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.