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James Wright Biography | Poet

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James Arlington Wright (December 3, 1927 – March 25, 1980), was one of the most beloved American poets of the second half of the 20th century. Wright first emerged on the literary scene in 1956 with The Green Wall, a collection of formalist verse that was awarded the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Prize. But by the early 1960's, Wright, increasingly influenced by the Spanish language surrealists, had dropped fixed meters. His transformation achieved its maximum expression with the publication of the seminal The Branch Will Not Break (1963), which positioned Wright as curious counterpoint to the Beats and New York schools, which predominated on the American coasts.

This stunning transformation had not come by accident, as Wright had been working for years with his friend Robert Bly, collaborating on the translation of world poets in the influential magazine The Fifties (later The Sixties). Such influences fertilized Wright's unique perspective and helped put the Midwest back on the poetic map.

Wright had discovered a terse, wildly imagistic free verse of stunning grace, clarity, and power. During the next ten years Wright would go on to pen some of the most beloved and frequently anthologized masterpieces of the century, such as "A Blessing," "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio," and "I Am a Sioux Indian Brave, He Said to Me in Minneapolis."

Technically, Wright was an innovator, especially in the use of his titles, first lines, and last lines, which he used to great dramatic effect in defense of the lives of the disenfranchised. He is equally well known for his tender depictions of the bleak landscapes of the post-industrial American Midwest. Since his death, Wright has developed a cult following, transforming him into a seminal writer of ever increasing influence. Each year, hundreds of writers gather to pay tribute at the James Wright Poetry Festival in Martin's Ferry.

Wright's son Franz Wright is also a poet. Together they are the only parent/child pair to have won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category (Poetry).


Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, one of the steel-producing towns along the heavily industrialized Upper Ohio River as it borders West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He was born two years before the American stock market crash of 1929 to a father who worked in the Hazel-Atlas Glass factory and a mother who worked in laundry. He graduated from high school in 1945, one year after the end of World War II. Wright then joined the army and was stationed in Japan during the American occupation of that country.

Wright later attended Kenyon College, from which he graduated cum laude in 1951, after which he received a Fulbright Fellowship and travelled to Vienna, Austria. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Wright taught at various institutions around the country. In 1954 he went to the University of Washington where he studied with poets Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. That year, when he was still a graduate student, W. H. Auden selected Wright's manuscript for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series. In 1957, when his book of poems, The Green Wall, was published, he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota where his colleagues were Allen Tate and John Berryman. In 1959, he earned a PhD from the University of Washington with a dissertation on Charles Dickens and his second collection, Saint Judas, was published in the Wesleyan University Press series. During this period, Wright contributed poetry and book reviews to major publications like the Sewannee Review and regularly published in virtually every important journal, from The New Yorker to the New Orleans Poetry Review. Nonetheless, the University of Minnesota did not believe he had the qualifications to become a tenured professor, and Wright had to relocate to nearby Macalester College.

Wright married his high school sweetheart Liberty Kardules, who was a nurse in Texas. The couple had two sons, Franz and Marshall. Wright left his wife in 1959, and they divorced in 1962. In 1966, he took a job at Hunter College in New York where he met Edith Ann Runk - the "Annie" of many of his poems. They were married shortly after his move to New York at the Riverside Church in April of 1967. Annie was very good for Wright and helped him tone down his drinking. They spent a number of summers in Italy and Paris.

Wright died on March 25, 1980 shortly after being diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. His funeral was held at the same Riverside Church where he had married Annie.



Wright's early poetry is relatively conventional, in form and meter, especially compared with his later, looser poetry. His work with translations of German and South American poets, as well as the influence of Robert Bly, had considerable influence on his own poems; this is most evident in Shall We Gather at the River, which departs radically from the formal style of Wright's previous book, Saint Judas.

His poetry often deals with the disenfranchised, or the outsider, American; yet it is also often inward probing. Wright suffered from depression and bipolar mood disorders and also battled alcoholism his entire life. He experienced several nervous breakdowns, was hospitalized, and was subjected to electroshock therapy. His dark moods and focus on emotional suffering were part of his life and often the focus of his poetry, although given the emotional turmoil he experienced personally, his poems are often remarkably optimistic in expressing a faith in life and human transcendence. His seminal 1963 volume The Branch Will Not Break is one example of his belief in the human spirit.

His 1972 Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his other awards, Wright received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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Book: Shattered Sighs