James Wright spent a number of years living in the North Country. Poetically speaking he occupied a peculiar “center space” among his contemporaries who for the most part fell into either the West-Coast “Beat” school or the more established “Eastern/New York” one.
In that way though, his story is the same as almost all 20th Century poets (artists, in general) who chose to live away from either of the coasts. It is difficult to get noticed or to be remembered when you are not living and writing within a few driving hours from the sea.
As I have written elsewhere here, “Wright has written some of the most luminous lines I know.” It is one of the reasons that I frequently find myself returning to him. The other is no doubt some sense of solidarity. North Country sojourners need to stick together.
“Youth” is a representative Wright poem… if indeed any poem can be called representative of someone whose work is so varied. Maybe it would be better to say that it has the particular sensibility and tone that is at the heart of Wright’s best poetry.
On a day when I am thinking about generations and time, it seems like the perfect poem.
Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:
He will be getting dark, soon,And loom through new snow.I know his ghost will drift homeTo the Ohio River, and sit down, alone,Whittling a root.He will say nothing.The waters flow past, older, youngerThan he is, or I am.
I love this final stanza. The surprise of the first line… the way your tongue trips over itself thinking you should be saying “It will be getting dark soon.” The internal rhyme and mournful vowel sounds. And the quiet, clear image. It is a good poem by a great poet.