It is indicative of the scope of this collection of James Wright’s letters that the title, A Wild Perfection, comes not from Wright himself but from a letter to him from fellow poet Stanley Kunitz, quoted by Wright in a letter to yet another poet, James Dickey. The community of postmodern American poets suggested by that triangle is at the heart of A Wild Perfection: It is, in a phrase coeditor Saundra Rose Maley borrows from Mortimer Adler and uses as the title of her introduction, “The Great Conversation.” The conversation goes beyond the twentieth century and beyond America. In his letters to friends, Wright works out quarrels and queries with the writers he is reading: Plato, Catullus, Horace, Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, and others. Yet many of the recipients of his letters also constitute virtually any critic’s short list of major American poets of the late twentieth century: alphabetically, A. R. Ammons, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Dickey, Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, J. D. McClatchy, John Crowe Ransom, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, M. L. Rosenthal, Anne Sexton, Leslie Marmon Silko, W. D. Snodgrass, Allen Tate, Diane Wakoski, and Austin Warren.
Few, however, will turn to the letters of a poet to read about other poets. Readers pursuing biographical information about Wright will find it in A Wild Perfection, but they may find more than they bargained for. To be sure, they will find dates and details about the poet’s life from just before his enlistment in the Army in the summer of 1946 to his cancer surgery just three months before his death in March of 1980. Tangled among the details of the life of James Wright are also philosophical reflections on the nature of human existence, literary criticism, the craft of writing, love, the academic life. Sometimes these reflections are offhand comments squeezed from the moment. Other times they are polished essays, as carefully wrought as his poems, his reviews, or his college lectures.
Even the essays appear as digressions in a coherent story of Wright’s adult life, much as the cetology chapters of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) punctuate the forward movement of the sailor’s yarn. (Wright admitted, in a February 1, 1958, letter to his dissertation director, Wayne Burns, that he loved a good “yarn.”) The presence of a “plot” in A Wild Perfection is no accident: Maley indicates in her introduction that “readability as part of a narrative” was a selection criterion suggested by her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jonathan Galassi. While Wright scholars may seize piecemeal on this or that nugget of correspondence, fitting it into a context already constructed, the general reader may, with pleasure and profit, read the whole book seriatim and follow the development of one of America’s best twentieth century poets.
While a book of letters that can be read like a novel has its merits, the editors could have offered more helpful contextualization, even to the reader who knows a great deal about Wright. For instance, Wright’s March 13, 1964, letter to Macalester College President Dr. Harvey Rice bubbles with effusive superlatives: “I have never been so moved for so many truly personal reasons as I am moved by your letter.” What in Rice’s letter to Wright could have prompted such language? Nothing in Wright’s letter offers a clue, and the editors are silent. Fourteen pages later, in a May 28 letter to his estranged wife Liberty, Wright tells the whole story: President Rice had attended a lecture Wright gave to an honor society, wrote him a commendatory note, and had copies sent to the dean of students and to Wright’s department chair. What had touched the poet was not just the administrative act itself, though it was kind enough, but the context of the previous six years of what Wright perceived as neglect at the University of Minnesota, where he had been denied tenure. So necessary is the May 28 explanation to the March 13 thank you that, at the very least, a cross-reference should have been made for the reader who has no intention of reading this volume as a linear narrative.
Wright’s letters were not written with an eye toward publication, which gives them a stark, sometimes startling intimacy and brutal honesty....
(The entire section is 1795 words.)