Staying Alive: David Wagoner (1926-), James Wright (1927-1980), Mary Oliver (1935-)

by John Greening


‘Staying Alive’ (as well as being the title of Bloodaxe Books’ successful anthology and a sequence by Denise Levertov) is the title of David Wagoner’s best known poem and of Mary Oliver’s introduction to her English Selected Poems. Ironically, these two poets have stayed alive several decades longer than James Wright: theirs is still work in progress, his is the Complete Poems. There is a connection with Theodore Roethke: both men were taught by him, both found a distinctive way of writing when he died. Mary Oliver’s work has simply been compared to Roethke’s, although there are other much stronger influences. What links Oliver, Wright and Wagoner more obviously is their birthplace: Ohio. It haunted Wright; it gave Wagoner a voice; it is Mary Oliver’s ‘first world’.  Yet  it was, for all of them, a place to escape as much as Michigan was for Roethke. Oliver (who does not convey a distinct sense of place anyway) settled in New England, Wagoner (like Roethke) in Seattle. James Wright cannot be said to have put his roots down anywhere.

David Wagoner has probably had the hardest time shaking off the influence of his teacher. He even edited Roethke’s notebooks. Hayden Carruth observed that Wagoner ‘pays his teacher tribute, not in an imitative style, but in seriousness and breadth of poetic attitude’. However, ‘The Journey’ from the late seventies (not included in his Collected) seems to have been dug from The Far Field; the many poems about Wagoner’s father inevitably bring The Lost Son to mind.  Not that these are poor poems; on the contrary: ‘My Father’s Wall’, ‘My Father in the Basement’, ‘My Father’s Ghost’, the rather later  ‘My Father Laughing’ – each brings something new. In ‘My Father’s Garden’, for example, the steel-worker is brilliantly characterised: leaving the ‘huge satanic caldrons, | Each day he would pass the scrapyard, his kind of garden’ and ‘would pick flowers for us: small gears and cogwheels’, reminding us that Wagoner has been a successful novelist. But in ‘My Fire’, that ‘steam in coils | And pipes and radiators’ is surely recycled from Roethke’s ‘Then came steam. || Pipe-knock’.  

Sanford Pinsker has made the connection between ‘Roethke’s untimely death in 1963 and Wagoner’s discovery of a poetic voice that is distinctively his own’ (‘On David Wagoner’, Contemporary Poetry in America), one which draws on his native Midwest, ‘a flat, almost wry combination of the matter-of-fact and the wryly self-deprecating’. But in many ways the most complete poems are those from the 1990s (‘Getting Away’, ‘A Woman Photographing Holsteins’, ‘At the Mouth of a Creek’), where Wagoner allows Eros into his landscapes, writing elegiacally of love and fatherhood (two young daughters when he was in his seventies), softening some of the severity, inclining more towards a three-line grouping rather than the cut and thrust of short and long, and using it to reflect rather than instruct.  

If ‘severity’ suggests something like John Haines or A.R. Ammons, that is not the intended impression: Wagoner’s natural mode is conversational, thoughtful, unhysterical, but also impersonal, didactic.  Is there another poet who opens his poems so often with instructions? ‘To walk downhill you must’, ‘Stand still’, ‘Not having found your way out of the woods’, ‘You must stand erect but at your ease’, ‘Strip off your clothes’.  Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems is full of advice (it is even implied in that title, travelling even lighter in its American spelling). Sometimes it is as if we were reading a guide to woodsmanship: ‘Breaking Camp’, ‘Meeting a Bear’, ‘Walking in a Swamp’.  Indeed, Wagoner’s most celebrated earlier poem is probably ‘Staying Alive’, which adopts for the first time the instruction-manual tone that he would use in several subsequent poems.

