Kendra Tanacea

James Wright: The Alchemy of a Poet

Untitled by Marta Shmatava

When James Wright noticed one of Georg Trakl’s poems published in Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties, he sent a letter to Bly, then met Bly at his farm in Madison, Minnesota. This was the first of many visits in which these poets explored the “deep images” of foreign poems known for their “leaping” quality: “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”[1] These poems made internal, intuitive sense without the narrative mediation of the poet. Here, Wright describes his reaction to Trakl’s work:

…this poem was not like any poem I had ever recognized: the poet, at a sign from the evening bells, followed the wings of birds that became a train of pious pilgrims who were continually vanishing into the clear autumn of distances; beyond the distances there were black horses leaping in red maple trees, in a world where seeing and hearing are not two actions, but one.[2]

Wright began applying these principles to his own work. When Bly and Wright translated Trakl’s poems in a volume called Twenty Poems by Georg Trakl,[3] Wright explained Trakl’s effect on his own writing:

At that time [publishing of St. Judas] I had come, for personal reasons but also for artistic reasons, to something like a dead end. I was in despair at that time, and what usually has consoled me is words–I’ve always been able to turn to them. But suddenly, it seemed to me that the words themselves had gone dead, I mean dead in me, and I didn’t know what to do. It was at that time that Robert Bly’s magazine, which was then called The Fifties, appeared. I wrote him a long letter because his magazine contained a translation of a poem by Georg Trakl. Some years earlier, at the University of Vienna, I had read in German the poetry of Trakl, and I didn’t know what to do with it, though I recognized that somehow it had a depth of life in it that I needed.  Trakl is a poet who writes in parallelism, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another. I would suppose that Trakl has had as much influence on me as anybody else has had.[4]

In that interview, Wright identified his “chief enemy” as “glibness.” “And that is why I have struggled to strip my poems down.”

We are used to reading poems whose rules of traditional construction we can memorize and quickly apply. Trakl’s poems, on the other hand, though they are shaped with the most beautiful delicacy and care, are molded from within. He did not write according to any “rules of construction,” traditional or other, but rather waited patiently and silently for the worlds of his poems to reveal their own natural laws. The result, in my experience at least, is a poetry from which all shrillness and clutter have been banished. A single red maple leaf in a poem by Trakl is an inexhaustibly rich and wonderful thing, simply because he has had the patience to look at it and the bravery to resist all distraction from it. It is so with all of his small animals, his trees, his human names. Each one contains an interior universe of shapes and sounds that have never been touched or heard before, and before a reader can explore these universes he must do as this courageous and happy poet did: he must learn to open his eyes, to listen, to be silent, and to wait patiently for the inward bodies of things to emerge, for the inward voices to whisper. I cannot imagine any more difficult tasks than these, either for a poet or for a reader of poetry. They are, ultimately, attempts to enter and to recognize one’s very self. To memorize quickly applicable rules is only one more escape into the clutter of the outside world.[5]

Based on this new aesthetic, Wright quickly shed regular meters and rhymes apparent in his first two volumes, and, instead, worked with free verse and leaping images, shaping his poems as one would carve a figure of a bird from a piece of wood that appeared naturally in the shape of a bird.

Wright’s personal revelation manifested itself in a deliberate change in style and form that seemed abrupt to the public when he published his next collection The Branch Will Not Break in 1963. It was viewed as a major break from the work in his prior collections and he became known as one of the “deep image” or “leaping” poets: “The ‘leaping’ poet often enters his poem with a heavy body of feeling piled up behind him as if behind a dam. As you begin the Spanish poem, a heavy river rolls over you.” [6]

Wright’s transition appeared revolutionary simply because his transitional work–Amenities of Stone–was never published, although it was accepted for publication by Wesleyan University Press in 1961. The unpublished Amenities of Stone manuscript depicts Wright as poet-in-transition, struggling with style and form in an attempt to close the gap between observer and subject, language and experience. In order to uncover his transformative process, it is helpful to compare “The Thieves” to Two Horses Playing in the Orchard,” the only poem from Amenities of Stone that subsequently appeared in The Branch Will Not Break:

The Thieves

Now let the summer die, for those
Lean ponies nibbling under boughs
Will fleshen over ground and plump
The silken shoulder and the rump.
Thieving the orchard, they invade
The earth, to ply the ancient trade
Of living while the seasons die;
They whinny at the evening sky.

