Kevin Stein: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"

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."

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Title Kevin Stein: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kevin Stein Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication ’A Dark River of Labor’: Work and Workers in James Wright’s Poetry
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