May 1, 2019KR Reviews

Two Poets by the Lake: James Wright and Carolyn Kizer

This review appears in the May/June 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review

James Wright: A Life in Poetry. Jonathan Blunk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 512 pp. $40.00.

Our bodies, too, our moulted bodies, spread
their loins and wings below, to free the soul.
— “A Love Poem with Mallards and Garlands,” 299

This is how pudgy poet James Wright, an awkward, shy man described a tryst with his slender and super-sexy poet-friend Carolyn Kizer at Lake Washington in Seattle in the mid-1950s. In “A Love Poem with Mallards and Garlands,” Wright imagined their loving coupling at the “hinge of the green lake,” with dusk “fallen softly away” and “ripples of water” that “bounce to moss and rock” (298). With melancholy overtones of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” Wright romanticizes, compares Kizer and himself to his beloved birds, symbols of the soul, who die orgasmically, only to rise up and “Heave at the earth to find the sun again” (300). Wright thought his poem “linguistically the boldest thing I’ve ever tried to write, whether it comes off or not” and intended to give it “a prominent place” in his 1959 second book, Saint Judas (letter to Carolyn Kizer, February 1958). In the end, he didn’t include it “in that debacle St. J. . . . precisely because it was better than anything in that morbid and suicidal collection,” deciding to make it the “cornerstone” of his next book (letter to Carolyn Kizer, August 8–9, 1960). But “A Love Poem with Mallards and Garlands” was never collected because it was far too formal for his fluid, ground-breaking The Branch Will Not Break (1963).

“I just wrote . . . a poem about Jim,” Kizer wrote their mutual friend Isabella Gardner, then married in Minneapolis to Allen Tate: “It’s really an answer to a poem he had in the Quarterly Review a couple of years ago, called ‘Love Song with Mallards and Garlands.’ Sometimes I think there are two ways to write a poem based on an actual experience: 1) make it a romantic lie, or 2) distort it into significant truth. Jim did the first. I did the second. Mine, of course, should be the better poem. (It isn’t)” (Kizer, letter to Isabella Gardner, September 21, 1960). In her contrapuntal “Two Poets by the Lake,” Kizer, sarcastic where Wright was sentimental, placed the episode at a parking lot with “aggressive gulls” near murky, polluted “Lake Stinko” as Lake Washington was known then, where, “Pale with cold, and the forcing of emotion / You shook off chrome, and crumbs, the century, / And bade me enter your chill pastoral.” In Kizer’s biting version of their meeting there was no mating, for she “could not / would not, mirror you” prompting “ ‘It’s no use, Tom. Let’s go on home’ ” (138–39). Kizer had sent a draft version to Wright, who was touched “deeply” by it and thought it “magnificent” (letter to Carolyn Kizer, August 8–9, 1960). According to Kizer, Wright not only wanted to have sex with her, but even asked her to marry him, which she refused. As Kizer told it, “He was very crestfallen, pulled out the pity-card and said, ‘I’m just a plain poet. Who would marry me?,’ ” to which she answered, “Well, that’s the whole thing. You are a great poet. You’ll wind up marrying someone really special and wonderful” (Rigsbee).

Jonathan Blunk, author of the long-awaited, authorized biography James Wright: A Life in Poetry (2017) mentions a number of Wright’s muses, but Kizer is not among them. There are as many ways to write a literary biography as ways to paint a portrait, from realistic to conceptual, from a focus on your subject to one on surroundings, from a concentration on the life to one on the work, and Blunk has chosen the latter: “My hope has always been to turn attention back to the poems, which include some of the most influential and enduring lyrics of the past century. Wright’s life, by turns despairing and inspiring, is always fascinating. But as he would remind us, it is finally the work that matters” (Blunk, xiii). Blunk’s readings are superb, showing both his astute knowledge of the great body of published Wright criticism and his devoted love for Wright’s work. Interwoven with Wright’s life, Blunk’s interpretations send the reader back to his luminous lyrics, which surely is the highest compliment for this biography.

