James Wright 1927-1980
(Full name James Arlington Wright) American poet and translator.
Wright is regarded as one of the finest poets in a generation of many first-rate poets, yet his career was shaped by his doubts about his poetic identity that simultaneously nurtured and tortured him. Recognized for his brilliant execution of the kind of poetry promoted and esteemed by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics—a poetry characterized by rationality and irony, wit and precision, complexity and detachment, impersonality and formality—Wright rebelled against his own accomplishments, publicly denigrating them. He began to write a poetry that drew on images spontaneously arising from the unconscious, dedicated to expressing a sincerity of outlook so thorough and subjective that some reviewers found it occassionally verging on sentimentality. Wright refused to define or impose an objective order by means of poetic structures and devices, but using the evolving form of the poem, as determined by the interaction of his consciousness and the content which confronted it, he sought to discover and reveal a subjective perception of the order of the world, and he produced, according to many critics, a poetry of exquisite lyricism and profound humanity.
As in his poetry, so, too, in Wright's life, the fundamental theme was the conflicting presence of opposing possibilities. Martins Ferry, Ohio, Wright’s birthplace, was a region that combined the beauty of the natural landscape with the industrial destruction of that land. Wright's mother was a laundress; his father worked for fifty years in the Hazel-Atlas Glass factory. At sixteen, Wright suffered a nervous breakdown. Attached though Wright was, throughout his life, to the region of his youth, it was a place he was determined to get free of. With that in mind, he joined the army in 1946 in order to be able to go to college under the G.I. Bill, which he did after returning from Japan where he served as a clerk typist with the U.S. occupation forces. At Kenyon College, Wright studied with John Crowe Ransom, published his first poems, and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952. That year, too, he won the Robert Frost Poetry Prize. After graduation, Wright married Liberty Kardules, his high school sweetheart, and traveled with her on a Fulbright Fellowship to Austria for two years to study the poetry of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. Wright later published translations of works by these poets, as well as by Pablo Neruda, Herman Hesse, Cesar Vallejo, and Rene Char. Upon his return to the United States, Wright went to graduate school at the University of Washington, where he studied with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. In 1957, his first book of poetry, The Green Wall was published in the Yale Younger Poets series. His first teaching job was at the University of Minnesota from 1957 until 1964, when he was denied tenure because of problems caused by his alcoholism. In his last years there, too, his first marriage dissolved. One of the most significant events in his career as a poet was meeting, in 1959, the poet, editor, and social activist Robert Bly. Bly helped Wright through a period of gloom and doubt and encouraged his transition from what Wright called the “old” poetry of formal metrics, in which he had begun to feel trapped, to a poetry of common speech, depth imagery, intuitive connection, and personal involvement. After two years of teaching at Macalaster College, he accepted a position at Hunter College of the City University of New York, in 1966, and taught there until his death. In 1967 he married the sculptor Edith Anne Runk. Wright died of cancer at the age of fifty-two.
Each of Wright's books may be considered a major work. The Green Wall, his first book of poetry, introduced a poet of great formal and technical skill, who fashioned lyrics chronicling the courses of nature and the lives of socially outcast people living with various insults and injuries. His 1963 collection, The Branch Will Not Break, signaled his change in poetic direction away from the formal academic poetry he felt achieved a facility of craft at the expense of an honest humanity, and toward a poetry of subjective imagery and verse freed from metrical constraints. His last volume, This Journey, published in 1982, combined verse and prose poetry. Using simple images from nature, Wright reveals in these poems an illuminated acceptance of himself and of his death. Many of Wright's individual poems, among them “A Blessing,”—which ends with the epiphany “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.—“Saint Judas,”—which postulates the existential humanity of Judas Iscariot—and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”—which concludes with the admission that he with the has wasted his life.—have become standard anthology pieces.
Despite his own torment about his poetry and its value, or the judgement of a few critics that Wright's poetry had become indulgently self-pitying, the critical response to Wright's poetry has always been overwhelmingly positive both from critics and from colleagues. Throughout his career, whether he was writing metrically structured verse, or working in freer forms, he was esteemed for his musicality, imagery, and humanity. Among his many honors, Wright was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1964 and 1978, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature in 1959, an Academy of American Poets fellowship in 1971, the Melville Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1972, and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1972.
