“Perhaps that was a kind of melodramatic thing to write”:
James Wright and Franz Wright on Exaggeration
James Wright expressed conflicting attitudes about his tendency to exaggerate. It wasn’t possible to predict how he would feel at any given moment about this tendency, but there would usually be, he suggested in his letters, a wavering, a hesitation, a tension between defiance and shame. The same attitudes about exaggeration can be seen in the writing of his son, Franz Wright. Examining their intimate lived experience of that tension might help to partially account for the power of their writing. My main interest here, though, is in describing some possible sources of their desire to exaggerate, and in exploring the tension between shame and defiance in their writing. I will look at the poets one at a time.
James Wright’s concern about what he calls his “propensity to exaggerate” is expressed most explicitly in his letters. “I have a sick tendency towards inflated language,” he writes to the publisher of one his chapbooks, “and I hate it, so I will try to keep it in control here.” In his next sentence, he writes: “I am trying to say that I am overwhelmed by your letter.“ Here is the dilemma: He hates using the word “overwhelmed,” but, after all, he does feel overwhelmed. Isn’t it possible that “overwhelmed” is the right word, and that his language is not inflated? Again and again James Wright faced this dilemma: He wanted, as all poets do, a language commensurate with the intensity of his feelings, but the commensurate language he found turned out to resemble the language unsympathetic readers judged overwrought or unserious or dishonest, even unethical when other poets used it. (Sylvia Plath was called unethical when she compared her suffering to the anguish of the Jews during the Holocaust.) The poet might respond (defiantly): this is the way I feel, these are the only words for it, you can’t know that they aren’t. But he might also have doubts. Maybe his language really was exaggerated. If you can’t be sure, then you have to rely on the ears of others. But how they can be trusted? Others might tell you you’re exaggerating, but how can they be sure? (And if they accuse you of exaggerating, they will inevitably accuse you of self-aggrandizement, and of wallowing in self-pity and other “sick tendencies.)
Is there some foolproof way to tell eloquence from magniloquence? Philosophers tell us we can’t know what is in the minds of others. It’s the problem of other minds. What about the problem of other souls? We can’t know the content of someone’s soul, not unless he or she shows us. And once we’ve been shown, we don’t have the right to accuse the other person of misrepresentation. You can’t argue feelings, it’s said, but people do, all the time. For the poet, everything is at stake. Timid, intimidated language might mean that in Whitman’s words, “the real Me still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached.” All because the poet feared his critics.
It’s true that it would have been hard for Wright not to sometimes sound like he was exaggerating. The poet (and his son) led extraordinarily difficult, painful lives. It could not have been easy for either of them to communicate or describe that misery. They frequently found themselves in situations for which hyperbole seemed absolutely called for. When the young Franz Wright first sent his father a poem, James Wright wrote back to him with the words: “Welcome to hell.” Remembering his words years later, James Wright sent another letter to his son, in which he wrote, “Perhaps that was a kind of melodramatic thing to write to you. Certainly I was taking you seriously; and I still do, and will always. But now you know that I ought to have written something more precise. Perhaps I would have written more truly if I had bid you welcome to yourself, which as you well know contains hell all right but a good deal more than hell, too.” His second thoughts, mature and measured and appropriate as they are, were not (as he must have been aware) as memorable and powerful as the invitation he first felt compelled to offer his son: Welcome to hell.