Based on hundreds of interviews, including a number with Kizer—correspondence, Wright’s journals, and readings—Blunk gives us an empathetic portrait that holds the reader’s attention, even though hardly anything happened in Wright’s short, sad life. Born in 1927 of poor parents in industrial Martins Ferry, Ohio, Wright, after having served in Japan, applied to Kenyon College, not because he knew he would have the opportunity to study with John Crowe Ransom—poet, New Critic, and influential founding editor of the Kenyon Review—but because it was an Ohio college which accepted students on the GI Bill. Wright could hardly have been more fortunate in his fellow students, among them E. L. Doctorow, Robert Mezey, and Roger Hecht, all of whom would remain his staunch friends. Ransom recognized Wright’s talent from the outset, and Wright’s poems “Lonely” and “Father,” appearing in a 1951 Kenyon Review, constituted his first appearance in a national publication. In December 1957, Ransom, though wary of what he regarded as Wright’s tendency to write poems that were too personal and unformed, awarded Wright the prestigious Kenyon Review Fellowship in poetry, which made him “hysterical with joy” (Blunk, 95). At this time, Wright still obeyed his much-loved mentor: “You know that fatal weakness in almost everything I have written: I tend to shriek when I ought to speak, to howl when I ought to sing, to be frantic when I ought to be modest, and to be vaguely grandiose when the true source of power in language . . . is its patient precision” (Janssen, The Kenyon Review 1939–1970: A Critical History, 305).

After graduation (magna cum laude) from Kenyon College in 1952, Wright had fled Ohio with his wife, local sweetheart Liberty Kardules, and spent a Fulbright year in Vienna. Their first son, Franz, was born abroad, a few months before they moved to the University of Washington. In Seattle, Wright wrote his dissertation on Charles Dickens and was once again very lucky in both his fellow students and his poetry teacher, Pulitzer Prize–winning Theodore Roethke. For between bouts of madness, Roethke was probably America’s best poetry mentor: both James Wright and his fellow student Kizer would win the Pulitzer, while their friends Richard Hugo and David Wagoner were nominated. Together, this close-knit group of writers exchanged drafts of poems and partied, drinking heavily, often at Kizer’s house, for she was a divorcee on alimony and could afford booze and bites. “Actually, we’ve been running a poetry factory here for a number of weeks,” Kizer wrote to Gardner on October 22, 1955. “It’s very exciting. Stanley [Kunitz], Dave [Wagoner], Jim Wright and I are in practically constant communication: such a writing of poems, revising of poems. . . . I hope you have close-friends-and-fellow-poets around you, that stimulate you and keep you going. None of that anal business here, that you find in New York, Paris, and most centers of culture, where each poet clutches his collected works inside his vest, afraid that if he shares, he’ll be robbed; or that someone will say something unpleasant that will dent the Muse. . . . If you are limping, dear girl, pay a visit to the Northwest Apocalyptic and Hard Lines Poetry Society.” Some thirty-five years later, however, Kizer recalled that “in those days it was very easy for men, even if they liked you, and even if they liked your work, to totally disregard your opinion. I can remember so many times putting my oar in on conversations, say with Roethke and Wagoner and Jim Wright and so on, and having people go on exactly as if I hadn’t spoken” (Kizer). From Blunk’s biography, too, it is apparent that the literary world was male-dominated: women were mostly mere appendages: lovers, muses, or wives. Liberty Wright, who both brought in much-needed money as a nurse and held the traditional role of wife and mother, was completely left out, and scolded Wright when Kizer picked him up for one of their soirees. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll track shit on their expensive rugs?” (Blunk, 81).

Though there was no love lost between them, in 1957 Liberty accompanied Wright to the Twin Cities. He came to loathe the place, but taught there for eight years, first at the mammoth University of Minneapolis, and, after he was fired, at Macalester College. His officemate Allen Tate, Ransom’s friend and another high priest of the prevailing New Criticism, was—like most members of the English Department—an alcoholic, but nevertheless instrumental in getting Wright ousted for drinking. Duplicitously, he wrote Wright: “If you were not a poet and a fine one, I should probably have been less hard on you in the voting. I leaned over backwards in severity because I think the poet in the university must lean over backwards in being severe with himself, or else he is doing harm to the university-poet relation” (Janssen, Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner, 219–20). Feeling betrayed by what he called Tate’s Judas kiss, Wright showed this letter to his new friend, Robert Bly, who spread the word that that “spineless shit-eating Tate didn’t have the guts to stand up for [Wright]” (Janssen, Not at All What One Is Used To, 220). Tate felt forsaken himself, because, swayed by Bly and his polemic proclamations in his dissident magazine The Fifties, Wright was abandoning New Critical formalist poetry and experimenting with eye-opening images, freer verse, and stark, startling feelings. This would lead to such brilliant hallmark poems as “A Blessing” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Many critics—but not Blunk—have over-emphasized Bly’s influence on Wright. For, as he wrote to Kizer, Wright took from Bly exactly what he needed at this crucial stage of his poetic development:

