This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.
"If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are," claimed Wendell Berry—a rich half-truth that, although arguable, gives us valuable insight into why a poet would want to ground a poem in a specific place. "Write about what you know," intones the professor of Creative Writing. But writing about what you know would be almost as boring as writing about something of which you know nothing. More boring. The idea, then, seems to be to write about what you don't know about what you know, bringing us into territory sufficiently complicated and uncertain to be appropriate to poetry. Negative capability, Keats has it, is "…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact." Negative capability also involves, as Eliot says, "a continual extinction of personality," which is the other half of Wendell Berry's truth, the half that completes the explanation of why a poet would choose to write a poetry of place. Eliot goes on, "only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to escape those things."
So the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as in were, inside out, so that the center of "knowing who you are" becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas (rooms), which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet. To have identity means to be alone. Loneliness is the anxiety that compels us to identify with an other or with otherness. To disappear into a place. To empathize.
James Wright has as many place names in his poems as anyone I can think of: William Duffy's hammock in Pine Island, Minnesota, just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, Outside Fargo, North Dakota, etc. The poet, often lost and alone, wants to find himself in a place, partly, I think out of the fear of losing himself, not in self-annihilation, but in self-pity, and a deeper sense of loneliness. Also, I think that the desire to claim to be in an actual place betrays a desire to gain the permission to indulge in a kind of Yeatsian magic such as stepping out of one's body and breaking into blossom. It doesn't, in the long run, work. The magic that does work is in poems like "In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned", where the poet does not claim to actually be in Wheeling, West Virginia, and "At the Executed Murderer's Grave", where the poet actually admits to not being at the grave, and further admits to his own defeat, shame, and sense of exile. James Wright is a tragic poet, not an elegiac one. In his early poems he is at his best when he admits to being exiled from a place, such as the Ohio of his youth, and that he can't escape personality and emotions.
Near the end of his life, James Wright, ironically finds a home and a sense of self- knowledge and well-being, despite his proximity to mortality, in self-exile in Italy, where he is not a native and therefore to some degree does not know where he is. But exile is a sense of place he knows intimately. Many of these poems are prose poems, many take place near rivers, many take place at noon, when time seems to stop, leaving only place, and many of the poems inhabit the moment of their own composition. They are self-annihilated descriptions of actual surroundings and show a remarkable sense of ease in relation to uncertainty.
One such poem is "The Secret of Light". It begins with a familiar mention of being alone, but instead of a claim to loneliness, the poet says, "I am sitting contented and alone," a major departure in method from the early work. In completely unadorned prose, the poet tells us that he is sitting on a bench in a little park near Palazzo Scaligere in Verona. The familiar naming of place here, however, is not the same as the hammock and William Duffy's farm, which is a way of claiming, among other things, the permission to say that "The droppings of last year's horses/ Blaze up into golden stones." Really? Last year's horses? Blazing golden stones? This is one of Wright's most famous poems, but I don't buy it. In the "Secret of Light" there is no irritable reaching after magic. Instead there is an honestly uncertain description: "…glimpsing the mists… as they shift and fade…"
There are several parallels drawn in the composition of this poem. The first and perhaps most obvious, though only implied, is between the river Adige and the Ohio, the difference for the poet being that the Adige is unburdened of his own biography. The battlements above the river have long outlived the violence and death that put them there. They are relics. They belong to eternity, beyond conflict.
The river is personified, "restored to its shapely body," before we are introduced to the "startling woman" that parallels the river and engenders the poem. She is seated directly in front of the poet, so that she, in a way, mirrors him as he tries to describe her. His attempt begins with a somewhat muddled conceit about a "perfectly cut diamond" that a jeweler (another parallel to the poet) studies for years as he struggles to achieve the "necessary balance between courage and skill" to strike the stone open and reveal its inner light. As the poet struggles for a similar balance, the woman rises from her bench and disappears. The poet "will never see her again". He follows her into an invisible Verona the way Keats follows his nightingale: only in imagination. He imagines her meeting her lover (his stand-in), and he empathetically wishes them well. The poet stays where he is and imagines the woman placing a "flawless [like the diamond] and fully formed Italian daybreak into [his] hands."
Wright says, "The very emptiness of the park bench just in front of mine is what makes me happy." He has accepted the fact that the woman has left him and his poem and re-entered life, which the poet cannot do, since he has come to a point where he can honestly pray, as Yeats does to the sages depicted on the gold mosaic of a wall, to "Consume my heart, away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/ It knows not what it is; and gather me/ Into the artifice of eternity." He is "startled to discover that [he] is not afraid."
Wright mentions the lover's face, and then his own. The wind off the Adige that flutters past the now invisible woman reaches the poet, "happy enough to sit on this park bench alone." And now the light inside the woman's hair, the light inside the diamond, the light inside the lover's body, and the light of the river Adige, all converge inside the poet and cause him to declare that he and the river are "both an open secret."
The achievement of oneness with nature in poems (or in life, for that matter) is more often than not, fake. Much more convincing is an honest failure in that regard. "The Secret of Light", however, begins and ends with aloneness in a foreign place, and the poet is "startled" (the word is used twice) to find himself happy "in mid-flight for a split [the word is used twice] second." The poem performs Eliot's "continual extinction of self," and the poet is rewarded with that rare sense of well-being and unity of sensibility that is so often sought in poetry and almost never realized.