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On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"


from Bonnie Costello, "Returning to the Heartland" (originally in The Boston Review in 1980), reprinted in Dave Smith, ed. The Pure Clear Word (Urbana: U Illinois P, 1982), p. 222

What makes "Autumn Begins" one of Wright’s better poems is its sense of grace and energy straining against a background of inevitable grays. [Costello cites the entire poem.] The communal spirit of the football game is dampened by the dirge of images. Wright achieves his best effects through such contrasts or shifts of tone. The technique can be overly theatrical at times, but here it is neatly integrated in emotionally complex images which work against the simple structure of the statement. Autumn is the harvest time, the beginning of the end, but also the beginning of the school year and a series of athletic triumphs. The contrast between the hopeless impotence of the fathers and the beautiful, futile strength of the sons is ironically locked in place by a conjunction of necessity ("therefore") as inviolable as the chain of generation. Here we understand both his nostalgia for home and his desire to escape.


from Robert Hass, "James Wright" (originally in Ironweed in 1977), in Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (New York: Ecco, 1984), pp. 41-43, 44-45.

"Autumn Begins …" is about a form the inner life takes in the world. Everyone knows the poem, but let me quote it so we can have it here on the page [Hass quotes the entire poem.]

In the first version of [William] Blake’s "London" the opening lines went like this: "I wander’d thro’ each dirty street, / Down where the dirty Thames does flow." Raymond Williams in The City and the Country talks about the kind of difference the revision made. Dirty is a protest; charter’d is a seeing: it confronts not squalor but an order that men have. It meets power with power, the power of poetry to illuminate and clarify, to speak out of its whole being. Wright’s poem does the same, I think, but with important differences. These Friday night football games are in one way a deeper order than either the political or the economic systems of which Blake is thinking, because their necessity is entirely imaginative. This is a harvest festival and a ritual. Ritual form is allied to magic, as it is in every community, and magic is allied to the seasons and the sexual potency of the earth.

Because this festival is American and Puritan, it is an efficient transmutation of lovelessness into stylized violence. "Gallop terribly": or changing chickens into horses. It is a way of describing and evoking the animal beauty in the violence of the dying year, the explosive beauty of boys who are heroes because they imagine they are heroes and whose cells know that it will be their turn to be ashamed to go home. Even the stanzaic structure of the poem participates in the ritual. The first two stanzas separate the bodies of the men from the bodies of the women and the third stanza gives us the boys pounding against each other, as if they could, out of their wills, effect a merging. Insofar as this is a political poem, it is not about the way that industrial capitalism keeps us apart, but the way it brings us together. ..

… If you ask whether this is a poem of the inner world or the outer world, the distinction seems meaningless. What there is here is an adult clarity which sees and feels with great affection and compassion and sees each thing as it is. I suppose that is why the completely plain opening lines have such resonance: In the Shreve High football stadium, I think … [ellipses by Hass]

That is a distinction the poem does enforce, the one between dreaming and I think. This vision is not given to the defeated fathers or to the animal brilliance of the sons. Nor does it come from delicate boxes of dust wondering. And the words don’t fall as they do when we are filling that emptiness in us that is starved for love. It is given to the man who thinks. That’s why that therefore explodes on the page, though there are formal reasons for this as well. The poem does not at first feel as if it will have the force of a logical inference and a leap of imagination because each of the first two stanzas ends with the hemistich of a Latin elegiac poem. Dreaming or heroes, dying for love; a liquid, quantitative dying fall so that you think melancholy grace and not the power of seeing is what the poem is about and then wham! Something happens. The word therefore is what isolates the speaker, but it is also what gathers the people of Martins Ferry to the poet and his readers, makes them known and felt. The poet does not rise into suicidal light; he brings himself and them and all of us up into the different kind of light that poetry is, so that, even though what he sees is tragic, that he sees is a consolation.


from Kevin Stein, "’A Dark River of Labor’: Work and Workers in James Wright’s Poetry" (originally in American Poetry Review in 1993), now Chapter 3 in Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry (Athens, Ohio: Ohio U P, 1996), 59-60.

