The following excerpt(s) are from an interview poet Chard deNiord conducted with Annie Wright in Westerly, Rhode Island on May 30th, 2012. The full interview will be available in July of 2018 as part of deNiord’s forthcoming collection of interviews, I Would Lie To You If I Could (University of Pittsburgh Press).
Chard deNiord: James had a nervous breakdown his senior year of high school.
Annie Wright: Yes he did.
CD: Do you think that had anything to do with Jessie’s (James’ mother) over-protectiveness?
AW: It could have. I wasn’t around his family when he was growing up, of course, but James once said to me, “It was my mother that should have gotten help, but I was the one who had the breakdown.” He was very sensitive.
CD: He must have identified so closely with her. Her name was Jessie, and Jenny is the name of the dead girl in the poem “To the Muse,” but no critic or friend of James seems to know who Jenny was.
AW: No. I don’t know either. Jenny was just a muse to James. I don’t mean just a muse, but…
CD: Why would he pick the name Jennie?
AW: He loved that poem “Jenny Kissed Me” by James Henry Leigh Hunt. I always thought that might have something to do with it.
CD: I have it here.
Jenny Kissed Me
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
AW: Yes, that’s the poem James loved.
CD: So maybe he fell in love with the idea of a girl named Jenny who he first envisioned as this woman in James Henry Leigh Hunt’s poem. Perhaps she represents poetry itself to him, or his anima, which is also his elusive muse. If that was the case, then Jenny was more a part of James’ psyche than an actual other or beloved. That lost self he called by a feminine name in “To the Muse” who he so desperately wanted to raise from the depths of the Powhatan pit. Just my speculation, but does this at all seem plausible to you?
CD: Not an actual other woman to be concerned about, but perhaps real enough as an “interior paramour,” as Wallace Stevens would say.
AW: Yes, I think also she was his ideal of the woman he kept hoping he would meet.
CD: His Galatea who materialized as a revenant or bardo figure. Critics and biographers have speculated whether a flesh and blood Jenny attended James’ high school.
AW: I don’t think she did. No. He never mentioned one if she did.
CD: She also appears in several other poems, “The Idea of the Good” in the Collected Poems, “Jenny Sycamore that is now the one wing/ the only wing” in the poem “Son of Judas”, and “Jenny cold, Jenny darkness” in the poem “October Ghosts.” In a brilliant essay he wrote in the early eighties on the arc of James’s poetry, from The Green Wall to This Journey, Robert Hass defines Jenny this multifarious way: “Jenny… is beauty, loneliness, death, the muse, the idea of the good, a sexual shadow, a whore, the grandmother of the dead, the lecherous slit of the Ohio, an abandoner of her child, a ‘savage woman with two heads…the one/Face broken and savage, the other, the face dead,’ the name carved under a tree in childhood close to the quick, a sycamore tree, a lover, the first time he ever rose.”
AW: And he dedicated Shall we Gather at the River to her. There were certain things he just couldn’t tell anyone.
CD: You and James were married in 1967.
AW: Yes. His poem “The Lights in the Hallway” is about me and where I lived. That was one of the newest poems he included in Shall We Gather at the River.
CD: Yes, a beautiful love poem to you. What a leap he makes in this poem from the “lights in the hallway,” your hallway, to what he feels in his “clasp” of you:
Terrified by the roundness of the earth,
And its apples and its voluptuous rings
Of poplar trees, the secret Africas
The children they gave us.
There is also a fascinating poem in Two Citizens called, “Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains” in which he turns away from his interior muse, Jenny, to you, his actual beloved—“that body I long for/ The Gabon poets gaze for hours/ Between boughs toward heaven, their noble faces/ Too secret to weep.”
CD: In “Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains” he openly discusses your secret and his secret:
If only I knew how to tell you.
Someday I might know how.
Meantime your hand gathered me awake
Out of my good dream and I pray to gather
My hands into your hands in your good dream.
What did you find in your long wandering in the snow?
I love your secret. By God, I will never violate the wings
of the snow you found rising in the wind.
Give them. Keep them. Love.
In this constant back and forth between announcing his secret and refraining from telling it, he seems to be saying that if he told you his secret, it would violate his love. Yet, he is addressing you there as his beloved, instead of Jenny, who can’t “come up” to him, as he implies in the last lines of “To the Muse,” “Come up to me/ or I’ll come down to you.”
AW: Yes. He felt he would be too open if he told the secret. I wonder, just a speculation, if he, as a small child, had exchanged things with his mother and she made fun of him or teased him, or mocked him in some way, so he thought, I’m not telling my secret thoughts to anybody.
CD: Do you think his secret, which is unsayable, has more to do with the concept or the secret than the secret itself?
AW: That was it.
CD: I’m also struck in some of these poems, in the later poems especially in This Journey and To a Blossoming Pear Tree where he often approaches the unsayable before deferring to it—what Robert Bly has called “the interstices between words, the mysterious events that happen when simple words are placed next to one another.” In his later poems especially, the more he’s on that precipice of the unsayable, the simpler and even more prosaic his writing becomes, while somehow remaining poetic. A good example of this occurs at the end of “On the Liberation of Women” where he writes, “What is going to happen when we both die?/ I love you best.” Such simple yet effective lines.