The Green Wall 1957
Two Citizens 1957
Saint Judas 1959
The Branch Will Not Break 1963
Shall We Gather at the River 1968
Collected Poems 1971
To a Blossoming Pear Tree 1977
This Journey 1982
Above the River: The Complete Poems of James Wright 1990
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SOURCE: J.E. Palmer, “The Poetry of James Wright: A First Collection,” in James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 26-33.
[In the following essay, first published in 1957, Palmer reviews Wright's first collection of poetry and characterizes him as a “mature and accomplished poet.”]
From its occasional appearance in such journals as the Sewanee Review the poetry of James Wright was beginning to be known and respected before the publication of this first collection [The Green Wall]. Now with these forty poems brought together our hopeful notions are confirmed—as for instance with such other first collections as Robert Lowell's Land of Unlikeness and Richard Wilbur's The Beautiful Changes: here is one of the elect, a young poet of great gifts by whose labors the living body of poetry will be sustained.
Whatever of the fumbling and tentative there might have been in Mr. Wright's apprenticeship cannot be guessed at from these examples; what we have here is the work of a mature and accomplished poet who speaks consistently in his own voice and who is entirely at ease in his craft. Not that there is any attempt to disguise the youthfulness of the performer; indeed this is the most common dramatic determinant, the condition that operates directly in the majority of these...
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SOURCE: “From ‘The Anguish of the Spirit and the Letter,”’ in The Hudson Review, Vol. XII, No. 4, Winter, 1959-60, pp. 46-48.
[In the following essay, Hecht praises Wright for his success at integrating “event and commentary” in “a poetry of wisdom.”]
James Wright is a gifted young poet who is trying to write the most difficult kind of poetry: the poetry of wisdom. He has said of his new book [St. Judas]: “I have tried to shape these poems, singly and as a group, in order to ask some moral questions: Exactly what is a good and humane action? And, even if one knows what such an action is, then exactly why should he perform it?” This is an ambitious program, though one would suppose it was an unlikely way to go about composing a poem. But Mr. Wright is very nearly as good as his word, and I feel in his work a double stress: an attempt to realize the common dramatic occasion, and an attempt to evaluate it. These two factors sometimes present themselves in sequence, as if the poet had said to himself, “Here is what happened; what am I to think of it?” The peculiar temptations of such an approach ought to be clear, and one of them is to regard the event as no more than the occasion for meditation. This sort of imbalance between his twin effects happens more than once in Mr. Wright's books, most decisively to his disadvantage in “At the Slackening of the Tide.” This...
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SOURCE: “From ‘Between New Voice and Old Master,”’ in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXVIII, No. 4, October-December, 1960, pp. 43-45.
[In the following essay, Hoffman finds in Wright's attention to defeated people in his poetry the answer to the poet's questions: “What is good and humane action, and why perform it?”]
The condemned, the lost, the disfigured, the loved, the guilty Americans in James Wright's poems move through his stanzas as presences who make the poet speak and in speaking define himself by his reactions to them. The questions which summoned them to him, he tells us, are moral ones: “I have tried to shape these poems … in order to ask … Exactly what is a good and humane action? And, even if one knows what such an action is, then exactly why should he perform it?” Recalling Mr. Wright's admiration for Robert Frost, one thinks of Frost's apothegm about where poems begin and end; if Mr. Wright's questions are indeed the points of origin for his verse aren't the poems headed in the wrong direction? Whatever the sequence of moral concern and poem in Mr. Wright's mind, these questions and his attempts to answer them do in fact animate Mr. Wright's poetry where they might all too readily have vitiated it. For they do not ordinarily obtrude as questions to be worried but rather assert themselves in actions demanding unequivocal responses. Mr. Wright calls up his hapless...
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SOURCE: “Wright's ‘At the Slackening of the Tide,’” in The Explicator, Vol. XXII, No. 4, December, 1963, p. 29.
[In the following essay, Toole discusses the conflict between scientific knowledge and spiritual meaning awakened in the poet after he has seen a drowning.]
At first reading, one immediately realizes that James Wright's “At the Slackening of the Tide” is a poem of disillusionment. The narrator, apparently a poet, came to the beach to enjoy the beauty of nature and to compose; but the accidental drowning which he witnessed brought to his mind the lurking horror which is at the center of things and robbed him of the ability to take pleasure in the beauty which may be found at the surface of life. Though he has been aware of the implications of his dark suspicion that life is a result of a blind collocation of atoms, he had allowed them to drift deep into his consciousness until the shock of the sight of the floating body, the leaping woman, and the vomiting, impotent lifeguard had set his mind in philosophical motion, the ineluctable destination of which was the emotional and intellectual dead end of scientific determinism.