Pasternak may have been right to say that life is not a stroll across a field, but David Wagoner suggests it might be a hike in the woods of Washington State.  These are important poems to him.  They not only enable him to write lovingly about the wildlife – particularly the birds that are so prominent in his 1970s work – but they offer a chance for him to stumble to the edge of his own psychic chasms.  So, in ‘Observations from the Outer Edge’ and (later) in ‘On a Mountainside’ he confronts fearful vertigo. ‘Bear’ from his 1996 collection Walt Whitman Bathing finds him waking to every hiker’s worst nightmare.  Again, the narrative almost sounds didactic, but this is the directness of contained terror.  All those sets of advice Wagoner has versified over the years are beside the point when ‘something | Real, you realize, is really brushing your foot’.  We (and he) may recall some of those forty-five lines from the first section of Collected Poems, ‘Meeting a Bear’: 


There’s no use singing

National anthems or battle hymns or alma maters

Or any other charming or beastly music.

Use only the dullest,

Blandest, most colorless, undemonstrative speech you can think of


Wagoner’s verse is inclined to be bland and undemonstrative at times, as if he were afraid of disturbing the bear in himself (one thinks of the bear-like Roethke, not to mention dangerous Lowell’s bear fantasies). Wagoner’s sanity and normality, in an age when it helped to be wild, have perhaps contributed to his low profile, to his absence from some of the key anthologies. He is clearly aware of this, as the tone of poems such as ‘Coming Home Late With the Bad Young Man’ suggests. In ‘Truant Officer’s Helper’ he describes riding with his grandfather to bring in boys ‘playing hooky’ in ‘All those tempting places | I might have gone myself | If I’d been old | Or bad or brave enough’. He rather anarchically (and hilariously) recalls his physics teacher trying to teach his class:


But his only uncontestable demonstration

Came with our last class: he broke his chalk

On a formula, stooped to catch it, knocked his forehead

On the eraser-gutter, staggered slewfoot, and stuck

One foot forever into the wastebasket.


Wagoner’s (teacherly?) nightmare is disorder, forces beyond his control – a friend’s parachute not opening, a terrifyingly huge fish rising up from the depths (‘Feeding’). Perhaps the poet’s fear of ending up in that wastebasket. And crime fascinates him as it only can the law-abiding citizen:  the ballad of ‘The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biography Theater, July 22, 1934’, ‘The Burglar’, ‘The Hold-up’. When he does let himself go a little wild, the extra touch of the surreal is welcome (‘Out for a Night’). Although there is little drastic change in his style (compared with James Wright), he ventures into half-rhyme occasionally and produces a bitter Christmas villanelle, and the recent experiments with a quasi-ballad form are notable: ‘The Pink Boy’ and ‘My Mother and Father’ in particular (the latter as chilling as his earlier address to the anatomy students who will dissect their ‘Their Bodies’).  

Wagoner’s strongest instinct is to laugh, however, as he does in writing a poem ‘For a Woman Who Phoned Poetry Northwest Thinking It Was Poultry Northwest’ – a title which barely needs a poem (but to get the joke, we need to recall that Wagoner was editor of that poetry journal for many years). Laughter is not always reassuring, though, and can represent that same uncontrollable force, as in ‘The Laughing Boy’ who would not stop and Wagoner’s memory of his father’s terrifying fits in the theatre. Elizabeth Bishop is recalled in ‘Poem about Breath’ reliving a cheeky childhood trick: ‘Then she bent over and over, choking with laughter’.

What Wagoner does find welling up in one or two poems is anger, and his management of this perhaps goes back to his father:


He held so much

Anger in him quiet

Heavy nobody

Had ever hit him

Once he never had to

Hit anybody either

But would just look

Hard in the face 


(‘Our Father’)


That lack of punctuation is Wagoner’s way of showing the threat such anger presented: he only resorts to such lawlessness in a handful of poems. In his war poetry (‘Acts of War’), there is more bafflement than wrath – that is chiefly directed at desecrators of the wilderness, reserving particular scorn for ‘Weyerhaeuser, the Tree-Growing Company’ both in an early ‘Report’ and a later ‘Address’, which savagely suggests that the firm (again, the imperative) consider ‘this wren | Who has never forged a treaty or plotted war | Or boasted of trying to serialize massacre after massacre | Or managed a forest or suffered the discomfort of an obituary | Listing credits in fraternal and charitable parlays | And other safe bets’, pointing out a devastating fact about Troglodytes troglodytes: ‘he’s moving a greater weight | Of living and dead matter daily than all your logging crews’ – and singing too!

