James Wright Wright, James - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Green Wall 1957

Two Citizens 1957

Saint Judas 1959

The Branch Will Not Break 1963

Shall We Gather at the River 1968

Collected Poems 1971

To a Blossoming Pear Tree 1977

This Journey 1982

Above the River: The Complete Poems of James Wright 1990

J.E. Palmer (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: J.E. Palmer, “The Poetry of James Wright: A First Collection,” in James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 26-33.

[In the following essay, first published in 1957, Palmer reviews Wright's first collection of poetry and characterizes him as a “mature and accomplished poet.”]

From its occasional appearance in such journals as the Sewanee Review the poetry of James Wright was beginning to be known and respected before the publication of this first collection [The Green Wall]. Now with these forty poems brought together our hopeful notions are confirmed—as for...

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Anthony Hecht (essay date 1959-60)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “From ‘The Anguish of the Spirit and the Letter,”’ in The Hudson Review, Vol. XII, No. 4, Winter, 1959-60, pp. 46-48.

[In the following essay, Hecht praises Wright for his success at integrating “event and commentary” in “a poetry of wisdom.”]

James Wright is a gifted young poet who is trying to write the most difficult kind of poetry: the poetry of wisdom. He has said of his new book [St. Judas]: “I have tried to shape these poems, singly and as a group, in order to ask some moral questions: Exactly what is a good and humane action? And, even if one knows what such an action is, then exactly why should he perform it?” This is...

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Daniel G. Hoffman (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “From ‘Between New Voice and Old Master,”’ in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXVIII, No. 4, October-December, 1960, pp. 43-45.

[In the following essay, Hoffman finds in Wright's attention to defeated people in his poetry the answer to the poet's questions: “What is good and humane action, and why perform it?”]

The condemned, the lost, the disfigured, the loved, the guilty Americans in James Wright's poems move through his stanzas as presences who make the poet speak and in speaking define himself by his reactions to them. The questions which summoned them to him, he tells us, are moral ones: “I have tried to shape these poems … in order to ask …...

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William B. Toole, III (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright's ‘At the Slackening of the Tide,’” in The Explicator, Vol. XXII, No. 4, December, 1963, p. 29.

[In the following essay, Toole discusses the conflict between scientific knowledge and spiritual meaning awakened in the poet after he has seen a drowning.]

At first reading, one immediately realizes that James Wright's “At the Slackening of the Tide” is a poem of disillusionment. The narrator, apparently a poet, came to the beach to enjoy the beauty of nature and to compose; but the accidental drowning which he witnessed brought to his mind the lurking horror which is at the center of things and robbed him of the ability to take pleasure in the...

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Geoffrey H. Hartman (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beyond the Middle Style,” in James Wright: The Heart of the Light, edited by Peter Stitt and Frank Graziano, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 141-43.

[In the following excerpt, Hartman, while maintaining Wright's hold on his poetic talent, judges The Branch Will Not Break to be only a sketch book, and the free verse poems in it to be “straining for relaxation.”]

The spirit of Thoreau is abroad again. It is, on the whole, a benificent spirit, kindly disposed to heifers and horses, and dangerous only to moralizers. “The moral aspect of nature,” we read in Thoreau's Journals, “is a jaundice reflected from man.” And,...

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Ronald Moran and George Lensing (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Emotive Imagination: A New Departure in American Poetry,” in The Southern Review, Vol III, New Series, No. 1, January, 1967, pp. 51-67.

[In the following essay, Moran and Lensing welcome a new poetry of “emotive imagination” and the poets, among them Wright, who employ that style.]


In the last decade and a half, a new movement in American poetry, which we choose to call the emotive imagination, has gained sufficient momentum and import to justify definition and analysis. William Stafford, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and Robert Bly are its central figures.1 Their work represents a new departure from a poetry...

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James Wright with William Heyen and Jerome Mazzaro (interview date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Something to Be Said for the Light: A Conversation with James Wright,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 134-53.

