Pilot Light
A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism
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False Windows: On Poetry & Prayer
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Whereas Berryman’s addresses are intimate, searching, and occasioned by personal crisis, James Wright summons the rhetoric of prayer only to challenge it with a communal lived experience of moral and material decrepitude and the exigencies of speech such experience requires. The landscape revealed in “Speak,” originally published in 1968’s Shall We Gather at the River, is one of small town decay, economic and spiritual depression: a broken streetlight, cowardice, injustice, inescapable alcoholism, brothels, a baby in a bus-station trashcan, petty crime, and a predictable death drive. The characters here are the wretched of the earth, the very outcasts among whom the Christian narrative locates Jesus, but in the middle of America in the middle of the twentieth century. And the only voice appropriate in this context is a “flat voice,” a voice that is unpretentious, direct, and emanating entirely from the human condition of barely getting by.

This is more or less the voice Wright offers in the opening stanzas of “Speak,” though the slant rhymes and inverted construction of the first line belie a certain poetic elegance, or at least ambivalence about whether elegance and structure are called for. It is not immediately clear that the poem is a direct address to the divine, since the understated “you” could be any object of the speaker’s searching. A reader may even ask if the addressee of “Speak” is fixed throughout, or if the speaker is casting about for whoever will listen.

In the second stanza we find ourselves firmly in the territory of Ecclesiastes in which there is nothing new under the sun. The poem bridges the complaints of the Biblical cynic with a contemporary example of the intransigence of the old order: Muhammad Ali’s unequivocal defeat of Sonny Liston in their infamous 1965 rematch in Lewiston, Maine. In that fight Liston, the defending world champ, went down so fast that many still think he threw the match. For Wright the image of Ali towering over Liston becomes a parable for the cowardice, deception, and lack of honor that define the world of the poem if not the speaker himself. The juxtaposition of lines from Ecclesiastes and the contemporary images of defeat that are Sonny Liston and the murderous drunk Ernie Doty establishes parallels between the vastly different dictional registers of “Nor the battle won” and “Liston dives the tank.” Our ways of speaking may have changed, but not what we have to speak about. There is nothing new under the sun.

In the final two stanzas we learn that the speaker, too, has known his share of defeat. He also fell on hard times in Jacksontown. Nothing new under the sun, after all. The language continues to teeter between a self-conscious poeticism and a precocious nonchalance. “Believe it, Lord, or not,” he says in a striking moment of irreverence. And then, assuredly, “I speak of flat defeat / In a flat voice.” And then the linguistic tension of the poem breaks as the final four lines seem lifted from Job or the Psalms, signaling just how dire the situation is.

This is all a sufficiently effective evocation of a particular cultural, emotional, and geographic moment in America: the fading of the small-town, blue-collar Midwest, which of course has not abated since the poem was first published. And yet, if we ask why this poem is written as a prayer, we see that the evolution of the speaker’s rhetoric, from the “flat voice” of the first line to the elevated Biblical constructions of the last four lines, and the points of tension in between, enables Wright to convey a growing tone of desperation. The reader has certain inherited expectations about how God is customarily addressed, and as the speaker’s unapologetic self-confidence in addressing God as simply a lowercase “you” gives way to supplicatory Thys and Thous, we get a more acute sense of just how hopeless Wright’s speaker is even as God remains silent. The final petition of the poem is for God to speak, to reveal the divine face. But the end of the poem leaves God obscured behind the false window of the poem itself, which breaks off with a question. God is not going to answer, but that is not the point. It is precisely through the idea of divine silence that this poem can plumb deeper and deeper levels of human despair as the speaker reaches for different ways to call down God’s help. The aim of the poem is not to function as a prayer for consolation, but to use the idea of unanswered prayer to indicate the inconsolable sorrow of particular human lives in a particular time and place.

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