Two Horses Playing in the Orchard



In Wright’s new, pared down version, this introductory stanza is expendable, presumably due to its narrative exposition, the telling of what the poem is about, as well as the voice of a speaker emotionally distanced from nature. The poems continue, as follows:

The Thieves (con’t)

Oh, soon enough some man will come
And curse the fence, and drive them home.
Then, neighing softly through the night
The mare will nurse her shoulder bite.
Yet, lightly fair, through lock and mane,
She gazes over the dusk again,
And sees the gathering stallion leap
In grass for apples half-asleep.


Two Horses Playing in the Orchard

Too soon, too soon, a man will come
To lock the gate, and drive them home.
Then, neighing softly though the night,
The mare will nurse her shoulder bite.
Now, lightly fair, through lock and mane
She gazes over dusk again,
And sees her darkening stallion leap
In grass for apples, half asleep.


Although the changes to this stanza seem comparatively small, Wright’s new aim is clear: eliminate rhetoric, speak to the reader in immediate and direct language (“Too soon, too soon” instead of “Oh, soon enough some man will come;” “Now, lightly fair” instead of “Yet, lightly fair”). In this revised stanza, Wright discards the word “gathering,” which refers to the stallion gathering the fallen apples, to “darkening stallion,” a moody, shadowy image, that implies both the end of this day as well as the impending darkness of death. Continuing on:

The Thieves (con’t)

He stands alight on slender knees,
Lithe in his winter dream of trees.
Apples will fall and fall this day,
And wind will brush the rinds away.
Yet light is left before the snow,
And apples hang on sprays so low
His mouth can reach them, small and sweet,
And some are tumbling to her feet.

Two Horses Playing in the Orchard (con’t)

Lightly, lightly, on slender knees
He turns, lost in a dream of trees.
Apples are slow to find this day,
Someone has stolen the best away.
Still, some remain before the snow,
A few, trembling on boughs so low
A horse can reach them, small and sweet:
And some are tumbling to her feet.

This stanza contains Wright’s most startling revisions. The archaic “he stands alight on slender knees” is changed to the direct, but rhythmically perfect: “Lightly, lightly, on slender knees.” The meaning of the following line is changed completely: instead of presenting a graceful horse standing static in “his winter dream of trees,” Wright brings the horse to life: “He turns, lost in a dream of trees.” Suddenly, the dreamy picture of the original stanza is replaced by a more realistic, albeit imagistic, depiction: the horse turns (action) and appears lost in a real place (among the trees), but there is also a sense of revelry, of being lost in the nature of things, that is not captured in the original stanza.

The original line “Apples will fall and fall this day” seems strained to fit the imposed rhyme scheme, to tell us winter is coming because the apples are falling from their trees. Wright replaces this lighter line with the emotionally laden: “Apples are slow to find this day.” The revised line evokes aging (slow) and the inability of fruit to produce and ripen due to the onset of winter. There is also a sense of mystery evoked by unnamed “someone” that has stolen the best apples away. By using this line, Wright is able to subtly refer to the seasons and elements having taken the best fruit, without directly stating it.

Again, Wright replaces the outdated “Yet” with the immediate and conversational “Still,” which operates to draw the reader directly into this scene. The next line contains an emotional, vibrating word (“A few, trembling on boughs so low”) that is absent from the static (“And apples hang on sprays so low”). In the revised stanza the few apples remaining “tremble” with fear of their impending demise. These apples are made alive and able to experience human emotion, and, at the same time, are wavering in the wind just before their fall. It is important to note that Wright maintains the musicality of the line while, at the same time, freshening the language. Also, his use of commas creates timed pauses that, in turn, allow him to utilize rhyme without the lulling, sing-song effect of the original poem.

The poem concludes:

The Thieves (con’t)

The living flourish still. His haunch
Rears in delight beneath the branch,
Where now, for her delicate sake,
The wires drag and the fences break.
Beyond the fence the summer grieves,
But only wind and snow are thieves,
Marauders sacking fruit and thief
To the last wilderness of leaf.

(from Amenities of Stone)

Two Horses Playing in the Orchard (con’t)

Too soon, a man will scatter them,
Although I do not know his name,
His age, or how he came to own
A horse, an apple tree, a stone.
I let those horses in to steal
On principle, because I feel
Like half a horse myself, although
Too soon, too soon, already. Now.

