A Poem for Hard Times

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 - 5:35 am

A Poem for Hard Times

Poet James Wright
In a recent post including my conversation with poet Katie Ford for our Repossessing Virtue series, Ford talked about how in these hard economic times she finds comfort in literature, and more specifically, in the poetry of James Wright. During our talk, she mentioned a poem he had written, and the title was so compelling, I just had to dig around to find it.

“In Terror of Hospital Bills”

I still have some money
To eat with, alone
And frightened, knowing how soon
I will waken a poor man.
It snows freely and freely hardens
On the lawns of my hope, my secret
Hounded and flayed. I wonder
What words to beg money with.
Pardon me, sir, could you?
Which way is St. Paul?
I thirst.
I am a full-blooded Sioux Indian.
Soon I am sure to become so hungry
I will have to leap barefoot through gas-fire veils of shame,
I will have to stalk timid strangers
On the whorsehouse corners.
Oh moon, sow leaves on my hands,
On my seared face, oh I love you.
My throat is open, insane,
Tempting pneumonia.
But my life was never so precious
To me as now.
I will have to beg coins
After dark.
I will learn to scent the police,
And sit or go blind, stay mute, be taken for dead
For your sake, oh my secret,
My life.

Copyright 1971 by James Wright. Reprinted from “Collected Poems” with permission from Wesleyan University Press.

I’m struck by the lines, “It snows freely and freely hardens / On the lawns of my hope,” and how the speaker wonders “what words to beg money with” when hospital bills finally bring him to poverty. Yet later, the speaker says “But my life was never so precious / To me as now.”
It’s a sentiment I feel I’m hearing often in these Repossessing Virtue conversations and in listener comments — that despite the fear and anxiety of this time, this economic collapse has offered us an opportunity to reexamine and refocus our energy on what we really value.
We’d love to hear what you think of this poem, or what other poems and/or poets are you turning to lately. One listener said he’s been reading a lot of Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue this past year. What other poets are offering you comfort or insight during these economic times?

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