James Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio. A newspaper editor once expressed astonishment that the Depression-era, dilapidated steel and coal mining town, between the Midwest rust belt and Appalachia, could have produced such a refined poetic voice. Indeed, Wright began writing poetry at age 11, and credits his high school teachers for igniting his poetic instincts. But he did what he could to get out of the small town, joining the military after high school, going to college at Kenyon and then to Austria on a Fulbright Scholarship. When he returned to the U.S., Wright earned graduate degrees in the Pacific Northwest, eventually living and teaching in Minneapolis and New York City.
No matter how far he traveled, however, James Wright’s poetry often found its way home. Whether wistful and reminiscent or harsh and critical in tone, many of Wright’s poems feature landmarks from Martins Ferry, or family members who lived there. One of his most famous, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” depicts a football game at the Shreve High football stadium. While the poem is nostalgic in tone, its characters, like Wright, long to escape. Married men, trapped by industrial labor, lose themselves in their long-neck beers. Their wives dream of lustful romance. Their sons dream of escape from Martins Ferry through football scholarships.
James Wright escaped this world too soon, at the age of 52. But his legacy is still celebrated in Martins Ferry, every April at the James Wright Poetry Festival. The annual festival has become remedy to another of the tragedies of Wright’s life – that his reputation as poet was better known and recognized nationally and internationally than it was in his own home town.