(from The Branch Will Not Break)

In the final stanza of the original poem, Wright sums up the experience for us: the living go on living, the summer grieves for its loss, and it is not the horses, but winter’s elements (wind and snow) that are the real thieves, stripping the apple trees bare. On the other hand, the revised stanza changes the final meaning of the poem entirely: “Too soon, a man will scatter “them…” In the revised scene, the poet sets himself in opposition to this orchard owner who tries to possess nature (“a horse, an apple tree, a stone”), implying that these natural objects and animals cannot be owned or controlled by humans. The speaker allows the horses to steal (and in this version the horses are the explicit thieves) because the poet feels like “half a horse myself,” or being half nature, stealing his last bits of time. This line becomes so powerful because the speaker, half-animal, acknowledges that part of himself, closing the distance between the human and natural world.

Finally, the last, galloping line, “Too soon, too soon, already. Now.” implies what the original poem explicitly stated: winter is here too soon, and, in fact, arrives by the end of the poem with the resounding “Now.” Wright’s word choice in the second piece creates a visceral sense of diminishing time in this world, which fully arrives at the end (“Now.”), an effect achieved through Wright’s deliberate and direct word choice.

Before publishing “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard,” Wright experimented with several titles to replace “The Thieves,” such as “The Thieves All Meet at the Same Moment in an Orchard” and “The Thieves Are Gathered Together in the Orchard.”  Ultimately, Wright changed the title from “The Thieves,” which implies an illegal or immoral act on the horses’ part as well as the stealing of summer or life by the elements of time, to “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard.” The horses are no longer thieves, but are “playing,” which speaks to the naturalness of the horses’ behavior in eating the apples and a certain playfulness and obliviousness to boundaries, rights and responsibilities, and impending death. In the revised version, the speaker favors natural law over man-made laws, letting the horses “steal” the last apples because he, as well, feels innocent in nature.

By comparing the unpublished “Thieves” with “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard,” we can clearly see the beginnings of the radical transformation of Wright’s style. All “glibness” and emotional distance is replaced by an unsettling directness of language and rhythm that services the poem instead of detracting from it. Abstractions are deleted, and instead we are given horses, apples, a fence, a stone. This transitional poem clearly illuminates the new aims of the poet.

In the remaining poems in The Branch Will Not Break, Wright eliminates rhyme completely in an effort to allow the poem to be molded from within. From his interviews, we know he was conscious about allowing a poem’s secrets to unfold instead of imposing a rigid or imposed order on the subject matter and language. These new poems allowed the unmediated leaps Wright recognized in Trakl’s work. Below are two of Trakl’s poems that bear some resemblance to Wright’s newfound style:

My Heart at Evening

Toward evening you hear the cry of the bats.
Two black horses bound in the pasture,
The red maple rustles,
The walker along the road sees ahead the small

Nuts and young wine taste delicious,
Delicious: to stagger drunk into the darkening woods.
Village bells, painful to hear, echo through the black
fir branches,
Dew forms on the face.

From Revelation and Defeat

On silver soles I climbed down the thorny stairs, and I walked into the white-washed room. A light burned there silently, and without speaking I wrapped my head in purple linen; and the earth threw out a childlike body, a creature of the moon, that slowly stepped out of the darkness of my shadow, with broken arms, stony waterfalls sank away, fluffy snow.

The Trakl poems speak with clarity and a spareness that Wright began striving toward. In addition, some concerns, such as the melding of nature with the human experience, are carried on in Wright’s work. It’s hard not to compare Wright’s famous enjambment from “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize/That if I stepped out of my body I would break/Into blossom” with Trakl’s “childlike body, a creature of the moon, that slowly stepped out of the darkness of my shadow…,” the idea of stepping outside of one’s self, of the transformative powers of nature. Other poems by Trakl contain stark but simple images: “blue grief,” “golden clouds,” “blackness, silence and snow,” a “cold moon,” “darkening villages,” “black frost,” “leafless stars,” and “shuddering cities/Of steel,” many of which found their way into Wright’s poetry. Intrigued by these simple but reverberating images, Wright applied Trakl’s sensibility in “The Jewel”:

There is a cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire
When I stand upright in the wind
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

(from The Branch Will Not Break)

This exquisite poem brings together Wright’s new concerns: directness of language, the deliverance of an experience as it unfolds, language that stirs the unconscious mind with the deployment of resonant images. He begins directly— “There is a cave”—and the reader is immediately oriented in a dark, subterranean place, used also for dwelling and shelter. More mysterious is the line “In the air behind my body” because now the cave is no longer rock and below ground, but air or spirit. It is not “inside” the body but “behind” it, following the speaker like a shadow, separate from the physical body, but still connected; a religious place of seclusion, of unsaid mysteries. Wright then writes that nobody can touch this place, plainly (almost threateningly) stating that no person will disturb the speaker’s intrinsic nature or most private, intimate self.

