Still More Sad


Today in Steubenville, OH,  a man shot and wounded the judge who was overseeing a wrongful death lawsuit again him. The shooter, who was killed, was the father of a Steubenville High School football player who, when he was 16, was convicted of raping a 16 year-old girl.


James Wright, a poet whose work was well known in the 1960’s and 70’s, was born in Martin’s Ferry, WV. Martins Ferry is next door to Steubenville, OH. It is (and was) coal country, and both towns and the area generally have always been stressed economically. Wright’s most famous poem (it’s brief) is titled “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, OH.”  It is about high school football. It is about poverty and despair and violence.  It is about how the brief moments of high school glory can help folks (young and old) to momentarily forget.


I hope you will take a few moments to notice and work through how the news story plays off the poem, how it enriches the poem, how it makes life still more sad.



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.

10 responses to “Still More Sad

  1. Jiminy Christmas! (Iowan-ism) That’s one helluva poem. Poetry, leaving words out, tells a story best.

  2. Susan Curtis

    You really know how to tell a story. Do you think the folks in Martins Ferry feel hope? That poem is at least 40 years old and the same despair keeps hold on their lives. Wow. In a couple of paragraphs and one poem, you have captured so much. I think today I am still more sad.

  3. Also sad is that James Wright himself was apparently prone to violence. I will admit that the description of women has always put me off this poem, which I would otherwise be likely to admire. What I do admire, or respect, is the fact that you seem to live quite a beautiful life, but you don’t let it keep you from seeing what goes on in this world.

  4. Hello Susan. I once spent an afternoon looking for Wright’s family home. I found it. Grim all around. I wanted to go to the door but was intimated by the neighborhood. Exceeding poverty. Everywhere people sitting on porches and looking out, their faces seemingly washed of all emotion, their days foregone.

  5. It’s you Emily. Anonymous. Painting. Thanks for your comments.

  6. ‘Twas I, your anonymous commenter this AM. I was writing on my phone, which didn’t register my identity for some reason. Best regards, EA

  7. EA! ‘Twas thou. And like for like ’tis me on my phone peck peck peck

  8. Thanks for the post. It is especially meaningful to me because I grew up near Martins Ferry and have watched a few football games in the Shreve High stadium and have spent one or two hours in the neighborhood bars.

    I wouldn’t read too much poverty inspired despair into the poem. At the time it was written (late 1950s or early 1960s), Martins Ferry and the rest of the upper Ohio Valley were riding a boom in steel production that began in the late 1930s. At that time, the area around Wrights house was not grim at all. Everyone who wanted a job had one. Per capita income was high by national standards. It all fell apart when most of the mills closed in the 1970s. Since 1960, the population in Martins Ferry and surrounding towns has declined by 60%.

    I still have friends and family in the area and visit once or twice a year. Those who remain there still have hope, still live their lives, and, as evidenced by their presence, still would never consider living anywhere else.

  9. Thanks, Chuck. for commenting. Yes, the poverty I highlight arrived later. And yes there surely must be folks happy to live in present-day Martins Ferry. But still, I experienced what I experienced. And it is hard for me to understand the frustration evident in the poem as being void of the influence of poverty. Because the working class stands forever balanced between just enough and not enough. A margin of error is almost nonexistent.

  10. I see the frustration and despair as that of being stuck in an unbreakable cycle. Robust young men with big dreams become middle aged men who work their shift in the mill and spend their free time hanging out in bars, to the detriment of their families. Their football star sons are doomed to repeat the cycle. Wright broke out of that cycle, but most of his contemporaries were unable or unwilling to do so, until a global steel glut did it for them. Enter poverty, which as you note is always nearby for all working people.

    Not surprisingly, we never read the work of the Ohio Valley’s most noted literary figure when I was in high school. It was much too close to home.

    Thanks for letting me throw in my two cents worth.

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