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Two Poems About “Beautiful” Ohio

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The renowned poet James Wright wrote poems about his native Ohio, a harsh and unappealing land which he must have nevertheless felt a deep connection with. Two of these poems are “Beautiful Ohio” and “Ohioan Pastoral.” Although their titles might lead one to assume that both are bucolics about the beauty of Ohio, the two open-form poems offer a rather satirical perspective of what someone out for a stroll through the Ohioan countryside should expect to come across. This literary analysis compares “Beautiful Ohio,” which is essentially a mock ode devoted to the pollution, eye-sores, and hard-working people of Wright's home town, Martins Ferry, with the more-broadly focused “Ohioan Pastoral.” Despite its equally misleading title, the second poem is not a traditional pastoral, but just another satirical portrayal of the widespread decay and environmental degradation of rural Ohio. “Ohioan Pastoral” is my favorite, for it depicts more directly, honestly, and without any sentimentality Ohio's melancholic rustic landscape, littered with abandoned and rotting barns as well as the decomposing refuse and eroding infrastructure of capitalist industrial civilization.

“Beautiful Ohio” opens with verbal irony and some folksy sarcasm regarding (as is most likely) a popular TV commercial about the Winnebago RVs: “Those old Winnebago men / Knew what they were singing” (lines 1-2). The “beauty” that Wright writes about in his poem is not the beauty of Ohio's rivers, fields, forests, and flowers, since very little “beauty” can be found intact anymore. Instead, he describes how he has spent an entire summer alone (like a solitary Ohioan Huckleberry Finn), doing nothing much but sitting “on a railroad tie” and contemplating his home town's “sewer main” as it flows into the Ohio River: "All summer long and all alone / I had found a way / to sit on a railroad tie / Above the sewer main." (3-6)

As the poet sat by and pondered the sewer, which appears to be symbolically much more significant than a mere waste pipe, this glittering mini-Niagara Falls of raw sewage “spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe / Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth” (7-8). A running sewer and its attached drainage pipe are certainly a most unorthodox subject for an ode grandly entitled “Beautiful Ohio.” The poet does not seem to be especially enamored of his home state and yet he paradoxically calls it “Beautiful Ohio.” Was Wright joking or was he serious? Or did he see the waste-spewing sewer not only as a symbol of his dismal home state, but also as a Dantean allegory of his own miserable life in Ohio?

Having depicted Ohio River as an open sewer, the narrative abruptly jumps to highlighting some autobiographical information: “Sixteen thousand and five hundred more or less people / In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country” (9-10). Wright ties his fellow citizens of Martins Ferry and the sewer main intimately together in the next two lines, telling the reader that the people of Martins Ferry have “Quickened the river / With the speed of light” (11-12). The “river” is, of course, a satirical metaphor for the sewer main, which is itself a contextual symbol of the modern capitalist way of life with all its filth, noise, and stench. And Albert Einstein's “speed of light” is a sardonic hyperbole drawing attention to the sewer's symbolic connection with the lives of the local population. But how have the denizens of Wright's home town “Quickened the river / With the speed of light,” when their demographic numbers are probably declining?

Before the reader has time to ponder the possible symbolic meaning of the enigmatic passage in lines 9-12 and how it might relate to the earlier and equally enigmatic passage in lines 3-8, the poet hints at an explanation of both passages in the next three lines: “And the light caught there / The solid speed of their lives / In the instant of that waterfall” (13-15). Wright uses the repetition of “speed” and “light,” as well as an oxymoron—namely, the whole paradoxical statement of “And the light caught there / The solid speed of their lives / In the instant of that waterfall”—to emphasize a point which is not that easy to grasp.

Is he trying to create here a new loose image for the reader—an image of summer sunlight glinting off the foul “waterfall” coming out of the sewer pipe—and use this sordid visual image as a metaphor and a literary symbol of all the struggling residents of Martins Ferry? His home town's citizens are probably an unkempt, vulgar and rowdy bunch, already half-poisoned by the dangerous pollutants seeping from all around them, but at the same time they are still alive—struggling and surviving against all odds. This startling figure of speech makes you realize that the poet might be looking for a different kind of “beauty” here. Not the disappearing or already disappeared beauty of Ohio's once unspoiled nature and rustic countryside, but the “beauty” of his home town's population—of some “Sixteen thousand and five hundred more or less people” living their wretched lives as best as they can in the midst of brutal and unforgiving harshness. Like Wright, they may have all wanted to escape from Martins Ferry or even from Ohio at one time or another in their unhappy lives but have in the end stayed on and survived, roughing it here.