Something that is played down in Traveling Light, but which is mentioned on the cover of his New and Selected, is Wagoner the magician. This is not James Merrill’s Ouija board, but the magic of the prestidigitator. It is unclear how important this still is to him, but the only organisation Wagoner admits to belonging to is the Society of American Magicians, where he learnt skills essential for his novel The Escape Artist. Most of the poems about magic have been purged from his Collected (‘The Inexhaustible Hat’ remains), although there is a new one in ‘My Passenger’, a splendid anecdote about a drunken policeman and a carload of conjuring equipment. Any poet who confesses to having been a children’s conjuror (one hand goes up here) will be ready for book reviews that remark on one’s ‘trickery’. Sanford Pinsker is more perceptive, noting that the way in which ‘something pops out of nothing is the essence of the magician’s art’, and commenting on the importance of ‘astonishment’. Perhaps it accounts for Wagoner’s interest in ‘performance’, in ‘exhibition’ – nature as a grand show, the ‘circus-act’ of a bird climbing a stalk, the mocking-bird’s impressions, the peacock’s display  – and certainly lies behind such fine late work as his version of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth. Unlike Rilke’s version (to which it is indebted), this Orpheus turns around because he is so excited at the new music he is writing as a result of his visit to Hades. 

Wagoner’s new music is evident in ‘The Silence of the Stars’, one of his greatest achievements, and showing that he has an understanding of real magic, not mere conjuring. He begins by recalling how Laurens van der Post tried to hear the stars singing when he was with the Bushmen of the Kalahari, but knew that the art had been lost. Wagoner tells us (in a passage that recalls the somewhat bleaker epiphany of Hayden Carruth) that on certain quiet nights 


I look at the stars again as I first did

To school myself in the names of constellations

And remember my first sense of their terrible distance,

I can still hear what I thought

At the edge of silence were the inside jokes

Of my heartbeat, my arterial traffic,

The C above high C of my inner ear, myself

Tunelessly humming, but now I know what they are:

My fair share of the music of the spheres

And clusters of ripening stars,

Of the songs from the throats of the old gods

Still tending even tone-deaf creatures

Through their exiles in the desert.


James Wright is the dedicatee of David Wagoner’s ‘After Reading Too Many Poems, I Watch a Robin Taking a Bath’.  The poem uses the same kind of ‘long and facetiously elaborate title’ that Peter Porter notes as a feature of Wright’s work; but it also says something about Wright’s own impatience with the traditional forms he had mastered, and his decision to bathe in the dust of Ohio. There cannot be many poets whose change in style was quite so dramatic as Wright’s, although this has been a tendency among American poets of his generation. Lowell’s attempt to ‘say what happened’ and Adrienne Rich’s feminist ‘breakout’ are the obvious comparisons – and the notion of a late style had been made particularly desirable by the example of Yeats.

The influence of James Wright on American verse has been enormous.  Something about his ability to capture the sadness of industrial wasteland, the loneliness of a Midwest upbringing, the vulnerability of an intelligent man who battled his way out of difficult circumstances to win the Pulitzer Prize, yet who could write plain English – something in this has touched a nerve among readers in the last few decades. He is a poet with a ‘mythology’, the essence of which Donald Hall sketches in his introduction to Above the River: The Complete Poems (1990): a childhood in the Depression years in the ‘blighted valley’ of Martins Ferry, the nervous breakdown when he was sixteen, his ‘plan to evade the factories by means of the G.I. bill and a college education’; the liberation of being at Kenyon College, then in Austria (the abiding influence of the poet Trakl, increasing interest in translation); studying with Roethke in Seattle; the gradual mastery of form, culminating in The Green Wall (1957), then Saint Judas (1959).  

