A Way to Make a Living

By James Wright 1927–1980 James Wright

From an epigram by Plato

When I was a boy, a relative   
Asked for me a job   
At the Weeks Cemetery.
Think of all I could
Have raised that summer,   
That money, and me   
Living at home,
Fattening and getting   
Ready to live my life
Out on my knees, humming,
Kneading up docks   
And sumac from
Those flawless clerks-at-court, those beautiful   
Grocers and judges, the polished
Dead of whom we make   
So much.

I could have stayed there with them.
Cheap, too.
Imagine, never   
To have turned
Wholly away from the classic
Cold, the hill, so laid
Out, measure by seemly measure clipped
And mown by old man Albright
The sexton. That would have been a hell of
A way to make a living.

Thank you, no.
I am going to take my last nourishment
Of measure from a dark blue
Ripple on swell on ripple that makes
Its own garlands.
My dead are the secret wine jars
Of Tyrian commercial travelers.
Their happiness is a lost beginning, their graves   
Drift in and out of the Mediterranean.

One of these days
The immortals, clinging to a beam of sunlight   
Under water, delighted by delicate crustaceans,   
Will dance up thirty-foot walls of radiance,   
And waken,
The sea shining on their shoulders, the fresh   
Wine in their arms. Their ships have drifted away.
They are stars and snowflakes floating down   
Into your hands, love.

James Wright, “A Way to Make a Living” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Copyright © 1990 by James Wright. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1990)

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Poet James Wright 1927–1980

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Subjects Activities, Jobs & Working, Money & Economics, Social Commentaries

Holidays Labor Day

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 James  Wright


James Wright was frequently referred to as one of America's finest contemporary poets. He was admired by critics and fellow poets alike for his willingness and ability to experiment with language and style, as well as for his thematic concerns. In the Minnesota Review, Peter A. Stitt wrote that Wright's work both represents and parallels the development of the best modern American poets: "Reading the Collected Poems of James . . .

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SUBJECT Activities, Jobs & Working, Money & Economics, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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