[In the following interview, which took place in 1970, Wright discusses some origins of his poetry, his evolving poetic style, his relationship to other poets, and his sense of the world around him.]

The following conversation with James Wright took place at the State University College, Brockport, New York on September 24, 1970. Discussing Wright's work with him are two widely published poets and critics of modern poetry, William Heyen (S. U. N. Y. at Brockport) and Jerome Mazzaro (S. U. N. Y. at Buffalo). At...

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Charles Molesworth (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “James Wright and the Dissolving Self,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 22-23, Spring-Summer, 1973, pp. 222-33.

[In the following essay, Molesworth reflects on the poetic implications of Wright's movement from his early distanced, classic style to his later romantic, more personal one.]

Susan Sontag said that the two chief elements of the modern sensibility are “homosexual aesthetic irony and Jewish moral earnestness.” Perhaps the first qualifier in each triplet is excessive, but certainly most modern artists have traces of both qualities in some combination. In looking at his career, we can see that James Wright has moved from irony to earnestness. Because in his...

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William Matthews (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Continuity of James Wright's Poems,” in The Ohio Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 44-57.

[In the following essay, Matthews argues against the accepted critical judgement that Wright's early, metrically formal poetry is more skillful than his later free verse.]

By now most everyone who cares about American poetry knows the story about James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break (1963). But like the tale of Abner Doubleday and the invention of baseball, the story is more shapely than true, and its use has been primarily for polemicists. So because I think James Wright has already written a significant body of generous and beautiful...

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Stephen Yenser (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Open Secrets,” in Parnassus, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 125-42.

[In the following essay, Yenser reviews two collections by Wright, and explores the tension between order and adventure in his poetry.]

At least since The Branch Will Not Break (1963) James Wright's poetry has been pulled in two directions—or in one uncertain direction by two sometimes opposing forces. We might as well make them horses, especially since, as he reaffirms in Moments of the Italian Summer, Wright considers horses perhaps “the most beautiful of God's creatures.” One of them we could call David, after Robert Bly's sway-backed palomino who has...

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Walter Kalaidjian (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Many of Our Waters: The Poetry of James Wright,” in Boundary 2, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1981, pp. 101-21.

[In the following essay, Kalaidjian discusses the importance of water and river imagery in Wright's poetry.]

At first glance, the movement of James Wright's career away from the initial apprenticeship to traditional verse forms to his later postmodernist innovations, under the influence of Robert Bly's “deep image” poetry and Spanish surrealism, appears erratic and disjunctive, lacking in a common center of inspiration and unifying technique. His final quest from Shall We Gather at the River to To a Blossoming Pear Tree for a more...

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Peter Serchuk (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “On the Poet, James Wright,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2-3, 1981, pp. 85-90.

[In the following essay, Serchuk relates an encounter with Wright which showed him the link between Wright the man and Wright the poet, as well as the purpose of poetry for Wright.]

Although James Wright was making few campus visits in the spring of 1973, he agreed to visit our poetry workshop at the University of Illinois mostly as a favor to our instructor, Laurence Lieberman, whose poetry he admired and who'd written some of the best criticism to be found on Wright's work. There was only one stipulation: no formal readings. According to his agent, Wright had...

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Edward Lense (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “This Is What I Wanted: James Wright and the Other World,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1-2, 1982, pp. 19-32.

[In the following essay, Lense argues that Wright perceives the spirit of “the other world,” whether pastoral or painful, embedded in the common elements of this one.]

James Wright is not generally thought of as a visionary poet. The imagery of his poems has always been grounded in matter-of-fact realities, whether the plains and white houses of the Midwest in his earlier books or, more recently, factories and large cities. The poems are almost weighed down by physical details: Wright is careful to tell his readers which hand he...

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John Martone (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘I Would Break into Blossom’: Neediness and Transformation in the Poetry of James Wright,” in Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 64-75.

[In the following essay, an obituary tribute to Wright, Martone examines the theme of transformation in his poetry.]


