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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

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Activities: Author Activities

James Wright - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: Poets often use titles as a way to suggest something gently to the reader. What is the significance of the title "A Blessing"? What or who is being blessed? What does the speaker mean by the last two lines?

  2. Comprehension: As it is for the work of many poets in this unit, particularly the Beats and the transcendent poets, the image of the journey is central to Wright's work. Who or what is the "she" referred to in the third stanza of "The Journey"? What is the journey the speaker describes?

  3. Comprehension: An elegy is a poem written to honor the dead. As might be expected, traditional elegies usually evoke a somber tone, employ ornate and elevated language, and offer a generally flattering portrait of the deceased. In "With the Shell of a Hermit Crab," Wright satirizes the elegy form. What is the tone of this poem? How is the reader meant to respond? Toward the end, the poem begins to sound a little more sincere. How do you account for this shift? What is the purpose of the epigraph?

  4. Context: Both Wright and Snyder are, in many ways, poets of nature. How do their attitudes toward the natural world differ? What techniques, if any, do they share?

  5. Exploration: James Wright's poetry often shows an awareness of working-class suffering, and his landscapes often reflect a sympathy and compassion for rural life and its hardworking inhabitants. How does his work compare to that of other poets, particularly Genevieve Taggard and Gwendolyn Brooks, who write about the working classes? While Taggard and Brooks often focus their poems on the people, Wright's poems are frequently more indirect, projecting sentiments and feelings onto a landscape instead. You might compare "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" to some of Genevieve Taggard's work ("A Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight," "Mill Town") and Brooks's "kitchenette building" and "The Bean Eaters."

  6. Exploration: James Wright's poetry has often been described as elegiac. Elegies are usually short poems written in a formal tone upon the occasion of someone's death. However, elegiac can also refer to poetry of meditation, usually on love, death, or expansive philosophical topics. Some of the most famous elegies by modern American poets include Wallace Stevens's "The Owl in the Sarcophagus," Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead," Anne Sexton's "Sylvia's Death," and Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish. Elegies are generally characterized by a ceremonial tone, expressions of grief and loss, praise for the deceased, an attempt to continue their memory, and consolation in natural surroundings or religious values. Many poets of the twentieth century, however, reflect modern cynicism by undermining or satirizing the traditional conventions of the elegy. Although Wright's poems are not necessarily elegies for or to specific people, they do seem to mourn the loss of a particular way of life and landscape. How do these poems fit the characteristics of a traditional elegy? Which poems seem more elegiac than others? How does Wright's work diverge from the traditional genre?

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