Highlights of a Life
James Arlington Wright was born December 13, 1927, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His father, Dudley, was a die-cutter at Hazel-Atlas Glass in Wheeling, a neighboring town in Virginia where his mother, Jessie, worked at the White Swan Laundry. Both of them had quit school in their early teens to work. James had two brothers and a sister: Ted, (who would become a prominent newspaper reporter and photographer in Zanesville, Ohio), Jack (who would become a mathematician, physicist, and astronomer with a Masters in astronomy from Ohio State), and Marge.
The Wrights’ lives during the depression years were difficult; some family members helped dig a WPA swimming pool in a city park, which Wright would write about later in “The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” published in Two Citizens in 1973. “They swim in the earth. Uncle Sherman, / Uncle Willie, Uncle Emerson, and my father / Helped dig that hole in the ground.”
Early records show that Wright began to write poetry in 1938, influenced by James Whitcomb Riley and Lord Byron. In 1942 he entered Martins Ferry High School, where his high school teachers, notably Helen McNeely Sheriff (Latin) and Elizabeth Willerton Esterly (English) influenced and encouraged his talent with language. Wright remarked in an August 29, 1960 letter to Mr. Walter R. Marvin, Executive Director of the Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association:
…the schools which I attended in Martins Ferry were themselves fully committed to the extraordinarily difficult and important task of keeping alive the sense of culture and humane civilization alive in the minds of children who, for the most part, were going to spend their lives in non-academic pursuits. Most of them, indeed, were the children of steel-workers, miners, etc. If my words sound pompous – if it seems too “heavy” to describe the labors of high-school and grade-school teachers in small towns as an effort to keep alive “the sense of culture and humane civilization,” then I can only remark that I regard the phrase as an accurate one…
I feel it is natural to be a teacher and a writer simultaneously, partly because many of the most vigorous and vitally imaginative people in my own childhood were themselves teachers. I may offer one example: since I left Martins Ferry, I have heard lectures by such internationally famous scholars as Dr. Josef Nadler in Vienna; I have heard speeches by the late Nobel-prize winning novelist and scholar Thomas Mann; I have studied with Mr. John Crowe Ransom, who is unquestionably one of the finest poets in the whole history of American literature; and so on; but, in spite of these experiences, I still can say, without sentimentality or blurring nostalgia, that probably the most intelligent and acute teacher of literature I have ever had was Miss Helen McNeely Sheriff, who taught Latin at Martins Ferry High School when I was there, and who teaches now, I believe, in Cadiz, Ohio. She is one of several teachers who fixed once and for all in my mind the overwhelmingly powerful traditional fact that the use of the mind is not a mere luxury, but rather is itself an exercise of strength even greater than the strength required to drive a coal-truck or flop tin from a steel-stove.
In 1946, James Wright was Valedictorian in his graduating class at Martins Ferry High School, and he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served for 18 months, with 12 months in the occupation forces in Japan. When he returned to the U.S. in 1948, he enrolled at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, on the G.I. Bill.
At Kenyon, Wright studied English with James Crowe Ransom, Charles Coffin, and Philip Timberlake. Wright published more than twenty poems in literary magazines in college. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, wrote for Kenyon’s HIKA literary magazine and won the school’s Robert Frost Poetry Prize in 1952, just before graduating magna cum laude.
After graduation Wright moved to Philadelphia with his newlywed wife, Liberty Kardules, who had been a high school classmate. She worked as a nurse and he on the railroad, until receiving news of a Fulbright Scholarship that would take the couple to Austria. James studied German literature at the University of Vienna from 1952-1953, where he discovered the poetry of Georg Trakl and Theodore Storm.
In 1953, Liberty gave birth to the couple’s first son, Franz, who would himself become a notable poet. The family moved back to the U.S., and James began a teaching-scholarship at the University of Washington, Seattle, for his Masters. In Washington, Wright studied with Stanley Kunitz and Theodore Roethke; later, Franz would recall how Theodore jiggled his big belly and recited children’s poems to the boy: “There Once was a cow with a Double Udder / When I think of it now, I just have to Shudder!”
Wright received his M.A. in 1957 and began work on a PhD. He won the Yale Younger Poets Award for his first book, The Green Wall, published that same year. The book’s title suggests the Ohio Valley hills. The Wright family moved to Minneapolis, where James taught at University of Minnesota and MacAlester College, St. Paul. In 1958, his second son, Marshall, was born. When Franz Wright turned 5 that year, he recalled, he said to his parents: “Excuse me. Do you think, because it’s my birthday, we could not talk about poetry today?”
In a period of personal and marital turbulence, James left Liberty in 1958 to have an affair with Anne Sexton. Around this time, with his friends Robert Bly and John Knoepfle, he began translating and publishing the works of German and South American poets – work that would profoundly affect his own.