More importantly, his second thoughts, though they were sensible and measured, weren’t as powerful against depression and anxiety as his first words. Exaggeration can be useful as a way of self-treating severe depression: it can describe it, it can side with it, it can subvert it, and, most usefully of all, it can suddenly supply the exaggerator with a sense of himself or herself as a person capable of linguistic exuberance rather than muffled speech or silence. “In excess, continual, / There is cure for sorrow,” as Stevens puts it. Exaggeration is also useful as a way of self-treating anxiety. If James Wright now tells his son that he contains a good deal more than hell, he is safe from the scorn of the people (his son is probably not one of them) who might call him melodramatic; but at the same time he leaves himself vulnerable in another direction. A person’s inner and outer life may actually contain a good deal more than hell, but to admit that possibility can feel, somehow, as if one is diminishing the original insight about hell, an insight that doesn’t want you to diminish it, and will punish you by subsequently proving to have been correct—about hell, about your son, about you. John Ashbery wrote a poem about this kind of magical thinking called “Saying It To Keep It From Happening.” If you express your fear of an upcoming event, so the belief goes, the event you fear is somehow prevented from happening. Isn’t it also possible that not saying it may make it happen? It’s dangerous to be the blithe innocent who takes his mind for a moment off the hell that is at every moment about to envelop us, that has already enveloped us, if we’re being honest. One finds this kind of thinking frequently in people who feel compelled always to say the worst, in the conviction that only there will truth be found. (Laura Quinney has a wonderful book, Literary Power and the Criteria of Truth, about such people.)
Exaggeration is often both serious and funny at the same time. Intended by the speaker as serious, it can act as a kind of self-soothing strategy. Intended as funny (“Welcome to hell” is a humorous thing to say) it can be useful as a way to anticipate the imagined unsympathetic reader–the reader who, in Whitman’s words, “meets all my grand assumptions and egotisms with derision.” Writing to an old professor, Wayne Burns, about “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” James Wright says, “Now I got hold of a great theme. But does it make you weak, does it make you want to strip off your clothes and run out into the street and gash your own skin to bleeding with your fingernails?” As a criterion for genuine poetry, this sets a high bar; Emily Dickinson seems, by comparison, easily pleased. At the same time–because it’s funny–it’s disarming. (Which it needs to be: a reader suspects that Wright is also kind of serious about his criteria.)
This kind of humor doesn’t always work, though, or it doesn’t work for long. James Wright did feel compelled, after all, to apologize for saying, “Welcome to hell.” But other kinds of humor are available to the poet: sometimes he preemptively personifies his critics, appropriating their kind of humor. This is a particularly effective tool against anxiety. In a letter to a friend, he recommends Stella Gibbons’ hilarious 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, which parodies the doom-laden novels of rural life popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Gibbons’ novel concerns an extremely anxious family, the Starkadders, who live on a farm outside the village of Howling. A visitor, the levelheaded Flora Poste, applies brisk, common sense solutions to their desperate and heretofore unsolvable psychological problems. Nothing, it turns out, is as drastic as it looked. “It’s cheering, no end,” James Wright wrote to his friend. The novel is cheering, but it could be pointed out that a person prone to exaggerate is invariably drawn to certain expressions over others. Wright’s expression is (for this reader, at least) itself cheering: it’s somewhat subversive to choose “no end” as two of the words in a four-word sentence of praise for a novel celebrating good results and ideal solutions and tidy endings. Because, again, what if everything is as drastic as it appears? To allow oneself to be influenced by the Flora Postes (they are everywhere, the everyday world is theirs) might mean relaxing vigilance or, worse, refusing to listen to one’s prophetic soul (on which so much scorn has been heaped). Flora Poste’s comical, commonsensical attitude, though “it’s cheering, no end” is just one of many ways to approach life and sometimes, surely, contraindicated.
Defiance was in Wright’s nature but so was insecurity. How he could not be insecure, when an unsympathetic reader was not easily placated by his humor or by his imitation of the reader’s own imagined sort of humor. Still, it was necessary to remain optimistic. And to brood on the aesthetic and ethical issues and to look for loopholes. Was it permissible to exaggerate provided one acknowledged what one was doing? Or provided one took the reader completely by surprise? One might end a poem suddenly with the words, “I have wasted my life.” Or one might be allowed to exaggerate when not writing poetry. Even in prose, though, Wright was ambushed by guilt. Writing to Donald Hall he says, “Dear Don, Your letter was so important, so true, so moving. Damn it! I wish I didn’t write prose so dramatically.” And later in the letter: “I just counted the numerous My Gods in this letters. Excuse me for sounding like (ah!) G. M. Hopkins.” Drying out in the psychiatric ward at Mount Sinai hospital, he writes Robert Bly, “I can say that I feel more whole and healthy inside myself—in my soul, really–than I can recall ever having felt before in my entire life. It sounds like an exaggeration, and I realize that I tend to go to extremes in attempting to describe a feeling; and yet I think truly that my description of my present state of mind is modest, if anything.” His exaggeration, he’s saying, is actually an understatement.