[A]fter St. J[udas], I was suddenly shocked by my own glibness. I had learned the valuable lessons from Ted. R. [Roethke], but then they had absorbed me. Too much. It got so I could write a cute 3-beat line about anything, even things that didn’t really mean a damn thing to me one way or the other. I love Ted . . . still, I had to find a way of changing “Father dear Father come home with me now” into “Okay, Pop, stay in the damn beer joint if you want to, but I’m going to the pool room.” Now, Bly helped me mostly in suggesting that I translate: and, since I was emotionally screwed up, translation helped me escape some of my messed emotions while at the same time allowing me to think and feel, hours at a time, about new rhythms (new for me, I mean), and some further possibilities. I can write images, but I’ve always shunned them, been afraid of them: as you say in your poem, I wrote about us at the lake by leaving out the candy-wrappers. Okay, “selective.” But what I tended to select were nice things, not the harder realities. Etc. Anyway, it is clear to me . . . that the poems of my own that have been in The Fifties are in themselves something less than worthless. . . . But: those poems, so awkward and muddled and aimless were (I see now), cathartic. Recently I started writing again. I mean writing, trying to say what mattered to me in a way as simple and precise as I could. . . . Carolyn, please be patient with me. All of Bly’s negative remarks are simply blind. His humor is, mostly, sophomoric. . . . As for my own “new poems” I have only this to say, and I ask you to forgive me the crudeness: when a poet finds himself full of horseshit, sometimes the only escape is to write horseshit for a while, with a kind of abandon. . . . Also, during my ramblings, I’ve learned a lot more about the great Chinese poets. Now, that is something I am gloriously glad to find. (letter to Carolyn Kizer, August 8–9, 1960)

Indeed, Wright’s ecstatic lyrical poems of this period sound strikingly like prevalent translations of Chinese poetry, but he protested too much with respect to Bly, for he spent much of his free time at Bly’s farm, voluntarily locked up without alcohol in a remodeled chicken coop, feverishly writing, while indulging in an intense epistolary passion for an unattainable, inspiring young student Sonija Urseth.

The Wrights had a second son, Marshall, but their marriage was doomed: both were unstable, were institutionalized and underwent electroshocks. From her memoir, Liberty’s Quest (2008), it is clear that Wright’s wife came to hate his coterie of poets. The last straw was when two of them—who remain unnamed—raped her: “These were the kind of traumas that no one talked about in the 1960s” (209). Blunk doesn’t mention this, but although Liberty’s memoir is generally self-serving (and badly written), these accusations ring very true against the background of the shocking sexual mores of the time, where Roethke publicly grabbed a passed-out friend by the “pussy” (Kizer, copy of letter to Stanley Kunitz [1956?]), and Hugo harassed Kizer’s young teenage daughter (Bullitt). Liberty left him, took their sons to California, and, after the briefest of courtships, married a handsome ladies’ man, Miklos Kovacs, who was to brutally abuse his stepchildren.

Wright moved to New York City in 1966 where he taught at Hunter College and met and married kind, compassionate Anne Runk, handmaiden and the keeper of his flame. Although their love proved to be a stabilizing factor, Wright’s continued struggle with alcoholism made him seek help from psychotherapist Dr. Irving Silver, who, according to Anne Wright “saved our marriage, he saved James’s life, in many ways” (A. Wright). Alcoholics Anonymous, too, proved a saving factor, and James and Anne Wright enjoyed a number of years in relatively quiet contentment, before he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. Tragically, the poet who had stated in a Paris Review interview with Peter Stitt that “[y]ou can endure almost anything as long as you can sing about it” was doomed to silence and scribbling short sentences on a pad of paper during the last months of his life (Stitt).

