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 him. Bly had remained largely aloof from the formalist-traditionalist schools that had dominated poetry during the first half of the twentieth century. He advocated instead an intuitive, subjective approach that sought elemental responses and their expressive equivalents rather than abstract formal patterns and rhetorical cleverness. This movement, eventually called the “deep image” school of the 1960’s and 1970’s, had special affinities with the highly subjective, language-distorting work of the Central American writers Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, who were in turn strongly influenced by Spanish Surrealism and Futurism. Although Wright later denied that Bly had been more than a catalyst to an internal process already begun, these forces combined to modify Wright’s style extensively. His next book, The Branch Will Not Break (1963), shows the extent of the change.
This change was pivotal in Wright’s career; it turned him in the direction in which he would find his characteristic voice. His earlier poems were directed toward realizing a fine exterior beauty, toward shaping exquisite verbal structures—poems as works of art, to which the poet was largely subordinate. They are mainly poems of the mind. The newer poems come from the heart; they attempt literally to put feelings into words, almost as if they are just in the act of becoming aware of themselves.
As if to symbolize his development, Wright moved at this time from the Midwest to become a professor at the City University of New York, where he would remain for the rest of his life. While there he published Shall We Gather at the River in 1968; in that volume, he carries the personalization of his poetry one step further. Wright forces his readers to look at aspects of their civilization that are typically ignored and compels them to recognize neglected parts of humanity.
Wright’s larger poems—both the Wright “New Poems” included in Collected Poems (1971) and those gathered in Two Citizens (1973) (which he later repudiated), Moments of the Italian Summer (1976), To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), The Temple in Nimes (1982), and This Journey (1982)—move back to a more affirmative position, yet they do not abandon Martins Ferry and his typical subjects. An extended visit to Europe, especially Italy, opened a remarkable new vein, meditations on monuments of antiquity, especially in contrast with modern...
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