Many poets have some kind of exaggeration anxiety. Certainly Elizabeth Bishop did. (And is loved for it.) Poets with no exaggeration anxiety are rare. Robert Lowell did not have much, at least while he was writing his first few books. Neither did Hopkins, with his “numerous My Gods.” Walt Whitman succeeds in seeming even less anxious about exaggeration than he is about contradiction. “Do I contradict myself?” he asks the reader near the end of “Song of Myself.” “Very well then…I contradict myself.” It doesn’t occur to him to say, “Do I exaggerate? Very well then I exaggerate.” A reader who was exaggeration-phobic would never make it to the end of “Song of Myself.” James Wright goes to extremes, and he knows it’s probably bad for him. But the extremes never go away. And not ever to go to them seems cowardly. And meanwhile there’s Walt Whitman. “I stop some where, waiting for you,” Whitman writes very near the end of “Song of Myself.” He’s stopped, he waits for us, in a place of extremes, a place of recklessness, and beauty, the place many other poets want to enter. And he is impossibly, stirringly, unambivalent, self-legitimated, unashamed.
It’s stirring because exaggeration, like many forbidden pleasures, is a great temptation. (There’s a similar pleasures to be derived from generalizing. Like exaggeration, it’s impossible always to resist. We all generalize, it’s tempting to say.) Exaggerating, one feels freed. How do the inebriated celebrate their linguistic liberty? By immediately starting to overemphasize. Exaggerating can all by itself make one feel drunk. Exaggerating, one has immediate access to a new kind of self-presence and a fresh kind of eloquence. You are Hamlet, all of a sudden, jumping into Ophelia’s grave and trading bluffs and bluster with Laertes. “Nay, and thou’lt mouth / I’ll rant as well as thou.” It’s a pleasure not just for the speakers or writers of this exuberant language but also, perhaps unexpectedly, for some listeners, for some readers, who might forgive your exaggeration– and not just forgive it: they might feel protective of it, may want it to be there, may have gone to your poem in search of it, may, in fact, be delighted by it. This ideal reader has grown weary of finding (whether in poetry or prose) exacting differentiation and distancing perspectives, and craves melodramatic, even histrionic, even archaic language, even fustian, if it comes to that.
An intimate transaction takes place then between the poet and the reader, involving gratitude. The poet is grateful for the imagined reader’s imagined permissions, and the reader feels gratitude for the poet’s thrilling refusal to fall into what Oscar Wilde called “careless habits of accuracy.” The reader feels a wild surmise: here is the genuine voice of unmanageable misery or overwhelming joy, not (for once) recollected in tranquility or dried out and chastised and turned into plain speech but happening this very instant on the page. Now the reader can discover how feelings that other poets rationalize or romanticize or sentimentalize or ironize might actually sound. The poet in this transaction may be shy, almost deferential at first, as if he or she were saying to the reader, please allow me to sound like this. Or he or she may be seductive, urging that shame be abandoned. Or, of course, the poet may falter, surrendering to shame. This faltering happens even to Whitman, though rarely: “O baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth, / Oppres’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth / Aware now that amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am.” The poet is baffled, balked. All that beautiful, reckless language now seems blab. How could one keep writing?
