James Wright is considered by many as one of the greatest American contemporary poets.He was born in 1927 in Martin's Ferry, Ohio. He hated his hometown, and his life's dream was to escape the town. In 1943, when he was sixteen, he missed a year of high school due to a nervous breakdown. This was the first of many throughout his life. He finished high school in 1946, and joined the army. He was stationed in Japan, there he became friends with a fellow soldier, who told Wright about Kenyon College. Kenyon College was a very good college that stressed writing and composition. Upon his return to the US, Wright took advantage of the GI bill, and enrolled at this college. He graduated in 1951 cum laude. He then married his high school sweet-heart Liberty Kardules.
On a Fulbright Scholarship, he and his wife traveled to Vienna University, Austria. There he studied and translated the stories by Theodore Storm, and the poems of Georg Trakl.
He returned to the US after two years of study in Vienna, and then enrolled at the University of Washington. Here he finished his master's and doctoral degrees. He developed a good friendship with one of his professors, Theodore Roethke. They shared the same mannerisms, and disorders. (both had shizophrenia) Even after graduation, Wright continued to correspond to his professor. He went on to teach at The University of Minnesota.
He fell into a deep depression after the divorce of his wife. He also found that he couldn't write as well as he used to. He even went through electroshock therapy and psychotherapy. While this helped a little, it was his friend Robert Bly who eventually lifted Wright out of his depression. Robert Bly was another writer, who wrote poems and also compiled a magazine. Wright also began to drink heavily at this time. His addiction to alcohol would eventually be the cause of his death.
In 1967 he married Edith Anne Crunk. She became an inspiration to him. In many of his later poems she is mentioned. At this time he also published "Shall We Gather at the River" which many consider to be his most impressive achievement. Sadly, his career was cut short. In 1979 Wright was diagnosed with oral cancer. He died on March 25, 1980.
A theme often explored by Wright was human suffering. Growing up during the Great Depression, Wright saw much poverty and starvation in Martin's Ferry. He also used his poetry to discuss his views on politics and society in general. In his earlier writings, Wright modeled his poetry after Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy. His earlier books (The Green Wall , Saint Judas) include men and women who have lost love or have been marginalized by society.
In his later works, however, he experimented with many different writing styles, including free form. It seemed that he could change his writing style with little or no effort. His later works include "The Branch Will Not Break" and "This Journey"
The Green Wall (1957)
Saint Judas (1959)
The Lion's Tail and Eyes: Poems Written Out of Laziness and Silence (1962) With Robert Bly and William Duffy.
The Branch Will Not Break (1963)
Shall We Gather at the River (1969)
Collected Poems (1971)
Two Citizens (1973)
Moments of the Italian Summer (1976)
To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977)
This Journey (1982)
Above the River: The Complete Poems (1992)