The Poetry of Jay Wright

by Jay Wright
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432

In the early 1970’s, when many African Americans adopted such aspects of traditional African culture as wardrobe and hairstyle, Jay Wright chose to explore the complex mythologies of the West African Dogon and Bambara peoples. Early poems in The Homecoming Singer are often biographical, but later poetry, drawing upon Wright’s study of anthropological works, approaches these African cosmologies with the gravity that English-language poets previously have accorded to biblical and ancient classical sources. A full appreciation of The Double Invention of Komo depends upon the reader’s willingness to investigate these sources, but many of Wright’s shorter poems in Explications/Interpretations and other books are accessible to more casual attention. In every case, Wright views poetry as a personal means of learning about spiritual and communal realities. “My speech is a plumb line/ to the echo of the earth” he writes in “Inscrutability.”

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Raised in New Mexico and Southern California, Wright was directly influenced by African American, Hispanic, and Native American culture and his literary search for identity avoids the binary black-white focus of much African American literature. In his notes to The Double Invention of Komo, Wright asserts that “history and poetry have the same creative ground” and are tools for individual discovery that “permit a man to know himself.” As a result, Wright’s poetry is an ambitious and demanding intellectual exercise, demonstrating his belief that traditional African cosmologies and rituals effectively define the relationship of the individual to society and the natural world in ways that are unavailable through European philosophy. Well read in religion and modern science, Western and non-Western philosophy, Wright requires his readers to see each of these as equally complex and valid approaches to understanding reality. The Double Invention of Komo is a crosscultural epic that dramatizes a Bambara initiation ritual, recording Wright’s intellectual quest and introducing his readers to a syncretic view of the world.

Wright is primarily a religious poet—in the sense that his works seek to engage the spiritual dimension of human life—and even his scintillating love poems seek “the gift of being transformed.” What there is of social commentary in his work may be found in his suggestion that actively pursuing an understanding of spirituality may be the most effective way to deal with social problems. He writes in “Journey to the Place of Ghosts,” “It is time for the snail’s pace/ of coming again into life,/ with the world swept clean,/ the crying done.” In Wright’s poetry, even the most minute achievement of personal intelligence counts more than Western notions of material progress.

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