About this poet

On December 13, 1927, James Arlington Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His father worked for fifty years at a glass factory, and his mother left school at fourteen to work in a laundry; neither attended school beyond the eighth grade. While in high school in 1943 Wright suffered a nervous breakdown and missed a year of school. When he graduated in 1946, a year late, he joined the army and was stationed in Japan during the American occupation. He then attended Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill, and studied under John Crowe Ransom. He graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952, then married another Martins Ferry native, Liberty Kardules. The two traveled to Austria, where, on a Fulbright Fellowship, Wright studied the works of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. He returned to the U.S. and earned master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Washington, studying with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. He went on to teach at The University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and New York City's Hunter College.

The poverty and human suffering Wright witnessed as a child profoundly influenced his writing and he used his poetry as a mode to discuss his political and social concerns. He modeled his work after Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, whose engagement with profound human issues and emotions he admired. The subjects of Wright's earlier books, The Green Wall (winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1957) and Saint Judas (1959), include men and women who have lost love or have been marginalized from society for such reasons as poverty and sexual orientation, and they invite the reader to step in and experience the pain of their isolation. Wright possessed the ability to reinvent his writing style at will, moving easily from stage to stage. His earlier work adheres to conventional systems of meter and stanza, while his later work exhibits more open, looser forms, as with The Branch Will Not Break (1963). James Wright was elected a fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1971, and the following year his Collected Poems received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. He died in New York City on Martch 25, 1980.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Green Wall (1957)
Saint Judas (1959)
The Lion's Tail and Eyes: Poems Written Out of Laziness and Silence (1962)
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)

Prose

Collected Prose (1983)

Anthology

Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (1961)
Twenty Poems of César Vallejo (1962)
The Rider on the White Horse by Theodor Storm (1964)
Twenty Poems of Pablo Neruda (1968)
Poems by Hesse (1970)
Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (1971)
Wandering: Notes and Sketches by Hesse (1972)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

The Secret of Light

James Wright, 1927 - 1980

I am sitting contented and alone in a little park near the Palazzo Scaligere in Verona, glimpsing the mists of early autumn as they shift and fade among the pines and city battlements on the hills above the river Adige.

The river has recovered from this morning's rainfall. It is now restoring to its shapely body its own secret light, a color of faintly cloudy green and pearl.

Directly in front of my bench, perhaps thirty yards away from me, there is a startling woman. Her hair is black as the inmost secret of light in a perfectly cut diamond, a perilous black, a secret light that must have been studied for many years before the anxious and disciplined craftsman could achieve the necessary balance between courage and skill to stroke the strange stone and take the one chance he would ever have to bring that secret to light.

While I was trying to compose the preceding sentence, the woman rose from her park bench and walked away. I am afraid her secret might never come to light in my lifetime. But my lifetime is not the only one. I will never see her again. I hope she brings some other man's secret face to light, as somebody brought mine. I am startled to discover that I am not afraid. I am free to give a blessing out of my silence into that woman's black hair. I trust her to go on living. I believe in her black hair, her diamond that is still asleep. I would close my eyes to daydream about her. But those silent companions who watch over me from the insides of my eyelids are too brilliant for me to meet face to face.

The very emptiness of the park bench in front of mine is what makes me happy. Somewhere else in Verona at just this moment, a woman is sitting or walking or standing still upright. Surely two careful and accurate hands, total strangers to me, measure the invisible idea of the secret vein in her hair. They are waiting patiently until they know what they alone can ever know: that time when her life will pause in mid-flight for a split second. The hands will touch her black hair very gently. A wind off the river Adige will flutter past her. She will turn around, smile a welcome, and place a flawless and fully formed Italian daybreak into the hands.

I don't have any idea what his face will look like. The light still hidden inside his body is no business of mine. I am happy enough to sit in this park alone now. I turn my own face toward the river Adige. A little wind flutters off the water and brushes past me and returns.

It is all right with me to know that my life is only one life. I feel like the light of the river Adige.

By this time, we are both an open secret.

                                                                                                       Verona

From Above the River: The Complete. Copyright © 1990 by James Wright. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

From Above the River: The Complete. Copyright © 1990 by James Wright. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

James Wright

James Wright

Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on December 13, 1927, James Arlington Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and was elected a fellow of The Academy of American Poets

by this poet

poem
Nightfall, that saw the morning-glories float
Tendril and string against the crumbling wall,
Nurses him now, his skeleton for grief,
His locks for comfort curled among the leaf.
Shuttles of moonlight weave his shadow tall,
Milkweed and dew flow upward to his throat.
Now catbird feathers plume the apple mound,
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