AUTUMN BEGINS IN MARTINS FERRY, OHIO
In the Shreve High football stadium,
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.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
James Wright’s Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio
Who among us does not gain something valuable from competition? We compete for the thrill. Compulsive gamblers are addicted not to winning or losing, but the moment of flux where fate has yet to be decided. We compete for the challenge. Mike Singletary, one of the fiercest competitors and most capable leaders in football history, answered a question about football by saying “Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.” Some of us compete for the thrill and some of us compete for the chance to challenge ourselves. The best among us savor the thrill of challenging ourselves. The residents of Martins Ferry in James Wright’s classic poem are not that fortunate. They receive no such thrill from their challenges, yet they turn to competition for comfort, worth, and confidence.
I’ve read this poem hundreds of times and each time I expect my fingers to be covered in grease or oil afterwards. It is a tough poem and so much of it seems unfair, like the tattered bootlace that will never stay tied. How retched must life be for the steel workers and furnace operators “dreaming of heroes?” But those heroes, their own sons, are unblemished by gritty realities. To their fathers, they are beautiful reminders of earlier versions of themselves. There’s an eerie sensation of defeat and victory in the poem’s first stanza. The folks that populate the early part of the poem are oddly specific and entirely emblematic in the same instant. Races and nationalities are mentioned, along with towns and schools, but there’s the cogent impression that these people could, and do, exist everywhere. From the specificity of the first stanza, Wright proceeds to an overarching generalization of married life in the second stanza. He has the complex irony of “proud fathers…ashamed to go home,” compounded by a simile comparing the women to hens. Like life, none of the relationships in this poem are easy. The stanza concludes with a line that just might describe every person in this poem: “Dying for love.”
While the first two stanzas move from the specific to the general, the final stanza takes the characters and settings that have been established and crafts a complex argument. Is it possible to read “Therefore, / Their sons grow suicidally beautiful” and not shudder? This is one of the lines I can catch the slightest glimpse of and completely lose whatever breath I have in my chest; it wrecks me, every time. The boys are a result of their parents’ miseries in the perpetual quest to make end’s meet. That single word, “Therefore,” is a piercing dagger. Wright is not malicious, but he is drawing a conclusion and in doing so he places blame upon the parents. They are the reason “their sons grow suicidally beautiful.” Where is the beauty in destroying oneself? These boys don’t even realize they are headed toward destruction. Who knows why they play the game, but I’d like to believe they play because football makes them happy. That was why I played---that, and everyone in Texas plays football no matter what. In my more optimistic readings of the poem, I view a thread of love and sacrifice amongst all the characters. Positive or distraught, no matter what my mindset is when I finish reading James Wright’s Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio, I want to throw the football around, preferably with my dad and brother. I don’t need a thrill or challenge, I don’t even need to compete---I just need to know that we can still play, on some level, together.