35 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2010
Date Written: December 6, 2010
In this essay I propose to discuss James Wright’s poetic achievement in The Branch Will Not Break by foregrounding the peculiar forms of transformative metaphor and paradox that energize the poems. I briefly examine Wright’s early work, pointing to structures of New Critical ironic self-consciousness that are erected as defenses against the fear of death and existential aimlessness. Then, turning to the poems of The Branch Will Not Break and to Wright’s translations of poems by César Vallejo and Georg Trakl, I extract a few salient moments in which language offers a vehicle for defining negative ideas, such as silence and void, in positive terms. I will then follow the poetic arc of The Branch Will Not Break, tracing the book’s progress from an awareness of existential despair as solipsistic and self-destructive, to the poetics of faith and receptivity that dominate the book’s second half.
I hope that this glimpse at the fecundity of moral, spiritual, and linguistic dilemmas with which Wright struggled in The Branch Will Not Break will present the poems in a light truer to his own spirit of conscientious personal development, than that afforded by the ideologically-inflected criticism often imposed on his poems. As his interviews make abundantly clear, Wright was a man of abiding moral and intellectual honesty, and the problems of mortality, guilt, desire, homesickness, and love lived vividly in him from early youth. The shift of consciousness embodied in The Branch Will Not Break is neither a response to external cues nor a departure from any aspect of his internal life. Rather, he sought to dramatize the process by which an individual might reach the faith and hope he had long intuited to be vital to human life.
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