James Arlington Wright (December 13, 1927 – March 25, 1980) was an American poet.
Technically, Wright was an innovator, especially in the use of his titles, first lines, and last lines, which he used to great dramatic effect in defense of the lives of the disenfranchised. He is equally well known for his tender depictions of the bleak landscapes of the post-industrial American Midwest.
Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, one of many steel-producing towns along the heavily industrialized Upper Ohio River Valley where it borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania. His Midwestern working-class roots held firm through three decades of poetic portraits drawn from heartland realities. During World War I, despite financial hardshiips, his father retained his employment at the Hazel-Atlas glass factory. Wright thrived on public speaking in grade school and began writing verse in high school. After being drafted into the United States Army during World War II, he wrote his mother to forward copies of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ verse and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. After he was mustered out while serving in occupied Japan, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and entered the only school that showed interest, Kenyon College.
Wright shifted his concentration from vocational education to English and Russian literature, and by 1952 he had published in twenty journals and earned the Robert Frost Poetry Prize, election to Phi Beta Kappa, and a B.A. degree at Kenyon College. He attended the University of Vienna on a Fulbright Fellowship.
In 1954 he went to the University of Washington where he studied with poets Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz and completed a dissertation on Dickensian comedy. That year, when he was still a graduate student, W. H. Auden selected Wright's manuscript for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series. In 1957, when his book of poems, The Green Wall (1957), was published, he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota as an English instructor, where his colleagues were Allen Tate and John Berryman. In 1959, he earned a PhD from the University of Washington with a dissertation on Charles Dickens and his second collection, Saint Judas, was published in the Wesleyan University Press series. During this period, Wright contributed poetry and book reviews to major publications like the Sewanee Review and regularly published in virtually every important journal, from The New Yorker to the New Orleans Poetry Review. Nonetheless, the University of Minnesota did not believe he had the qualifications to become a tenured professor, and Wright had to relocate to nearby Macalester College.
Three years later, he won the Ohiona Book Award for Saint Judas (1960). Wright published The Lion’s Tail and Eyes: Poems Written Out of Laziness and Silence (1962) with William Duffy and Robert Bly. Wright’s break with traditionalism was influenced by his intimate study of German and Spanish masters, as demonstrated in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River(1968). Throughout this period, he published regularly in some fifteen journals. Wright held subsequent teaching positions at Macalester College, Hunter College, and State University of New York. His Collected Poems (1971) won a Pulitzer Prize. He was active for the remainder of the 1970s, when his elegies were issued in Two Citizens (1973), I See the Wind (1974), Old Booksellers and Other Poems (1976), Moments of the Italian Summer (1976), and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1978).
Wright married his high-school sweetheart Liberty Kardules, who was a nurse in Texas. The couple had two sons, Franz Wright, also a poet, and Marshall. Wright left his wife in 1959, and they divorced in 1962. In 1966, he took a job at Hunter College in New York where he met Edith Ann Runk, the "Annie" of many of his poems. They were married at the Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967. Annie was very good for Wright and helped him tone down his drinking. Much of the self-pity and despair of his early works disappeared after Wright conquered alcoholism and married Runk. They travelled extensively and spent a number of summers in Italy and Paris.
Wright died on March 25, 1980, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. At his death, friends and colleagues eulogized him at Riverside Church where he had married Annie. Posthumous works include This Journey (1982), The Temple in Nîmes (1982), and Above the River: The Complete Poems (1992). Recently, he has been memorialized in a volume entitled From the Other World: Poems in Memory of James Wright, to which many of America's foremost poets have contributed.
Wright first emerged on the literary scene in 1956 with The Green Wall, a collection of formalist verse that was awarded the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. But by the early 1960s, Wright, increasingly influenced by the Spanish language surrealists, had dropped fixed meters. His transformation achieved its maximum expression with the publication of the seminal The Branch Will Not Break (1963), which positioned Wright as curious counterpoint to the Beats and New York schools, which predominated on the American coasts.
