Until recently, any serious reader of American poetry could have named, perhaps even recited, a handful of poems by James Wright. They would most likely be from "The Branch Will Not Break" (1963), poems such as "A Blessing," "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota" and "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio." That collection and its follow-up, "Shall We Gather at the River" (1967), represent the fertile meeting ground of two powerful currents in midcentury American poetry: "deep image" poetry, characterized by surrealist, symbolist and Jungian elements and nourished largely by such international poets as Lorca and Neruda; and a domestic tradition that reflected the rugged realities of working-class life in small American towns.
Wright was born in 1927 in one of those small towns, Martins Ferry. His birthplace never relaxed its hold on his imagination, though he left before he turned 20 and rarely returned. His father, like many Martins Ferry residents, worked on a factory assembly line, a fate Wright himself was determined to avoid. (One poem mentions "dead Ohio, where I might lie buried,/ Had I not run away before my time.") His early obsession with poetry and his interest in translation formed in connection with his desire to escape the bleak constraint that stifled many of the lives he witnessed.
As Jonathan Blunk notes in his new biography, "James Wright," that determination, combined with Wright's spectacular memory, gave his work and conversation a dynamic energy that many remarked on. As E.L. Doctorow recalled, Wright "couldn't be casual about anything. Everything was treated at a level of intensity that made him difficult to be around for very long. . . . There was nothing held back. He was always working all cylinders, always." Another friend, Paul Carroll, said that "Jim talked poetry as if he were an early Christian in the catacombs, talking Christ crucified."
Wright's obsession with poetry remained throughout his life, though he frequently considered abandoning it, particularly in the early years of struggle and frustration. "By God," he wrote in a 1947 letter, "I am going to keep myself from writing if I have to tape my fingers and thumbs together." A decade later, his first book, "The Green Wall," won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Yet he remained unhappy, both with his own work and with the state of American poetry, which he saw as excessively formal and staid, pervaded by the so-called New Criticism. "I have been depressed as hell," he wrote Theodore Roethke in 1958. "My stuff stinks, and you know it." The current situation, he went on to write, was "more than a literary vacuum — this is a catastrophe for human civilization."
In July of that year, once again on the verge of renouncing his vocation, Wright received a copy of the inaugural issue of the poetry magazine called the Fifties. Robert Bly and William Duffy published the Fifties (later called the Sixties and the Seventies) as a contrarian gesture against what they saw as the culturally isolated and largely lifeless poetry dominating the era's literary scene, and as a means of reaching poets who felt as alienated and disenchanted as they did.
"The arrival of the Fifties in Wright's faculty mailbox," Blunk writes, "threw Wright into a state approaching vertigo." Tremendously excited, he wrote to Bly, beginning a correspondence that would continue for the rest of his life. The poems presented in the Fifties, and the correspondence with Bly, rekindled his sense of the possibilities of poetry and suggested new directions for his own work — directions that would lead to "The Branch Will Not Break" and on to "Collected Poems" (1971), which won a Pulitzer Prize.
Wright endured his share of difficulties: a bad first marriage ending in a financially and spiritually devastating divorce; his enforced separation from his two sons (one of them, Franz Wright, went on to win the Pulitzer for his own poetry); the challenge of securing reliable academic employment; and, perhaps most damagingly, his lifelong struggle with alcoholism, which led him in his later years to Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization he credited with saving his life. (Outside of his performing and mnemonic abilities, what often most impressed people about Wright was the astonishing amounts of alcohol he consumed.)
These hardships lend some narrative drama to Blunk's biography, an intermittently entertaining read that will serve as a useful source for readers interested in the poet's life. Ultimately, however, "James Wright" comes across as unsatisfyingly exterior. Wright's dramas played out within his mind and on the pages he left for us. It is there — in his poems and wonderful letters — that we find his humor, his tenderness, his insecurity, his unique and unforgettable voice. In the end, we must turn to Wright's own words to get a true sense of the man, which is just the way he would have wanted it.
Troy Jollimore's most recent book of poems is "Syllabus of Errors."
By Jonathan Blunk
Farrar Straus Giroux. 496 pp. $40