Martins Ferry, an Ohio steel town of some 7,000 people across the river from Wheeling, W. Va., has produced athletes inducted into the professional football, basketball and baseball halls of fame, and, in a similarly worthy if not quite as heralded pantheon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Remarkably, given the smallish population of Martins Ferry, the proportion of immortals is close to mythic: Lou “The Toe” Groza, the NFL Hall of Famer, and his brother Alex, an Olympic gold medalist in basketball; Phil Neikro, a pitcher elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, and his brother, Joe, also a Major League pitcher for 20 years; John Havlicek, star basketball player at Ohio State and then the Boston Celtics, and a member of the NBA Hall of Fame.
And James Wright, winner of the 1972 Pulitzer in poetry, and father of Franz Wright, who won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2004, making them the only father/son winners in the same category in the history of the awards.
As it happened, one of this illustrious group summered at Misquamicut from time to time, and was honored posthumously in the fall of 2005 at Westerly Library in an all-star literary gathering.
And for the record, it is doubtful that one of James Wright’s most celebrated works, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” would be enshrined in any football hall of fame.
The final lines of the brief but unsparing capsule of emotional and physical casualty in mining country:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.”
I’d known about Wright’s connection to Misquamicut since I heard him read at the New London Public Library in the late 1970s. A new 496-page biography, “James Wright: A Life in Poetry,” by Jonathan Blunk, includes this passage:
“After just ten days back in New York City, Wright and Annie settled into a cottage at Misquamicut, Rhode Island, a modest beach town not far from the more elegant Watch Hill on the western border of the state near Connecticut. The couple spent the month of August there, close to a secluded mile-long stretch of beach near the Atlantic Ocean, with a salt pond separated by dunes.”
James Wright died at age 52 in 1980. His widow, Annie Wright, a distant descendant of Roger Williams, rented the same cottage on Elmwood Avenue in Misquamicut from May through early October for years after her husband died. Her family — her maiden name was Runk — owned a beach house at nearby Weekapaug in the 1960s and 1970s. Lately, she’s spent summers with a cousin in Pawcatuck.
In 2005, to celebrate the publication of her husband’s selected letters, the 630-page “A Wild Perfection,” which she co-edited, and “James Wright: Selected Poems,” she organized a gathering of poets and friends at the Westerly Library.
The guests included the late Galway Kinnell, also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the late Michael Harper, a professor of English at Brown University and Rhode Island’s first poet laureate. Westerly resident Stephen Dobyns, the poet, author, novelist and polemicist, was there as well. The program, “Break into Blossom,” a line from one of Wright’s most beloved poems, “A Blessing,” featured recollections of the man and readings of his work.
Not on the program, but a work of Wright’s, nevertheless, was a lesser effort, included in “Above the River: The Complete Poems of James Wright,” entitled, “At Peace with the Ocean off Misquamicut.”
I came upon James Wright in the late 1960s at Oberlin College, near his alma mater, Kenyon College. His son Franz studied at Oberlin a few years after me. I was smitten then and have never wavered in my admiration.
The elder Wright, first and foremost, is accessible. He is melancholic, despondent, lyric, and exquisite in his imagery, often achingly so. He was an alcoholic and a depressive and wrestled mightily with those demons, but he had an athlete’s gift of elegant performance.
I’ve mentioned a few of his better known poems, and will add “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” “The Minneapolis Poem” and “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway.”
Of them all, I am most drawn to his affirmation of life, still, in the poem “Two Hangovers.” The first part is surly, depressed and defeated. But Wright shrugs it off. This is the second part:
“I try to waken and greet the world once again
In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my window
A brilliant blue jay is springing up
And down, up and down,
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as
Well as I do,
That the branch will not break.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.