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GIBBONS RUARK - SPRING 2003 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Lucille Clifton
An interview and reading with the Leading Lady of American Poetry, Lucille Clifton. Grace Cavalieri hosts this special audio program.

Gibbons Ruark

With James Wright At The Grave Of Edward Thomas: Gibbons Ruark recounts his version of James Wright's last interview.


A.E. Stallings
Athens, August: A new poem to celebrate National Poetry Month.

John Kinsella
Abandoned Vehicle: Chapter 1 of "The Damning." Change instensified, the undoing exponential. The dazzling opening shot of John Kinsella's new eight part novel.

Gibbons Ruark

Gibbons RuarkGibbons Ruark's "James Wright: Two Moments in Memory" appeared in The Cortland Review's Issue 16 in May 2001. He has other new work in Shenandoah and Willow Springs. The recipient of three NEA Fellowships and a Pushcart Prize, his most recent collection is Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems (LSU Press, 1999). A member of the English faculty at the University of Delaware, he lives with his wife Kay in Landenberg, Pennsylvania.

 

Gibbons Ruark on James Wright

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With James Wright At The Grave Of Edward Thomas: Notes From The Cutting Room Floor


Dave Smith's 1979 interview with James Wright now has an air of authority and definition about it, not only because it contains so many indelible remarks by Wright, but also because it was the last interview he was fated to give. One thing is certain: the widespread perception of Wright as a quintessentially American poet can only be bolstered by reading it. But I was present for the entire occasion, and I am persuaded that anyone who heard the whole of what was said that afternoon would form a picture of Wright as a poet importantly different from that presented in the interview as edited and published by Smith.

I have been troubled by this matter for a long time, but it is only in recent years that some of its pieces have fallen finally into place, allowing me to write about it less tentatively than I might have earlier. At its heart is the interview itself, conducted in the autumn before James Wright's death. On its margins are the circumstances surrounding that interview and some consideration of the odd alleyways down which a young American poet can be led by his own particular cast of mind. Dave Smith and I were roughly fifteen years younger than Jim. Now that we are nearly a decade older than he was when he died, I think I can see a bit more clearly what some of us as young poets are capable of doing to our elders. We may believe that we want to emulate them, but we really want them to confirm something in us. We want to view them in a way that coincides with and encourages our own ambitions.

I think the primary occasion of this essay is a case in point. My argument here is basically two-fold: that Smith's editing of the interview significantly distorts the character of some of Jim's crucial loyalties (and in so doing shifts the emphasis, as I have suggested, wrongly toward a narrowly American perspective), and that in some measure the occasion was, for Smith, as much a chance to explore what it means to shape a poetic career as an opportunity for one of our most beautiful poets to shed light on his own thought and work. Though both strands of the argument depend substantially on noting differences between the raw and edited versions of the interview, they also rely to some extent on personal anecdote.

Sometime in the summer of 1979, Smith approached me about the possibility of joining him in conducting an interview with Jim, who, he knew, had been a friend of mine for about ten years. He wanted an interview to complement a collection of essays about Jim's work he was editing, and he proposed suggesting to Jim that I might sit in and be a part of it. I told him that whatever Jim wanted was fine with me, and he eventually reported that Jim had agreed to the interview contingent on my being there. So the whole thing was set up for September 30th.

I went up by train on the 29th to spend the night with Jim and Annie, and Smith arrived on the same day and joined us for dinner at the Wrights' apartment. I have little memory of the early hours of the evening, but I do remember vividly that after Smith left Jim began to pace and fret and say he didn't want to go through with it. As garrulous and eloquent as he was, he still hated the idea of being interviewed, and he was particularly upset by several of the questions Smith had sent him in advance. He was troubled most, I recall, by questions relating to his sons, but it is enough to say that he was so disturbed by the nature of a few of the questions that he made up his mind not to answer any of them. He was bent on calling off the interview.

I spent some time trying to persuade him that, instead of going to that unhappy extreme, he could simply decline to respond whenever he chose, and that there were enough questions of a literary character for him to answer in ways which his readers, present and future, would find invaluable. In the end, he came around, and we called it a night, relieved, if a little the worse for wear.