Wright ends the poem with three self-ironic lines, “I have my own song for it / And sometimes, even today / I call it beauty” (18-20). Thus, his “own song” has turned an ugly and contaminated industrial setting outside a small and obscure Ohio town—a scene which very few people would describe as “beautiful”—into a deeply subjective and perhaps illusory image of “beauty.” The poet has accomplished this amazing feat by focusing on a very small detail—sunlight glistening off waste water draining from a local sewer pipe—and turning this unorthodox and quite illogical object of “beauty” into an implied metaphor and a symbol of the life-hardened, coarse and sturdy people of his home town. This is quite an artistic achievement, which explains why Wright was such a popular poet in his short lifetime.

But there is also a lot of deliberate ambiguity and dramatic irony involved here—a tragicomic incongruity between what the poet says and what he knows to be actually true, as exemplified by his caveat in the preceding lines 16 and 17, “I know what we call it / Most of the time” (a self-ironic understatement, or litote). Does the poet really admire his fellow townspeople for their courage and unflinching stoicism in facing the hardships of local life or does he secretly suspect that they are all pathetic and tragic losers exactly like himself? There is no clear answer to this distressingly haunting question. Wright could have perhaps employed some more imaginative poetic device here to enliven his narrative and imbue it with a little more emotion, while letting the readers know what exactly is on his mind. Something like the masterful apostrophe that Pablo Neruda uses in “I Explain a Few Things,” where he addresses his emotional rhetorical questions to three absent personal friends and literary comrades, which allows him to think aloud about the deeper meaning of his epic poem.

“Ohioan Pastoral” is not that different from “Beautiful Ohio,” although it hardly parallels it in either structure or even deeper meaning. While “Beautiful Ohio” is a personal and subjective poem, using the first-person “I,” “Ohioan Pastoral” is an impersonal, objective, and anonymously-narrated poem (there is no persona or speaker in it). Both poems remind the reader of the rumored sardonic remark by Charles Dickens who, during his 1842 tour of America to read his celebrated Victorian novels before paying local audiences, famously called Ohio the “Armpit of America.” The first visual image in this poem is of old, abandoned, and decrepit barns located “On the other side / Of Salt Creek, along the road” (1-2). And, quite sordidly, “the barns topple / And snag among the orange rinds, / Oil cans, cold balloons of lovers” (2-4). Wright uses assonance here to focus the reader's attention—once again, not on Ohio's luscious fields, pastures, trees, and flowers, as one would expect from a poem entitled “Ohioan Pastoral”—but on the junk of contemporary capitalist  civilization littering and contaminating the natural environment. In this case, these artifacts are the ugly detritus of modern consumerism—“orange rinds,” auto “oil cans,” used condoms (“cold balloons of lovers”), and other discarded trash. Wright also tells the reader of another collapsing derelict barn: “One barn there / Sags, sags and oozes / Down one side of the copperous gully” (5-7). His Ohioan landscape is uniformly unpleasant and depressing.

The poet continues to paint a grim verbal picture of rural decay and widespread ecological disaster. He goes on to describe—using the internal near rhyme of “limp whip”—how “The limp whip of a sumac dangles / Gently against the body of a lost / Bathtub...” (8-10). The placement of the word “bathtub” at the start of line 10—instead of at the end of line 9—is an unexpected enjambment. But that seems to be exactly the poet's intention—to jolt the reader with an unusual line break and a sudden image of something that comically does not mesh at all with its natural surroundings. When reading a “pastoral” poem like this, one expects that a sumac shrub “dangles” perhaps against a fallen log. But not in Wright's satirical parody, where it “dangles” instead against a discarded and rusted “bathtub,” a repulsive piece of trash comically at odds with all of Mother Nature surrounding it. The poem next transits to a passage alluding to Ohio's once great industrial might which has “[l]ong ago” also fallen into wreckage and ruin: "…while high in the flint-cracks / And the wild grimed trees, on the hill, / A buried gas main / Long ago tore a black gutter into the mines." (10-13)

