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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Wright
(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.

His 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).

Wright’s 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 Gary Snyder.

Influenced 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.

Wright’s 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
Saint Judas (1959)
Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1963)
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota (1963)
A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862 (1971)

Other Works
Collected Prose (1983)
Above the River: The Complete Poems (1990)

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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.

Secondary Sources