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Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright

“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” by James Wright was first published in the 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break. This poem is set in Wright’s hometown, Martins Ferry (situated in Belmont County, Ohio), where the speaker is a distant and dismal spectator of a high school football match. It portrays the post-depression world, the last effects of which were inevitably still bothering people, especially the working class. Like many of Wright’s poems, it has a similar tone of disarray and almost aspirational thoughts.

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Analysis of Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright


Summary

“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is an allegory seemingly about a high school football game. Still, in reality, it is about chasing the “American Dream” and the severely declining conditions of the blue-collar working class. This poem as a whole speaks more about the world and society as a social misconstruct where the working people are trapped. Different versions of their sufferings and pains are portrayed in this piece.

Meaning

This poem is seen through the eyes of a spectator at a football game who is silently observing his surroundings but not intentionally engaging with them. The speaker makes it seem like something as simple as a high school football game is an escape for all the working class husbands, who are “dreaming of heroes” — a fantasy, an escape.

Wright conjures a powerful image in contrast to dreaming, dying for love, as the factory workers of the ’50s and ’60s were still burdened outside their work and carried it home with them where their wives like “starved pullets” waited. They saw in their sons the best of both worlds — their future and their past.

The first two verses build up to the last verse, where the spectator finally returns to the match and calls their sons “suicidally beautiful.” These words have a bittersweet contrast that proves human nature — destructive yet full of potential and hope.

Structure & Form 

Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” has twelve lines and three stanzas. It is written in free verse form, which implies that there is no traditional poetic form followed. There are irregular rhymes throughout the poem. It does not follow a rhyme scheme and does not have a definite metrical scheme. Wright wrote this piece from the perspective of a first-person speaker, giving it a lyrical quality.

Poetic Devices 

“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” contains a number of poetic devices. These are:

  • Allegory: A poem that conveys a hidden meaning; here, the poet is seemingly just a spectator at a high school football game, but in reality, it is about the dire conditions of the working class set in the post-economic-depression western world.
  • Metaphor: A comparison between two, unlike things, is a metaphor. For example, “And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,” and “And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel.” Here, the “gray faces” signify the alienation of the African-American people in the ’50s world. Using the word “ruptured,” the poet describes a watchman at Wheeling Steel (a leading company) who goes to show how overworked people were.
  • Allusion: The poet refers to the “blast furnace” and “Wheeling Steel” in the first verse, both of which were related to each other, and the corporation was known to have worn-out workers.
  • Imagery: The poet uses descriptive words to set the scene, such as “gray faces of Negroes,” “ruptured night watchman,” etc.
  • Simile: A comparison of two things occurs in “Their women cluck like starved pullets.”
  • Paradox: A statement that contradicts itself. For example, “All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.” The terms “proud” and “ashamed” contradict each other.


Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation 

Lines 1-5

In the Shreve High …

… of heroes.

James Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” describes the world of post-economic depression. It is seen through the eyes of an indifferent spectator who does not mingle with his surroundings. Rather, he silently observes it.

In the second line, the spectator starts to wonder about other people of the working class, using derogatory words like “Polacks” and “Negroes.” They, too, are trying to achieve the “American Dream” but are caught up in a society where the working class rarely succeeds. Thus, these people spend their free time drinking to let go of their suffering. They escape the reality that they have found themselves in. This verse is mainly centered around the working class.

Lines 6-8

All the proud fathers are … 

… for love. 

This verse imposes a paradox in the first line – a proud father being ashamed to go home, which captures the true reality of those times. People would work for minimum wage or would often spend days searching for a job but would not get any, and their families would go hungry. Not only that, the poet remarks how their wives long for “love” like a starving hen because of the severe distress financial crisis bores upon a family.

Lines 9-12

Therefore, …

… against each other’s bodies. 

By saying “therefore,” Wright is implying that the first two verses are building up to the third verse. Despite all the hardships, they can be present in the football stadium and watch their sons grow “suicidally beautiful” – in the sense that their passion for the game matched with the brutality of the game. It creates a shocking juxtaposition.

The speaker then goes on to say that the match is taking place at the beginning of October when fall begins, and summer ends. Wright beautifully ends the poem by leaving a lasting view of the match — the fathers watching their sons gallop terribly against each other.

