James Wright: A Life in Poetry

James Wright: A Life in Poetry

by Jonathan Blunk


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The authorized and sweeping biography of one of America’s most complex, influential, and enduring poets

In the extraordinary generation of American poets who came of age in the middle of the twentieth century, James Wright (1927–1980) was frequently placed at the top of the list. With a fierce, single-minded devotion to his work, Wright escaped the steel town of his Depression-era childhood in the Ohio valley to become a revered professor of English literature and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But his hometown remained at the heart of his work, and he courted a rough, enduring muse from his vivid memories of the Midwest. A full-throated lyricism and classical poise became his tools, honesty and unwavering compassion his trademark.

Using meticulous research, hundreds of interviews, and Wright’s public readings, Jonathan Blunk’s authorized biography explores the poet’s life and work with exceptional candor, making full use of Wright’s extensive unpublished work—letters, poems, translations, and personal journals. Focusing on the tensions that forced Wright’s poetic breakthroughs and the relationships that plunged him to emotional depths, Blunk provides a spirited portrait, and a fascinating depiction of this turbulent period in American letters.

A gifted translator and mesmerizing reader, Wright appears throughout in all his complex and eloquent urgency. Discerning yet expansive, James Wright will change the way the poet’s work is understood and inspire a new appreciation for his enduring achievement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537937
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 526
Sales rank: 898,494
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Blunk is a poet, critic, essayist, and radio producer. His work has appeared in The Nation, Poets & Writers, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He was a co-editor of A Wild Perfection, the selected letters of James Wright.

Read an Excerpt


That is my country, that river

December 13, 1927–September 1944

[My parents] are sturdy, steadfast people, poorly educated and —especially my mother — very well read. My relatives are strangely unpredictable and rather wildly kind.

— from a letter to Mary Oliver, September 16, 1965

Riverview Cemetery commands the crest of an Appalachian foothill where the Ohio River flows past Martins Ferry, Ohio. Time and again, as a teenager in the early 1940s, James Wright climbed to this highest point above the river, anxious to feel "the sense, the vista" he found in books. But the smoke and soot from steel mills obscured the steep, matching hills of West Virginia on the opposite shore. Behind him, to the west, farmland, orchards, and fields had been disfigured by coal and strip mines; the river, too, was fouled by refuse and waste. Yet the Ohio defines the geography and the essence of the place; it is a boundary and a dark presence. The once thriving industrial town stretches along a narrow shelf half a mile wide, a hundred feet above the river's floodplain. In Wright's youth this bottomland was crowded with factories, tenements, and docks, whole neighborhoods at risk of flooding each spring. He counted himself "among the brief green things" — the sumac, trillium, and weeds — that survived in a ravaged place.

By the time Wright left Martins Ferry in June 1946, he knew every street and alleyway in his hometown, each muddy footpath that stretched for miles along the river. He knew the Ohio in all its moods; he knew what poverty was, and hard work. When Wright enlisted in the army at the age of eighteen, he swore he would never return to the Ohio Valley; he made only brief visits back home.

He climbed to the graveyard's summit again on Christmas Eve 1951, a month before he graduated from Kenyon College. Liberty Kardules, a nursing student and high school classmate, stood beside him. They could see the Blaw-Knox and Laughlin steel mills dominating the northern edge of the flats beside the river and, among the factories, the green rectangle of the high school football field. They saw the train and streetcar lines, and the Terminal Bridge crossing at the tip of Wheeling Island. On the upper plateau, the twin blue domes of the Greek Orthodox church stood out from the grid of brick and clapboard houses. Wright gestured to the town below them and cursed the place: "'Give up hope, all ye who enter here.' It's pure hell down there. Just pure hell." Liberty agreed. "We knew that we had to get out of there or it would kill us." Joined in desperation, the couple descended the stairs of that same church six weeks later as husband and wife.

Wright found himself in Martins Ferry once more in August 1953, with Liberty and their infant son, Franz. They had just returned from a year in Vienna and spent one night in her father's house on Pearl Street. During their absence, Liberty's mother had died of cancer, and when they visited her grave near the cemetery's peak, Wright looked out once more on his hometown. Then twenty-five, he was about to take his young family on the long train journey to Seattle to continue his graduate studies. His rage to escape the Ohio Valley remained, but the pull of memory would prove stronger still. Wright's childhood place came to occupy the center of his poetic imagination; over the remaining twenty-seven years of his life, he made it into an unmistakable landscape in American literature.

