The Green Wall, 1957
Saint Judas, 1959
The Branch Will Not Break, 1963
Shall We Gather at the River, 1968
Collected Poems, 1971
Two Citizens, 1973
Moments of the Italian Summer, 1976
To a Blossoming Pear Tree, 1977
This Journey, 1982
Above the River: The Complete Poems, 1990
Collected Prose, 1983
Twenty Poems of George Trakl, 1961 (with Robert Bly)
Twenty Poems, 1962 (of César Vallejo; with Bly and John Knoepfle)
The Rider on the White Horse, and Selected Stories, 1964 (of Theodor Storm)
Twenty Poems of Pablo Neruda, 1967 (with Bly)
Poems, 1970 (of Hermann Hesse)
Wandering, 1972 (of Hesse; with Franz Wright)
James Arlington Wright is one of the most significant poetic voices reacting to what has been called the “high modernist” American poetry of the early twentieth century, represented by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and others. His early break from this type of highly formal poetry was associated with the “deep image” school of Robert Bly but soon outgrew such categories. Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, an industrial town on the upper Ohio River, in 1927, fourteen months before the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The insecurities of an industrial town during the Depression haunt his poetry, and the Ohio Valley, with its paradoxical conflux of natural beauty and industrial ugliness, remained prominent in his imagery, even in his poetry written in Europe.
Despite this emphasis on his Ohio home in his writing, Wright’s early years were marked by his keen desire to get away from it. Upon graduation in 1946, he enlisted in the Army and served a tour in Japan. After completing military service, Wright entered Kenyon College in 1948. His senior year, 1952, was filled with milestones: He married his high school sweetheart, Liberty Kardules; had his first poem published in the Western Review; won the Robert Frost Poetry Prize; and received a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Vienna. His first son, Franz, was born in Vienna.
Returning to the United States, Wright began graduate study in English literature at the University of Washington in the fall of 1953. In 1957, his first book of poetry, The Green Wall, was published in the Yale Younger Poets series, a prestigious venue for which the competition is sharp. Further distinction was given the volume via its foreword by the eminent modernist poet W. H. Auden. The verse of The Green Wall is very much like that of the modernist poetry of the first half of the twentieth century: rhythmically freer than earlier verse forms, yet retaining the measured cadence of blank verse. Many sections of “Sappho,” one of the best poems in the book, can be scanned as iambic pentameter. “A Gesture by a Lady with an Assumed Name” is in iambic pentameter quatrains of alternating rhyme–the type of formal structure most of his contemporaries were rejecting.
In 1957 Wright began teaching at the University of Minnesota, where he began his association with Robert Bly a year later. His next collection of poems, Saint Judas, little reflects the association, but the one after that, The Branch Will Not Break, represents a significant shift in style. In fact, it has been widely recognized as a watershed work for modern American poetry in general. With Bly, Wright had been studying the surrealistic, highly subjective poetry of the Peruvian César Vallejo and the Chilean Pablo Neruda. Wright’s translations of these two poets’ works, in collaboration with Bly, infused his own poetry with what South American critics had called Vallejo’s “personalist” style, consciously rejecting the studied objectivity of high modernism, though maintaining the modernist tendency to develop a poem by images.
Wright spent much of the next five years on the move. His first marriage had ended in divorce in 1962. In 1964 he taught at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following year he won a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to travel to California, back to his home state of Ohio, and to New York, where he began teaching at Hunter College in 1966. In 1967 he married Edith Anne Runk in New York.
Wright’s next collection of poems, Shall We Gather at the River, offered more of the newer style of poetry seen in his previous book and contained what would become some of his most anthologized poems. He confirmed his own importance as a major American poet by gathering all of his previous poems, as well as thirty-three new ones, in Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
The 1970’s were marked by travel in Europe (in 1972 and, with a second Guggenheim, in 1978) and by increased recognition for his work. During this time he also experienced significant personal loss, the death of his father in 1973 and that of his mother in 1974, which precipitated a nervous collapse. In his poetry volumes Two Citizens, Moments of the Italian Summer, and To a Blossoming Pear Tree, he continued developing his deep symbolist mode. Unable to shake a sore throat that he first noticed at the end of his last trip to Europe in the autumn of 1979, Wright was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue in December. He died the following March, having already completed his last volume of poems, This Journey.