“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” by James Wright, 1927 to 1980, was included in his Collected Poems, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Wright was a blue-collar kid from Martins Ferry, Ohio. Martins Ferry is a steel producing town that borders the Ohio River, and the Ohio River goes between the boundaries of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. While his father worked in a glass factory, his mother did laundry ― neither were educated beyond the eight-grade. However, Wright in 1952 received an undergraduate degree from Kenyon College. After graduating, he received a Fulbright fellowship, and studied in Vienna for a year. In 1952, he began studying at the University of Washington, where in 1959, he wrote his dissertation on Charles Dickens, and received his PhD. His genius is present in his later poems, which mirror his young life experience. The tension in these poems, that which is understood by the mind, but not yet accepted by the heart; is present by using alienated characters coupled with empathy for their plight in a seemingly hopeless situation. He presents his argument by using nonconventional and terse language with images that are reserved for the poetic imagination, and he delivers them both with clarity and power. In this manner, for reasons uncharacteristically considered as a descriptor for the Midwest ― nonconformity, the Midwest was once again placed on the poetic geographical map.
Before Wright, it was Langston Hughes, 1902 to 1967, from Missouri, who put the marginalized “Negroes” in vogue, and it was Robert Frost, 1874 to 1963, who used colloquialism; the use of ordinary words to describe regions. However, it was Walt Whitman, 1819 to 1892, who was the father of free verse, which was a method used by James Wright, and it was Ezra Pound, 1885 to 1972, who provided clarity of images through his economy of words, and whose works were not metered nor did they rhyme, which were methods also used by James Wright.
In the “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” Wright stresses precision through his choice of words to formulate clarity of thought and a spotless image. It is in the first stanza, and in this manner, that “Shreve High School stadium” is presented (1). A high school football stadium is usually less spectacular than a professional football stadium. Thus, the point of view is that of a humble origin.
The poet thinks of “Polacks,” a derogatory term for a person of Polish decent (2). The “Polacks” are “nursing” beers (2). The image is that of “Polacks” sipping on beers in a group that is hanging around. They are sipping on beers in “Tiltonsville” (2). Tiltonsville is an actual village in Jefferson County, Ohio, that lies along the Ohio River (2). It is named after an early family settler, John Tilton, which according to the poem, may be a reference to “those others,” as though it is some form of segregation. In Tiltonsville, there is a Cemetery Mound, which was built by the prehistoric Adena, a Native American culture that existed from 1000 to 200 B.C: addressing those others of being “Polacks” (2), similar to those others of Native American decent: both are or were marginalized by the general population.
The poet thinks of the “gray faces of Negroes” (3), who are also part of the marginalized populace (3). The word “Negroes” is a derogatory word for African Americans. Although Negroes are considered to be people of color, in this poem, they are presented as gray, which may ask the question . . . do we really see these people who work in the “blast furnace at Benwood”? Benwood is a town, which is in Marshall County, West Virginia. Similar to Tiltonsville, it also lies on the Ohio River, and the name is derived from a person, Benjamin; an area known as “Ben’s Woods,” which later became known as “Benwood.” Both “Tiltonsville” and “Benwoods” are connected by the Ohio River. Does this indicate a symbolic meaning? Perhaps it means ― we are all connected through water or in this manner, through blood.
In order to connect people of across cultures, sometimes we need a bridge. The poet refers to the “night watchman of Wheeling Steel” (3). In this manner, a bridge may be used as a metaphor. The Wheeling Steel Bridge was the first bridge to span the Ohio River, and it was the first bridge to join different groups of people along the Ohio River. The “ruptured” or spent “night watchman” may refer to another group of working class persons; those clinging to their jobs, but are emotionally used up. The “Polacks”, the “Negroes”, and the “night watchman” are hardworking people, who like others deserve peace of mind and spirit.
How can a person know peace, if they are continually marginalized as being less than important within the context of the general populace? They have the same wants, needs, desires, and hopes as person classified as the majority. This poem is asking the question, why should they feel like outcasts? We are all the same, but perhaps those who are alienated dream more about their “Hereos” (5). For many working class families, the way out of their situation is through sports. On the playing field abilities are seen as equal. The field does not discriminate: it presents a level playing field where talent is not determined by a person’s ethnic background.
In the second stanza, the “proud fathers are ashamed to go home” (6): they may be ashamed because they are not able to make a level playing field for their sons. The fathers wish the playing field outside of the stadium were equal. The poem also describes the plight of marginalized women, who “cluck like starved pullets, / Dying for love” (7-8). Womanhood similar to cheerleading at a football game are often considered secondary citizens dying to please a man. Similar to a cheerleader being a young woman, a pullet is a young domestic hen, whom cheers or clucks. Both a cheerleader and a young hen are “dying for love” (8). Although society views a woman as a secondary citizen, they may feel fulfilled by the attention a man gives them. As well, their position is one of child propagation and rearing, both activities are considered secondary to the purpose of a man.
In the third stanza, the final analysis is presented as indicated by the word, “Therefore” (9). On a level playing field, they have strong hopes for their son, but through experience they have suicidal despair. However, it is a new beginning. It is the “beginning of October” (11). Autumn represents the beginning of the end of the year, when things become dormant with a renewed hope for Spring. Hope may for change may be seen in the New Year when Spring arrives. Discrimination is described as galloping “terribly against each other’s bodies” (12), and neither obtaining any “yardage”. Tension is presented when such necessary changes in discrimination are understood by the mind, but not yet accepted by the heart. They may physically gallop against each other, but until they mentally understand and accept each other-discrimination will not end.
“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”
By James Wright
(1) In the Shreve High School stadium
(2) I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
(3) And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
(4) And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
(5) Dreaming of heroes.
(6) All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
(7) Their women cluck like starved pullets,
(8) Dying for love.
(10) Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
(11) At the beginning of October,
(12) And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
Stein, Kevin. “These Drafts and Castoffs: Mapping James Wright.” Kenyon Review 31.3 (2009): 168-187.
Walzer, Kevin. “Poetical Correctness: James Wright’s Formal Practices.” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought 39.4 (1998): 468-479.
Wright, James. Above the River: The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux and University Press of New England, 1990.