The element which provides the tension in the poem is the implicit conflict between the Christian and scientific conceptions of the origin and meaning of life. The poem has been patterned into stanzas arranged out of chronological order so that...
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SOURCE: “Beyond the Middle Style,” in James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 141-43.
[In the following excerpt, Hartman, while maintaining Wright's hold on his poetic talent, judges The Branch Will Not Break to be only a sketch book, and the free verse poems in it to be “straining for relaxation.”]
The spirit of Thoreau is abroad again. It is, on the whole, a benificent spirit, kindly disposed to heifers and horses, and dangerous only to moralizers. “The moral aspect of nature,” we read in Thoreau's Journals, “is a jaundice reflected from man.” And, “Farewell, dear heifer! … There was a whole bucolic in her snuff. … And as she took the apple from my hand, I caught the apple of her eye. She smelled as sweet as the clethra blossom.” Something has driven that mood out of New England to the Midwest, and there to James Wright “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” as the title of a poem generously informs us:
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly, Asleep on the black trunk, Blowing like a leaf in green shadow. Down the ravine behind the empty house, The cowbells follow one another Into the distances of the afternoon. To my right, In a field of sunlight between two pines, The droppings of last year's horses Blaze up into golden...
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SOURCE: “The Emotive Imagination: A New Departure in American Poetry,” in The Southern Review, Vol III, New Series, No. 1, January, 1967, pp. 51-67.
[In the following essay, Moran and Lensing welcome a new poetry of “emotive imagination” and the poets, among them Wright, who employ that style.]
In the last decade and a half, a new movement in American poetry, which we choose to call the emotive imagination, has gained sufficient momentum and import to justify definition and analysis. William Stafford, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and Robert Bly are its central figures.1 Their work represents a new departure from a poetry that since World War II has wrestled with the antipodal schools of the academic and the beat, both outgrowths of an affluent society. It is indebted neither to these schools nor to those which dominated American poetry between the wars; it is, in a word, meaningfully new.
Briefly but intelligently in his perceptive introduction to Contemporary American Poetry, Donald Hall calls attention to this direction in which he sees working a colloquial vocabulary, a simple language, and a “profound subjectivity.” Hall understands that this newness is based on the way in which the imagination is used: “This new imagination reveals through images a subjective life which is general, and which corresponds to an old...
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SOURCE: “Something to Be Said for the Light: A Conversation with James Wright,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 134-53.
[In the following interview, which took place in 1970, Wright discusses some origins of his poetry, his evolving poetic style, his relationship to other poets, and his sense of the world around him.]
The following conversation with James Wright took place at the State University College, Brockport, New York on September 24, 1970. Discussing Wright's work with him are two widely published poets and critics of modern poetry, William Heyen (S. U. N. Y. at Brockport) and Jerome Mazzaro (S. U. N. Y. at Buffalo). At Heyen's request, Wright begins their discussion with a reading of his poem “To a Defeated Saviour” [Wright:]
“TO A DEFEATED SAVIOUR”
Do you forget the shifting hole Where the slow swimmer fell aground And floundered for your fishing pole Above the snarl of string and sound? You never seem to turn your face Directly toward the river side, Or up the bridge, or anyplace Near where the skinny swimmer died.
You stand all day and look at girls, Or climb a tree, or change a tire; But I have seen the colored swirls Of water flow to livid fire Across your sleeping nose and jaws, Transfiguring both the bone and skin To muddy banks and sliding shoals You and the drowned kid tumble...
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SOURCE: “James Wright and the Dissolving Self,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 222-33.
[In the following essay, Molesworth reflects on the poetic implications of Wright's movement from his early distanced, classic style to his later romantic, more personal one.]
Susan Sontag said that the two chief elements of the modern sensibility are “homosexual aesthetic irony and Jewish moral earnestness.” Perhaps the first qualifier in each triplet is excessive, but certainly most modern artists have traces of both qualities in some combination. In looking at his career, we can see that James Wright has moved from irony to earnestness. Because in his poetry the artist is still the suffering hero, because the outsider is still the seer, and most of all because the self is problematic even beyond the snares of the world, James Wright is modern. Because of the peculiar way these themes and subjects are articulated in his poetry, and through the course of his career, however, he might be more accurately considered a post-modern poet. But that may mean nothing more than Wright prefers the immersion of sentiment to the suspension of irony, in other words, that he acknowledges his own romanticism.