On Sunday morning Smith returned and we settled in for what turned out to be a four-hour interview, loaded with amazing and indispensable remarks by Jim, but also scarred in its execution and ultimate transmission into print, as I hope to demonstrate. Smith and I took an afternoon train to Delaware, where we eventually parted quite amicably, never really having discussed the occasion which had brought us together, and certainly without having listened to any of the tapes. In the following weeks and months, I wrote Smith several times asking if he could send me a copy of the transcript. In early November he wrote saying he would be sending me a copy soon. Another inquiry, in which I had apparently expressed my wish for a chance to edit out any silliness of my own, brought his assurance that I should not worry myself on that account, that he had fused everything we said into anonymous questions and concentrated on Jim's answers. He also confirmed in that letter what I had heard only through the grapevine, that the interview was to appear in American Poetry Review, with a headnote saying we had conducted it jointly. When it appeared, it was indeed headed by such a note, but I was not exactly prepared for what I found in the text itself.

As far as I could tell, never having heard the tapes or seen a transcript, Smith had edited out all of my relatively few remarks and questions. I also thought then that he had excised all of Jim's responses to me, but it turned out not to be that simple. I understand the enormous difficulties involved in editing a four-hour taped interview, especially when the voices are sometimes muffled or even drowned out by street noises. I also understand the need to switch things around, to consolidate questions especially and sometimes answers, and I think that, on the whole, Smith did an extremely difficult job with considerable skill. Readers of Wright owe him a debt of gratitude for instigating and carrying through the hard work involved in such an enterprise. As it turned out, Smith's interview may have been the last significant record of Jim's voicing his opinions. When he visited us in October, he was already complaining of a sore throat. He called me in December to say he had cancer and, of course, he died on March 25th, so close to the appearance of the interview issue of APR that there is no notice there of his death.

Despite the interview's indisputable value, I have been bothered for years by the sense that there is something askew about it, that it is in some noteworthy way unfaithful to the tenor of what actually went on tape. For instance, I was sure I remembered Jim quoting with great force a poem by Edward Thomas, but there is no poem by Thomas in the text. I'm not saying that Smith wasn't at liberty to delete anything he wanted to, but rather that, at times, his choices were at odds with what I felt to be the spirit of the actual interview and finally gave an imbalanced view of Jim's deeply felt allegiances. In any event, in 1993, when I was beginning work on a longer remembrance of my friendship with Jim in which I hope these recollections might find a place, I wrote to Smith and asked if he could send me either a transcript of the unedited interview or copies of the tapes themselves. He replied that he was having copies made of the tapes and would send me the originals, and he very promptly did so. Once they arrived it quickly became apparent that at least ninety minutes worth of the raw interview was missing. I reported that to Smith and asked that he send me the missing tape if he found it. Since I haven't heard from him, I assume it's still missing.

Because of the missing material, it is, of course, impossible to achieve any proper alignment of the raw interview with the printed version, but listening to what is there reveals several ways in which Smith shaped the interview into its published form. The means by which he worked his way around my presence are interesting only because they are typical. One was simply to cut both my remark or question and Jim's reply to it. Another was to cut my question and subsume Jim's answer under a question Smith had either actually asked or composed after the fact.

Here's an example of the first method. There was at one point a discussion of poets with working-class backgrounds (and how important formality and ceremony are to them) which ends in print with Jim's quotation of Robert Hayden's wrenching poem, "Those Winter Sundays." On that Sunday in 1979, I felt inclined to pursue the matter:

GR: Let me ask you something about a particular poem of yours that I started thinking about when you were saying that. You know the poem about two postures beside a fire or by a fireside, I can't remember exactly... ["Two Postures Beside a Fire," Shall We Gather at the River, p.46]

JW: Yes.

GR: Well, the first of those two poems is sort of from your father's perspective, and then the next one, the second part of the poem, is kind of from your perspective...

JW: I know what you're going to say. Yes, it was deliberate. The first is written in very formal traditional verse and the second in a kind of loose erratic verse.

My point here is not that Smith cut some kind of priceless exchange, but that an effort to turn the conversation toward a specific poem of Jim's was, so far as the reader of the interview knows, never made. Smith's disinclination here to follow general remarks in the direction of Jim's own poems seems characteristic of the whole interview. I came away from it feeling that Smith had been much more interested in Jim's career, or, at best, in poetry in general, than in the poems themselves. And, as Stanley Kunitz has shrewdly observed, poetry is the enemy of the poem. In the published interview, Smith makes mention of only seven of Jim's poems, and only a few of those are discussed in any detail.

