Every biography—in a way, every book—invites readers to examine their own lives, the more we share with their subjects the more so. Jonathan Blunk’s James Wright: A Life in Poetry, the authorized biography of the brilliant, troubled, and influential American poet from my adopted home state of Ohio, led me to a long contemplation of Wright’s life and work, and my own as well. A longtime Wright scholar who was also involved in the publication of a 2005 volume of Wright’s letters*, Blunk draws on Wright’s voluminous correspondence, poems, journals, interviews, and many other sources to create what will surely stand as the definitive biography of Wright. Especially for those who may know him only through a handful of anthologized poems, A Life in Poetry will reinforce Wright’s stature as a major American poet whose obsessive subjects—the plight of the poor, and the redemptive possibilities of language, the natural world, and human solidarity—are as relevant as ever.
Blunk’s new book—massively detailed, sympathetic, but unsparing—traces Wright’s origins in the declining mill town of Martins Ferry on the Ohio River. His father, Dudley, worked as a press roller and die setter, putting in fifty years at the Hazel-Atlas Glass factory just across the river in Wheeling; his mother, Jessie, worked in a laundry and kept the family well-supplied with books. Both parents left school early to work, and their unstinting labors kept the family just above water even through the Depression, moving through a series of modest houses and then to a nearby farm. James, the third of four children, was by all accounts an unexceptional student until a nervous breakdown (the first of several) postponed his junior year of high school. After six weeks on a psych ward and several months of manual labor, he resumed school determined to study hard, get to college, and escape the harsh labor and pinched lives he saw around him.
One great theme of Wright’s life as Blunk tells it is the bitterness he carried for the class structures and poverty of his home town. In a 1958 letter to Robert Bly, written immediately after Wright received a copy of the first issue of Bly’s magazine The Fifties, Wright describes Martins Ferry as “that unspeakable rat-hole where I grew up.” Right after his high school graduation in 1946 he joined the army to escape, never returning except for visits to family. Yet his psychic attachment to Martins Ferry never ended: the late poem “Beautiful Ohio” admits, “I began in Ohio. / I still dream of home.” This tormented (and typically Midwestern) ambivalence about his home place and birth landscape remained crucial to Wright’s imaginative life; from early to late his poems are full of working-class and otherwise marginalized people, treated with a relentless compassion that skeptical readers found sentimental but many others celebrated.
Wright’s escape plan meant reading and writing with a compulsive intensity. Encouraged by sympathetic high-school teachers, he read voraciously in the Romantic poets, Russian novelists, and much else, and began writing his own poems. Even during basic training and his posting to Japan in 1947, Blunk shows, Wright wrote and read prodigiously, exploring Nietzsche, Steppenwolf, James Joyce, the Koran, and Oscar Williams’ A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry. Discharged after seven months in Japan, in February 1948 he went off to Kenyon College, just a hundred miles west of his parents’ farm, on the GI Bill. Wright chose the school almost at random, but he was fortunate, for the small college boasted an elite English department, including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, F. O. Matthiessen, Yvor Winters, and Cleanth Brooks.
Wright studied hard at Kenyon as well. He immersed himself in classical music, produced thousands of pages of poems and journals, and made friends—among them the novelist E. L. Doctorow and the poet Robert Mezey. He investigated Rilke and the German language with special intensity, completed a thesis on Thomas Hardy—pared down from over three hundred pages to sixty—and graduated magna cum laude in 1952. Shortly after graduation Wright married a high-school classmate, Liberty Kardules; the marriage produced sons Franz and Marshall, but was troubled almost from the beginning.
Awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in Vienna, Wright discovered the poetry of Georg Trakl, an important and lasting influence, when he wandered into a classroom where a visiting professor was lecturing on the gloomy but brilliant Austrian poet. He returned to begin graduate school at the University of Washington, where he studied with Theodore Roethke, and began to publish poems—three in the New Yorker and ten in Poetry by the time he finished his doctoral exams. In 1956 his first book, The Green Wall, was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets award by W. H. Auden. The excitement was hard for Wright to handle; he began to drink heavily in response to his success, and Liberty remembered “his comment about not wanting to be a husband or a father” but to dedicate his life entirely to poetry.
Wright’s hopes for a teaching appointment at Washington went unfulfilled. He took a job at the University of Minnesota, and in fall 1957 Wright and Liberty moved to what Blunk somewhat peculiarly describes as “the vast industrial metropolis of Minneapolis.” The department included poets Allen Tate (again) and John Berryman, but Wright felt ill at ease, and his drinking became disruptive. He continued to write and poured energy into teaching, but missed Seattle and grew distant from Liberty and young Franz. A letter to a former student in Seattle, Sonjia Urseth, lays bare his continued loathing for the Midwest: “The Midwest was never my home, though I was born here. It is a place which I hate, as Tolstoy says, with a pitiless and unforgiving hatred.”