The mental image provided by the phrase “A buried gas main / Long ago tore a black gutter into the mines” is another grim allegory symbolizing the deterioration of the once beautiful Ohioan countryside which is now falling apart alongside the rest of Middle America's industrial “rust belt.” Hence, no pastoral idyllic is to be found in rustic and “rusty” Ohio—only discarded rubbish, dangerous ground pollutants, toxic industrial waste, and irreparable environmental damage—as if the annual celebrations of Earth Day have never touched the heart and soul of Wright's God-forsaken home state.

A despairing Wright concludes his rather morose poem with two final lines which are perhaps the most sombre in the entire mock pastoral: “And now it hisses among the green rings / On fingers in coffins” (14-15), especially the macabre mental picture of a “buried gas main” hissing (an onomatopoeia) “among the green rings / On fingers in coffins.” Ohio's urban blight and environmental destruction has metastasized, seeping all the way into its rustic settings and even into its cemeteries and the “coffins” of the local dead with their “green” wedding bands still on their dead “fingers.” So, is that how it all ends for all Ohioans on their earthly sojourns—with a grisly “green” image of Death?!

Like the “sewer main” in “Beautiful Ohio,” the “buried gas main” in “Ohioan Pastoral” is clearly a synecdoche representing modern industrial society. Perhaps even the comically “lost Bathtub” could be seen as a hidden metaphor for Noah's “lost” ark, in which modern man can survive and escape from today's Flood of commercial consumerism. Rather than a true pastoral that rhapsodizes the beauty of the Ohio countryside, “Ohioan Pastoral” is a bleak and melancholy ode lamenting the crumbling natural setting and ecological pollution of rural Ohio, including the defilement of this once beautiful land by mankind's omnipresent castoff garbage. Where exactly is Wright's bucolic “beauty” and indeed his celebrated “pastoral surrealism,” when he is, in fact, describing in revulsion and despair his home state as an ugly, contaminated, and pitiful waste land? And this is the real thing, not just another poetically symbolic “Waste Land”....

Since these two parodies of pastoral ode are both set in rustic Ohio, there are marked similarities in their imagery, tone, melancholic mood, individual word choice, rhythm, and comic aesthetic effects. The shared theme of both lyric poems is the spoiled and vanishing “beauty” of Wright's home state. Their tone is ironic, mockingly sad, unhappy, and even bitter. They both use plain spoken, almost colloquial speech, free verse, loose rhythms, and no end rhymes, but the poet's emotions and perceptions regarding his subject-matter are a bit different in each poem. In “Beautiful Ohio,” a visibly depressed Wright “sometimes, even today” still finds what he calls “beauty” in his home town's boorish people despite their blighted and rusting environs, although the dramatic irony behind this professed “beauty” is more than evident. But in the even more depressing and much less sentimental “Ohioan Pastoral,” the poet (who seems to have committed suicide by drinking himself to death) detects no redeeming qualities in a crumbling and hopelessly contaminated rural Ohio, another victim of modern industrial capitalism. The two splendidly-written poems share similar feelings of irony, sarcasm, sadness, melancholy, pessimism and anger, even subdued outrage.

Indeed, how else could one describe contemporary Ohio but as continuing to be even today the old Dickensian “Armpit of America”? If you can never escape from it, a unhappy place like that will easily become your early grave. Did James Wright detest and satirize Ohio, even as he empathized and sympathized with his fellow townspeople of Martins Ferry? Each of these two powerful poems provides a somewhat different answer to this puzzle but I personally favor the one given in “Ohioan Pastoral,” which never even mentions the good ole townsfolk of Martins Ferry.

 

Works Cited

Wright, James. “Beautiful Ohio.” Blackboard. Ed. Kip Knott. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

----. “Ohioan Pastoral.” Blackboard. Ed. Kip Knott. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.