Wright came to accept the "peculiar kind of devotion" he felt toward Martins Ferry and its townspeople. "I have done a great deal of wandering," he recalled late in his life — to Japan and Hawaii, throughout Europe and the United States. "Yet all of these places taken together do not have the vastness in my mind that I still find when I contemplate, as I've so often done in my books, the small river town of Martins Ferry in southeastern Ohio." Wright remembered with startling immediacy "the dark howlings and twangs of the language I grew up with: the nearly unspeakable violences of the spirit and body, spun suddenly into baroque figures of speech across the sooty alleys near the river and up and down the B&O railroad track that lay peaceful among the hobo jungles like a scar."

Martins Ferry was blighted in ways typical to industrial river towns throughout the early twentieth century: its hillsides gouged by strip mines, the air blackened by coal smoke, and the river polluted by sewage and oil. But as with other towns that flourished in the Ohio Valley, the factories and mines attracted a great diversity of people. The headstones in Riverview Cemetery chronicle the history of Martins Ferry's growth; the older ones on the lower edge bear the names of Welsh coal miners from the mid-1800s. Ascending the slope, the stones describe successive waves of immigrants from Hungary, Poland, Italy, Greece, Romania, England, and Ireland.

In the "Childhood Sketch" he drafted in August 1978, Wright says of Martins Ferry: "I had lived in all of the neighborhoods except the wealthy ones up on the hills away from the factories and the river, and I knew most of the languages, and carry with me today the affections of those words." Wright felt a sharp grief for those he left behind in Ohio; they are both the subject of and the intended audience for his poems. After years of rootlessness, he came to cherish the multicultural, working-class neighborhoods of his youth, and Wright's imagination always returned to the banks of the Ohio River. "In form and body it remains itself one of the magnificent rivers of the world. It could gather into itself the Seine, the Arno, and the Adige, and still have room for a whole mile of drifting lost lives."

In languages spoken by the native peoples of the Ohio Valley, many names for the river translate as "beautiful." The Ohio flows south and west for a thousand miles, from the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers — the site of Pittsburgh — to Cairo, Illinois, where it joins the Mississippi. Various Algonquian tribes made their home in the valley and defended the land west of the river from both local Iroquois and European pioneers. Beginning in 1744 and continuing for two decades, British and French troops battled for possession of the Ohio River and its surrounding territories. Native warriors prevented settlements west of the river until after the Revolutionary War, when thousands of colonists and more recent immigrants crossed the Allegheny and Appalachian mountain ranges to claim land for homesteading. Indigenous tribes were pushed farther inland, but the battle for control of the river was prolonged and bitter. In some native tongues the Ohio became known as the "River of Blood."

The first permanent settlement on the western shore, across from the fortified military post at Wheeling, Virginia, sprang up around a ferry landing, on a broad stretch of flatland. Absalom Martin had helped his father-in-law, Ebenezer Zane, survey the surrounding land, and Martin's ferry became the starting point of "a good waggon Road," as Zane called it, between Wheeling and Maysville, Kentucky. Zane's Trace, a shorter and more reliable route west, less prone to the seasonal dangers of river travel, opened in 1797. For decades the town of Martins Ferry remained a major crossroads and entry point to the Northwest Territory — what became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The Zane family and other pioneers planted orchards of fruit trees, berry bushes, and grape vines on Wheeling Island and the open fields on the western shore, cultivating tracts they then sold to the steady waves of settlers. In childhood, Wright knew the legacy of those early farmers: along the riverbank, amid tangles of shrub oak and sumac, the fragrances of blossoming pear, peach, and apple trees mingled with the smell of locust trees in springtime.

European immigrants joined colonial homesteaders in the early 1800s, bypassing coastal states to settle directly in the interior. This northern heartland of the Midwest became the first region in the United States to prohibit slavery, and "free-thinkers" — who advocated tolerance and the necessity of education — influenced the region's politics well into the twentieth century. The river formed a boundary between free and slave states prior to the Civil War, and by 1840, Ohio had more safe houses for escaping slaves than any other state. Martins Ferry, across the river from the slave-trading market in Wheeling, became a crucial haven.

