| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
(1927 - 1980)
“Lost in the beautiful white ruins / Of America,”
James Wright finds a body of lyric poetry that both celebrates and grieves.
Wright’s America is the Midwest, the small towns and farms that surround his
own Martins Ferry, Ohio, where he was born in 1927 and grew up. Though his
poetry seems far removed from the institutionally academic, he did, in fact,
graduate from Kenyon College and took an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the
University of Washington in Seattle. He taught at the University of Minnesota,
Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Hunter College in New York, and the
University of Delaware.
first collection, The Green Wall (1957), was selected by W. H. Auden for the
Yale Series of Younger Poets. “Saint Judas,” the title poem of Wright’s second
volume (1959), is typical of his earliest work: the celebration of a marginal
figure—in this case the betrayer of Christ. There is another trait that is
typical, the use of a fixed form (Italian sonnet), meter (iambic pentameter),
and rhyme. Of his first book, Wright said that he “tried very hard to write in
the mode of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson”; there was also a
recognizable influence of two of his former teachers: John Crowe Ransom
(Kenyon) and Theodore Roethke (University of Washington).
poetry was about to undergo a major change. While studying as a Fulbright
Scholar in Austria in the early 1950s, Wright discovered the poetry of German
poets Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl. Trakl’s poetry of leaping images made a
powerful impact: “It was as though the sea had entered the class at the last
minute. For this poem was not like any poem I had ever recognized: the poet, at
a sign from the evening bells, followed the wings of birds that became a train
of pious pilgrims who were continually vanishing into the clear autumn of distances;
beyond the distances there were black horses leaping in red maple trees, in a
world where seeing and hearing are not two actions, but one.” How he might
incorporate such leaping images of a semi-surreal mode into his own verse
awaited the influence of Robert Bly. One of Trakl’s poems appeared in
translation in the first number (1958) of Bly’s magazine The Fifties, where
Wright happened to see it. The discovery prompted him to send a letter to Bly:
“It was sixteen pages long and single-spaced, and all he said in reply was
‘Come on out to the farm [in Madison, Minnesota].” That visit and others to
follow led to Wright’s immersion in what has come to be called poetry of the
“deep image” or “emotive imagination.” Wright abruptly abandoned the regular
meters and rhymes of his first two volumes for a free verse of colloquial
American speech and the juxtaposition of a succession of leaping images that
evolved toward an epiphanic moment of insight and self-knowledge. Beginning
with The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and continuing in Shall We Gather at the
River (1968), Wright’s poems began to share characteristics with other
deep-image poets like Bly, Louis Simpson, William Stafford, Robert Creeley, and
by Bly in another way, Wright’s poems become more overtly political. In
protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, he went on to write poems
like “Confession to J. Edgar Hoover,” where the speaker offers a scathingly
ironic prayer to the director of the FBI who is directly linked with the war.
own life was a struggle with mental illness and alcoholism, a struggle that
helped to bond his poetry with figures on the margins of American society.
Following his second marriage, to Edith Anne Runk (“Annie” in his poems) in
1967, he found a new stability and happiness in his life and work. Their time
together in Italy became the setting of scores of poems in his last
collections. His Collected Poems (1972) earned the Pulitzer Prize, among other
awards. Wright’s mark on American letters is also distinguished by his
translation of poets like Trakl, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Juan Ramon
Jimenez, and others. His prose poems are among his best work, especially in To
a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977). Wright died from cancer in 1980. Two years
later, his volume This Journey appeared, many poems anticipating his own
mortality: “Even if it were true, / Even if I were dead and buried in Verona,/I
believe I would come out and wash my face / In the chill spring.”
George S. Lensing|
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In the Heath Anthology
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862
Above the River: The Complete Poems
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Modern American Poetry
A brief bio, criticism, selected poems, and links.
Poet's Choice by Robert Haas
Haas provides two poems by Wright and a brief introduction to his work.
The Academy of American Poets
Exhibit offering a biography, list of works, selected poems, and links.