James Arlington Wright was an American poet.
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 1960s, 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 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, imagistic, free verse of 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 Martins 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 Martins 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'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 The Branch Will Not Break, which departs radically from the formal style of Wright's previous book, Saint Judas. In addition to his own poetry, he also published loose translations of René Char's hermetic poems.
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.
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
The moon drops one or two feathers into the fiels.
The dark wheat listens.