After this book, which Anthony Hecht had praised as ‘the most difficult kind of poetry: the poetry of wisdom’, he announced ‘Whatever I do from now on will be entirely different. I don’t know what it will be, but I am finished with what I was doing in that book.’ Hall describes receiving a letter from Wright in 1958 which announced his decision to give up poetry, because he was ‘denying the darker and wilder side of myself for the sake of subsisting on mere comfort – both academic and poetic’. In fact, rather than give up, he wrote one of his seminal poems, ’At the Executed Murderer’s Grave’, with its assertive opening:


My name is James A.Wright, and I was born

Twenty-five miles from this infected grave,

In Martins Ferry, Ohio, where one slave

To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father.


Thereafter, everything changed: Wright became increasingly dependent on alcohol even as he became less dependent on rhyme and metre. He separated from his wife, underwent shock therapy and psychotherapy, lost his job (‘missed classes because he got drunk […] got into barroom fistfights’), and emerged as a new poet in that key year for American poetry, 1963, with The Branch Will Not Break. Stanley Kunitz was among those who were struck by the ‘more fluid and associative’ style ‘riding the image rather than pinned to a theme’, yet recognised ‘the same person banging his fists on a wall’. The magnitude of the change is indicated by the fact that Wright had already had another collection scheduled for publication, which included some ‘old-style’ pieces in it, but he withdrew this book at the last minute.  Shall We Gather at the River (1968) made it clear that the change was for good. 

Another marriage followed, as did a Collected Poems, a Pulitzer Prize and a $10,000 Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, which enabled him to discover Italy, the setting of so much of his later work – usually contrasted with some memory of ‘greasy’ Ohio.  Two Citizens appeared in 1973, To a Blossoming Pear Tree in 1977. The mythology intensifies with the diagnosis of cancer of the tongue and his swift decline .  Donald Hall remembers the last meeting:


he took up the manuscript of This Journey [his final book], which he had asked [his wife] Annie to photocopy for mailing to several friends, who would work with her to make the final book.  Because I was there, he could hand it to me, and he improvised a small ritual.  He wrote on the manila envelope, among other words, ‘I can do no more.’  Ceremonially, he asked Annie and [her niece] Karin to sign as witnesses, and he added the date.  Then he handed his last poems over.


There is no doubt about the quality of the verse in his earlier books; the question is whether the note he strikes after 1963 is as true as many obviously think it is. To this later English ear it sounds falsely portentous. It is often raw and consequently feels affecting, but one tires of it. The manner becomes mannerism. Wright had been translating a great deal, and so much of this work sounds like a foreign voice, a poet who has lost touch with himself, rather than found himself. The poems rely on sentimentality (‘There is no place left to go/But home’), on cliché (‘triumph over/the forces of darkness’), on the literary equivalent of the  soft-focus lens: ‘In a blue rag the old man limps to my bed, | Leading a blind horse | Of gentleness.’ He has learnt to draw on ‘deep image’ like certain Spanish poets and from Japanese and Chinese how ‘to get rid of the clutter’: but unlike Ezra Pound, he has not kept his edge sharp. The language he has adopted sometimes seems more archaic than before: ‘Be still’, ‘Twilight bounds softly forth’, ‘lest I not know’, ‘lay me down to die’. So much is ‘huge’, so much is ‘beautiful’, it all sounds false. Wright’s over-emphatic line breaks do not help. ‘Death’ always has its own line, for example: ‘When he dies’, ‘He will never die’.  An increasing interest in the ‘prose poem’ is perhaps indicative of a loss of  faith in the line altogether.

Some of Wright’s short middle-period poems are effective, such as ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’, surely the most famous chill-out in literature. But look at ‘Arriving in the Country Again’, which begins:


The white house is silent.

My friends can’t hear me yet.

The flicker who lives in the bare tree at the field’s edge

Pecks once and is still for a long time.


This is inoffensive: it sets a little scene, the possibility of tension; there is the curiosity of that bird described as a ‘flicker’.  The word ‘pecks’ perhaps recalls Wright’s slang used of ‘pecker’ elsewhere. There is some atmosphere of an ‘Adlestrop’ kind (Wright admired Edward Thomas), but little else.  It concludes:


I stand still in the late afternoon.

My face is turned away from the sun.

A horse grazes in my long shadow.