Many Scots-Irish immigrants from England's northern borderlands were self-sufficient farmers who raised their own livestock, a kind of plain- folk, hardscrabble farming that took root in the backcountry of Appalachia as a separate way of life. This "Cohee" culture (derived from "yeomen") had enormous influence upon Wright's mother, Jessie, who spent her childhood on a subsistence farm in northern West Virginia. Martins Ferry, too, first developed as a farming community, and in the 1860s was still surrounded by vineyards, orchards, cornfields, and farms.

The discovery of coal seams running beneath neighboring hillsides ignited the town's industrial growth. With limestone, clay, and iron ore also close at hand, the riverfront made an ideal location for an iron-smelting blast furnace. In 1853, the Penn Central Railroad opened the entire area to heavy industry. Steel towns like Martins Ferry, Steubenville, Weirton, Benwood, and many others sprang up all along the Ohio River, which gave access to national and global markets. By the 1870s, Wheeling had become a major rail hub, while in Martins Ferry two separate train lines cut through the river's wide floodplain, known as the Bottom. When the flats grew overcrowded, the town's business district and wealthier citizens moved to the upper plateau above the river. The Ohio is a quarter-mile wide where the prominent brick houses of Martins Ferry ascend the western bank.

Hundreds of English and Welsh coal miners lived in Martins Ferry by the end of the nineteenth century, working in mines sunk straight into the hillsides. Wheeling Steel shuttled carloads of coal from the "tipple" down to the mill on elevated tracks that passed over working-class neighborhoods at the northern edge of town. With the mining boom, Martins Ferry's population tripled by 1900, and this growth continued unabated at the time of Wright's birth in 1927. Immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Hungary joined the local Appalachian workers, together with African- Americans from the South. During Wright's adolescence, Martins Ferry boasted twenty thousand inhabitants, most laboring in the steel mills along the river or the coal mines in interior hill country to the west.

When James Wright's parents — Jessie and Dudley — married in March 1916, they united families with roots on both sides of the Ohio River reaching back more than a century. Wright described his mother's parents, born and raised in West Virginia, as "honest-to-God hillbillies to a fare-thee-well." Jacob James Rawley Lyons, Jessie's father, was born April 17, 1859, near the western border of present-day Virginia, and died at the age of fifty-seven in June 1916. Rawley Lyons was twenty years old when he married Elizabeth Bedora Starkey — the matriarch of the Lyons family and a cherished presence in Wright's childhood.

Elizabeth, or "Biddy," was born in Hundred, West Virginia, on September 21, 1862, and married Rawley Lyons at the age of sixteen. Together they worked a subsistence farm in hill country a few miles east of the Ohio River in the West Virginia panhandle. Nearly a decade passed before their first child was born — a girl who died in infancy — but Biddy gave birth to seven more children over the next fifteen years. Jessie, born August 21, 1897, was the middle child, with two older sisters, an older brother, William, and three younger brothers.

Soon after the birth of the youngest, Sherman, in 1905, Rawley Lyons disappeared and was never heard from again. Though Biddy now faced the hardship of raising seven children on her own, a sense of relief followed her husband's desertion. It freed her from Lyons's violent temper, which grew worse the more he drank. The family left the farm Jessie had known as a girl and relocated across the river in Bridgeport, Ohio, the town just south of Martins Ferry. They moved often during her childhood, and though Jessie attended school only through the sixth grade, she became a voracious reader. Wright would later describe how his mother "slaved — it is the true word — in a laundry" from the time she was sixteen. After crossing the river into North Wheeling each day with her sister, Jessie worked the enormous ironing presses known as "mangles." Jim's aunt Grace would work at the White Swan Laundry her entire life.

Dudley Wright's even temper and steady employment made him an ideal suitor for Jessie; he was also handsome, quiet, and kind. Over the course of their marriage, he proved to be a man of great forbearance as well. Like Jessie, he was a middle child from a large family who had grown up in poverty. Dudley's father, Spencer Washington Sterms Wright, was born in 1861, not far from the birthplace of Biddy Lyons, south of Wheeling near the Ohio River. Ellen Louise Beck, Dudley's mother, became Spencer Wright's second wife, and like him had been raised in Belmont County, Ohio, twenty miles west of the river.