The problem of the self in the lyric poem, essentially a problem left over from the great English Romantics, animates Wright's poetry from its very beginnings. The problem can be...
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SOURCE: “The Continuity of James Wright's Poems,” in The Ohio Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 44-57.
[In the following essay, Matthews argues against the accepted critical judgement that Wright's early, metrically formal poetry is more skillful than his later free verse.]
By now most everyone who cares about American poetry knows the story about James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963). But like the tale of Abner Doubleday and the invention of baseball, the story is more shapely than true, and its use has been primarily for polemicists. So because I think James Wright has already written a significant body of generous and beautiful poems, and because I think the story distracts us from noticing some of the more important things Wright has actually been doing in developing that body of poetry, I begin my essay-in-tribute by debunking it.
For Robert Bly, writing in The Sixties in 1966, The Branch Will Not Break signalled an escape. One kind of poetry, influenced by Eliot and Ransom, was a jail. The world is vast, various. “Yet the colleges still understand poetry as a climb into a walled garden.”
Writing in The Nation in 1963, L. D. Rubin, Jr., had argued—embodying the tunnel vision that drove Bly to distraction—that Wright's book “is a kind of willful refusal to enter into the business of interpreting...
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SOURCE: “Open Secrets,” in Parnassus, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 125-42.
[In the following essay, Yenser reviews two collections by Wright, and explores the tension between order and adventure in his poetry.]
At least since The Branch Will Not Break (1963) James Wright's poetry has been pulled in two directions—or in one uncertain direction by two sometimes opposing forces. We might as well make them horses, especially since, as he reaffirms in Moments of the Italian Summer, Wright considers horses perhaps “the most beautiful of God's creatures.” One of them we could call David, after Robert Bly's sway-backed palomino who has appeared in several of Wright's poems. He is the older, the more reliable, the more steadily paced of the two—the likelier wheelhorse. He wants to keep the vehicle, if not in the ruts, at least on the road and headed toward home. On the other side there is Dewfall, also known as Nightrise and Basilica, all three of whose names, according to the riddling poem in To a Blossoming Pear Tree, were stolen by Napoleon from Spanish horses and later given to some heavenly swans. She is high-spirited and erratic. It is she who is always seeing something fascinating off to the side of the road and taking Wright out of his way. Sometimes she gets the bit between her teeth and tears off, and then neither David nor the driver can do much but go along...
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SOURCE: “Many of Our Waters: The Poetry of James Wright,” in Boundary 2, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 101-21.
[In the following essay, Kalaidjian discusses the importance of water and river imagery in Wright's poetry.]
At first glance, the movement of James Wright's career away from the initial apprenticeship to traditional verse forms to his later postmodernist innovations, under the influence of Robert Bly's “deep image” poetry and Spanish surrealism, appears erratic and disjunctive, lacking in a common center of inspiration and unifying technique. His final quest from Shall We Gather at the River to To a Blossoming Pear Tree for a more personal style—a more authentic subjectivity cleared of the flamboyant eclecticism of image in his earlier volumes—on the surface also looks less creative and more destructive than I would like to argue it truly proves to be. To arrive at the underlying coherence and continuity of Wright's vision, which has remained a constant source of inspiration to his readers, one must penetrate beyond the surface of his experimental vagaries of style to the content and meaning of his art. Central to Wright's concerns as an American artist is native landscape, particularly the locales of water: estuaries, wetlands, lakes, oceans and rivers. Through the flux and fertility of this fluid source of American imagery, we can trace the continuous growth and...
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SOURCE: “On the Poet, James Wright,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2-3, 1981, pp. 85-90.
[In the following essay, Serchuk relates an encounter with Wright which showed him the link between Wright the man and Wright the poet, as well as the purpose of poetry for Wright.]
Although James Wright was making few campus visits in the spring of 1973, he agreed to visit our poetry workshop at the University of Illinois mostly as a favor to our instructor, Laurence Lieberman, whose poetry he admired and who'd written some of the best criticism to be found on Wright's work. There was only one stipulation: no formal readings. According to his agent, Wright had recently been too ill to handle any such tension or commotion. Instead, he would sit in on a few classes, perhaps recite a poem or two from memory if he pleased, but no formal readings. Lieberman quickly agreed.