“Poetry is the center” (Blunk, 217). James Wright lived for his poetry, and Blunk’s subtitle “A Life in Poetry” is pertinent. Tracing Wright’s incisive, immediate poetry with sensitive insight, he shows us Wright’s poetic genius through the workings of his intensely emotional mind. He makes us feel for and with Wright, and even Wright’s cyclic struggles with alcohol, which drench the book, do not irritate. Sometimes, however, Blunk floods the reader with an overdose of detail, which tends to drown valuable information. There is, for instance, especially at the end, too much repetitive emphasis on Wright’s readings, even though they are entrancing, as is apparent from Kizer’s succinct “Jim came up here and gave a superb reading, really sent them up the walls: hundreds of people showed up, demands for autographs, girls fainting, etc., etc.” (Kizer, letter to Donald Hall, n.d.). Blunk’s biography, like many others, is chronological, and that is fine, but at the start there is an overload of genealogy and geography. By contrast, some of the women get very short shrift, especially Barbara Thompson. Thompson was Wright’s lover for some three years, and we learn that she was a former student, that “she was known to bring him lunch and wash his clothes” (Blunk, 185), and that he had a suicidal breakdown after she broke up with him, but that is about all. Where is she in Wright’s poetry, and, if she is not, why not? Or what about his children? James Wright appears in poetry written by his Pulitzer Prize–winning son, Franz, as a flawed father: “My dad beat me with his belt / for my edification and further / improvement and later that other / stranger took over / somewhat more expertly.” While Blunk pays attention to their difficult lives (proving Czeslaw Milosz’s aphorism that “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished”), he sometimes seems to treat James Wright’s relationship with his children with kid gloves. Finally, the relentless heartache of Wright’s life makes the reader sometimes wish for a little more irony or comic relief, for more air to breathe. But that is not fair, for, as Wright said of himself, “I do not have the talent for happiness” (Stitt). The reader’s happiness comes from Blunk’s liberal, apposite quoting from Wright’s verse, from the delight that Wright gave so much beauty to the world. For on paper, the plain, provincial poet “was as light-footed / As the elusive muse who danced in his mind” (Kizer, “Eleutheria,” 340).

The last weeks of Wright’s life were a sad accumulation of suffering, spent in a “hell hole with . . . dreadful doctors” (A. Wright, letter to Carolyn Kizer, October 21, 1983). At their final meeting, Kizer re-created their earlier one: in her most elegant furs, manicured, and scented, she “brought grace, love, and a refreshing breath of perfume into that sad room” where Wright lay at death’s door (A. Wright, letter to the author, October 24, 2017):

Jaunty and thin, with the fine eyes and pursy lips
Of one of Holbein’s Unknown Gentlemen,
You could not speak
Except for some unintelligible grunts
Through the hole they had made in your throat;
Impatient with your wife
Who, after years of understanding,
Could not understand. (Kizer, “Final Meeting,” 270)

Now, after all these years, this poem still brings tears to Anne Wright’s eyes. As did Blunk’s biography to mine.

 

Works Cited
Bullitt, Ashley. E-mail to the author, 12 December 2017.

Janssen, Marian. Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2010.

—. Kenyon Review 1939–1970: A Critical History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1989.

Kizer, Carolyn. Interview. 21 August 1990.

—. Copy of letter to Stanley Kunitz [1956?].

—. “Eleutheria.” Cool, Calm & Collected. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2001. 340–42.

—. “Final Meeting.” Cool, Calm & Collected. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2001. 270–72.

—. Letter to Donald Hall, n.d. Durham: Donald Hall papers, 1928–2014, MC 53, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library.

—. Letter to Isabella Gardner, 21 September [1960]. St. Louis: Isabella Gardner papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

—. Letter to Isabella Gardner, 22 October 1955. St. Louis: Isabella Gardner papers, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

—. “Two Poets by the Lake.” Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 19602000. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2001. 138–40.

Kovacs, Liberty. Liberty’s Quest: The Compelling Story of the Wife and Mother of Two Poetry Pulitzer Prize Winners, James Wright and Franz Wright. Bandon: Robert D. Reed Publishers, 2008.

Rigsbee, David. Interview. 2 June 2017.

Stitt, Peter. “James Wright, The Art of Poetry No.19.” Paris Review 62 (1975).

Wright, Anne. Interview. 16 March 1990.

—. Letter to Carolyn Kizer, 21 October 1983.

—. Letter to the author, 24 October 2017.

Wright, James. “A Love Poem with Mallards and Garlands.” Quarterly Review of Literature 8.4 (1956): 298–300.

—. “Father.” Kenyon Review 13.4 (1951): 673.

—. Letter to Carolyn Kizer, February 1958. Bloomington: Kizer, C. mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University.

—. Letter to Carolyn Kizer, 8-9 August 1960. Bloomington: Kizer, C. mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University.

—. “Lonely.” Kenyon Review 13.4 (1951): 672.

—. Saint Judas. Middletown: Wesleyan U P. 1959.

—. The Branch Will Not Break. Middletown: Wesleyan U P 1971.

Photo of Marian Janssen
Marian Janssen is a Dutch writer. She published The Kenyon Review 1939–1970: A Critical History in 1989 and spent the next twenty years or so as the head of Radboud University’s international office. During that period, she wrote Not at All What One Is Used To: The Life and Times of Isabella Gardner. Spurred by a fan mail from Carolyn Kizer’s daughter, Ashley Bullitt, Janssen decided to become a full-time biographer and now is writing the life of Kizer.