James Wright (poet)
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James Arlington Wright|
December 13, 1927
Martins Ferry, Ohio USA
March 25, 1980 (aged 52)|
New York, NY
|Literary movement||Deep image poetry|
|Notable works||The Branch Will Not Break; "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota""|
James Wright was born and spent an unhappy childhood in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In 1946, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and participated in the occupation of Japan. Following his discharge, he attended Kenyon College on the GI Bill and published poems in the Kenyon Review. Wright subsequently spent a Fulbright year in Vienna and obtained a Ph.D. at the University of Washington.
Wright first emerged on the literary scene in 1956 with The Green Wall, a collection of formalist verse that was awarded the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. But by the early 1960s, Wright, increasingly influenced by the Spanish language surrealists, had dropped fixed meters. His transformation achieved its maximum expression with the publication of the seminal The Branch Will Not Break (1963), which positioned Wright as curious counterpoint to the Beats and New York Schools, which predominated on the American coasts.
This transformation had not come by accident, as Wright had been working for years with his friend Robert Bly, collaborating on the translation of world poets in the influential magazine The Fifties (later The Sixties). Such influences fertilized Wright's unique perspective and helped put the Midwest back on the poetic map.
Wright had discovered a terse, imagistic, free verse of clarity, and power. During the next ten years Wright would go on to pen some of the most beloved and frequently anthologized masterpieces of the century, such as "A Blessing," "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," and "I Am a Sioux Indian Brave, He Said to Me in Minneapolis."
Wright's son Franz Wright was also a poet. Together they are the only parent/child pair to have won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category (Poetry).
Wright's early poetry is relatively conventional in form and meter, especially compared with his later, looser poetry. Although most of his fame comes from his original poetry, Wright made a contribution to another area or literary modernism- the translation.
His work with translations of German and South American poets, as well as the poetry and aesthetic position of Robert Bly, had considerable influence on his own poems; this is most evident in The Branch Will Not Break, which departs radically from the formal style of Wright's previous book, Saint Judas. In addition to his own poetry, he also published loose translations of René Char's hermetic poems.
His poetry often deals with the disenfranchised, or the American outsider. Wright suffered from depression and bipolar mood disorders and also battled alcoholism his entire life. He experienced several nervous breakdowns, was hospitalized, and was subjected to electroshock therapy.
His dark moods and focus on emotional suffering were part of his life and often the focus of his poetry, although given the emotional turmoil he experienced personally, his poems can be optimistic in expressing a faith in life and human transcendence. In The Branch Will Not Break, the enduring human spirit becomes thematic. Nevertheless, the last line of his poem "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" famously reads, "I have wasted my life."
Technically, Wright was an innovator, especially in the use of his titles, first lines, and last lines, which he used to great dramatic effect in defense of the lives of the disenfranchised. He is equally well known for his tender depictions of the bleak landscapes of the post-industrial American Midwest.
Influence and Awards
His 1972 Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his other awards, Wright received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Since his death, Wright has developed a cult following, transforming him into a seminal writer of significant influence. Fellow Pulitzer prize for poetry winner Mary Oliver wrote "Three Poems for James Wright" upon his death, and hundreds of writers gathered annually for decades to pay tribute at the James Wright Poetry Festival held from 1981 through 2007 in Martins Ferry.
Published in his lifetime
Unless otherwise noted, year is when published:
- The Green Wall (Yale University Press, 1957)
- Saint Judas (Wesleyan University Press, 1959)
- The Branch Will Not Break (Wesleyan University Press, 1963)
- Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio—Broadside (1963)
- Shall We Gather at the River (Wesleyan University Press, 1967)
- Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1971)
- Two Citizens (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
- Moments of the Italian Summer (Dryad Press, 1976)
- To a Blossoming Pear Tree (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)
- This Journey (1982)
- This Journey (1982; completed in 1980)
- The Temple at Nîmes (1982)
- James Wright, In Defense Against This Exile. Letters To Wayne Burns., edited with an introduction by John R. Doheny (1985)
- Above the River - the Complete Poems, introduction by Donald Hall (1992)
- Selected Poems (2005)
- A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright (2005)
- The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright., edited by Anne Wright and Joy Harjo (2009)
- "A Poet of the Pure Clear Word", David Yezzi, Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2017
- Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright
- Brunner, Edward, "James Wright: Biographical Sketch", Modern American Poetry website, accessed April 19, 2008
- Saundra Maley, Solitary Apprenticeship: James Wright and German Poetry (Lewiston, Maine: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996).
- Magill, Frank N. Critical Survey of Poetry. Vol. 8. Pasadena: Salem, 1992. Print.
- Storlie, Erik F. Go Deep & Take Plenty of Root: A Prairie-Norwegian Father, Rebellion in Minneapolis, Basement Zen, Growing Up, Growing Tender. Recollections of James Wright, Chapters 6-11. Createspace 2013.
- Mr. James Wright reading a poem of his.
- Biography and critical commentary at Modern American Poetry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- Peter A. Stitt (Summer 1975). "James Wright, The Art of Poetry No. 19". The Paris Review.