A Life in Poems
By William C. Wright
Bird Dog Publishing, 2007
Softcover, 152 pp, $10.00
By Chris Butters
“Whoever touches this book, touches a man,” wrote the poet Walt Whitman, in his epic book. “Leaves of Grass.” That is how I feel about the poetry book, “A Life in Poems,” by 93-year-old William C. Wright, just out from the Midwestern press Bird Dog Publishing.
Peace activist, labor organizer and family man for over 70 years, Wright has participated in all the major struggles of his time. Luckily for us, all this time he has also been writing poems about it.
Poems of him growing up in a farm family in northern Ohio, his radicalization during the Depression and his participation in the organizing drives of the CIO in heavy industry are all included in Wright’s book.
Tender love poems to his wife and lifelong comrade, Cris, are also featured. More often than not, his political poems reflect the viewpoint of a rank and file activist directly involved in the various struggles that are illustrated throughout the book.
Wright has an eye for detail and attention to poetic technique that make situations come to life, as in the short poem where he writes, “Last night in our furnace we burned a thousand years of sun and a quart of miners’ sweat to keep us warm.”
In the poem “Ashes,” Wright reflects on his experience organizing industrial workers as a member of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. The ending line, “Arise, arise build your union strong,” might have been a didactic exercise in the hands of a lesser poet. But Wright’s skilled use of language and metaphor enables the reader to see the miners’ struggle as virtually arising out of the bowels of the earth itself. In the landscape of this poem, “mine owners rule empires, make the laws” but “evolution’s product, oxygen, escaped in air not subject to claim — free gives life breath and birth to warming flame.”
Several poems cast the struggle for social justice in the imagery of Wright’s church upbringing. The powerful anti-war, “For God speaks in every language ever spoken to every man in every land and color,” reflects not only Wright’s activism in veterans’ organizations, but also his long-standing work within the Ohio religious community around the issue of peace. Wright’s “spirit” is not “a god of greed, of hate, of fear,” but embraces every “sister and brother, in every church and land and color.”
The beautiful, “For Cris, Love of My Life, A Rose,” derives its power from its use of rhyme and rhythm, as well as the many decades in which Wright and his comrade fought side by side for social justice.
In a biographical profile, Wright says he began writing poetry as a young adult after reading poets like Walter Lowenfels, Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman in the Daily Worker. With the publication of “A Life in Poems,” it is clear that William C. Wright must be viewed as one of the most important working class poets of his generation.