No one could have been more disappointed at Wright not reading than I. While others were drawn to Strand or Merwin or Berryman or Lowell or any of the others we were studying, Wright was my poet. He, along with James Dickey and Theodore Roethke, occupied almost every spare moment of my reading time. For me, Wright's work was the embodiment of all that poetry could and should be. Simple. Direct. Understated. Visionary but shy. As formal as the imagination dictated without ever sacrificing cleanness or the natural rhythms...
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SOURCE: “This Is What I Wanted: James Wright and the Other World,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1-2, 1982, pp. 19-32.
[In the following essay, Lense argues that Wright perceives the spirit of “the other world,” whether pastoral or painful, embedded in the common elements of this one.]
James Wright is not generally thought of as a visionary poet. The imagery of his poems has always been grounded in matter-of-fact realities, whether the plains and white houses of the Midwest in his earlier books or, more recently, factories and large cities. The poems are almost weighed down by physical details: Wright is careful to tell his readers which hand he uses to stroke a horse, what kind of tree he is standing under while he looks at a field. Nonetheless, in many of his best poems he is equally preoccupied with the spiritual world behind appearance; his best books, The Branch Will Not Break and Shall We Gather at the River, begin in this world and end in the other world.
These books differ so greatly in imagery and tone that it is necessary to look at them separately, but they have one thing in common in that each embodies a traditional myth of the other world. The Branch Will Not Break contains many images of the Earthly Paradise, while Shall We Gather at the River builds up a counter-myth of the Ohio River as the river of the dead. The...
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SOURCE: “‘I Would Break into Blossom’: Neediness and Transformation in the Poetry of James Wright,” in Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 64-75.
[In the following essay, an obituary tribute to Wright, Martone examines the theme of transformation in his poetry.]
I. GARMENTS OF ADIEU.
It is difficult to speak retrospectively of James Wright's poetry, to think of it as a completed ouevre rather than as an ongoing body of work, for Wright's was very much a poetic of transformation. As Dave Smith puts it, “Wright insists that the most fundamental nature of poetry is in its affirmation of possibility.”1 For Wright, transformation is implicit in the very notion of metaphor, in the figuring of one thing as another. The figurative process in poetry is kin to the processes of metamorphosis in nature. For Wright there is a vital bond between poetry and life in the fact that both are realms of change.
Transformation, though, most often means redemption in Wright's world—or restoration, or healing; and what needs to be healed is our humanity. The human figures of Wright's poetry, as William Heyen suggests, are always needy in an important way, are characteristically failures. His poems are inhabited by defeated saviours, bad poets, convicts, corrupt politicians, and drunks, and when...
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SOURCE: “Dark Water: James Wright's Early Poetry,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 135-55.
[In the following essay, Mazzaro traces the aesthetic and ethical development of Wright's poetry.]
When James Wright came on the literary scene in the mid-fifties, he possessed what few other young poets had—command. This command could be felt in the ranges of his diction, line, and stanza as well as in the varied ways he handled subjects. His writing could move from the soft romanticism of “fumbled for the sunlight with her eyes” to the neoclassicism of “I mourn no soul but his.” It could also embrace a Shakespearean “fruits of summer in the fields of love.” Being a singer of human reality, Wright's inheritance and business was song. He knew that sung and unsung nature differed greatly and that what the poet chose to sing was often seen through previous handling. He was thus removed from the questioning sincerity that W. D. Snodgrass espoused in “Finding a Poem” (1959).
Wright's attitudes so coincided with “the acceptable” and the stances of previous poets that their work added authority to his own. In “Prayer to the Good Poet” (1973), Wright acknowledges the Latin writer Horace as “the good father” of his enterprise, and the senses of transience, the forms, and the emphases on friendship in The Green...
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SOURCE: Peter Stitt, “James Wright: The Garden and the Grime,” The Kenyon Review, New Series VI, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 76-91.
[In the following essay, Stitt examines the importance of the quest motif in Wright's poetry, and identifies it as a quest for a death in which what is dark and burdensome is transformed into light.]
James Wright is perhaps the most “questing” of all contemporary poets; there is in his poems a general feeling of dissatisfaction with where he is at the present time and a corresponding desire to be somewhere else. This questing impulse is evident both within the work taken as a whole and within the separate volumes of poetry, where smaller and self-contained versions of the larger quest are undertaken. In this essay, I will discuss the overall pattern while concentrating on what happens in two individual volumes, Shall We Gather at the River (treated briefly) and This Journey (treated more fully). For a clue to understanding the larger quest in Wright's work, we might turn to the introduction he wrote in 1963 to Breathing New Life, a book of poems by Hy Sobiloff. At the time he wrote this, Wright had just published his own volume, The Branch Will Not Break, in which he sought a radically new way of writing. Thus when he defines the quest found in Sobiloff's work as a concept pursued by “the new poet,” we must recognize that Wright is...
