‘James Wright, A Life in Poetry’, explores Martins Ferry poet’s life

NEW YORK — Martins Ferry native James Wright is an unsung giant of American letters. His poems of the working class and the disenfranchised have been championed by countless writers, from Mary Oliver to Stanley Kunitz to Robert Bly, and his core readership has long displayed an unusual level of devotion (he is the only American poet to have had an annual festival thrown in his honor; the festival was held for 27 years, from 1980 to 2007 in his native city of Martins Ferry). Wright’s plainspoken verse, however, has long eluded the household fame of some of his more well-known contemporaries and followers.

During the next several months, a series of major events in the Wright world makes this the perfect opportunity for a broader appraisal of his work: the 90th anniversary of his birth this December and the arrival of a definitive, authorized, and long overdue biography, Jonathan Blunk’s “James Wright: A Life in Poetry.” Having been granted unique and entire access to Wright’s estate, including to the vast paper archives he left behind, Blunk unfolds a fascinating story that until now has been little understood: how a young boy from a poor family in an Ohio steel town became a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most important American poets of the 20th century.

For Blunk, Wright’s life and work were both driven by a preoccupation with escaping. Growing up, he feared being trapped in Martins Ferry and having to spend his life working in a factory (a recurring nightmare even in his adulthood), and his struggle between loathing and loving the Ohio Valley would be one of the most persistent themes in his poetry.

Wright’s lifelong fight to move beyond his birthplace mirrored the “getting out” he wrote about in a 1958 letter to Robert Bly; he was making one of his many attempts to quit poetry. His turbulent personal life, his alcoholism, and above all his frustrations with the constraints of traditional poetic form had brought him over and over again to the brink of severing ties with his craft. Wright’s relationship with poetry, however, was more of a calling than a choice, and each of these attempts at rupture would only lead to the writing of greater works. After leaving behind those too-rigid structures, Wright began to write in free verse and allowed for the Midwestern idiom of the Ohio Valley to emerge with force in his work, while still paying homage to the classical poets he adored. The “final” poem he was composing when he wrote that letter to Bly was “His Farewell to Poetry.” It would later be revised and renamed “Goodbye to the Poetry of Calcium,” appearing in his landmark 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break.

Over the past three decades, Blunk has conducted more than 240 interviews with Wright’s family, friends, students, and colleagues. Blunk recorded each of these interviews, creating a digital archive to preserve the memories of Wright. Blunk also spent the 30 years reading through Wright’s letters, personal journals, poems, and translations. The letters in particular proved invaluable, since they revealed to Blunk the student with whom Wright corresponded from 1957 to 1959; Wright fictionalized her as his muse, Jenny, to whom manv of his poems are addressed.

Blunk writes with candor, not omitting the more difficult aspects of Wright’s character. Wright devoted more time to his poetry than to his family, abused alcohol, and had a rash temper; he emerges from the biography as a fully portrayed person, complex and incredibly gifted. But above all else, he is one of the most influential and enduring American poets, who is long overdue the scholarship that Blunk delivers in James Wright.

About the Author

Jonathan Blunk is a poet, a critic, an essayist, and a radio producer. His work has appeared in The Nation, Poets & Writers, The Georgia Review, and other publications. He assisted with editing “A Wild Perfection”, the selected letters of James Wright.