This cave then closes around a blossom of fire, a living bloom, a life force or inspiration source. And when the speaker physically stands upright in the wind, his bones become dark emeralds. Here, presumably, the wind of nature fans the fire, which in turn, by its exposure to heat, causes human bone to transform to unmined, raw emeralds–still dark because they are naturally occurring, instead of cut and polished. The metaphorical transformation of the speaker is shown through the mutability of human bone to gemstone and occurs by exposing what is deep and secret and hidden to the winds of nature, the fire of spirt or soul, which bring about a miraculous human transformation.

Wright revisits this similar theme in his poem, “The Secret of Light,” excerpted below:

…Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light

While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose for her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man’s secret fact to light, as somebody brought mine. I am startled to discover that I am not afraid. I am free to give a blessing out of my silence into that woman’s black hair. I trust her to go on living. I believe in her black hair, her diamond that is still asleep. I would close my eyes to daydream about her. But those silent companions who watch over me from the insides of my eyelids are too brilliant for me to meet face to face.

…Surely two careful and accurate hands, total strangers to me, measure the invisible idea of the secret vein in her hair. They are waiting patiently until they know what they alone can ever know: that time when her life will pause in mid-flight for a split second. The hands will touch her black hair very gently. A wind off the river Adige will flutter past her. She will turn around, smile a welcome, and place a flawless and fully formed Italian daybreak into the hands….”

(from To a Blossoming Pear Tree)

In this prose poem, it is human interaction and connection that will bring forth the woman’s secrets, along, again, with a natural wind. By stroking her hair (both the lover’s delicate caress and the image of a craftsman cutting a raw diamond), that touch, that intimate act, will bring forth her secret, transforming her into a brilliant diamond with all the sparkle and fire of an Italian daybreak. The Jewel and Secret of Light are both intuitively and logically pleasing: her black hair, her dark internal secret, when acted upon by another becomes a sparkling diamond; his white bones exposed to the external elements of wind and fire become dark emeralds.

Wright often sings of the transformative power of nature’s elements and equates it with the power of poetry:

Late November in a Field

Today I am walking alone in a bare place,
And winter is here.
Two squirrels near a fence post
Are helping each other drag a branch
Toward a hiding place; it must be somewhere
Behind those ash trees.
They are still alive, they ought to save acorns
Against the cold.
Frail paws rifle the troughs between cornstalks when the moon
Is looking away.
The earth is hard now,
The soles of my shoes need repairs.
I have nothing to ask a blessing for,
Except these words.
I wish they were

(from Shall We Gather at the River)

Through direct images (bare place, winter, the hard earth, the preoccupied moon), the poet reveals simultaneously the onset of winter as well as a barren and forlorn internal landscape. Folly, or misdirected aims (i.e., squirrels gathering a branch instead of nourishing acorns), reflects the poet’s ambivalence about his own poetic efforts, the futility of words. Against this backdrop, the speaker tries to will his words to become grass: natural, lush, vivid and sustaining. Words are one step removed from the very thing they describe. They can never be as powerful or magnificent as a simple, growing thing in a desolate place.


[1] From Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly, The Seventies Press (1972).
[2] Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by Robert Bly and James Wright (Madison, Minnesota: Sixties Press, 1961), James Wright: A Note on Trakl, from Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl.
[3] Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by Robert Bly and James Wright (Madison, Minnesota: Sixties Press, 1961. f
[4] James Wright interview with Peter Stint, first published in The Paris Review, 1975.
[5] Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl, translated by Robert Bly and James Wright (Madison, Minnesota: Sixties Press, 1961), “A Note on Trakl,” by James Wright
[6]Leaping Poetry, An Idea with Poems and Translations, by Robert Bly, The Seventies Press (1972), p. 28.


About the writer:
Kendra Tanacea, attorney, holds a BA in English from Wellesley College and an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her first collection of poetry, If You’re Lucky Nobody Gets Hurt, was a finalist for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees, published by Lost Horse Press, was a finalist for the Idaho Prize for Poetry. Kendra’s poems have appeared in Rattle, North American Review and Poet Lore, among others.

Image: No title specified by Marta Shmatava (1965-). Oil on canvas. 100 x 100 cm. 2010. By free license.