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SOURCE: “The Reconciled Vision of James Wright,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 77-92.
[In the following essay, Stiffler argues that Wright's main goal in his poetry was to reconcile “the possibility of epiphany with the reality of despair.”]
In 1958, James Wright received the following words of advice from his former teacher, Theodore Roethke:
Now to you. I hope you won't take it amiss: I worry, I worry my can off, practically. And I've spent nearly the whole of three sessions with my doctor yacking about you. Apparently you're more of an emotional symbol to me than I realized: a combination of student-young brother—something like that. (I even shed a tear or two.)
But the chief point now, as I see it, is you. I've been through all this before, through the wringer, bud, so please respect my advice. Once you become too hyper-active and lose too much sleep, you'll cross a threshold where chaos (and terror) ensues. And believe me, chum, it's always a chancey thing whether you get back or not. …1
Roethke wrote that before publication of Wright's second book, Saint Judas [hereafter cited as SJ], in 1959, and well before Wright went on to publish some of the most dazzling and memorable affirmations in...
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SOURCE: “Another Shore,” in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 6, March, 1991, pp. 343-54.
[In the following essay, Howard reviews Wright's Complete Poems and a volume of critical essays about Wright, and concludes that Wright triumphs over his work's shortcomings because his best works show “imagistic luminosity, melodic purity, and emotional clarity.”]
Elegist, visionary, and bitter social critic, the late James Wright remains a vivid presence in contemporary American poetry. As Donald Hall remarks in introducing this definitive edition of Wright's poems, few American poets have been the subject of so many elegies. Few have been more revered—or more shamelessly imitated. The concurrent appearance of Peter Stitt's critical anthology, which includes astute appreciations by Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, William Matthews, and other fellow poets, attests to Wright's continuing influence, both as a technical innovator and as a model of integrity and compassion. Together, these volumes prompt a reassessment of a poet who once described himself as a jaded pastoralist, but who has been more accurately characterized by Stanley Plumly as “the great empathizer of our poetry.”
What emerges from these pages, amid recurrent images of darkness, light, drowning, Midwestern desolation, “Italian silences,” and urban squalor, is a sad but resilient figure—a sensitive outcast, afflicted by...
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SOURCE: “Wright's Lyricism,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 438-64.
[In the following essay, Scott explores Wright's lyricism, especially in the late prose poems.]
Above the River, which collects all of James Wright's poetry, coming as it does more than a decade after his death, reminds us of the stubborn persistency with which much of the poetry lasts. It is more frequently than not the case that the literary art that becomes immovably a part of the furniture of one's mind and spirit wins its place of settlement by reason of a pleasure it affords through the brilliant suasiveness with which it conducts a certain kind of argument. But this is a particular pleasure—offered, say, amongst the people of his generation by a Richard Wilbur or an Anthony Hecht—that is rarely to be come by in Wright's poetry, so greatly did he yield to that poetics of the “deep image” which he was persuaded to embrace by his friend Robert Bly.
In the late fifties and sixties when Mr. Bly was laying out his program he never revealed any real talent for theoretical formulation, and yet his various manifestos in the journal he edited (successively called The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies), though consistently marked by a windy sort of vagueness, proved to be remarkably successful in giving many young American poets of the time a sense of...
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SOURCE: “The Vision of a Practical Man,” in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 216-41.
[In the following essay, a review of Wright's Complete Poems, Jones traces Wright's development as a poet, the shifting influences on his style, and the strengths and weaknesses of his poetry.]
James Wright wrote with more heart than any other North American poet of the twentieth century. His flaws were so obvious that it is hardly useful to point them out. He was capable of a sentimentality so overblown that it can only be described as heroic, and a preciousness of diction that rivals Shelley's, but in poem after poem, he dug down into the emotional extremes of the inner life, opened the veins, gathered strength from his own misery and wonder, and lifted out poems whose intense gravity did not worry their supple and often playful surfaces. His essential gifts were a remarkable literary and experiential memory and a wonderful ear for the nuances of common American speech, and he was fortunate in his acquaintances and friendships. Still, the subject of poetry did not come easily to him, and he had to labor all of his life against glibness and mannerism. The effect of that labor was a poetry of more or less constant compassion tempered by an aesthetic sense that sometimes seemed to change within a single line.