Wright spoke often of his Irish ancestry, common to both sides of his family; he regretted his "almost obscene gift of gab, which I learned from my poor frustrated mother." He came to distrust the ease he felt in talking and storytelling. A more debilitating physical legacy, however, also came down to him: both grandfathers were alcoholics. Spencer Wright died in 1932 at the age of sixty-four as a consequence of his drinking. He had fathered eight children and, in many ways, had been as absent from his family as Jessie's father had been.

John Dudley Ira Wright was born June 26, 1893, in Bridgeport, Ohio. By the time his father tried to get sober, he could no longer hold a job, forcing his children to find work. Dudley's four sisters and a brother eventually scattered throughout Ohio and the Midwest, and only his sister Lillian remained close to him and his family. Dudley — who never drank — completed the eighth grade before taking a job at the Hinge Works in Wheeling, a factory that soon became the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company. He was fourteen years old.

Wright's father spent his entire working life on a factory assembly line. He began as a press roller of steel before training as a die setter — a tedious job that nevertheless demanded skill and concentration. The Wheeling plant, an immense brick structure on the southeastern edge of the city, produced the zinc lids and rings used to seal mason jars. Dudley made the precise adjustments necessary to cut the lids from their metal matrix before they were fitted with rubber sealing rings. The home canning industry flourished throughout the Depression, and Dudley was thus rarely out of work — even during the worst years of the early 1930s. On his marriage certificate from March 1916, when he was twenty-two years old, Wright's father listed his occupation as "Press Operator, Glass Works." Jessie was then eighteen and glad to quit her job at the White Swan Laundry. The couple moved a few miles north, crossing the town line from Bridgeport into Martins Ferry.

After four years of marriage, Jessie and Dudley Wright adopted an eighteen-month-old baby girl, Margaret, from an orphanage in Wheeling. Jessie was anxious to start a family, but, as with her own mother, years passed before she first conceived. Marge was seven years old when Jessie's first son, Theodore (called Ted), was born in July 1925. By then, Jessie had begun moving the family practically every year from one rented house to another. She was often nervous and irritable, and only Dudley's return each night brought her some peace.

James Arlington Wright was born at home on December 13, 1927. Jessie gave birth in an old-fashioned double bed with a wrought-iron headboard; she often said Jimmy was spoiled from the start. As was common, she spent ten days in bed nursing the newborn, but when she returned to her chores the boy squalled endlessly. In Aetnaville, at the southern edge of Martins Ferry, the Wrights' home stood a few hundred yards from the river. Day and night, they heard the clatter of streetcars and coal cars, punctuated by the whistles of B&O freight trains and of shift changes at the factories. In the silence beneath, the Ohio River remained "part of my spirit," Wright realized. "I always felt, since I was a kid, the need of being near water."


Excerpted from "James Wright"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Jonathan Blunk.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Prologue: At a point of beginning,
Part I,
1. That is my country, that river,
2. And I got out,
3. Between the river and the rice fields,
4. Bitterly hard, sincere work,
5. Writing like a Dionysian maniac,
6. With the voice of a resurrected blackbird,
7. To sing whatever is well-made,
8. Sweating out an exile,
9. The Lamentation of Saint Judas,
10. Journal of Shipwreck,
11. In the Minneapolis of graves,
Part II,
12. The Wreckage of the Moon,
13. The amenities of stone are done,
14. The seven corners / Of Hell, 14, Minnesota,
15. To rebuild from scratch,
16. The rootlessness of things,
17. A real New Yorker,
18. Dark Waters,
19. The shape of one's own life,
20. A certain high summer,
21. It is all we have, just each other,
Part III,
22. I have torn myself out of many bitter places / In America,
23. Apologia for the Ohioan Tongue,
24. The Road Back,
25. Redwings and Solitaries,
26. To cultivate the art of listening,
27. A river flowing underground,
28. The silence of all the light,
29. To gaze as deeply as I can,
30. My true Ohio,
31. These are my hopes,
Epilogue: One Last Look at the Adige: Verona in the Rain,
A Note About the Author,

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