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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By all measures, Wright deserves his ranking as one of the foremost American poets of the twentieth century. He is honored by annual convocations in his name held by common readers. He will long be remembered for his heart-wrenching realizations of animals, children, and familiar but rarely perceived states of mind.
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.
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,...
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