It is difficult to speak retrospectively of James Wright's poetry, to think of it as a completed ouevre rather than as an ongoing body of work, for Wright's was very much a poetic of transformation. As Dave Smith puts it, “Wright insists that the most fundamental nature of poetry is in its...

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Jerome Mazzaro (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dark Water: James Wright's Early Poetry,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 135-55.

[In the following essay, Mazzaro traces the aesthetic and ethical development of Wright's poetry.]

When James Wright came on the literary scene in the mid-fifties, he possessed what few other young poets had—command. This command could be felt in the ranges of his diction, line, and stanza as well as in the varied ways he handled subjects. His writing could move from the soft romanticism of “fumbled for the sunlight with her eyes” to the neoclassicism of “I mourn no soul but his.” It could also embrace a Shakespearean “fruits of...

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Peter Stitt (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Peter Stitt, “James Wright: The Garden and the Grime,” The Kenyon Review, New Series VI, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 76-91.

[In the following essay, Stitt examines the importance of the quest motif in Wright's poetry, and identifies it as a quest for a death in which what is dark and burdensome is transformed into light.]

James Wright is perhaps the most “questing” of all contemporary poets; there is in his poems a general feeling of dissatisfaction with where he is at the present time and a corresponding desire to be somewhere else. This questing impulse is evident both within the work taken as a whole and within the separate volumes of poetry, where...

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Randall Stiffler (essay date 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Reconciled Vision of James Wright,” in The Literary Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall, 1984, pp. 77-92.

[In the following essay, Stiffler argues that Wright's main goal in his poetry was to reconcile “the possibility of epiphany with the reality of despair.”]


In 1958, James Wright received the following words of advice from his former teacher, Theodore Roethke:

Now to you. I hope you won't take it amiss: I worry, I worry my can off, practically. And I've spent nearly the whole of three sessions with my doctor yacking about you. Apparently you're more of an emotional symbol to me than I...

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Ben Howard (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Another Shore,” in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 6, March, 1991, pp. 343-54.

[In the following essay, Howard reviews Wright's Complete Poems and a volume of critical essays about Wright, and concludes that Wright triumphs over his work's shortcomings because his best works show “imagistic luminosity, melodic purity, and emotional clarity.”]

Elegist, visionary, and bitter social critic, the late James Wright remains a vivid presence in contemporary American poetry. As Donald Hall remarks in introducing this definitive edition of Wright's poems, few American poets have been the subject of so many elegies. Few have been more revered—or more shamelessly...

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Nathan A. Scott, Jr. (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright's Lyricism,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 27, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 438-64.

[In the following essay, Scott explores Wright's lyricism, especially in the late prose poems.]

Above the River, which collects all of James Wright's poetry, coming as it does more than a decade after his death, reminds us of the stubborn persistency with which much of the poetry lasts. It is more frequently than not the case that the literary art that becomes immovably a part of the furniture of one's mind and spirit wins its place of settlement by reason of a pleasure it affords through the brilliant suasiveness with which it conducts a certain kind of...

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Rodney Jones (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Vision of a Practical Man,” in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 216-41.

[In the following essay, a review of Wright's Complete Poems, Jones traces Wright's development as a poet, the shifting influences on his style, and the strengths and weaknesses of his poetry.]


James Wright wrote with more heart than any other North American poet of the twentieth century. His flaws were so obvious that it is hardly useful to point them out. He was capable of a sentimentality so overblown that it can only be described as heroic, and a preciousness of diction that rivals Shelley's, but in poem after poem, he dug down into the...

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George Yatchisin (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Listening to Walt Whitman and James Wright,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Vol. 9, No. 4, Spring, 1992, pp. 175-95.

[In the following essay, Yatchisin shows how Wright's study of Walt Whitman's poetry contributed to the development of his own.]

James Wright's essay, “The Delicacy of Walt Whitman,” published in 1962, might have saved Wright's poetic career. The four years between his books Saint Judas (1959) and The Branch Will Not Break (1963) were clearly tumultuous ones; Wright has said in a 1972 interview that “a certain kind of poetry had come to an end, and I thought that I would stop writing completely.”1 Nowhere...

