A Poet Fluent in Many Traditions

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jay Wright’s poetic ventures into the manifold layers of African American spiritual and intellectual history defy critical attempts at containing African American literature within paradigms of cultural nationalism and Afrocentricity. On one hand, Wright has been celebrated as one of the most original and powerful voices in contemporary American poetry and has received prestigious awards throughout his career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), an American Academy Literature Award (1981), and a MacArthur Fellowship (1986). On the other hand, his refusal to follow Amiri Baraka and others in renouncing Western European and European American poetic traditions and to make his poetry more accessible to popular audiences has led to charges of willful obscurantism and political aloofness. Unlike most African American poets of his generation, Wright insists that grounding in other cultures is a vital part of African American creativity.

Few poets are as conversant with as many different poetic and cultural traditions as Jay Wright is. Inspired by what he calls in Elaine’s Book (1986) a “passion for what is hidden,” Wright delves into the histories and mythologies of Western Europe, Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia in an impressive effort to restore to African American literature all of its cultural, historical, social, artistic, intellectual, and emotional resources. During the course of a spiritual quest that is at once personal and collective, Wright calls attention to myriad invisible threads that subtly weave together cultural traditions often believed to have evolved separately. Though firmly grounded in African American historical experience and expressive culture, Wright’s work exemplifies what Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, whom Wright has frequently acknowledged as one of his guides, calls a poetics of the cross-cultural imagination.