The three sentences in as many lines make a satisfactory cadence. The cinematic portrayal of the face turned from the sun is perhaps too melodramatic, like something from a spaghetti Western. The horse/shadow image is probably the best in the poem. But as a whole, does it cast the necessary spell that a poem like ‘Adlestrop’ does, or other Imagist poems? Or even Wordsworth?  Wright became very frustrated with this kind of criticism, wondering how ‘relaxation and gentleness in a poem produces in some people real fear and rage’.  Or, in this case, bafflement and disappointment.

Wright was a fine enough poet to continue composing substantial work into the 1970s,  trying (as Ian Hamilton put it) to ‘inject some wordly substance into the dream-whimsy’. In many ways, Robert Bly has done him a disservice by emphasising the presence of a ‘White Goddess’ in the post-1963 work – ‘the Mysterious Hidden Woman’, as Bly calls her – but one certainly notices an anima. Among his later pieces, as well as the poetry of human suffering, raw, direct, often harrowing, there is considerable humour (particularly in some of the prose poems, such as ‘Against Surrealism’), reminding us that Wright could be wonderful company. There are plenty of surprises, too: a poem invoking Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, a tribute to Auden, and a very ghostly montage of voices in ‘Ohio Valley Swains’. Although he is by this time most at home with a rougher, slangier register, Wright never quite abandons his old formal ways, in occasional pieces (‘A Christmas Greeting’ ‘Written in a Copy of Swift’s Poems, for Wayne Burns’, ‘With the Shell of a Hermit Crab’, ‘With the Gift of an Alabaster Tortoise’) and in more ambitious contexts, such as the hendecasyllabics of ‘The Offence’. Occasionally, a real catch leaps out: ‘Humming a Tune for an Old Lady in West Virginia’, ‘What Does the Bobwhite Mean?’ Despite the perfunctory line-breaks and other miscalculations, he continued to make interesting experiments in the plain style.  Note the monosyllables here, for instance, together with the owl sounds and harsh click of the stones: 


I want an owl to poise on my grave

Without sound, but

In this mean time

I want bone feet borne down

Cold on stone.


This Journey, which is hard to separate from Donald Hall’s account, is more cosmopolitan; the verse is somewhat tauter, with much prose poetry.  Everything still comes back to Ohio and the poet’s own dark centre; in the vivid ‘Ohioan Pastoral’, a richer lyrical note sounds:  


One barn there

Sags, sags and oozes

Down one side of the copperous gully.

The limp whip of a sumac angles

Gently against the body of a lost



But some of the Italian studies are fine, too: ‘In View of the Protestant Cemetery’ succeeds in its faintly 1890s manner. Two poems begin ‘It is idle to’, which is revealing. In the end, the response is down to personal taste, to the attuning of the ear, to the significance of particular cultural references; but readers are unlikely to respond with equal enthusiasm to pre-watershed and post-watershed James Wright. 

If David Wagoner’s poems start like lectures, Mary Oliver’s are determined not to.  In a brief essay on her poem ‘The Swan’ she reveals that her poems ‘have all been written – if not finished at least started – somewhere out-of-doors –  in the fields, on the shore, under the sky. They are not lectures.’  Of course, this guarantees nothing; there is no connection between her first sentence and her second. Oliver’s poems open with ‘One day’, ‘All afternoon’, ‘Years ago’, ‘This morning’ (several times), ‘Last night’, ‘Every year’, ‘All night’  She places us in time, though often likes to maintain a vagueness about location (‘Somewhere’…). Avoiding a Wagoner-like stance, she has much more in common with late Wright. What he aspired to hanging in his hammock at Duffy’s farm, she makes her life’s work: ‘to float a little | above this difficult world’.

Her poems ask questions repeatedly, in a child-like way (‘Who made the world?’ ‘What happens | to the leaves after | they turn red..?’). There is no irony here, no humour, and the answers she provides tend to be fuzzy, or to involve Blake (an interesting contrast with Carolyn Kizer’s much more sophisticated use of him in her poem about Einstein) and sometimes Jesus. There is Christian iconography and phraseology trying to get out (‘I was a bridegroom married to amazement’). She writes in a C-major key throughout, unafraid to speak of  ‘beautiful Florida’, or a deer who has ‘beautiful lips’ and is a ‘beautiful girl’, ending Part 3 of Wild Geese simply: ‘It is beautiful’.  As Herbert von Karajan said to those who accused him of indulging in an excess of beauty with the Berlin Philharmonic: would you prefer it to be ugly?  