AW: So if you’re offended by what I’m saying about women, don’t forget, I still love you.
CD: And he did.
CD: Can you describe your attraction to him (James Wright)?
AW: See, my attraction to him was that he was a poet, and that he was so brilliant.
CD: But there are a lot of brilliant, attractive poets.
AW: I hadn’t met any! (laughs) In a way we were on the verge of other worlds. I mean when I married James, my life changed a great deal. I was in the company of such poets as Galway Kinnell, Anthony Hecht, W. S. Merwin, Isabella Gardiner, Jane Cooper and, of course, Robert Bly. I often went with James when he gave readings, gatherings with his fellow poets in New York, many at the home of Betty Kray, an incredible woman who gave so much to poetry, and some wonderful trips to the Bly farm.
CD: You must have sensed his vulnerability.
CD: He needed help you thought.
AW: Yes. I think it was the second time we went out on a date, I opened the door—I lived in a railroad flat then, it had lights in the hallway, that’s where I lived—and he had his hand held out, and there was a button in it. He said, “It just came off my raincoat.”
AW: Yes. Well immediately, out comes the sewing kit and…
CD: I can fix that! Right?
AW: Long after we had married, he confessed that he had wrenched that button off his coat. He knew.
CD: In his poems, “Voices Between Waking and Sleeping in the Mountains,” he writes about his ineffable love for you in the context of his love for trees.
There used to be a sycamore just
Outside Martin’s Ferry,
Where I used to go.
I had no friends there.
Maybe the tree was no woman,
But when I sat there, I gathered
That branch into my arms.
It was the first time I ever rose.
If only I knew how to tell you.
Some day I may know how.
And in the very next poem, “On the Liberation of Woman,” he does seem to tell you by repeating the line “I love you best.” He’s writing about embracing the tree as his beloved here, alluding obviously to the myth of Diana as an objective correlative for his own loneliness, as he does also later in “Entering The Temple of Nimes” and “Leaving the Temple of Nimes” in his posthumous book This Journey, although he comments that the tree is no woman.
AW: Also in his poem “Defense of Late Summer” he writes of “a Japanese girl far from home” as a maple.
CD: He tells and doesn’t tell you his secret in “On the Liberation of Women,” writing initially, “What you found on that long rise of mountain in the snow/ Is your secret, but I can tell you at last,” then declaring he can’t tell you, “If only I knew how to tell you./ Some day I may know how.”
AW: Or perhaps he never wanted me to know how lonely he felt because that would make him more vulnerable.
CD: Loneliness and embrace, solitude and gathering, saying and not saying, in his poems as well as his life, remained in constant tension throughout his career. Both his albatross and his poetic dialectic. Although, he never seemed completely willing to give up his “secret,” he did in a way; his secret really becomes an open secret when he writes such lines as these:
In the middle of my age I walked down
Toward a cold bloom.
I don’t give a damn if you care.
But it half rhymes with blossom.
And no body was ever so kind to me
As one woman, and begins spring
In the secret of winter, and that is why
I love you best.
CD: Which says to me that he didn’t receive some essential love in his childhood.
AW: Yes. The comfort. The nurture.
CD: In his poem “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” the “red-tailed hawk, heading for home” that appears near the end of the poem seems to trigger his survivor’s guilt and sudden leap to his startling last line, “I’ve wasted my life.” A confession that perhaps implies how regretful he felt about leaving Martins Ferry.
AW: How do I dare? When I’m not working, I’m lying in a hammock.
CD: I love the way you speak for him now, throwing your voice into his, admitting things that he probably never would. How does he know that the red-tailed hawk is searching for a home?
AW: I speculate that it was James searching for home.
CD: So, the gulf that existed between the actual other—you—and his loneliness he couldn’t resolve, remained an ironic source of his inspiration, shame-ridden as it was at times.
AW: Yes, because to admit, even to someone, even someone who you love and adore, that you feel incredibly lonely…that’s a hard secret to let go of.
CD: Robert Hass makes the point in the same essay I mentioned above that James’ loneliness was actually less about loneliness per se than what he called “the solitariness of being, of beings going about their business,” like the red-tailed hawk, for instance, “searching for home.” But he did admit his loneliness to you in a way, it seems, by writing about the “solitariness of being” he observed in things both animate and inanimate, which I don’t think meant he didn’t need your company.
AW: In a way, but not coming out and saying it plainly.
CD: “If only I knew how to tell you.”
AW: See, he didn’t.
CD: What? I’m lonely? What other way is there to say it than “I’m lonely”?
AW: But he couldn’t. Somehow he couldn’t.
CD: Because the solitude and even alienation he felt so deeply as a kind of state of being was ineffable. Yet, he hoped that “someday [he] may know how.” Do you think he ever got to that point?
AW: I think he was working his way toward it, yes.