Shame has to be succeeded by defiance. I used the word “thrilling” in relation to the poet’s defiance. Oscar Wilde wrote, “Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift of exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, might grow into something really great and wonderful.” The poet, that is, might grow into someone capable of providing the reader with something great and wonderful. James Wright called it “glory.” He loved the word, noting it whenever other people used it. He told a friend, “Sir Herbert Read wrote that the most important thing he knew of was what he called the sense of glory.” It’s there in Wright’s sad poems, as well as his happier ones. The sense of glory is there when he says, “I have wasted my life.” It’s in his lines from “A Blessing”: “if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom.”
Wright’s particular sense of glory tended to be, especially when he was writing Deep Image poetry, at once intimate and impersonal. (Mark Ford uses that phrase in writing about James Tate.) A beautiful poem, written after the end of Wright’s first marriage, when he lost custody of his two sons (one of them Franz) is called, “Having Lost My Sons I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas 1960.” Many poets, Anne Sexton, say, or Robert Lowell, beginning with Life Studies, might have shown themselves confronting a more personal, domestic wreckage, but James Wright substitutes (at the last moment) the moon, an image popular in the Deep Image lexicon. Because the Deep Image vocabulary tended to establish its own tone (grand but maybe not grandiose, solemn but maybe not melodramatic,) it was useful to Wright in his negotiations with defiance and shame. In addition, there was no everyday world, outer or inner, that he had to be accurate about.
Its help was limited, though, as he himself recognized. For one thing, the images, though they had aesthetic power, did not have much therapeutic value. It isn’t obvious how to live an archetypal life at the same time as an everyday life, and everybody has to live an everyday life, unfortunately. In a letter to Robert and Carol Bly, James Wright says, “I am just alien, that’s all. My relation to everyday life is incredibly tortured.” And in a poem in Shall We Gather At the River, he says, “I don’t know my kind.” He knows only that he is the kind of person who feels tortured in his life and is drawn to and repelled by the intensifier “incredibly.” He knows he longs for a sense of glory and is interested in ways he can attain it (and provide it) in poems.
Pesty, must you exaggerate? I told you a million times not to exaggerate.
The dialogue is from a Bazooka Joe comic book of the late nineteen sixties. Some similarly ambiguous message must somehow have been passed on from James Wright to his son.
Franz Wright had intense feelings about his father, and a highly charged relationship to the memory of his father. Kafka, in his Letter to his Father, writes, “I’m not going to say, of course, that I have become what I am only as a result of your influence. That would be very much exaggerated (and I am indeed inclined to this exaggeration.)” He says, “I’m not going to say, of course” but he says it anyway because nothing sounds serious or real except this exaggeration to which he’s inclined. It’s as if the truth were there and nowhere else. James Wright had a similar inclination, as I have shown, and so did Franz Wright. In Kafka’s short story, “The Judgment” the son, trying to ridicule his father, uses exaggerated words, “but in his very mouth the words turned into deadly earnest.” It wasn’t easy always to tell (for any of these writers) what was exaggeration and what was deadly earnest. In one’s very mouth or on the page the words might turn from one to the other, or the words might be simultaneously exaggerated and in deadly earnest.
Franz Wright wrote many poems about his father, more and more as his career continued. The poems express a variety of powerful emotions. A son’s grief at the loss of his father, no matter what Hamlet’s uncle Claudius says, is impossible to exaggerate, surely. But the tension is there, as it is in the father’s poems, between defiance and shame. Sometimes the poet wants to die and join his father, though it seems like a waste to have been born and worked so hard, only to die so early. As David Ignatow, a poet Franz Wright admired, says, in his poem, “Brightness as a Poignant Light,” “Still, how can I be happy /to have been born only to return / to my father, the dark, to feel his power / and die?” Franz Wright sometimes wishes the cup would pass from him, or feels forsaken. “Unfather, unsay me,” he writes in his poem, “The Winter Skyline Late.” But it’s always too late. He’s condemned to live “long fatherless hours.”
