On Finding The Inner Light of Images: From Prose to Poetry

In a month, one year ago, I started this piece: I was at 9600 feet. I was in the shadow of a mountain named Nipple. I was in a little square of sunshine, one log spooling fire in the cabin’s woodstove.

And I had woken in dread of the last night’s numbered dead: perhaps a dozen then, an interactive online chart informs me now, nothing near the surreal numbers of this year since.  

Feeling useless, feeling uncertain, I surrounded myself with the old friends of my youth.  That day, I chose James Wright’s This Journey, a book of poetry published posthumously  in 1982 after Wright succumbed to cancer of the tongue.

I will confess it: I am a wordy poet, especially in the last ten years of writing creative nonfiction. I find myself wandering between poetry and prose: when do lines becomes sentences in an essay? And sentences lines of a poem?

 In James Wright’s shining poems, I was hoping to find out how simplicity could bare order out of chaos, how poetry could fire the smallest image.

A few weeks later, my husband handed me handed me a biography of James Wright’s life.

“Get inspired,” he said.

The biography by Jonathan Blunk, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, gave me a snippet of  Wright’s revision process for his poetry.  And perhaps an answer to my questions.  

In 1972, Wright saw a yellow spider stepping through its dusty web.  Five years later, Wright describes that image in a letter to his poet-son Franz Wright:

            [The web] positively sagged with dust. And as I watched, a slim, brilliantly yellow spider stepped out of her doorway in the center of the web. In all that dust, she was amazing: she was totally untouched by the smallest spec, as though she had just gone inside and taken a shower.

 In creative nonfiction, we talk about digging down for the verticality of the story and how that verticality or inner truth so often translates itself through metaphor. And we find those metaphors firmly and beautifully presented in the sentences of prose. Wright’s spider is beautifully described in his letter. I would have been happy to write that description.

But in Wright’s poem, “The Journey,” (do read it! It’s a beauty) the spider appears in the third stanza—utterly transformed from the spider of the letter and utterly embedded in a line of poetry, not a sentence.  Now the spider’s yellow hue  is the “golden hair of daylight along her shoulders” and the dust of the web have become whole “cemeteries.” The “deep image” runs rampant. Ruins surround her now and the plainspeak of “had just gone inside” has been crafted into a metaphor that enlarges the image of the spider, almost as if Wright has wrought her divine:  “She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.” Poetry asks for the world new and this is what Wright has given us.

In the concluding stanza of  “The Journey,” Wright alchemizes the scene of the spider in its web with the essence of himself, with the essence of us, the readers:

                                    The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind   
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

The journey of the spider through the “doorway” of her web has become the human journey into the spiritual world.

But go deeper, look at the micro changes of the letter to this poem and you realize that these transformations did not happen in the  “fell swoop” of some muse’s divine intervention, as we’d like to think, at least, as I’d certainly like to think. Instead, Wright is an excavator, taking pickaxe and pen many times, many years to his poems, whittling phrase and word from revision to revision, honing prose to poetry, sentence to line.

From one revision of “The Journey” to the next,  he changes “your bones” to “your body,” lengthens the line, “To let it go on blowing,” with the additional phrasing and repetition of “to step lightly, lightly,” which creates cadence in sound and personification in image.   He changes the original wording of “the ruins”  in the poem to “your ruins,” seemingly a nondescript change, until we realize that he once more implicates the reader, us, subsuming the spider as he gives the spider over to the human heart and its slow ravages.

    The small revisions Wright makes in his poems, that seem so undeserving of our attention, so often portend an avalanche of meaning.  At one time, “The Journey” closed this way: “All the way through your ruins, and not to care.” And then Wright changes “not to care” to “not to lose,” and expands this moment in  the poem:

                            All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

Surely, just simple words added. Just words for any sentence. But as Blunk points out, these changes adlib Jesus’s admonition in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus tells a man to follow him and the man says, “Lord let me go bury my father” and Jesus replies, “ Let the dead bury their own.” Wright, then, characteristically, follows this Biblical allusion with his ever-present colloquial nod to the plainspoken midwestern reader, “don’t worry.”

Nuance, allusion, metaphor, personification, the stepping out of prose into poetry: a little dusty spider a poet chanced upon during a walk turned into poetry writ large.  And a little journey, once upon a time on a cold dark day, turned into a little bit of light.

cabi in snow
a cabin in snow

Update from me: just mailed in my contract to Finishing Line Press for my upcoming chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, inspired by, who else, James Wright and another favorite poet, Stanley Kunitz.

4 thoughts on “On Finding The Inner Light of Images: From Prose to Poetry

    1. In such a tizzy that someone has actually left a comment on my blog, Steve, that I had to look up how to reply (: I am beginning to think that poetry has its own specialized imagery that prose can’t match, for even the simplest reason that readers come to poetry with different expectations than they come to prose.How many readers of a paragraph would have made that connection to the Gospel of Luke? How many prose writers (and I’m avoiding the beautiful gray area of the lyric essay) would keep honing down the sentence to create the cadence, personification, sense of the deity’s presence that Wright gives us at the end of this poem. You know that when the Branch Will Not Break came out, Wright flipped the poetry world upside down because he had discovered a way to create that “je ne sais quois” (or the leap, as Bly would say) out of the seemingly simplest words and images. And I’m even saying this as someone who loves the essay as much as the poem.

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  1. Lovely meditation on a poet’s process of concept formation and revision, that little spider slowly evolving into what he needed her to be. And congrats on the Finishing Line chapbook!

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    1. Thanks, Patricia. I do like the chapbook and I love discovering how other poets move through revision. The biography I read was pretty good: I think I allowed myself to be fooled, like so many others, that Wright’s poetry is so “simple,” not realizing the years of study, translation, experimentation by Wright that backs that kind of poetry.

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