Monday, July 04, 2016

Fourth of July Poem: Jay Wright

Jay Wright at Rutgers-
New Brunswick, 2006
In place of a prose post about the Fourth of July, I thought I'd cede the space to a poet: Jay Wright (1935-). My very first post on this blog, 11 years ago, was a tribute to him when he received the Bollingen Prize, and I often think that I should post his poetry more, and occasionally have done so, but the ones I want to post tend to be quite long. 

Here's a poem from his début book, The Homecoming Singer (Corinth, 1971), which was reprinted in Transfigurations (LSU Press, 2000), a volume that should have received the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics' Circle Award, and every other major poetic honor. History will, I hope, be the ultimate judge in favor of his greatness; the poems are the testimony. 

"Crispus Attucks" is Wright's meditation on the Revolutionary War hero, who the first person to die in this country's first, decisive battle for freedom. A few years ago, while conducting research for a novel, I came across John Adams's dismissive description of Attucks, which was part of his trial defense of the British soldiers who killed the patriots during the Boston Massacre

Twenty years before, as that post also reveals, Attucks had run away from his master in Framingham; clearly freedom was on his mind, or as Wright calls it, the prelude to his "impulsive miracle." This was also his personal and mortal sacrifice, which helped this country to achieve the liberty it trumpets to the entire world. Too often, as Wright makes clear, we forget its first architect. Let's honor him today.

Crispus Attucks

When we speak
of those musket-draped
and manqué Englishman;
that cloistered country;
all those common people,
dotting the potted stoves,
hating the king,
shifting uneasily under
the sharp sails
of the unwelcome boats,
sometimes we forget you.
Who asked you
for that impulsive miracle?
I form it now,
with my own motives.
The flag dipping in your hands,
your crafted boots
hammering up the unclaimed streets,
all that was in that unformed moment.
But it wasn't the feel of those things,
nor the burden of the American character;
it was somehow the sense
of an unencumbered escape,
the breaking of a Protestant host,
the ambiguous, detached
judgment of yourself.
Now, we think of you,
when, through the sibilant streets,
another season drums
your intense, communal daring.

Copyright © Jay Wright, 1971, 2000. From Transfigurations: Collected Poems, Louisiana University Press, 2000. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. I love Jay Wright's poetry: am especially fond of The Double Invention Of Komo; and his homage to baseball a horse and a donkey, replete with a stunningly ambitious degree of rhyming, is delicious!