Franz Wright writes poems both about absent fathers and about fathers who are present, sort of. Some of his poems are about fathers who are both present and absent. These are poems about being haunted, often inadequately, insufficiently haunted. James Wright isn’t Hamlet’s father, giving his son a mission. There are longed-for reunions in dreams but they don’t go well. In his poem, “Gone,” the son writes, “I dreamed you came and sat beside me / on the bed / It was something you had / to tell me / I dreamed you came and sat beside me/ Like a drowning at a baptism / Like an embittered shopper returning. / The sad misspelled obscenities on men’s room walls / Snow on dark water…Something.” That last word is more despairing and sardonic here even than it is in Frost’s final “For once, then, something.” The motive for simile in this poem is that the actual dream is so disappointing. A dream should be a wish fulfillment, not a sort of short grim documentary about the impossibility of wish fulfillment. Sometimes the poet sees his father in his own face. “More and more I meet him / in the mirror, it is his blood I have / to clean up if I shave–…” Or he meets him in his own addiction. In a poem called “The Dead Dads,” he calls himself “the drunk son of a drunk,“ and tells us he’s intent on “finding out and finding out / exactly what the poor old fucker felt like.” Meanwhile, whatever happens, happens only in one direction. “I, I can’t happen to you,” he tells his father. It’s the father who happens to the son, and to the son’s poems—or refuses to happen. How would Hamlet sound if his father had visited him and said nothing?
His father’s emotions are vivid to the son but also vague. What did the poor fucker feel like, this father in whose “mastodon footsteps” and “Everest shadow” the son follows, as he writes in “Intake Interview.” He sometimes feels as if he will never know, except when he is drunk. But drunk or sober, using or recovering, he will never escape his father. The poet calls himself an “aging / Telemachus.” Meanwhile, in these poems, he fears that if he doesn’t use the most intense possible language, he will never be equal to his own feelings, or (a greater fear, maybe) to his father’s.
Sometimes the intensest possible language just comes, and not really at his bidding. Wallace Stevens writes about “the accomplishment / of an extremist in an exercise.” Accomplishment, extremist, exercise: the three words are relevant to the writing lives of Franz Wright and his father. Both poets, though drawn to extremity, were painstaking, wrote endless drafts. But a poet learns to know his or her customary strategies after a while, and soon it’s as if the poems learn them too, and seem almost to accomplish themselves (for good or ill). In Mao II, Don DeLillo wrote, “Everything seeks its own heightened version.” Sometimes it seems as if the words know exactly how to find their own heightened version. As in “Depiction of a Dream (II) where a friend asks the speaker about his life. “A group of men approaches as I cross the park. / One of them is a good friend I remember from school, / one I lost contact with years ago. How wonderful! / I feel happy and safe for the first time / in so many months. We grin and embrace. / He asks about my life. I tell him / I will be teaching again very soon.” A human moment: restrained, modest, serious, and precise. The opposite of “Welcome to Hell.” But then the melodrama happens: “I’m afraid it won’t be soon, he remarks, / with a sinister failure to alter the warmth in his voice / or the broad smile.” The poem quickly becomes violent. Guns are introduced. Such poems are not the accomplishments of an extremist in an exercise. One is more apt to think of the accomplishment of a plane whose pilot has let it fly itself. Still, poems that seem to write themselves, that know exactly how they ought to sound, are preferable to poems that refuse to be written.
