The Poets James Wright (1927-1980)


About the Poet

Admired for depicting the little dramas lived by the lonely and alienated, poet James Arlington Wright probed the distances between people. A lyric romanticist in the tradition of Robert Frost and E. A. Robinson, Wright profited from classes with teachers John Crowe Ransom and Theodore Roethke. His literary output was phenomenal: seven poetry collections and seven volumes of translated verse, plus a prose anthology and seven posthumous volumes. The conversational ease of his voicing, fidelity to detail, and immediacy of subjects are evident in such titles as "A Note Left in Jimmy Leonard's Shack," "Confession to J. Edgar Hoover," and "At the Executed Murderer's Grave."

Wright was born into a family of Irish talkers and storytellers on December 13, 1927, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His Midwestern working-class roots held firm through three decades of poetic portraits drawn from heartland realities. During the Depression, his father suffered layoffs from the Hazel-Atlas glass factory. Wright thrived on public speaking in grade school and began writing verse in high school. After being drafted into the United States Army during World War II, he wrote his mother to forward copies of Gerard Manley Hopkins' verse and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. After he was mustered out while serving in occupied Japan, he took advantage of the G. I. Bill and entered the only school that showed interest, Kenyon College.

After Wright shifted his concentration from vocational education to English and Russian literature, by 1952 he had published in twenty journals and earned the Robert Frost Poetry Prize, election to Phi Beta Kappa, and a B.A. degree. He attended the University of Vienna on a Fulbright Fellowship. At the University of Washington, he studied under poet Theodore Roethke and completed a dissertation on Dickensian comedy, then earned a Ph.D. in 1959. Simultaneously, he held a post as English instructor at the University of Minnesota while completing The Green Wall (1957), winner of a Yale Series of Younger Poets award. Three years later, he won the Ohiona Book Award for Saint Judas (1960).

Wright published The Lion's Tail and Eyes: Poems Written Out of Laziness and Silence (1962) with William Duffy and Robert Bly. Wright's break with traditionalism was influenced by his intimate study of German and Spanish masters, as demonstrated in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River (1968). Throughout this period, he published regularly in some fifteen journals.

Wright held subsequent teaching positions at Macalester College, Hunter College, and State University of New York. His Collected Poems (1971) won a Pulitzer Prize. He was active for the remainder of the 1970s, when his elegies were issued in Two Citizens (1973), I See the Wind (1974), Old Booksellers and Other Poems (1976), Moments of the Italian Summer (1976), and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1978). Much of the self-pity and despair of his early works disappeared after Wright conquered alcoholism and married his traveling companion Edith Anne Runk, whom he incorporated in a series of "Annie" poems. At his death from throat cancer on March 27, 1980, friends and colleagues eulogized him at Riverside Church in New York City. Posthumous works include This Journey (1982), The Temple in Nimes (1982), and Above the River: The Complete Poems (1992).

Chief Works

In 1963, Wright composed a twelve-line lyric to his hometown entitled "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." A brief hymn to the working class, the poem accounts for the phenomenon of high school sports heroics. Almost like a verse essay, the first stanza introduces place and economic motivation in laborers who invest their dreams in gridiron hero worship. The second stanza contrasts the testosterone-driven hunger for winners and the excluded females. Levering on "Therefore," Wright concludes his brief treatise with the next generation, who "grow suicidally beautiful" by acting out an artificial valor in theatrical combat at "Shreve High football stadium."

Composed in the same year, "Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon: Christmas, 1960" (1963) is a stark, yet winsome elegy. As is typical of Wright, he identifies the time in the title and the setting — "on the South Dakota border" — in line two. The poem's tension mounts to a peak in lines 15 and 16 with "I am sick / Of it, and I go on." As though touring the gravesites of "Chippewas and Norwegians," the poet-speaker admires the moonlight, which dazzles the eye with points of light. In spiritual repose, like a mystical father of the nation's sons, he ponders "the beautiful white ruins / Of America."

In the same style, "A Centenary Ode: Inscribed to Little Crow, Leader of the Sioux Rebellion in Minnesota, 1862" (1971), an oddly assertive history, is based on the death of the famed militant whose remains were first dumped at a Hutchinson slaughterhouse, then put on display by the Minnesota Historical Society. The poem moves beyond racism to social violence wrought by the Civil War. At the emotional pinnacle, the poet-speaker remarks to Little Crow, "If only I knew where to mourn you, / I would surely mourn. / But I don't know." Double spacing forces a rhetorical pause, as though the reader must hear out a hesitant voice laden with regret, not only for a dishonored leader but for the foundation of America on the graves of its Indians.

The unexpected detail of the wartime career of "Old Paddy Beck, my great-uncle" reminds the reader of a nation's shame, depicted as the loss of "the dress trousers." With a mild jog of thought from past to present in "Oh," the poet-speaker speaks distractedly of hobos, then segues to the personal with "I don't even know where / My own grave is." Almost embarrassingly frank about self-imposed exile, he departs from the usual breast-beating over past racism against natives and Africans to remind the reader that casual brutality, both past and present, compromises not just the republic, but also the individual citizen.

Wright displays another side of compassion in "Small Frogs Killed on the Highway" (1971). He adjusts the linear emphasis by varying from the single introductory adverb "Still" in line 1 to a lengthening span that reaches its height in line 10. An emotive hymn to the lowest levels of life, the poem disarms the reader with a contrast between the drivers' careless acts and the jubilant "tadpoles . . . dancing / On the quarter thumbnail / Of the moon."

The poet's celebration of self-regeneration anticipates a broader vision in "The Journey" (1982), a frozen moment set above Anghiari in the Tuscan hills of Italy. An upbeat discovery, the study of a spider poised on a web amid dust and corruption is an ambiguous image that could as easily apply to a local woman, "poised there, / While ruins crumbled on every side of her." Unlike his contemporaries, Wright carries implications to a straightforward statement — for example, "[don't] lose any sleep over the dead."

Discussion and Research Topics

1. How does Wright characterize the middle class in "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"? Does he positively or negatively portray this class?

2. In "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," what does the term "grow suicidally beautiful" mean? Is Wright tongue-in-cheek here?

3. Contrast the underlying philosophy of Wright's "Small Frogs Killed on the Highway" or "Lightning Bugs Asleep in the Afternoon" to that of Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour."

4. How does "Old Paddy Beck, my great-uncle" evoke shame? In the poem, what is shameful?

5. Compare James Wright's polemics in "Confession to J. Edgar Hoover" to contemporary political commentary in the works of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joy Harjo, and Allen Ginsberg.

6. Summarize the delight in imperfection that Wright develops in "With the Shell of a Hermit Crab," "All the Beautiful Are Blameless," and "The Ice House."