The experience of leafing front-to-back through James Wright’s Above The River: The Complete Poems unfolds like a case study in the development of free verse. Stephen Dobyns draws on Wright in his book, Best Words, Best Order: Essays On Poetry to illustrate a multitude of points in this regard. Wright’s career not only spanned the pivotal time when free verse was gaining rapid popularity, but seems to have also helped define what makes free verse compelling. In particular, it occurs to me how many of Wright’s later poems rely on elements of narrative and surprise that do not necessarily depend on the line break. In order to isolate and describe these elements, it is useful to look at his prose poems and prose excerpts. This one is particularly captivating:
On Having My Pocket Picked in Rome
These hands are desperate for me to stay alive. They do not want to lose me to the crowd. They know the slightest nudge on the wrong bone will cause me to look around and cry aloud. Therefore the hands grow cool and touch me lightly, lightly and accurately as a gypsy moth laying her larvae down in that foregone place where the tree is naked. It is only when the hands are gone, I will step out of this crowd and walk down the street, dimly aware of the dark infant strangers I carry in my own body. They spin their nests and live on me in their sleep.