James Wright

(1927 - 1980)

James Arlington Wright was born and raised in Martins Ferry, Ohio, across the Ohio River from West Virginia. Both of his working-class parents left school after eighth grade. As a high school student, Wright suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated with shock therapy. He missed a year of school but found supports upon his return: his English teacher encouraged his writing, while his Latin teacher introduced him to classical literature, which he translated and learned by heart. Upon his graduation in 1946, he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Japan.

Wright took advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend Kenyon College, where he studied with John Crowe Ransom. In 1952, he graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. That same year, he married his first wife, Liberty Kardules, with whom he had two children, Franz and Marshall. Franz would become a poet himself, and his 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry win would make the two Wrights the first father-and-son pair to garner the honor. The elder Wright traveled to Austria on a Fulbright Fellowship, where he immersed himself in German-language works that would inform his own later writing. He returned to the U.S. to attend the University of Washington, earning his master’s degree and Ph.D. and studying with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz.

In 1957, Wright’s first book, The Green Wall (Yale University Press), was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, winning him visibility and acclaim. He followed it with 1959’s Saint Judas (Wesleyan University Press). Both collections drew from the formal tradition, incorporating rhyme and more stylized writing. Always prone to depression and heavy drinking, Wright began to despair over what he felt was his limited capability as a poet and considered leaving literature altogether. However, he found new inspiration after encountering Robert Bly and Bill Duffy’s magazine The Fifties, which published work by under-recognized poets and literature in translation.

With his style transformed and expanded by the influence of poets writing in Spanish, Chinese, and German, Wright next published The Branch Will Not Break (Wesleyan University Press, 1963), now his most celebrated book. Per Jonathan Barker, “Wright had learned how to pare away inessential verbiage to arrive at the heart of the poem, the essence of what should be expressed.” This new phase signaled a change of life as well. Wright cut down on his drinking, entered a second, happier marriage, and produced five more collections over his next 16 years of life. He taught literature at the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and Hunter College, and worked with his friend Bly on The Fifties, later renamed The Sixties. In 1972, his Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. His poetry, often situated in a Midwestern setting, focuses on somber topics—loneliness, death, poverty, and the disenfranchised—which come accompanied with moments of redemption and transcendence.

Wright died of cancer in New York City on March 25, 1980. The James Wright Poetry Festival was organized the following year, then annually for the next 26, in his hometown of Martins Ferry. Four volumes of his poetry and three of his letters have been posthumously published. A fellow of the Academy of American Poets, Wright was widely anthologized. The subject of a 2007 biography by Jonathan Blunk, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, Wright is considered one of the great poets of his time period.


More James Wright

Video: Wright reads for the First American Poetry Series

Text: Read poems by Wright at the Poetry Foundation website