For all her immense popularity (her books sell hundreds of thousands in the USA; she has won a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, the Lannan; she has innumerable honorary degrees), this reader would prefer a little more edge at times: ‘and I say | life is real | and pain is real | but death is an imposter’ is all very well until we recall how Donne might have put it. There is an innate naivety (‘Have you ever seen | anything | in your life | more wonderful […]?’) which might be taken as heart-warming, but is perfectly unmemorable. No one can argue with her philosophy that we should all be happy, but readers will be even happier if they are kept interested. There is not a great deal of formal excitement – stepped quatrains, centre alignment – and her favourite device is to break off from description of the natural world to ask a question or to utter a truism. In these lines from ‘Spring’, about a black bear waking from hibernation, the sudden shift is very much in the manner of James Wright:


I think of her,

her four black fists

flicking the gravel,

her tongue


like a red fire

touching the grass,

the cold water. 

There is only one question:


how to love this world.


That she can write more sharply is shown by ‘Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard’ (she loves owls, foxes, bears), although it doesn’t quite shake itself free of Hopkins (‘Dear, dark dapple of plush!’), Plath (‘Oblivion and Co.’), Bishop (‘reading something […] Blake, maybe’). It begins, encouragingly: ‘His beak could open a bottle’; then Blake appears (courtesy of Bishop’s ‘The Sandpiper’) and some fine description follows – ‘he is only a memo | from the offices of fear’ and ‘the little aluminium | ladder of his scream’.  It ends with a hint of the energies that are distinctly lacking in much of her work, as ‘The hooked head stares | from its blouse of dark, feathery lace. | It could be a valentine’.

These three, then, brought by ‘frail, | Travelling coincidence” out of Ohio and into the world of poetry, each offer something to the reader, whether in the Midwest or the West Midlands. James Wright’s place is secure in the canon if only for his influence on other writers and the poems have generally weathered well. Even Ian Hamilton, notoriously hard to please, allowed Wright into his imaginary Hall of Fame in Against Oblivion (2002) – largely because of the post-1963 free verse, whose ‘attractively plainspeaking manner’ clearly had an effect on Hamilton’s own work. By contrast, Mary Oliver’s poems will prove, I believe, much more vulnerable to fashion, as today’s sincerity becomes tomorrow’s slush; but for the time being she has struck a chord in contemporary America, and found herself a considerable audience. David Wagoner, meanwhile – ninety this year, and the least celebrated, the least known beyond the USA – may well prove the one of the three here whose collections have real shelf-life, whose work readers of poetry will go on rediscovering and want to anthologise in the future. Certainly he is the one this punter would put his money on ‘against oblivion’.



John Greening received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 2008. Winner of the Bridport and the TLS Centenary Prizes, he has been a Hawthornden Fellow, a Fellow of the English Association and (since 2015) RLF Writing Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge. He reviews poetry for the TLS and has for the last eight years been one of the judges for the Eric Gregory Awards. With Greenwich Exchange he has published literary guides to the WW1 Poets, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and the Elizabethans, together with a Poetry Masterclass in 2011. Most recent of over a dozen individual poetry collections are Hunts: Poems 1979-2009To the War Poets (Carcanet, 2013). and Nebamun’s Tomb (Rack, 2016). His edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War appeared last year from Oxford University Press, along with a major anthology of poems about composers, Accompanied Voices (Boydell Press). This summer saw the launch at Ledbury Festival of the substantial Heathrow sequence, Heath (Nine Arches) in collaboration with Penelope Shuttle. He is currently completing a memoir of his time in Egypt, collaborating with baritone Roderick Williams on his Schubert Project, and editing a new edition of Geoffrey Grigson’s poetry. www.johngreening.co.uk



Image credit: cmh2315fl

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