Themes

The American Dream

The poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” heavily focuses on the damaging effects of the “American Dream.” Wright grew up during a time when the worst economic depression in history had passed, and the working class was still struggling to find jobs and make ends meet. As someone who witnessed what a society obsessed with status, glamor, and wealth had done to anyone who didn’t fall under that category, this poem masterfully dictates how those people drank, was overworked, avoided going home at night to their wives, was lonely, and would do possibly anything to forget their life. Using phrases like “nursing long beers,” “gray faces,” “ruptured night watchman,” Wright illustrates simple yet complex images of people who had to live during that time.

Alienation and Loneliness

In the second verse, the poet says that the husbands are ashamed to go home and that their wives were starving for love — a melancholic image of a working family in the post-depression world. The working-class people were essentially isolated even within their community. The tone of the poem shows underlying despair, want, and a sort of hopelessness. Wright’s speaker and the others present in the poem had no other way out of it.

The Past and the Legacy

The poem was an afterthought of a spectator’s life when the depression had passed, their youth had faded away, their marriage was turbulent, and there was no alternative to their life. These fathers watch their sons, young and naive, play football and have fun in this setting. It’s reminiscent of their youth when the world was full of hope for them, and they didn’t “dream” for “heroes.”

Tone

The tone of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is distant, dispassionate, and almost nihilistic. The spectator seems to have accepted the world, as it is, without showing any hope or aspirations for the future. Rather, people dream of “heroes” and watch their sons in the prime of their youth to forget about the world surrounding them. This poem is set in a post-depression landscape and is from the perspective of someone who was most affected by it.

Imagery

Wright uses descriptive language and powerful imagery to set the most accurate picture of the world at the time. For example, in the first verse, the poet says, “I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, … Dreaming of heroes.” This paints a picture of the residents of Martins Ferry, Ohio, and its neighboring towns — showing how the world was the same in the west for those of the working class.

In the second verse, he notes, “Their women cluck like starved pullets,/ Dying for love.” This shows the extreme alienation within a family, which extends to the community and seems sad. In the last verse, he further adds, “Therefore, … And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” The use of “suicidally beautiful” and “gallop terribly” — two strikingly contrasting terms bound together to provide a cohesive image of what both the sport and their lives were really like.

Historical Context

“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” takes place in post-economic depression America during one of the most turbulent times in history. This was the time of the Communist Control Act, atomic testing, air-raid shelters, and a government-backed “Red Scare” to maintain public support for a large military budget. By this time, James Wright had already graduated and enrolled in the military and came back home to start writing poetry. His experiences enhanced the poem’s purpose in many ways.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” about? 

James Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” describes a high school football game at Shreve High stadium during which a speaker taps on the struggles of the working-class men around.

What does the poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” mean?

The title of the poem hints at the beginning of the fall in Martins Ferry, Ohio, Wright’s hometown. However, this poem focuses much on how the working-class families were affected in the post-depression era.

When was “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” written?

The poem was written in the 1960s and first published in 1963. It appears in James Wright’s influential collection of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break, considered the “watershed of Wright’s career.”

What type of poem is “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”? 

This poem is written in free-verse. It means there is no set rhyme scheme or meter. There are a total of three stanzas consisting of an odd number of lines. Besides, it is written from a first-person speaker’s point of view.

What is the theme of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”? 

The theme of the poem is the American Dream, alienation, loneliness, and the suffering of the working class.

What are the poetic devices used in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”? 

In this poem, Wright uses enjambment, imagery, metaphor, simile, symbolism, etc.


Similar Poems about Human Suffering

  • “The Woman” by Kristina Rungano — This poem talks about the role of women in rural Zimbabwean society and how they were treated in the prevalent pro-patriarchal system.
  • “Singapore” by Mary Oliver — This piece describes the pitiable condition of a woman who washes the dirty ashtrays in an airport in Singapore.
  • “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” by Louise Erdrich — In this poem, Erdrich describes the condition of Native American kids admitted to boarding schools.
  • “Dreamers” by Siegfried Sassoon — This war poem records the suffering of soldiers in bunkers.


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