Robert Hass: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"

"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.


Title Robert Hass: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert Hass Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry
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