Blunk spends a good many pages exploring Wright’s complicated relationship with Urseth; they exchanged many letters over a period of some years, and his fixation on her eventually created considerable uneasiness for her and her family. The wrenching, desolate love poems in Wright’s second book, Saint Judas, are all for Sonjia, Blunk believes, and although Wright insisted “her future as a writer was his greatest concern,” Blunk’s analysis seems accurate: “Wright often refers to the ‘undeserved blessing’ of her friendship. But this was no simple friendship, platonic or otherwise. Wright deliberately set about confusing Sonjia—the twenty-year-old college student—with a Muse figure of his own creation.” She agreed to sign her letters with the name he gave her, and even after they lost contact, “Jenny” reappears in Wright’s poems for decades, a mysterious figure of loss and desire.
Wright’s first two books are written in traditional forms and restrained in their emotions, but by 1958 he was desperate for new modes of writing. The prologue of A Life in Poetry describes the crucial summer day when Wright, in the midst of drafting a poem titled “His Farewell to Poetry,” discovered a new journal called The Fifties (edited by Robert Bly and William Duffy) in his faculty mailbox. The magazine’s proclamation that most American poetry was “too old-fashioned” spurred Wright to compose “a sprawling letter of praise, delight, argument, and disbelief” to Bly. Wright expressed his distaste for Martins Ferry and his own early poems, and challenged “Bly’s categorical rejection of iambic meter,” but was delighted by Bly’s championing of Trakl and other European and South American poets, and excited by the discovery of a kindred spirit and possible conversation partner. Come out to the farm, Bly replied at once, and within weeks Wright coaxed Liberty into driving the family out for a weekend visit, their second son Marshall just a month old. (Wright never learned to drive.)
On that first day, Blunk writes, “Wright stepped from the car, his head bent and his broad shoulders hunched,” visibly depressed—but almost at once, “Bly and Wright sat down together at the kitchen table to collaborate on translations of Georg Trakl’s poetry.” The friendship, conversation, and hospitality of Bly, his wife Carol, and the other poets who sometimes joined them helped Wright to transform his work, as the poets they read and translated together—Trakl, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and many others—provided models for a free-verse, associative, sometimes surrealist poetics. The practice of translation became a crucial discipline, resource, and refuge for Wright, who over his lifetime developed reading fluency in a number of languages. Even during his month-long return to Seattle in January 1959 to defend his dissertation, when he was also putting the final touches on Saint Judas and dealing at a distance with Liberty’s hospitalization for a mental breakdown, he began a series of translations of poems by Jiménez. Back in Minneapolis, separated from Liberty and living on very little money in a “small, grim sleeping room,” Wright translated García Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, and Trakl with “fearsome determination”: “Wright seemed able to lose himself in the music of another language with religious dedication.” Both Wright’s translations and his voluminous, eclectic reading helped to ensure that his embrace of free verse and surrealism was far less thoroughgoing than Bly’s. Throughout his career Wright declared his affinity for both Walt Whitman and E. A. Robinson, and as Blunk demonstrates, even the first letters to Bly expressed Wright’s refusal to give up formal verse forever. As Blunk also notes, even Wright’s most famous “surreal” poems have other wellsprings than surrealism. “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” for instance, ends with the dramatic line “I have wasted my life,” but Wright always insisted that the poem’s vivid presentation of the natural world is based on “the model offered by Chinese poetry,” with its simple, clear presentation of images, and Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is another obvious influence.
The real, crucial gift Bly and his farm offered Wright was more psychic than literary—a retreat from urban pressure, a small circle of friends who shared his passionate commitment to poetry and, as Wright wrote to Bly years later, a chance to “discover the life of solitude,” as opposed to mere loneliness. “What is more difficult to describe is the welcome I felt in the living creation itself,” Wright adds. “I had never felt welcome on earth before” (A Wild Perfection, 382). This sense of a possible mercy, of epiphanic relief to be found in the natural world, is at the heart of many poems Wright wrote during those rural visits, including “Lying in a Hammock . . . ” and, even more strikingly, “A Blessing,” with its sudden final claim: “If I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” As Blunk’s narrative reveals, much of the lyric intensity of these poems is generated by their emergence from the massive rage and grief that were the ground notes of Wright’s first several decades.
