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?

Share Your Reflection



Thank you for this timely post!

"But my life was never so precious / To me as now."


..unless, of course, you're in the throes of depression, the theme this week, in which case, during these hard times, a life feels irrelevant, inconsequential, the necessary work done, now a chasm before us not just of economic classes but of aptitudinal abilities--Who is wired for the future and who isn't?

"One listener said he’s been reading a lot of Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue this past year. "

that'd be "she". (said with a smile. no offence taken.)

thanks for sharing yet another powerful poem from Wright. he's new to me and i've been enjoying getting to know his work via these pages. looking forward to seeing what other gems get recommended.


One Little Bird - thank you for correcting me! I'm glad you're enjoying Wright, and I, too, look forward to more poetry on this blog!

" I still have some money" - I was sitting for coffee with other school bus drivers between routes. A moment of friendship between managing kids and route assignments. One driver, a young mother, did not have her small daughter with her this moring.

"Where is Alyssa," I inquired.
"Home with dad."
"No dad is at home ... laid off"

I could see the pain surface in her eyes.
"But we still have some savings," she quickly responded.
"We are not yet in dire straits."

What distinguishes us from those who who are REALLY THREATENED
by this crisis, this "economic downturn?" Is it that we still have SOME resources
left ... before we are REALLY desperate?

Some of us are living in places yet unstruck by the downturn, suspended local economies. Some of us have jobs or professions that are in industries that haven't yet felt the first shock waves of the economic collapse.
But all of us watch the tide eat away at the enscarpment and wonder "how long" and "will it get to us."

I remember how Martin Niemuller of Germany wrote about his feeling of eroding safety in Germany with the build of of the Third Riech.

"In Germany, they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the h**ls, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a h**l. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me - but by that time there was no one left to speak up." By Martin Niemoller, with many variant versions

There is little safety in being thankful that our livelyhood is not yet affected.

John Dunne wrote: "We are involved in humankind." And so we are. Anyone's demise needs to affect us because no matter where we live, "we are a piece of the continent or a part of the main."

It is through moments of vulnerability that we experience our uninimity.
It is thorugh experiences of poverty that we begin to notice our blessings.
It is through times of disaster that the spirit is rekindled.

Our live's have never been so precious. I get it Jim.

Last month I heard Sherman Alexie read some of his new (and old) poems. So wonderful! It appears he can do it ALL!
Here are some links:

i think it contradicts itself. The writer has probally never seen hard times nor begged for money.

This poem frightens me. I too live in fear of the hospital bill.
I am afraid.

this is really a very deep poem and i feel a connection. i dont know how or why but something in the words shows pictures in my mind and i just had to post.

Some beautiful words man! Great stuff :)