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Kevin Stein (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Dark River of Labor’: Work and Workers in James Wright's Poetry,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 6, November-December, 1993, pp. 49-54.

[In the following essay, Stein surveys the poems in which Wright confronts the industrial and economic exploitation of workers and landscape.]

Many of James Wright's early poems introduced uncommonly common subjects, populated as they were by a murderer, a prostitute, a lesbian, an escaped convict, and an occasional drunk. Even W.H. Auden, who chose Wright's The Green Wall as the Yale Series winner, couldn't help but notice Wright's affinity for chronicling the lives of “social outsiders,”...

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David Pink (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright's ‘A Blessing,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 44-45.

[In the following essay, Pink discusses “A Blessing,” focusing on the significance of boundaries in the poem, and on the instances of transgressing them.]

“A Blessing” is perhaps James Wright's best known poem. It certainly embodies his greatest strength: the poet evoking nature as an inroad to the metaphysical or numinous. Wright is, in general and in this poem in particular, a poet of epiphany in the grand Yeatsian tradition. “A Blessing” culminates with the poet's wish to step out of his body and “break into blossom.” There can be no doubt, given the...

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David Baker (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Re: Wright,” in The Kenyon Review, New Series XVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 157-60.

[In the following essay, Baker introduces a group of Wright's poems, asserting that his “work has yet to be appraised satisfactorily.”]

We are building a huge cottage industry out of the ranking and aligning of cultural works and literary authors. The two Blooms—Harold and Allan—have constructed, quite independently, their lists of scholarly inclusions and exclusions. William Bennett has prescribed for us all his elixir of elitist medicine even as, like the Casey Kasem of poetry, William Harmon spins The Top 100 Poems out of his The Top 500 Poems....

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William V. Davis (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To Step Lightly, Lightly, All the Way through Your Ruins’: James Wright's Ohio Poems,” in The Midwest Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1996, pp. 353-64.

[In the following essay, Davis argues that Wright transcends the geographical places he writes about in his poetry by transforming them into metaphorical images.]

In her essay, “Places in Fiction,” Eudora Welty says that “[p]lace is one of the lesser angels that watch over the … hand” of all writing and that “as soon as we step down from the general view to the close and particular, as writers must and readers may,” to try to determine “what good writing may be, place can be seen...

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Edward Hirsch (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Hand, a Hook, a Prayer,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 26, No. 5, September-October, 1997, pp. 17-20

[In the following excerpt, Hirsch analyzes Wright's handling of encounters between needy strangers in several of his poems.]

James Wright's poem “Hook” explores a moment of direct contact, of actual—of actualizing—connection. It gestures toward the reader by recalling, by summoning up out of the distant past, a fleeting but necessary encounter with another person, a stranger. It was written with that deceptively blunt and aggressive directness that characterized so much of Wright's late work. Wright once wrote an essay called “The Delicacy...

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G. Burns Cooper (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wright's ‘On a Phrase from Southern Ohio,”’ in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 100-2.

[In the following essay, Cooper analyzes the significance of line length in Wright's “On a Phrase from Southern Ohio.”]

Poets and critics disagree about the role of the line in free verse. Some assume that there is a pause at the end of each line whereas others do not; some say lines within a poem tend to take the same amount of time to read or say, yet others disagree. Some critics assume that line divisions should reflect divisions in syntactic phrasing; others argue that the most important feature of free verse rhythm is the tension created by...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Dougherty, Douglas C. James Wright. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 425p.

A comprehensive study of Wright's work with a useful biographical essay, chronology, and extensive bibliography.

Elkins, Andrew. The Poetry of James Wright. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991, 273p.

A book-length study of Wright's entire body of work that emphasizes the continuity and development of themes and concerns, with an extensive bibliography of works about the poet.

Henricksen, Bruce. “Poetry Must Think: An Interview with James Wright,” New Orleaons Review 6 (1979): 201-07.


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