Here in the United States, we’re currently in the midst of American football season, which means it’s historically a fallow time for poetry. Unlike with baseball or basketball, there isn’t really a long tradition of poetry about football. As a sport, it lacks the aura of pastoral myth that surrounds baseball and the graceful control of the body that defines basketball. No, football is kind of an ugly sport: violent and dangerous, cloaked in concealing equipment, and overly complicated to describe. It just doesn’t lend itself to poetry.
There are, however, some noteworthy poems on the sport, like the one I’d like to talk about today: James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Unlike every other poem I’ve previously given a close reading for, this poem is still protected by copyright, but you can read it over at poets.org, where they also have a recording of Wright reading the poem aloud.
Let’s start with the title, because titles are something that James Wright is especially famous for. I’ve sometimes talked about poem titles as though they were sluglines in a screenplay, in that they can ground the reader in the poem’s situation before it actually begins. This way of viewing titles holds especially true in Wright’s poetry, which are very explicit (and lengthy) in laying out the occasion of the work. This is a man who titles his poems “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” or “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.”
Compared to those examples, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is relatively restrained, simply giving us the time and place. The first line of the poem then narrows the focus even further, placing us in “the Shreve High football stadium” (line 1). With a little knowledge of American sports schedules, one can piece together that it’s the start of the high school football season. So there’s our subject: a high school football game.
Except, the speaker then immediately moves the poem outside the football stadium, outside the bounds of Martins Ferry. Rather than talking about the game in front of him, he turns to the lives of working class people in the surrounding towns:
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes. (2-5)
There’s a Whitmanesque quality to these lines, listing off the laborers who make the Ohio River region what it is. But where Whitman might celebrate the image of the American worker, Wright takes a more subdued approach. People are “nursing” their drinks; they’re “ruptured” or have “gray faces.” When he ends the stanza by claiming that they’re “[d]reaming of heroes,” it sounds less aspirational and more hopelessly escapist. Life in the Wheeling area is drudgery, and the most that people can do is to imagine something better.
The landscape of the post-industrial Midwest is a recurring feature of Wright’s poetry. “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” opens with the image of “the sprawled body of the derailed Great Northern freight car,” while “In Response to a Rumor…” is actually about women leaving a vinegar factory and appearing to disappear into the Ohio River. A sense of isolation and unease often overwhelms the speaker’s thoughts in these works: he is “lonely / And sick for home” in Fargo, and “will grieve alone” in Wheeling. Finding a similar malaise hanging over small towns in Ohio and West Virginia, then, is of a piece with the rest of Wright’s work.
Still, I detect something more personal in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In most of what I call his Midwest Hellscape poems, the speaker is an interloper, a visitor to vast decay, one who may interact with the people around him but only on a surface level. There’s no intimacy with the man in the train in “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” or the factory workers of “In Response to a Rumor…,” just a fearful fascination. But here, if only in the speaker’s mind, we follow the crowd back home.
There’s some initial ambiguity in just who the “proud fathers…ashamed to go home” refer to (6). Are they the various workers mentioned in lines 2-5, or the people joining the speaker in the stands of the football stadium. Of course, that ambiguity may well be meaningless, and I feel the poem is richer if one supposes that they’re both: steel workers on aluminum bleachers. Yes, they’ve come to watch their kids, but also to avoid a home life that they’ve long neglected—their wives are likened to “starved pullets,” i.e., young hens (7). And what are they starving from? They’re “[d]ying for love” (8). The struggles of the industrial working class don’t stop at the factory gates. They follow them into the house.
It is perhaps more than a coincidence that James Wright’s hometown is Martins Ferry, Ohio.
The final stanza, though, is where I think this poem truly becomes something special, which is interesting because it opens with one of the least poetic words in the language. Line 9 is the only one-word line in the poem, and that word is: “Therefore.”
Up until this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking this poem wasn’t making an argument, but just presenting a landscape. This sudden introduction of rhetorical logic is a little disorienting at first. The reader must readjust their expectations, and understand that the preceding stanzas are in fact the premises for the conclusion which is to follow:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each others bodies. (9-12)
I adore this last stanza for two reasons. First, it perfectly captures the contradictions at the heart of watching football. The game is both a showcase of humanity’s physical potential and an exercise in self-destruction. Look at the language Wright uses here: “suicidally beautiful,” “gallop terribly.” The sons of Martins Ferry embody both these aspects of football in two strange yet powerful word pairs.
Second, as a final stanza and a conclusion to an argument, these four lines offer something of a twist. Introducing this wholly mundane scene—beautifully described, yes, but mundane as a scene—with such a heavy “Therefore” is the exact sort of surprise I look for in a poem. It’s attempting to justify something that we take for granted: why do kids play football? In Wright’s poem, the answer lies in everything that came before. What good does it do the sons of Martins Ferry? Lord knows, but then again, they are “suicidally beautiful.” The endgame may well not be the point. All that matters is the feeling that comes from “galloping terribly against each other’s bodies.”
What do you all think about “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio?” Are there any other poems (or stories, etc.) that you think do well in tackling the reasons we play sports? Let me know in the comments!
And as always, thank you for reading.