James Wright was awarded his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in January, 1959, for his study on Charles Dickens. He published his second book of poems, Saint Judas, which won the Ohioana Book Award in 1960. The Ohioana Library commented:
Saint Judas is the poetry of a cultivated, intelligent mind, sensitive without sentimentality… There is a strong moral content that reflects a mature personality. The carefully wrought, and rarely labored, lines possess a classic sense of form.
The poet’s years in Ohio are frequently referred to. In a letter to the Ohioana Library he wrote: “A man feels something rather deeper than public pride when he is honored by the people who live in his native place.”
After finalizing his divorce with Liberty, Wright published The Branch Will Not Break in 1963. In his essay, “James Wright and the Native American Spirit of Place,” William Barillas says that this book “concludes with transcendental experiences of the Minnesota prairie, [but] most of the poems in the beginning of the book present the natural world—mainly in Ohio—as frightening, disrupted by human activity, and spiritually inaccessible.” Barillas says Wright was a “self-described ‘jaded pastoralist’ who saw America from the perspective of his native Ohio Valley as ‘rifted paradise’ – a beautiful place significantly degraded by human inhabitation and industry.”
In 1964, James Wright wrote a poem about his son, Franz, at Robert Bly’s farm outside Madison, Minnesota: “He touches my arm, and his face… The face of my older son lifts / Through the dark leaf-mold of my childhood, / Dreaming of light.”
In 1965, Wright won the Guggenheim Award. The next year he moved to New York City, where he began teaching at Hunter College. In the 1960 letter to Walter R. Marvin of the Ohioana Library Association, Wright commented:
I personally do not feel any conflict between the duties of teaching and the labors of writing books which are non-academic in nature. I mention my sense of harmony between these two labors, because we live in a time when many American authors are teaching, and when a good many of these men feel, at least, a conflict between the two lives, and, at worst, a kind of guilt – guilt whose nature is not clear to me.
In 1967, Wright married Anne (Annie) Runk in New York City, and published Shall We Gather at the River the next year. Also in 1968, Franz Wright wrote his first poem and sent it to his father. “I’ll be damned,” James wrote back. “You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”
In 1970, Wright began European travels with Annie which would rejuvenate and inspire him. They traveled to France, Italy, Austria, and Yugoslavia; his sons met him in Vienna. In 1972, Wright won the Pulitzer Prize for Collected Poems. When he heard the news, he said, “I didn’t believe it; I thought I didn’t deserve it. I still don’t think I deserve it. After four days, Annie and I had to take the phone off the hook. It frightened me very much.”
In a speech dedicating the Roethke Auditorium at the University of Washington in 1972, Wright spoke of the “terrific outburst of creativity” he noticed: “Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen – it doesn’t happen in every generation. The Elizabethans, one period of Greek history… it didn’t happen in my generation. We fought a war.” He sighed. “I have learned violence makes no sense. Maybe it did once—as when we fought the Nazis—but it doesn’t make sense now.”
In 1973, Wright’s father, Dudley, died. That year he published Two Citizens, which he says “begins with a curse on America. There are some severe poems about Ohio, my home, in that book… in the middle… between the curse and the final expression of grief, there is a whole long sequence of love poems.” In 1974, Wright’s mother passed away.
In the years that followed, Wright would publish Moments of the Italian Summer, and To a Blossoming Pear Tree. He received another Guggenheim Award and traveled in Europe. He also began a correspondence with Leslie Marmon Silko, from which the letters would be published in a book called The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, described as “An 18-month correspondence between two writers, one (Silko) struggling to shape her work, the other (Wright) in possession of a well-established, well-exercised poetic voice… What we have, in fact—without romance, trysts, or sensuality—is a deep and thoughtful love story, a marriage of true minds.”
In 1979, Wright developed a severe sore throat; when he sought a doctor, aggressive cancer was discovered. He was hospitalized at New York’s Mount Sinai, before being transferred to Calvary Hospital for terminal cancer patients. He died March 25, 1980, at the age of 52.
In 1981, the first James Wright Poetry Festival was held at the Martins Ferry Public Library. It was started by nine Martins Ferry area residents who were aware of the discrepancy between Wright’s national-international fame and his local obscurity. The group felt that James Wright should be honored in his “native country” because the city, the surrounding Ohio Valley communities, and the Ohio River flowing between Martins Ferry and Wheeling, West Virginia, all were major images in his poetry. The festivals have continued every April since, with “Remarks by Annie Wright,” James’ widow, the traditional Friday evening opener.
In 2004, James Wright’s son, Franz, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. The Wrights are believed to be the first father and son ever to win the award. The New York Times printed an excerpt from Franz’s poem to his father, “Flight,” from the award-winning book:
Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely
Star-far from the person right next to me, but
closer to me than my bones you
you are there
It’s 1963 again, the old Minneapolis airport so vast
to me and I am running
after the long flight alone I am running
into your huge arms—