Authors: Jay Wright

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: African American, American Indian (Cherokee)

Author Works


Death as History, 1967

The Homecoming Singer, 1971

Soothsayers and Omens, 1976

Dimensions of History, 1976

The Double Invention of Komo, 1980

Explications/Interpretations, 1984

Elaine’s Book, 1986

Selected Poems of Jay Wright, 1987

Boleros, 1991

Transfigurations: Collected Poems, 2000


Jay Wright was born in 1935 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Leona Dailey, a Virginian of black and Native American ancestry. His father, George Murphy, a light-complexioned African American construction worker, jitney driver, and handyman who later adopted the name of Mercer Murphy Wright, claimed both Cherokee and Irish descent. Wright remained with his mother until the age of three, when Leona gave the boy to Frankie Faucett and his wife Daisy, a black Albuquerque couple known for taking in children. Daisy Faucett was as religious as her husband was proud and generous, and Wright’s intense early exposure to the African American church was attributable to her. Mercer Wright, in the meantime, had relocated to California. It was not until his son was in his early teens that he went to live with his father, and later his stepmother Billie, in San Pedro. During his high school years in San Pedro, Wright began to play baseball. In the early 1950’s, he worked as a minor-league catcher for the San Diego Padres, the Fresno Cardinals, and the Mexicali Aguilars; he also learned to play the bass. In 1954, he joined the Army, and he served in the medical corps until 1957. He was stationed in Germany for most of that time, which gave him the opportunity to travel throughout Europe.{$I[AN]9810001549}{$I[A]Wright, Jay}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wright, Jay}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Wright, Jay}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Wright, Jay}{$I[tim]1935;Wright, Jay}

A year after his return to the United States, Wright enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley under the G.I. Bill. At Berkeley, he devised his own major in comparative literature and was graduated after only three years. Before deciding to continue his literary studies, Wright considered studying theology, and he spent a semester at Union Theological Seminary in New York on a Rockefeller grant. He left Union for Rutgers University in 1962. In 1964, Wright interrupted his graduate studies to spend a year teaching English and medieval history at the Butler Institute in Guadalajara, Mexico. He returned to Rutgers in 1965. During the next three years, Wright completed all the requirements for his doctoral degree except the dissertation. While at Rutgers, Wright lived and worked part-time in Harlem, where he came into contact with a number of other young African American writers, among them Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, and LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka).

In 1968, Wright married Lois Silber, who joined him during his second and longest sojourn in Mexico. The couple lived briefly in Guadalajara and then moved to Jalapa, where they maintained a residence until the autumn of 1971. Many of Wright’s poems recall these and other Mexican settings. Wright returned to the United States from time to time, spending brief periods as a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo and Talladega Colleges and at Texas Southern University, as well as several months as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University. In early 1971, the Wrights departed for Scotland. During Wright’s two-year tenure as Joseph Compton Creative Writing Fellow at Dundee University, they lived in Penicuik, outside Edinburgh. Upon their return to the United States in 1973, the Wrights moved first to Warren and then to Piermont, New Hampshire.

Wright has traveled extensively throughout Europe, the United States, Central and South America, and Canada. In 1988, he was part of a group of writers who visited the People’s Republic of China under the auspices of the University of California at Los Angeles. Since 1975, he has taught at Yale University, at the universities of Utah, Kentucky, and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and at Dartmouth College.

Wright’s poetic vision is unique in its cross-cultural approach to African American spiritual and intellectual history. He has been called one of the most original and powerful voices in contemporary American poetry. Though critical acclaim of his work has been slow in coming, he has received a number of prestigious awards: an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award in 1981; an Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Writing Award in 1985; and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986.

BibliographyCallaloo 6 (Fall, 1983). This special issue includes an excellent interview in which Wright outlines the theories behind his poetry. It also contains a general introduction to Wright’s poetry by Robert B. Stepto, a rather superficial assessment of his early poetry by Gerald Barrax, and detailed commentary by Vera M. Kutzinski on the Benjamin Banneker poems.Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. This critical look at the rise of modern anthropology and its entwinement with literature is useful background reading for some of Wright’s main sources, notably Marcel Griaule and his team. Equally relevant are Clifford’s comments on the West’s representation of other cultures and the negotiation of cultural differences.Harris, Wilson. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. While this study includes a brief discussion of The Double Invention of Komo, it is valuable primarily for its conceptualization of the literary dynamics of “the cross-cultural imagination.” Though Wright’s debt is to Harris’s earlier writings, this book summarizes the main concepts and ideas that have guided Harris’s thinking since the beginning of his career.Kutzinski, Vera M. Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolás Guillén. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. The second part of this book, “The Black Limbo: Jay Wright’s Mythology of Writing,” provides the fullest available commentary on Wright’s poetry. Focusing on Dimension of History and its historical and theoretical sources, it places Wright’s cross-cultural poetics within the context of the diverse cultural and literary histories of the Americas.Okpewho, Isidore. “Prodigal’s Progress: Jay Wright’s Focal Center.” MELUS 23, no. 3 (Fall, 1998): 187-209. Wright’s search for a satisfactory cultural identity through the successive volumes of his poetry is examined. Wright’s movement from the autobiographical to the scholarly to a poetic self-creation through ritual and religion is traced.Stepto, Robert B. “After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Arts, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. This article concentrates on portions of Dimensions of History. It is useful for situating Wright’s poetry within the “call-and-response” structures of an African American literary tradition whose central concern, according to Stepto, is with “freedom and literacy.”Welburn, Ron. “Jay Wright’s Poetics: An Appreciation.” MELUS 18, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 51. The historical and metaphysical codes that add energy to Wright’s poetry are examined. In spite of his relative obscurity, Wright deserves appreciation for his creative intellect.
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