His is perhaps the poetry that most poignantly...
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SOURCE: “A Listening to Walt Whitman and James Wright,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Spring, 1992, pp. 175-95.
[In the following essay, Yatchisin shows how Wright's study of Walt Whitman's poetry contributed to the development of his own.]
James Wright's essay, “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman,” published in 1962, might have saved Wright's poetic career. The four years between his books Saint Judas (1959) and The Branch Will Not Break (1963) were clearly tumultuous ones; Wright has said in a 1972 interview that “a certain kind of poetry had come to an end, and I thought that I would stop writing completely.”1 Nowhere does he record an “A-ha!” experience while reading Leaves of Grass. But the “Delicacy” essay might be a hint that Whitman helped him find a new turning in his verse.2 The essay breaks into four parts: Wright discusses the three types of delicacy—music, diction, form—he finds in Whitman, and ends by discussing contemporary poets open to Whitman (the Spanish, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Louis Simpson, David Ignatow).
But the essay digresses almost immediately when Wright spends three pages illuminating Whitman's own relationship to the past. Here Wright justifies the essay's existence, claiming, “And the most difficultly courageous way of asserting the shape and meaning of one's own poetry and...
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SOURCE: “‘A Dark River of Labor’: Work and Workers in James Wright's Poetry,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 6, November-December, 1993, pp. 49-54.
[In the following essay, Stein surveys the poems in which Wright confronts the industrial and economic exploitation of workers and landscape.]
Many of James Wright's early poems introduced uncommonly common subjects, populated as they were by a murderer, a prostitute, a lesbian, an escaped convict, and an occasional drunk. Even W.H. Auden, who chose Wright's The Green Wall as the Yale Series winner, couldn't help but notice Wright's affinity for chronicling the lives of “social outsiders,” those who “play no part in ruling the City” and no part in making its “history.”1 As Wright matured, beginning with the unpublished collection Amenities of Stone (1961-62) and its successor The Branch Will Not Break (1963), this attention took keener focus, often directing his eye to the “lives / Of the unnamed poor.”2
These coal miners, small farmers, housewives, and factory hands were “outsiders” largely because they lacked access to society's “ruling” circle of power and to the pen that wrote its “history.” Growing up in the mill and factory town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, Wright, of course, experienced first-hand the hard life of America's working poor. He saw the...
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SOURCE: “Wright's ‘A Blessing,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 44-45.
[In the following essay, Pink discusses “A Blessing,” focusing on the significance of boundaries in the poem, and on the instances of transgressing them.]
“A Blessing” is perhaps James Wright's best known poem. It certainly embodies his greatest strength: the poet evoking nature as an inroad to the metaphysical or numinous. Wright is, in general and in this poem in particular, a poet of epiphany in the grand Yeatsian tradition. “A Blessing” culminates with the poet's wish to step out of his body and “break into blossom.” There can be no doubt, given the poet's spoken wish for natural communication with an Indian pony, “I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,” that he is seeking transcendence through nature into a new connection with nature.
Although the speaker of the poem is wistfully serious, the poem is touched by situational irony. The metaphysical or religious communion between human and horse occurs “just off the highway,” a manmade avenue of highspeed commerce. The encounter between the poet and nature must take place “just off” that highway, to amplify the gulf between man and nature. Furthermore, the horses are enclosed in “barbed wire”; the poet and his friend must transgress an unnatural boundary to enter into the natural...
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SOURCE: “Re: Wright,” in The Kenyon Review, New Series XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 157-60.
[In the following essay, Baker introduces a group of Wright's poems, asserting that his “work has yet to be appraised satisfactorily.”]
We are building a huge cottage industry out of the ranking and aligning of cultural works and literary authors. The two Blooms—Harold and Allan—have constructed, quite independently, their lists of scholarly inclusions and exclusions. William Bennett has prescribed for us all his elixir of elitist medicine even as, like the Casey Kasem of poetry, William Harmon spins The Top 100 Poems out of his The Top 500 Poems. Everywhere: lists, orderings, preferences, reassessments, and rankings, thanks to the English departments, editors, publishers, and political action groups busily booming their canons and deconstructing everybody else's. Rightly enough, Harold Bloom laments that a work or writer may now be deemed canonical by someone's merely saying so.
