The poet James Wright was born on this day in 1927. In September 1975, he answered a fan letter with the story of how he’d cheered up a lonely poet (Bill Knott, no less) one Thanksgiving: with bananas. Lots of them. Read more of Wright’s correspondence in A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright.
Poetry is a strange adventure; at crucial times it is—it has to be a search undertaken in absolute solitude. But when we emerge from the solitude, we so often find ourselves lost in loneliness—which is quite a different thing from solitude. America is so vast a country, and people who value the life of the spirit, and try their best to live such a life, certainly need times and places of uncluttered solitude all right. But after the journey into solitude—where so many funny and weird and sometimes startlingly beautiful things can happen, whether in language or—even more strangely—in the silences between words and even within words—we come out into crowds of people, and chances are that they also are desperately lonely. Sometimes it takes us years—years, years!—to convey to other lonely persons just what it was that we might have been blessed and lucky enough to discover in our solitude.
In the meantime, though, the loneliness of spirit can be real despair. A few years ago, when I lived in Saint Paul, Minn., I received unexpectedly a short note from a young poet [later identified as Bill Knott —ed.] who was bitterly poverty-stricken in Chicago … When he wrote to me in Saint Paul, I did not know him personally … I have long mislaid or lost the short note to me, but I can still quote it, and I believe I will remember its words, its absolutely naked truth, until I die. He didn’t even address me by name. Luckily, he did sign the note, and the envelope included his home address. Here is exactly what he said: “I am so lonely I can’t stand it. Solitude is a richness of spirit. But loneliness rots the soul.” …
I wrote him a reply without even rising from my desk. It so happened that his note had arrived on about a Sunday, the first day of Thanksgiving week. It also happened that I was living alone myself, and lived too far away from my home in Ohio to get home for Thanksgiving with my parents who were still alive at that time; and the kindly parents of one of my students had invited me to spend Thanksgiving day with them in the little town of Ogden, Iowa, which is within reasonable distance of Chicago. And so, without asking anybody’s permission or making any plans whatsoever, I promptly wrote a reply to the poet in Chicago … I bluntly informed him that at approximately 2 P.M. on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I was going to arrive at his furnished room in Chicago (a very poor section of the city, by the way), and I informed him he could be absolutely certain that I would be accompanied by (1) two vivacious and pretty girls and (2) a large bag of fresh bananas.
And, by God, I did it!
The poet was waiting for us. He was very poor … He worked a night shift at a charity hospital in a skid row. Nevertheless, he had received my letter. His faith never faltered. There he sat on a broken three-legged chair at a rickety table in the center of his single room, and in the dead center of the table sat a gleaming unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
I suspect anybody who ever really tries to write poetry secretly hopes that at least once he will be stricken by the Muse of inspiration in a way so unpredictably nutty that not even Shakespeare of Dafydd ap Gwilym would have imagined such an inspiration even in his weirdest dreams. As for me, the thought of cheering up the lonely Chicago poet by visiting him with two pretty girls was merely conventional, though of course pleasant. But the bananas still fill me with such total delight that I sometimes mention them in my prayers. God knows how much second-rate bilge I have written in my many books. But a bag of bananas! Think of it on a tombstone: HE CHEERED UP A LONELY UNHAPPY POET WITH TWO CHARMING GIRLS AND A BAG OF BANANAS.