Dec. 13, 2005

From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower

by James Wright

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Poem: "From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower" by James Wright from Above the River: The Complete Poems. © Noonday and University Press of New England. Reprinted with permission.

From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower

Cribs loaded with roughage huddle together
Before the north clouds.
The wind tiptoes between poplars.
The silver maple leaves squint
Toward the ground.
An old farmer, his scarlet face
Apologetic with whiskey, swings back a barn door
And calls a hundred black-and-white Holsteins
From the clover field.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake set out on a three year long journey around the world. He had started his career as a sailor in the slave trading business, but after some run-ins with the Spanish, he decided to devote his life to taking vengeance on the Spanish by disrupting their trade routes. He became a semi-official pirate for Queen Elizabeth I, plundering Spanish ships and gathering intelligence about their naval activities.

On one mission in 1572, Drake sailed to Panama to capture a port there. He failed to capture the port, but it was on that trip that he crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and standing on a high ridge of land, he became the first Englishman to gaze upon the Pacific Ocean. At that time the Pacific was controlled by the Spanish and it was forbidden to all but Spanish ships. Drake stood looking at the Pacific and he said, "[I] besought Almighty God of His goodness to give [me] life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea."

He set sail from Plymouth, England, as captain of the Pelican, with four other ships and over 150 men. Two of the ships were abandoned along the way and the third returned to England after a storm in the Straits of Magellan. Drake was left with only one ship, which he renamed the Golden Hind.

Drake sailed all the way up the coasts of South and North America, surprising the Spanish along the way. They'd never seen a hostile ship in their waters before. He captured ports and ships, plundered gold and silver, Spanish coins, precious stones and pearls. He sailed as far north as Vancouver hoping to find the Northwest Passage, and then turned west and crossed the Pacific. He eventually returned to England in 1580 via the Cape of Good Hope, making him the first Englishman to sail around the world.

It's the birthday of mystery novelist who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). His father abandoned the family when he was growing up. His mother struggled to support him, occasionally begging for money on the street. One day, she even took Millar to an orphanage to give him up, but she changed her mind at the last minute.

He spent the rest of his childhood being passed from one relative to the next. He read a lot growing up, and wanted to write, but he didn't take it seriously as a career until the summer he won a typewriter in a radio quiz show. He started publishing a series of stories and humor pieces in magazines, being paid one cent per word, and it made him just enough money to support his family for the summer, until he found a job teaching.

Millar went on to write several spy and crime novels, which were fairly successful. But after publishing a few books he began to doubt himself as a writer. He wanted to write something serious, something drawing on his own background, but whenever he tried to write about his childhood directly, he was embarrassed by the quality of the result.

And then, one day, Millar invented a private investigator named Lew Archer. Millar said, "I was in trouble, and Lew Archer got me out of it... I couldn't work directly with my own experiences and feelings. A narrator had to be interposed, like protective lead, between me and the radioactive material."

His first Lew Archer novel was The Moving Target (1949), and he made a point of not describing Lew Archer, who narrated the story. He wanted readers to be able to imagine themselves into the role of the detective. He went on to write eighteen novels featuring Lew Archer, most of them about characters trying to uncover some mystery at the heart of their families, often having to do with lost fathers. Millar became known as one of the authors who helped elevate the mystery novel to the level of great literature.

It's the birthday of American poet James Wright, born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). Wright's hometown was located in a heavily industrialized area of the state that Wright called "my back-broken beloved Ohio." There was a coal mine and a steel mill near his house, and he grew up surrounded by blast furnaces and smoke stacks. During the winter, all the snowdrifts in his town turned black from soot. In the summer, he swam with other boys in the Ohio River, which was full of runoff from the factories.

He started writing poetry when he was eleven years old. His father worked at the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, and Wright took a job at the same factory when he got out of high school. After working there for a few months, he decided that he had to get out of his hometown or it would kill him.

He served in World War II and used the G.I. Bill to study at Kenyon College. He got a job teaching English at the University of Minnesota, and published two books of poetry, but he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and he lost his teaching job for missing classes. Wright's poetry hadn't attracted any attention, his marriage had broken up, and he wasn't sure what to do next when, one day, he read an issue of Robert Bly's literary magazine The Fifties. It impressed him so much that he wrote Bly a sixteen page single-spaced letter. Bly wrote back and invited him to a farm in western Minnesota, and the two became great friends.

Wright had been writing all of his poetry with formal meter and rhyme, but Bly encouraged him to write free verse, and the result was his first important book of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break (1962). It got great reviews and contained many of his most famous poems, including "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," "A Blessing," and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."

His Collected Poems (1971) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

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