James Wright is really feelin’ it.
James Wright was a poet of the heart. His best poems, like “A Winter Day Break over Venice” or “In the Face of Hatred” drip with empathy, for their subjects but also for the world. Even when he’s being dark or sarcastic, he’s feeling the world intensely.
What happens when he encounters a brutal game like American Football? “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” happens. This is probably one of the most famous sports poems in North America (it’s the epigraph for Friday Night Lights), yet very little of the sport it surrounds is depicted in the poem. Instead, Wright is looking at the stands, where blue-collar parents watch their sons “gallop horribly against each others’ bodies.” This is the only reference to the game.
The real action of the poem lies beyond the stadium, in the dull brutality that drives these parents to find some brief salvation in theirs sons’ heroics (salvation is never too heavy a word when discussing James Wright). The poem begins, “In the Shreve High football stadium/ I’m thinking of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville.” He’s also thinking of “Negroes in the blast furnace,” and a “ruptured night watchman,” all “dreaming of heroes.”
These are the parents: the fathers “ashamed to go home,” and the mothers who “cluck like starved pullets,/ dying for love.” These are not starving people. These are the working class, that relic, the “real Americans” that Sarah Palin loves so much, although when Wright wrote this they probably voted Democrat (and might’ve had decent union jobs). But there’s a desperation beneath their stoicism. “Therefore,” Wright concludes, “their sons grow beautifully suicidal” to momentarily relieve them of their pain.
Like much of Wright’s work, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is set in his beloved, dingy Appalachians (Ohio/West Virginia border)—few besides Wright could capture the drudgery of coal miners and refinery workers and still give the sense that their setting is beloved—but the setting expands well beyond that. He is sure to mention “Tiltonsville,” “Benwood” and “Wheeling Steel,” but this poem is about the reason anyone makes a hero of a game player—or, for that matter, why anyone gives a shit about Kim Kardashian. Of course, there are differences between forms of hero worship (a pro athlete is an elite performer and only potentially also a pointless sideshow), but the motivation behind devotion to any hero-worship includes some degree of sadness, loneliness and despair.
Friday Night Lights
The same could also be said of poetry, or of all art. Whether you go in for Football, TMZ or Virginia Wolf, you’re going there for a reason. James Wright understood that: that a football stadium is never just a football stadium—that it exists to fulfill a common need.
These days, Appalachian Ohio is hurting. The industries whose workers received temporary relief at the Shreve High football stadium have gone. The people are still there. If they can find work, it’s likely in the service sector. They might chew gum too loudly behind the cash register. They might watch Nascar and shitty reality TV. Highly educated city-dwellers say they vote against their own interest. James Wright would see past that. He would empathize.