James Arlington Wright was born and reared in Martins Ferry, Ohio, near Wheeling, West Virginia, a small town on the Ohio River that provides the setting and background for a number of his poems. Following high school, he served for three years in the U.S. Army in the aftermath of World War II. Upon his return he attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he began writing poetry. After graduation he spent a year in Austria as a Fulbright fellow and then entered graduate school at the University of Washington, where he obtained both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees.
He began teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1957, later moving to Macalaster College in St. Paul. Yale University Press in 1957 published his first book, The Green Wall, in its Yale Younger Poets Series, a remarkable achievement for a writer still in graduate school. The volume received positive reviews, especially for its skillful versification and formal facility. A second book, Saint Judas, appeared in 1959, the year Wright completed his Ph.D. dissertation; this volume, too, gained critical applause. These first two books are noteworthy in that some of Wright’s best-known and most often reprinted pieces appeared in them, particularly “Arrangements with Earth for Three Dead Friends,” “A Winter Day in Ohio,” and “The Alarm.” These books also established Wright’s characteristic settings and themes—notably of loneliness and alienation; these remained constants throughout his career.
During his Minnesota period, Wright came in contact with the poet and editor Robert Bly, who had a significant influence on...
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