Another noticeable slant which Smith gave to the interview may be suggested first by noticing the differences between the recorded and printed versions of a brief exchange with Jim about the degree to which he considered himself a nature poet. Jim replied to the question generally at first and then very quickly and typically turned to an example, in this case D. H. Lawrence. Smith took up the name of Lawrence with enthusiasm and then began to question Jim about the parallels between Lawrence and Robert Bly. In the text, Lawrence has disappeared and Bly remains. [Collected Prose, p.230]

The Americanizing of this passage, if you will, seems to me a far from isolated instance. In print, Smith mentions nine writers, seven of whom are Americans. Jim naturally has a chance to name a much larger number of writers in the course of his extensive and, at times, almost Jamesian answers, but I think it is telling that, of the roughly ninety writers who turn up there, over a third are not Americans.

It is also interesting to note that Smith asks no questions about Jim's poems about Europe, this at a time when To a Blossoming Pear Tree had been out for just two years, and a number of the "European" poems that would appear in This Journey had been coming out in the magazines. It is striking as well that, with very rare exceptions, Smith's references are to writers of our own century, while Jim ranges comfortably and familiarly but without a trace of pretension from Horace to Henry Taylor and back again.

It should be acknowledged in fairness that what we have here is a younger poet questioning an elder who has had not only a more classical education, but also fifteen more years of experience at his craft and art, but the bias is still remarkable.

To my mind the most unfortunate and distorting difference between the actual and published interviews is the complete absence in the latter of any reference to Edward Thomas. For any reader who might not know his work (and Jim said elsewhere that Thomas lacked a public reputation, but that he was "one of the secret spirits who help keep us alive"), let me quote the whole of a brief poem:

Like the touch of rain she was
On a man's flesh and hair and eyes
When the joy of walking thus
Has taken him by surprise:

With the love of the storm he burns,
He sings, he laughs, well I know how,
But forgets when he returns
As I shall not forget her 'Go now.'

Those two words shut a door
Between me and the blessed rain
That was never shut before
And will not open again.

I loved and thought I knew Thomas's work, but I wasn't really awakened to that poem until I heard Jim recite it with great relish and feeling at a reading in 1972. He said at the time, "I would rather have written that poem than go to heaven."

Earlier in the interview I had mentioned what I thought was the exquisite "timing" of "Like the Touch of Rain," but that remark was cut. Then, as things began to wind down toward a conclusion, Smith said to Jim, "I am asked to ask you by another, what is your favorite poem by Robert Frost and by Robinson and Edward Thomas. Those seem to be three people important to you." I have no idea why Smith insisted that he was not posing that question. It was of course the kind of question Jim was happiest to answer, and he did so by mentioning Frost's "I Could Give All to Time," quoting a passage from Robinson's "Captain Craig," then turning to Thomas by saying, "Edward Thomas. There are poems all over the place," and then simply reciting without giving its title "There's Nothing Like the Sun." The text [Collected Prose, p.233] retains a question about the influence of Frost and Robinson. In what follows, the reference to "I Could Give All to Time" (a relatively unfamiliar Frost poem, I should think) is deleted, as is the whole of Thomas's poem and any indication that his name was ever mentioned.

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I knew Jim Wright from 1969 until his death in 1980, and he often said to me, as I'm sure he did to others, "Horace is my master, but I love Edward Thomas above all poets." What I have tried to suggest here is that Jim's love for Thomas was very much alive on the afternoon he spoke to Dave Smith, but that Smith for reasons of his own elected to bury it, and I can't help thinking that his apparent wish to "place" Jim in a particularly American tradition had something to do with it. However, I am interested here in more than setting the record straight with regard to what Jim's allegiances were. I would like also to wonder briefly about what lay beneath at least one of them.

