or blow away. A plate breaks, a chair, even bones in the body. The association with bones brings me back to the body out of which the speaker is stepping. Hence, the juxtaposition of a soul stepping out of a body and breaking forces me to do a double-take.

Immediately following is the delectable surprise, "Into blossom". To break into blossom is loaded with emotional, as well physical, contradictions. When my mind hears "break", it envisions a collapse, a shattering of pieces onto the floor, a death. When the image "blossom" follows it, my mind envisions a colorful expansion, a fat spring flower unfolding layers and layers of petals. The contrasting images crash into each other-- the ‘pieces on the floor unfold into layers and layers of petals'-- just as the ocean waves crash into each other and create a magnificent briny spray. It is precisely the ‘magnificent briny spray’, or the symbiosis, which can only occur between two equally strong components, that makes contradicting images so exciting, so transcendental.

In "Two Horses Playing/ in the Orchard", my sense of reality is challenged by Wright’s use of contradicting images:

	She gazes over the dusk again,
	And sees her darkening stallion leap
	In grass for apples, half asleep.

My mind’s eye must adjust to the light of "dusk" if "she" can see "her darkening" anything "leaping" is a slight contradiction in my mind, challenging my sense of logic, and preparing me to completely suspend my disbelief with the following image: a stallion leaping half asleep. Leaping is the last thing one would do half asleep, unless one were leaping into sleep-- which is the association I made.

In "March", Wright writes: "It is hard to breathe/ In a tight grave." This image is a brain teaser. It is hard to breathe in a tight anything... but one does not breathe in a grave because one is supposedly dead. Breath is life; his use of the word "breathe" is the most powerful opposite of "grave" possible. This line reminds me of how, in the process of dreaming, the mind superimposes directly opposing images, creating heightened emotional states. Writing poetry, when one is writing from the same state of mind as James Wright, is probably nothing less than lucid dreaming.