Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Branch Will Not Break

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia in the late 60s and early 70s, I would prowl the poetry section in UGA's Main Library. There was far less to choose from in those days, but I came across a tiny volume of brief poems published in 1963 called The Branch Will Not Break. It changed my life.

I have spent a lifetime equally in love with formal and free verse. I have never believed in the sanctity or necessity of either. The world of poetry is plenty big enough for both. In those day, though, I had become obsessed with Pound and Stevens, and so it was quite a shock when I first read James Wright's small book. Tens of thousands shared my shock--and love--for this fragile man's work.

By the time Linda and I had gotten to grad school, we were both working part-time jobs, and we had no savings and not a penny to spare. So I'd go by the library and copy down Wright's poems to take home and read later. The whole book overwhelmed me with its quietness and gentle rhythms. It is also a very dark book in many places, but mostly it presents unforgettable images in the most precise and well-judged language imaginable.

I kept telling Linda how much I loved the book and how sorry I was that we didn't have the few dollars that it would take to buy a new copy. One day I came back to our apartment and found that she had a gift for me. She had illegally photocopied the entire volume on book-size pages, stapled them together, and joined them in a book binder made of file folder. The gift overwhelmed me, and frankly I felt that if what she did was illegal, it was forgivable. At least in those far-away days it wasn't wholesale theft of a long novel, copied and put online. Later, when I could afford it, I did buy copies of Wright's poems, but I still have my pristine homemade copy of The Branch Will Not Break.

I have gotten through many dark days with this small book, and its resonance will be with me always. One small poem from it, called "Today I Was So Happy, So I Made This Poem":

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
This is what I wanted.

It is what we all want, and what we all wanted. Maybe it's all we needed, too.

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