Perhaps the poem that epitomizes this merging of communal and personal, of the spirit of place and the citizens who live there is Wright’s widely recognized "Autumn Begins … "

Characteristic of many poems in The Branch Will Not Break, "Autumn Begins" moves elliptically, almost reticently, as if the white spaces of silence paradoxically enlarge and embolden what is spoken in the poem. Returned to the scene of his youth, Wright finds himself afforded a perspective not available to the locals. Now curiously outside of the outsiders, he calls the ballplayers "their sons," not claiming them personally as "mine" or collectively as "ours." He comes to recognize the ritualized violence of football as an emblem of the larger competitiveness of capitalism, a system that, particularly in the mill and factory towns of Martins ferry, necessarily produces more losers than winners. …

Of course, all this has not been lost on the sons, who know as well as anyone that to dream of "heroes" in our society, whether in athletics or business, is to dream of the wealthy. Soon to be defeated by the economics of hard labor, they partake of their own "suicidally beautiful" ritual, hoping that they, unlike their fathers, will break the cycle of repression. The boys seize football as the last chance to elude their fate – whether by earning the adulation that accompanies football heroes through adulthood or by literally escaping the region through a college football scholarship.. Wright, who watched future Cleveland Browns place-kicker Lou Groza star on his own high school team, appreciated the allure of the latter and readily admitted it [in an interview with Dave Smith in 1979]….

Any cautious critic would do well to question whether Wright, a former semi-pro player in the Ohio River valley, might have exaggerated the contribution of football in particular, and sports in general, to the upward mobility of the region’s youth. That critic need only turn to higher authority, none other than Sports Illustrated, to adduce the following facts from Ron Fimrite’s "The Valley Boys," which chronicles the early lives and later successes of some of the town’s most renowned professional athletes. Martins Ferry, and its neighboring towns along the Upper Ohio River, have produced an astounding number of accomplished athletes. …

The necessary strength and forbearance permeates the psyche of the place and its people. Fathers teach their sons that there is no easy way out, literally or figuratively. Everything has to be worked for, labored for at great cost to body and soul. These "proud fathers," although they may indeed be "ashamed to go home," as Wright’s poem suggests, do drag themselves back there, wearied by the day’s labor, only to find other responsibilities awaiting them. … [Stein cites testimony from professional athletes that indicate the crucial role played by athletics in allowing poor males to escape their class.] It is striking to note how closely [high school baseball player Jason ] Ellis’ remarks echo both the theme of Wright’s poem and his statement to Dave Smith that sports success was a vehicle for local kids to "get out" of the valley. Similarly, the understated pride of "Autumn Begins" is evident in Ellis’ final comment for the poem, both celebratory and plangent, is Wright’s clearest evocation of "where I’m from."


from Judy Norton, Narcissus Sous Rature: Male Subjectivity in Contemporary American Poetry. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Associated University Presses, Inc.

The appointed hero of the quest for personality, the educated modern European male, stands ready to enter and confront the unconscious—dedicated, however, not to its integration, but to its mastery. . . .

Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" provides a cri-tique of this obsessive heroism:

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October ,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

The intractability of time is imaged by the "gray faces of Negroes," and the "Polacks nursing long beers." Life history, in "Autumn Be-gins," is a play of social and generational repetitions; but the fact that life begins in autumn indicates the elegaic character of regeneration in this poem: lives and beers and football careers have ends.

The pathos of historicity, and our sympathetic engagement with night watchmen who rewrite their ruptures, are problematized in strophe two, however. For the separation anxiety that motivates the heroic dreams of these "proud fathers"—dreams that simultaneously commemorate their sons' oedipal differentiation as the origin of the hero and efface this doubled separation through identifica-tion with sons-as-heroes—could be dispersed through love given to, and received from, the "starved" women. But the very hyper-(un)-consciousness of difference that so often provokes distancing in male narratives, whether popular or theoretical, blocks these men from such a substitutive satisfaction, so that they prefer "nursing long [phallic] beers" to nursing breasts.

At the same time, since a denial of the reality of separation, in its various effects, would simply substitute the pathos/pathology of repression for that of identification, the poem chooses to recognize the beauty of a violent ritual that, like the (female) tarantella or the rites of Dionysis, is both appalling in its delusionality and excess, and magnificent in the aesthetic energy of its response to fundamental psychic needs. The "sons" who "gallop terribly against each other's bodies" "At the beginning of October" evoke a hectic, human-animal-vegetable continuum whose violence reflects the fundamentally entropic character of being.

This beauty, however, is expensive—too expensive for both women and men in this already impoverished Ohio River community. The efficacy of the heroic image as a kind of prosthetic identity for the emotionally handicapped males involves a massive expenditure of libidinal energy on a narcissistic objectification of the self as Other. The consequence of giving everything to oneself is that one has nothing left to give: the men of Martins Ferry and "Their" women spend their lives "Dying for love."


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