‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned’ appears in John Wright’s posthumous poetry collection Above the River: The Complete Poems published in 1990. As the title says, this poem is written in response to an official declaration of a whorehouse as unfit. The speaker is not a frequent customer there. But, he can sympathize with those who work there for a living. This poem supports the work they do and glorifies them as some heavenly fairies.
Explore In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned
‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned’ by James Wright describes a beautiful whorehouse along the Ohio River that has been officially condemned.
In this poem, Wright’s speaker sympathizes with the sex workers. For officially banning the site, only he feels grief as he has actually seen the beauty of the place. When he lived as a hobo near the brothel, he was amazed by the evening scene. It was quite a heavenly experience with ladies dangling down the streets. It seemed as if they were like fairies. They went into the river and came out at dawn. Besides, the river seems to be connecting this seemingly dark world with heaven.
You can read the full poem here.
I will grieve alone,
As I strolled alone, years ago, down along
Upstream from the sewer main,
In the first stanza of ‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned,’ the first-person speaker of the poem talks about why he wants to grieve. The oldest whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, along the Ohio River, has been condemned. It means the place is declared unfit officially. However, the speaker feels otherwise.
According to him, he will grieve alone as there is none to sympathize with the place or its workers. Long years ago, the speaker was a hobo or homeless. He lived in the shelter with others. It was located near the main sewer. From there, he gazed and pondered upon the early evening scene of the whorehouse.
I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river.
From that spot, what the speaker saw, he could not forget it for the rest of his life. The scene changed his perception of a whorehouse where ladies bargained for a better rate. He understood there was much more behind the veil of red light.
He precisely remembers the location. It was down the river, at the meeting point Twenty-third and Water streets. There, by the vinegar works, the doors of the whorehouse opened in the early evening. The trade began from that time.
Ladies went down as if they were part of the Ohio River. They swung their purse and poured down like water along the street to the river. It seemed to the speaker as if some of them went down into the river. In these lines, he compares the ladies to water metaphorically.
I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
To find beyond death
In the last few lines of ‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned,’ Wright draws readers’ attention to the reaction of the speaker after observing the scene. He thinks the ladies could drown every evening in the magnificent waters of Ohio. The river is used as a metaphor for the underworld. It is particularly the world of the sex workers where customers along with sellers went down. They stayed there until dawn.
In the last two lines of this stanza, Wright metaphorically compares the workers to fairies. He depicts them as drying their wings after coming out of the water at dawn. Furthermore, he compares the Ohio River to the mythical river, Styx. This river forms the boundary between the earth and the underworld. The Ohio River connects the hell with Bridgeport, Ohio (a village in Ohio).
According to the speaker, none can die by drowning in this magical river. If one commits suicide there, he would interestingly find Bridgeport on the other side. In this way, Wright implicitly compares the place to hell.
Wright’s poem ‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned’ is written in free-verse. There is no regular rhyme scheme or meter. The text consists of a total of five stanzas with an uneven number of lines. In the first two stanzas, there are six and seven lines, respectively. The following ones contain four lines, and the last stanza contains three lines only. Besides, the text is told from a first-person speaker’s perspective.
Wright makes use of the following literary devices in ‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned’.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. Wright uses this device to make readers go through the lines of a particular stanza at one go.
- Metaphor: The phrase “hobo jungle weeds” contains a metaphor. Here, the poet compares the shed of homeless people to “weeds.”
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the term “river” in the last two lines of the second stanza.
- Rhetorical Question: Wright uses this device in the last two lines of the third stanza: “What time near dawn did they climb up … Drying their wings?”
James Wright’s poem ‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned’ is a reactionary piece written on the event of banning the oldest whorehouse of West Virginia. In this poem, the speaker describes why he grieves this unfortunate event as he found the place quite magnificent irrespective of the stereotypes attached to such a place.
This poem was published after Wright’s death in 1990. It appears in his poetry collection Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.
This poem taps on a number of themes that include beauty, nature, perception, and reality. The main idea of this piece revolves around a speaker’s glorification of the oldest whorehouse along the Ohio River.
It is a free-verse lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. There is no specific rhyme or meter in the text. It consists of a total of five stanzas with an irregular line count.
The following list contains a number of poems that evoke similar themes present in James Wright’s poem ‘In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned’.
- ‘Red Roses’ by Anne Sexton — This poem describes the emotions and thoughts of a child who was abused.
- ‘Sweeney Erect’ by T.S. Eliot — This piece explores the themes of emotional disconnection and resolution.
- ‘Dry-Point’ by Philip Larkin — This poem taps on the idea of sexuality through the symbol of a bubble.
You can also explore other James Wright poems.