James Wright

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

As he proclaims in many of his poems, James Arlington Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Although he spent much of his adult life in New York City, Wright returned again and again in memory to the Ohio Valley he loved and despised with equal and intense passion for inspiration as well as material for his poems. His imagination was fired by the loneliness and emptiness of the lives of the Ohioans of his youth and by the occasional flashes of kindness, charity, and decency they showed. At the same time, Wright’s preoccupation with steel mills and strip mines confirms a profound concern for the beauty of nature that human beings so indifferently trample upon in the name of economic gain.

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Wright left Ohio during World War II and served with the American Occupation Forces in Japan. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Kenyon College, where he studied literature under John Crowe Ransom. Wright has since acknowledged that this association was a turning point for him, and the traditional structures of his first book, The Green Wall, reflect Ransom’s influence. Wright’s second volume, Saint Judas, was published in the same year as Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, the book that more than any other marked the end of literary modernism in poetry. Lowell and Wright were working independently in the same direction, toward freedom from the insistence on objectivity that had characterized such great modern poets as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens. Like Lowell, Wright sought a more direct exploration of the self as poetic subject and embraced the open subjectivity that Lowell had pioneered. He would abandon the ornate rhetoric that Lowell was never willing to leave behind and would move well beyond Lowell in his experimentation with organic form.

Wright’s chief influence on postmodern poetry may be his exploration of nondiscursive imagery and careful superimposition as a poetic method. His poems aim at a point of discovery, in which the images of the poem combine to produce a sudden realization of the secrets of the inner, unconscious being. Although he repeatedly disavowed any interest in surrealism as an aesthetic credo, critics have regularly associated Wright and Bly with surrealism, and have called their work neo-Imagist or Jungian. The term “emotive imagination” was coined in an effort to define the process by which the poems evoke nondiscursive feelings in the mind of the reader. Perhaps the most appropriate term is Robert Kelly’s “deep image,” a concept enthusiastically promoted by Bly during the period of his and Wright’s closest association. The Deep Image poem describes the effort to discover a specific object that has powerful emotional and prerational associations for the poet and can be controlled through surprise to evoke a similar set of associations in the consciousness of the reader. The effects of Deep Image poetry depend on careful juxtapositions, superimpositions, sudden leaps in tone or logic, timing, and muted shock.

While in Austria on his Fulbright scholarship, Wright became interested in the poems of Georg Trakl and later translated many of Trakl’s and Storm’s works, as well as those of several European and Latin American poets. These translations were valuable experiences for Wright, for they taught him alternatives to the traditional methods of English prosody, and he incorporated several of these elements into his own art.

Wright continued his education at the University of Washington, from which he took his M.A. degree in 1954 and his Ph.D. in 1959. At Washington, he studied with Theodore Roethke, whose impact on Wright was formative. Wright has acknowledged his personal reverence for Roethke; the extent of Roethke’s poetic influence will be debated by scholars in the years to come.

Like many of his contemporaries, Wright pursued the profession of a teacher and the career of a poet. He taught English at the University of Minnesota for seven years, at Macalester College for two, and at Hunter College in New York from 1966 until his death in 1980. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Wright chose not to teach creative writing; he preferred to teach literature. He told a class at the University of Illinois in 1973: “I’m a teacher by profession, not a writer. . . . In fact, I don’t even teach poetry.”

During the final two decades of his life, Wright emerged as one of the foremost voices in postmodern American poetry. Although he did not systematize his artistic views in essays, as many poets of both the modern and postmodern periods have done, Wright exerted a quiet but vigorous influence by his example. His constant experimentation with form offered younger poets an alternative to the studied objectivity and complex rhetoric of the modern period. By the 1970’s, Wright had achieved recognition as a superb reader of his own poems and was in regular demand on the lecture circuit. His second marriage, to Anne Runk, brought new inspiration to his art, and the Wrights’ travels in Europe, especially Italy, brought a new tenderness to his poems and particularly to his attitude toward Ohio. He died on March 25, 1980 in New York.

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Critical Essays