I suppose that these kinds of rankings are inevitable, even perhaps necessary to our judgments. We compare in order to prefer and to praise; literary editing and literary pedagogy are nothing if not studies in comparative analysis. But poetry itself is not a match, a game, or even, ultimately, a competitive public enterprise. It is far more personal than that, our most intimate exchange of...
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SOURCE: “‘To Step Lightly, Lightly, All the Way through Your Ruins’: James Wright's Ohio Poems,” in The Midwest Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1996, pp. 353-64.
[In the following essay, Davis argues that Wright transcends the geographical places he writes about in his poetry by transforming them into metaphorical images.]
In her essay, “Places in Fiction,” Eudora Welty says that “[p]lace is one of the lesser angels that watch over the … hand” of all writing and that “as soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may,” to try to determine “what good writing may be, place can be seen … to have a great deal to do with that goodness, if not to be responsible for it” (116). Welty is careful to distinguish between a “sense of place” in writing and “regional” writing. She calls the term “regional” a “careless term, as well as a condescending one” since it fails to “differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art” (132).
In terms of poetry specifically, Welty says that “[m]an is articulate and intelligible only when he begins to communicate inside the strict terms of poetry”; that “place induces poetry” and “can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point” (123); that place “never really stops informing us, for it...
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SOURCE: “A Hand, a Hook, a Prayer,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 26, No. 5, September-October, 1997, pp. 17-20
[In the following excerpt, Hirsch analyzes Wright's handling of encounters between needy strangers in several of his poems.]
James Wright's poem “Hook” explores a moment of direct contact, of actual—of actualizing—connection. It gestures toward the reader by recalling, by summoning up out of the distant past, a fleeting but necessary encounter with another person, a stranger. It was written with that deceptively blunt and aggressive directness that characterized so much of Wright's late work. Wright once wrote an essay called “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman” and I find a similar delicacy—an unlikely almost Horatian lightness—in much of his own seemingly raw work. Here is “Hook”:
I was only a young man In those days. On that evening The cold was so God damned Bitter there was nothing. Nothing. I was in trouble With a woman, and there was nothing There but me and dead snow.
I stood on the street corner In Minneapolis, lashed This way and that. Wind rose from some pit, Hunting me. Another bus to Saint Paul Would arrive in three hours, If I was lucky.
Then the young Sioux Loomed beside me, his scars Were just my age.
Ain't got no bus here A long time, he said You got enough money To get home on? What did...
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SOURCE: “Wright's ‘On a Phrase from Southern Ohio,”’ in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 100-2.
[In the following essay, Cooper analyzes the significance of line length in Wright's “On a Phrase from Southern Ohio.”]
Poets and critics disagree about the role of the line in free verse. Some assume that there is a pause at the end of each line whereas others do not; some say lines within a poem tend to take the same amount of time to read or say, yet others disagree. Some critics assume that line divisions should reflect divisions in syntactic phrasing; others argue that the most important feature of free verse rhythm is the tension created by enjambment, in which line divisions and phrase divisions do not match. Some assume that the structure of lines in a poem has a specific, iconic meaning, whereas others see no more meaning than the need to breathe from time to time. With all these choices available, the way a poet uses line divisions is a hallmark of that poet's individual style.
Sandra McPherson also suggests that lines provide a sense of “scale”—each line is presumed to be equally “heavy” in some sense—and that there is “suspense” from one line to the next; the lineation guides “our response to the speed of the poem.” The effect of line length on speed presents a kind of contradiction: If the “suspense” or pause involved in moving...
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Dougherty, Douglas C. James Wright. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 425p.
A comprehensive study of Wright's work with a useful biographical essay, chronology, and extensive bibliography.
Elkins, Andrew. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991, 273p.
A book-length study of Wright's entire body of work that emphasizes the continuity and development of themes and concerns, with an extensive bibliography of works about the poet.
Henricksen, Bruce. “Poetry Must Think: An Interview with James Wright,” New Orleaons Review 6 (1979): 201-07.
Interviews Wright, who discusses poetic structure and the poet's obligation to uphold ethical as well as aesthetic standards.
Howard, Richard. “James Wright: ‘The Body Wakes to Burial.”’ In Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, pp. 575-86
Discusses Wright's sense of landscape and his handling of language and imagery in his poems.
Janssens, G. A. M. “The Present State of American Poetry: Robert Bly and James Wright.” English Studies: A Journal of English Letters and Philology 51, No. 2 (April, 1970) pp. 112-37.
Analyzing the poetry of Wright and Robert Bly, discusses the...
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