After much agonistic revision of individual poems and the whole manuscript (once called Amenities of Stone), Wright finally delivered The Branch Will Not Break to Wesleyan in 1963. The final version, almost entirely poems in free verse, became one of the most acclaimed collections of its day; with Bly, W. S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and many other American poets of the era, Wright joined the movement that Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey’s landmark anthology would shortly name “Naked Poetry.” Less fortunately for Wright, The Branch also appeared at almost the same moment that he was denied tenure at the University of Minnesota, a brutal blow that only in retrospect seems like a stroke of good fortune. Known as a brilliant, even spellbinding teacher, Wright had a pattern of missing classes, and there were rumors of his drinking with students. Tate, though a personal friend, refused to support Wright for tenure, at least partly because he disapproved of Wright’s association with Bly and innovative poetics.
Wright’s marriage to Liberty had ended in 1961, and he endured several difficult years, piecing together teaching jobs at Macalester College and elsewhere. His luck began to turn when he left Minnesota for New York City, where he met and courted Anne Runk, who became his second wife and helped him find his way toward a less precarious and alcohol-fueled life. With his teaching career stabilized by a job at Hunter College in New York City, Wright toured the country doing well-received readings, and he published Shall We Gather at the River in 1968. He was still drinking too much and his mental health was sometimes unstable, but his poems appeared in all the best magazines, reviews were largely positive, and his friends included many of the best poets in America. In 1972 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Collected Poems.
Blunk describes the later years of Wright’s life in detail, sometimes lapsing into pages heavy with the minutiae of travel arrangements, hotels, and repeated visits to Italian cities, but sympathetic readers will accept the lack of drama as a cheap price for the revelation of the gradual if uneven improvement in Wright’s state of mind and heart. Eventually he managed to quit drinking entirely, earned tenure at Hunter, and with the aid of multiple grants and sabbaticals he and Anne were able to spend much of the seventies on extended visits to Europe. Wright continued to produce a great deal. Two Citizens (1973), which shows the marks of his last days of heavy drinking, was published hastily and lacks the polish of his best books, but To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977) and the posthumous This Journey (1982) have held up well. These relatively happy years were unfortunately few, as in 1979 Wright was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. Despite aggressive treatment, he lasted only several months and died in 1980, just fifty-two years old.
Perhaps the best feature of this biography is that I often forgot it has an author; for long stretches Blunk seems nearly to vanish, simply providing a brisk narrative of the way things happened. This is illusory, of course, and Blunk deserves credit not only for thorough research but also for balancing frank descriptions of Wright’s limitations and flaws with an obvious admiration of the poet and a desire to foreground Wright’s better qualities. Sometimes the opposing characteristics are hard to distinguish; Wright was a distant father at best, especially when his children were young, but eventually he bonded with Franz as the son’s poetic talents became evident. Wright’s admiration and praise for other writers, from the classics to his contemporaries, is both discriminating and unstinting. And he is hardly the first brilliant artist to find it difficult to put aside his obsession with his work and engage with everyday people in everyday ways.
In “The Minneapolis Poem,” published in Shall We Gather at the River, Wright describes the city as a hellish landscape of suicide, violence, abuse, and misery: “There are men in this city who labor dawn after dawn / To sell me my death.” Blunk’s account of Wright’s introduction of this poem at a reading captures the poet’s long and crucial struggle to describe, understand, and resist the worst of American culture, and to construct some sort of response that might be of use:
Speaking of his own “complicated” ancestry . . . Wright focused on the
lasting rift caused by the Civil War. “I sometimes think that since that
terrible war started, there’s been an awful, suicidal impulse in American
life for us all to secede from one another. And I hope we can check
that and realize that despair is very easily sunken into, as Jean
Toomer wrote a long time ago. And we can’t live without one another.
We just can’t do it.”
James Wright did not have the sort of temperament that leads some poets, including his great friend and collaborator Robert Bly, to attempt to define the poetry that others should write. Wright’s fundamental instinct, as Blunk demonstrates, was to resist the grand claims and divisions that can lead us to “secede from one another,” and instead to find common ground wherever possible. As Edward Hirsch suggests when introducing Best American Poetry 2016, the “old divides” with their roots in the 1960s seem to be fading, and a greater acceptance of diverse forms, modes, and approaches seems to be taking hold: “Does anyone still need to choose between, say, image or narrative, metrical or free verse, traditional or nontraditional forms? . . . Poetry is not a competitive sport with different teams playing against each other.” Wright would surely approve, and his enduring emblems of ways we might live with one another and the world remain a grand example and resource. Rage, yearning, relentless intelligence, bottomless empathy, and endless devotion to the craft: cast into rhymed stanzas or free verse, these may well be enough to make a true poet, or so James Wright’s work suggests. His life was surely not wasted.
*A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright, ed. Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley, with Jonathan Blunk (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).