Thomas Wolfe, Prose Poet

(Credit: Carl Van Vechten, p.d.)

Not many readers feel the need make their way through Thomas Wolfe’s 700 page doorstop, You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe’s writing is, shall we say, splayed out–for readers who appreciate regular plot sequence and terse sentences, Wolfe will not satisfy. But I like it a lot. One thing I like most about his writing is its poetic feel. He wrote prose paragraphs in the most enjoyable poetic feel of any novelist I have read. Others have noticed this long before I have, and one editor has gone so far as to take some of Wolfe’s prose and line it out. In his Forward to the book I am about to quote, Louis Untermeyer wrote, “It has often been suggested that Thomas Wolfe was a poet who elected to write in prose.” I agree. The following paragraphs from You Can’t Go Home Again are arranged by John S. Barnes in his book A Stone, A Leaf, A Door

Going Home Again
All through the night
He lay in his dark berth
And watched the old earth of Virginia
As it stroked past him
In the dream-haunted silence of the moon.
Field and hill and gulch
And stream and wood again,
The huge illimitable earth of America,
Kept stroking past him
In the steep silence of the moon.
All through the ghostly stillness of the land,
The train made on forever its tremendous noise,
Fused of a thousand sounds,
And they called back to him
Forgotten memories:
Old songs, old faces, old memories,
And all strange, wordless, and unspoken things
Men know and live and feel,
And never find a language for—
The legend of dark time,
The sad brevity of their days,
The unknowable but haunting miracle
Of life itself.
He heard again,
As he had heard throughout his childhood,
The pounding wheel, the tolling bell, the whistle-wail,
And he remembered how these sounds,
Coming to him from the river’s edge
In the little town of his boyhood,
Had always evoked for him
Their tongueless prophecy
Of wild and secret joy,
Their glorious promises
Of new lands, morning, and a shining city.
But now the lonely cry of the great train
Was speaking to him,
With an equal strangeness, of return.
For he was going home again.
But why had he always felt so strongly
The magnetic pull of home,
Why had he thought so much about it
And remembered it with such blazing accuracy,
If it did not matter,
And if this little town
And the immortal hills around it
Were not the only home he had on earth?
He did not know.
All that he knew
Was that the years flow by like water,
And that one day
Men come home again.
The train rushed onward through the moonlit land.
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