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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Poetry of Liberation James Wright (1927-1980)

[9149] Anonymous, Federal Wire & Steel Co.’s Plant, Cleveland, Ohio (c. 1920), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection [LC-D4-72257 DLC].

James Wright grew up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, a small midwestern town hit hard by the depression. Wright’s father worked in a factory to make ends meet, and the financial hardships endured by the family influenced Wright deeply, as later evidenced by his poetry about the poor and marginalized in American society. Wright received his undergraduate degree from Kenyon College, a center for creative writing at the time led by John Crowe Ransom. Wright later served in the army during the American occupation of Japan. After returning from overseas, he earned an M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Washington, where he was a pupil of Theodore Roethke. After studying in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship, Wright returned to the United States, where he has taught at universities and colleges across the country.

Wright’s early poetry shares a sense of seriousness of subject matter characteristic of Thomas Hardy, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost. Like Frost and Hardy, Wright focuses on outsiders in his poems–figures like escaped convicts, grieving widows, and convicted murderers. Many of his subjects also experience intense poverty, as “The Minneapolis Poem” suggests. Poems like “A Blessing” also illustrate Wright’s affinity with nature, a feature that renders this poem reminiscent of Frost. Wright feels conflicted about America, a land filled with both promise and racism. The tensions between the beautiful natural world and a cruel, industrialized world mirror this internal struggle. Wright’s anger at his social alienation allows him to empathize with other marginalized people, and his poems often bear an elegiac, mournful tone as he envisions the promise and opportunity that could have been.

Wright’s poetry changed markedly, however, after he translated the work of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, and Georg Trakl. He learned from them a form of surrealism in which the connections between images seem absent. Like other poets writing in the 1960s, Wright also began to reject the traditional poetic form he had embraced earlier in his career. This later poetry reflects his continued interest in portraying outsiders, however, particularly the poor and oppressed. In 1971, his Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize.

Teaching Tips

  • Like Gary Snyder, James Wright seeks an alternative to modern, industrialized society, a sentiment fueled in part by his childhood in an Ohio factory town. He looks to nature as a refuge, as poems like “To the Evening Star: Central Minnesota” and “A Blessing” suggest. His work often shows glimpses of the transcendentalism characteristic of other poets in this unit. Ask your students to read the poems mentioned above and then write a prose description of the landscape evoked in the verse. Their versions will probably be longer than Wright’s poems, so ask them how they came to their conclusions. As they share their work with their classmates, notice the different interpretations that arise.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Poets often use titles as a way to suggest something gently to the reader. What is the significance of the title “A Blessing”? What or who is being blessed? What does the speaker mean by the last two lines?
  2. Comprehension: As it is for the work of many poets in this unit, particularly the Beats and the transcendent poets, the image of the journey is central to Wright’s work. Who or what is the “she” referred to in the third stanza of “The Journey”? What is the journey the speaker describes?
  3. Comprehension: An elegy is a poem written to honor the dead. As might be expected, traditional elegies usually evoke a somber tone, employ ornate and elevated language, and offer a generally flattering portrait of the deceased. In “With the Shell of a Hermit Crab,” Wright satirizes the elegy form. What is the tone of this poem? How is the reader meant to respond? Toward the end, the poem begins to sound a little more sincere. How do you account for this shift? What is the purpose of the epigraph?
  4. Context: Both Wright and Snyder are, in many ways, poets of nature. How do their attitudes toward the natural world differ? What techniques, if any, do they share?
  5. Exploration: James Wright’s poetry often shows an awareness of working-class suffering, and his landscapes often reflect a sympathy and compassion for rural life and its hardworking inhabitants. How does his work compare to that of other poets, particularly Genevieve Taggard and Gwendolyn Brooks, who write about the working classes? While Taggard and Brooks often focus their poems on the people, Wright’s poems are frequently more indirect, projecting sentiments and feelings onto a landscape instead. You might compare “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” to some of Genevieve Taggard’s work (“A Middle-aged, Middle-class Woman at Midnight,” “Mill Town”) and Brooks’s “kitchenette building” and “The Bean Eaters.”
  6. Exploration: James Wright’s poetry has often been described as elegiac. Elegies are usually short poems written in a formal tone upon the occasion of someone’s death. However, elegiac can also refer to poetry of meditation, usually on love, death, or expansive philosophical topics. Some of the most famous elegies by modern American poets include Wallace Stevens’s “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” Anne Sexton’s “Sylvia’s Death,” and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish. Elegies are generally characterized by a ceremonial tone, expressions of grief and loss, praise for the deceased, an attempt to continue their memory, and consolation in natural surroundings or religious values. Many poets of the twentieth century, however, reflect modern cynicism by undermining or satirizing the traditional conventions of the elegy. Although Wright’s poems are not necessarily elegies for or to specific people, they do seem to mourn the loss of a particular way of life and landscape. How do these poems fit the characteristics of a traditional elegy? Which poems seem more elegiac than others? How does Wright’s work diverge from the traditional genre?

Selected Archive Items

[4528] René Magritte, La Condition Humaine (1933), 
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art and Artist Rights Society: 1987.55.1./PA: Magritte, René, La condition humaine, Gift of the Collectors Committee, Photograph © 2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington; © 2002 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. 
Painting of window and easel showing landscape. This work explores the divisions between realism and representationalism. Poet James Wright learned from Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, and Georg Trakl a form of surrealism in which the connections between images seem absent.

[7397] Anonymous, Happy Hooligan It Is to Laugh: Nothing But Fun (1902), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [POS-TH-1902. H36, no. 3]. 
Happy Hooligan, a cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper, featured a jobless character with a small tin can hat. Anthropologists have noted that traditionally powerful groups often use humor to restore and reinforce jeopardized hierarchies and power relations. Poet James Wright, writing in the mid-twentieth century, often focused on U.S. class issues.

[8618] Various, National Vietnam Examination (1966), 
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Exam distributed by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Inter-University Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy. The SDS was a major force in organizing protests and other forms of opposition to the Vietnam War. Many American poets protested the war, including Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, and Galway Kinnell.

[9149] Anonymous, Federal Wire & Steel Co.’s Plant, Cleveland, Ohio (c. 1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection [LC-D4-72257 DLC].
James Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, across the river from Wheeling, West Virginia, where his father worked in a glass factory. Wright’s poetry is saturated with images of, and commentary on, the impact of industrialization on the natural landscape.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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