This piece was published in the 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break. It takes place in James Wright’s hometown in Ohio, as do many of his poems. The poem is autobiographical in nature, depicting the lives of working-class Americans in the 1930s (during the Great Depression). It also alludes to the decedents of these men and women who the Depression hit the hardest and how they still struggle to make ends meet today.
Explore Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
‘Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio’ by James Wright is a short, effective poem about working-class families in Ohio.
The poem uses direct and informal language to depict the lives of men working in a factory in Ohio. In this particular poem, they are attending a high school football game, watching their sons play. They feel proud of their children but also ashamed of their own lives in comparison. The poem emphasizes their drinking and the way they treat or don’t treat, their wives. While much of the poem depicts their lives negatively, there is a thoughtful statement at the end of the piece that emphasizes the beauty, even in violence, of the football game.
You can read the full poem here.
In the Shreve High football stadium,
Dreaming of heroes.
In the first stanza of ‘Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,’ the speaker begins by setting the scene. The speaker is in “the Shreve High football stadium.” He’s there watching a high school football game with other family members of the players.
Wright may be the narrator of the poem, but it’s not entirely clear. Since it is generally considered to be based on his own experience, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume he is.
The poet depicts the “gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,” presumably a factory where many of the men work. These people are hard workers and suffer in their day-to-day life. The men nurse “long beers” and dream of “heroes.” This may suggest that these men dream of lives that they will never lead and of being “heroes” that they aren’t.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Dying for love.
The second stanza is a tercet, meaning that it comprises three lines. The speaker refers to the fathers as “proud” and “ashamed.” They are proud of their children but ashamed of the lives they’re leading more generally. They see their children (as the third stanza notes, “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies”) and know they’ll never have the same experience.
The second stanza also describes the men’s wives. They’re depicted as needy, dying for the love they aren’t receiving. For one reason or another, the men are incapable of providing these women with the affection they want.
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
In the final four lines, the speaker concludes the poem. It’s clear, through the word “Therefore,” that he’s coming to a conclusion of sorts. He speaks about the mens’ sons who are growing “suicidally beautiful” in the heat of the game, throwing themselves against “each other’s bodies.” This combines positive and negative elements of the game. There is something beautiful in the abandon these young men play with but, it’s a violent game, one that reflects the violent nature of the world they’re growing up in and that their fathers contend with.
Structure and Form
‘Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio’ by James Wright is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of uneven lines. The first stanza contains five lines, the second: three, and the third: four. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the third stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the reader’s senses. For example, “Their women cluck like starved pullets, / Dying for love.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “blast” and “Bewood” in the third line of the first stanza.
The central theme at work in this poem is economic inequality. It conveys a sense of desperation in the men’s drinking and the way they treat their wives. This is furthered through their view of their sons and their lives.
The purpose is to depict Wright’s hometown and the difficult lives that the families he knew dealt with. The poem suggests that the families in this poem were dealt a difficult lot in life, and that’s degrading their ability to live happy lives.
The speaker may be Wright himself. The poem is set in his hometown, as some of his other poems are, and depicts men, women, and children living a life that he was familiar with. The way he describes the feelings the men experience suggests that he was intimately familiar with this quality of life.
The tone is resigned and hopeless. The speaker describes the experience of these men through familiar language and with an emphasis on relatable detail. The speaker does not speak about them with a feeling of hope nor one of passion.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other James Wright poems. For example:
- ‘A Blessing’ – describes Wright traveling with his friend and fellow poet Robert Bly and a moment where the two pulled off the highway to admire horses, just like in the text of the poem.
- ‘Beautiful Ohio’ – has an outlook on the beauty that clearly comes from a working man’s point of view.
- ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota’ – describes a speaker’s new appreciation for the countryside. They find themselves so attached to it that they suggest they’ve wasted their life not living there.