This transformation had not come by accident, as Wright had been working for years with his friend Robert Bly, collaborating on the translation of world poets in the influential magazine The Fifties (later The Sixties). Such influences fertilized Wright's unique perspective and helpew
Wright had discovered a terse, imagistic, free verse of clarity, and power. During the next ten years Wright would go on to pen some of the most beloved and frequently anthologized masterpieces of the century, such as "A Blessing," "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," and "I Am a Sioux Indian Brave, He Said to Me in Minneapolis."
His work with translations of German and South American poets, as well as the influence of Robert Bly, had considerable influence on his own poems; this is most evident in The Branch Will Not Break, which departs radically from the formal style of Wright's previous book, Saint Judas. In addition to his own poetry, he also published loose translations of René Char's hermetic poems.
His poetry often deals with the disenfranchised, or the outsider, American; yet it is also often inward probing. Wright suffered from depression and bipolar mood disorders and also battled alcoholism his entire life. He experienced several nervous breakdowns, was hospitalized, and was subjected to electroshock therapy. His dark moods and focus on emotional suffering were part of his life and often the focus of his poetry, although given the emotional turmoil he experienced personally, his poems are often remarkably optimistic in expressing a faith in life and human transcendence. His seminal 1963 volume The Branch Will Not Break is one example of his belief in the human spirit.
His 1972 Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to his other awards, Wright received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Since his death, Wright has developed a cult following, transforming him into a seminal writer of ever increasing influence. Each year, hundreds of writers gather to pay tribute at the James Wright Poetry Festival in Martins Ferry.
- The Green Wall. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.
- Saint Judas, Wesleyan University Press, 1959.
- The Lion's Tail and Eyes: Poems written out of laziness and silence (with William Duffy & Robert Bly). Sixties Press, 1962.
- The Branch Will Not Break. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.
- Shall We Gather at the River. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.
- Salt Mines and Such. 1971.
- Collected Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
- Two Citizens. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1973.
- I See the Wind. Brandea, 1974.
- Old Booksellers, and other poems. Cotswold Press, 1976.
- Moments of the Italian Summer. Dryad, 1976.
- To a Blossoming Pear Tree. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1978.
- This Journey. New York: Random House, 1982.
- The Temple in Nimes. Metacom Press, 1982.
- Above the River: The complete poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1992.
- The Shape of Light. White Pine Press, 2007.
- Collected Prose (edited by Anne Wright). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1982.
- Georg Trakl, Twenty Poems (translated with Robert Bly). Sixties Press, 1961.
- Cesar Vallejo, Twenty Poems (translated with Robert Bly & John Knoepfle). Sixties Press, 1962.
- Theodor Storm, The Rider on the White Horse. New York: New American Library, 1964.
- Pablo Neruda, Twenty Poems (translated with Robert Bly). Sixties Press, 1968.
- Hermann Hesse, Poems (translated & edited). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1970.
- Neruda and Vallejo: Selected poems (translated with Robert Bly & John Knoepfle). Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
- Hermann Hesse, Wandering: Notes and sketches. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1972.
- Winter's Tales 22. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977.
- A Secret Field: Selections from the final journals of James Wright (edited by Anne Wright). Logbridge-Rhodes, 1985.
Audio / videoEdit
- The Poetry and Voice of James Wright (recording), Caedmon, 1977.
- James Wright: Four poems
- James Wright profile & 9 poems at the Academy of American Poets.
- James Wright 1927-1980 at the Poetry Foundation.
- James Wright: Online poems.
- James Arlington Wright at PoemHunter (39 poems)
- Audio / video
- James Wright in the Encyclopædia Britannica
- James Wright at NNDB
- James Wright at the Poetry Connection
- James Wright (1927-1980) at Modern American Poetry
- Peter A. Stitt (Summer 1975). "James Wright, The Art of Poetry No. 19". The Paris Review. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3839/the-art-of-poetry-no-19-james-wright.
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