Poems that write themselves are, perhaps paradoxically, unlikely to surprise the poet. After a certain point, most poems don’t. Many poets realize early on that they must sound as they do. Rilke wrote in a letter, “What one writes at twenty-one is a cry. Does one think of a cry that it ought to have been cried differently?” Franz Wright might have answered that what one writes in one’s forties and fifties is also a cry that could not have been cried differently. Yet readers, imagined and real, seemed to urge him to cry differently. Stephen Burt, for example, in a review of Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, quotes a line from one of the poems in that book: “I have visited / every last / nook and cranny of the depth.” “Every last one?” Burt wonders. Quoting Robert Frost, Burt adds, “It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.” One can imagine the poet, reading this criticism (part of a not unsympathetic review) wavering between shame and defiance (and rage.) In a prose poem called “Brothers,” Franz Wright wrote, “I wish I could be clearer about the horror. But that very term instantly causes the others to glance at each other, suppress a knowing smile, and get away from us, as fast as they can.” It’s as if he saying to “the others” you have to allow me —in spite of your compassion fatigue— to use the word “horror. Because I will use the word either way. Wright, who writes compassionate poems and exercised compassion in his life, knows a great deal about compassion fatigue as well, and how, in the clutches of such fatigue any suffering (his own and that of others) can seem melodramatic. In a poem called “The Balance,” he mocks “Simone Weil’s / grandiose wish / to be ‘a crippled no one.’” The trick is to be grand but not grandiose, dramatic but not melodramatic. Everyone knows that. But the dilemma for some poets remains: writing in a grandiose or melodramatic way, one can get the conviction one is writing the truth.
Franz Wright, like his father, searched for ways to keep writing, new versions of defiance. What if, instead of saying too much, he said too little? In his early books, in his The Night World and the Word Night especially, he experimented with saying almost nothing. This worked beautifully. But it was hard to forget the ethical imperative (as expressed by poets like Marianne Moore) to write on a human scale, to say just enough, neither too little nor too much, to be rigorously truthful especially where deep feeling is concerned. In “Silence,” Marianne Moore’s poem about her father, she tells us that he said, “‘the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint.’” Fending off shame, the poet, for whom a poem, no matter how well crafted, is a cry, might think: what is the “ethical” way to write my poems? This imagined “ethical” voice seems to exhort the poet to sound restrained rather than numbed, to manifest a modest stillness, rather than an exhibitionistic paralysis, to sound sad, but sad like Donald Justice or Howard Nemerov, sad the way “men at forty” are sad. Wordsworth wrote about “the still, sad music of humanity.” “I have yet to hear a single note / of that famous still sad music,” Wright remarks in one of his poems.
Franz Wright and his father shared a strong anxiety about their propensity to exaggerate. Each of them worried that what seemed melodramatic must be melodramatic, must be spurious, unpersuasive in the way that overacting is. And both of them were at the same time concerned about the possibility that what seemed melodramatic was just the sound of their real voices. Why should one have to say less than one feels, like the country god in Auden’s poem, “always afraid to say more than it meant.” What if no other language could do justice to one’s feelings? The tension between defiance and shame turned out to be a central subject and motivating force for each of them. In the process of reading themselves they recognized and learned more than any reader could ever know about this tension. At the same time they learned strategies: how, for example, to draw on the particular rhetorical powers available to both shamed and defiant speakers, how to use exaggeration to express (and at the same time manage) depression and anxiety, how to anticipate and forestall the objections of unsympathetic readers, how to seduce the growing number of readers who could be seduced. They learned that they had to be the poets they were, writing despite the tension and because of it.
They also learned that they had to continue to exaggerate (if that’s what they were doing.) It was necessary to continue so that one could tell the story this way: Like the young man in Oscar Wilde’s brief parable, both father and son began “with a natural gift of exaggeration,” found “congenial and sympathetic” readers and wrote some “really great and wonderful” poems. In Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Concrete, the narrator says of himself and a family member, “Everything about us was theatrical, in fact. Terribly real, but theatrical.” Both poets, highly conscious of their intimate, necessary, tortured, productive, relationship to exaggeration, taught themselves to write poems that were accurate, in a sense, because exaggerated, that were real because theatrical.
Nick Halpern is the author of Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. He is the co-editor of Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler and In the Frame: Women’s Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler. Recent essays include “Embarrassing Fathers” in Understanding Love: Philosophy, Film and Fiction and “The Uses of Authenticity: Four Sixties Poets” in The Cambridge History of American Poetry.