The poems of James Wright infuse his hometown of Martins Ferry, Ohio with so true an emotional core that the town has taken on an almost mythic quality. One of four children, Wright was born and raised in this small industrial town situated along the Ohio River, just opposite Wheeling, West Virginia. His father worked at the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company and his mother at the White Swan Laundry.
During his youth in the Depression, the Wrights moved a number of times around Aetnaville, in the south end of Martins Ferry. The poems he later wrote confronted these difficult years and his oft-grim surroundings, such as diving for lost bodies caught in the river’s "suckholes." However, he also found solace and a love of nature by walking out among the region’s more rural reaches.
One of Wright’s most celebrated poems captures some of the nuances of his hometown, titled "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio":
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
While no single landmark in Martins Ferry commemorates Wright, visitors might stop into Shreve High School, where the poet ran on the track team and served on the yearbook staff, or amble along the scenic banks of the Ohio River.
Since 1980, The James Wright Poetry Festival, a celebration of Wright's life and work, takes place annually in Martins Ferry during April. In past years, workshops and readings have been led by Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver, and Wright’s son, Franz Wright.
"Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" is from The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 1963 by James Wright. Used with permission.