What was it in the work and life of Edward Thomas that called forth Jim's devotion? I think a partial answer may be found by taking a look at a piece Samuel Hynes published about Thomas in Poetry (March 1980). Hynes is officially reviewing two books, the 1978 collected Thomas and Jan Marsh's biography, but his first sentence suggests that there has been some sparring between him and editor John Frederick Nims about the value of paying any attention to Thomas: " 'Tell us,' the Editor asks, 'what is so special about Edward Thomas?' " That Nims might have been dubious about Thomas at that moment comes as no surprise to the reader who has seen his 1981 Harper Anthology of Poetry, where he manages to take two swipes at Thomas in a single paragraph of his prefatory remarks, calling him "wistful but hardly major." Samuel Hynes in a matter of a half-dozen pages makes a persuasive argument for his strength and in particular his uniqueness. He is concerned especially with Thomas's relationship to his two strongest influences, his near-contemporary Frost, who encouraged him to write poems to begin with, and his elder master Thomas Hardy. Any reader of James Wright will have known before coming to this essay that those two poets loom powerfully behind his work. I want to quote here a few passages from Hynes's essay:

...though [Thomas] was a nature-writer, and had written more than a dozen books about nature before he turned to verse, yet he was not really a country man—not in the sense that Hardy and Frost were. He was born in lower-middle-class south London, and had no real experience of the English countryside until he was seventeen, when he went on the first of what became habitual country walks. He went to the country, then and later, because he believed in "Nature"—believed that out there beyond the suburbs there was a benevolent, curative power... that would receive him and make him happy. This didn't happen—

Hynes later goes on to distinguish Thomas from his friends the Georgians:

...he wasn't really one of them, because he came to know something that they didn't know—that Nature had withdrawn her benevolence...

"I am not a part of nature," Thomas wrote.... "I am alone."

I think Hynes's view here is just, though I'm not sure Thomas himself would have made that much of his divorce from the Georgians. After all, he scarcely had time. He began writing poems at thirty-six ("Did anyone else ever begin at thirty-six in the shade?" he asked), and he was dead at thirty-nine, having produced in that brief time and fearful circumstance a body of work larger and stronger than many poets achieve in a normal lifetime. In any case, an interesting sidelight here is Jim's own regard for the Georgians, which surfaces in response to a review of his own work by Stephen Spender:

He said that [my work] had a Georgian quality in it. And he compared some of it to the poetry of Walter de la Mare. And apparently, to Spender, this was a condescending thing to say. To me it was great praise. I don't think I would trade four or five poems of de la Mare for my own work and that of Spender and all of his grandparents. [Interview with Bruce Henrickson, Collected Prose, pp. 181-182]

It was de la Mare, of course, who said of Thomas that when he was killed in Flanders, "a mirror of England was shattered of so pure and true a crystal that a clearer and tenderer reflection of it can be found no other where than in [his] poems."

Returning briefly to Samuel Hynes's remarks, we find him comparing Thomas to Frost:

One might make a basic distinction between the two poets by saying that Frost was a country poet, whereas Thomas was a nature poet. The difference is in the last lines of Frost's "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things":

One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

Well, Thomas was the sort of poet who did believe that the phoebes wept, though he could not understand what they said....

Thomas's poetic characteristics... are, I think, mainly these: in manner, plainness, reticence, and sometimes a considerable awkwardness (such as one finds in Hardy sometimes but never in Frost): in tone, melancholy; in theme, a regret that is beyond the personal, regret for man's lost link with nature.

I could go on quoting, but I think it fair to say that one might substitute the name Wright for Thomas in most of Hynes's remarks without too much strain on the reader's credulity.

In April of 1993, James Wright's papers were officially handed over to the care of the University of Minnesota Library. There was a ceremony at which several of Jim's friends, especially those with Minnesota connections, were asked to speak. In the little booklet made up for the occasion is an item that confirms once and for all my impression of Thomas's importance to Jim. It is a page from one of Jim's notebooks on which he makes a list headed by the question, "In plain fact, who are the people with whom I would talk about poetry?" There are nineteen names. Dave Smith and I, two people he agreed to talk with about poetry in 1979, don't make the cut, nor, for that matter, in an entirely different dimension, do Robinson and Frost. Dr. Johnson is there and Donald Hall and Emily Bronte and Robert Lowell "(yes, I know, but he was a great thinker in spite of himself)" and Galway Kinnell and Annie, but the name that heads the list is Edward Thomas.

 

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