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The authorized and sweeping biography of one of America's most complex, influential, and enduring poets In the extraordinary generation of American poets who came of age in the middle of the twentieth century, James Wright (1927-1980) was frequently placed at the top of the list. With a fierce, single-minded devotion to his work, Wright escaped the steel town of his The authorized and sweeping biography of one of America's most complex, influential, and enduring poets In the extraordinary generation of American poets who came of age in the middle of the twentieth century, James Wright (1927-1980) was frequently placed at the top of the list. With a fierce, single-minded devotion to his work, Wright escaped the steel town of his Depression-era childhood in the Ohio valley to become a revered professor of English literature and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But his hometown remained at the heart of his work, and he courted a rough, enduring muse from his vivid memories of the Midwest. A full-throated lyricism and classical poise became his tools, honesty and unwavering compassion his trademark. Using meticulous research, hundreds of interviews, and Wright's public readings, Jonathan Blunk's authorized biography explores the poet's life and work with exceptional candor, making full use of Wright's extensive unpublished work--letters, poems, translations, and personal journals. Focusing on the tensions that forced Wright's poetic breakthroughs and the relationships that plunged him to emotional depths, Blunk provides a spirited portrait, and a fascinating depiction of this turbulent period in American letters. A gifted translator and mesmerizing reader, Wright appears throughout in all his complex and eloquent urgency. Discerning yet expansive, James Wright will change the way the poet's work is understood and inspire a new appreciation for his enduring achievement.


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The authorized and sweeping biography of one of America's most complex, influential, and enduring poets In the extraordinary generation of American poets who came of age in the middle of the twentieth century, James Wright (1927-1980) was frequently placed at the top of the list. With a fierce, single-minded devotion to his work, Wright escaped the steel town of his The authorized and sweeping biography of one of America's most complex, influential, and enduring poets In the extraordinary generation of American poets who came of age in the middle of the twentieth century, James Wright (1927-1980) was frequently placed at the top of the list. With a fierce, single-minded devotion to his work, Wright escaped the steel town of his Depression-era childhood in the Ohio valley to become a revered professor of English literature and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But his hometown remained at the heart of his work, and he courted a rough, enduring muse from his vivid memories of the Midwest. A full-throated lyricism and classical poise became his tools, honesty and unwavering compassion his trademark. Using meticulous research, hundreds of interviews, and Wright's public readings, Jonathan Blunk's authorized biography explores the poet's life and work with exceptional candor, making full use of Wright's extensive unpublished work--letters, poems, translations, and personal journals. Focusing on the tensions that forced Wright's poetic breakthroughs and the relationships that plunged him to emotional depths, Blunk provides a spirited portrait, and a fascinating depiction of this turbulent period in American letters. A gifted translator and mesmerizing reader, Wright appears throughout in all his complex and eloquent urgency. Discerning yet expansive, James Wright will change the way the poet's work is understood and inspire a new appreciation for his enduring achievement.

30 review for James Wright: A Life in Poetry

  1. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Finished: 30.09.2018 Genre: biography Rating: A+++++++++ #20BooksOfAutumn Conclusion: This book has shaken me to the core ...and here is why. Review

  2. 4 out of 5

    David Curry

    A good biography of a wrier is like having another book by that writer. Jonathan Blunk’s biography of the indispensable American poet James Wright is such a book, bringing us closer to an unreachable man. Some of Blunk’s revelations are startling, including Wright’s probable erotic involvement with Anne Sexton. I was particularly astonished to learn that three of Wright’s best known poems were all written during a single month, September 1960: “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” “Lying in a A good biography of a wrier is like having another book by that writer. Jonathan Blunk’s biography of the indispensable American poet James Wright is such a book, bringing us closer to an unreachable man. Some of Blunk’s revelations are startling, including Wright’s probable erotic involvement with Anne Sexton. I was particularly astonished to learn that three of Wright’s best known poems were all written during a single month, September 1960: “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” and the surely immortal “A Blessing.” Blunk is at his sharpest in the sentence that immediately follows his full quotation of “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”: “The startling impression originally made by this poem is hard to recapture, now that its sensibility and strategies have been so widely assimilated.” In discussing Wright’s poem “The Journey,” Blunk writes: “In quoting Jesus’ admonition, Wright roughens the poem’s diction. translating the Gospels into Southern Ohioan.” (The admonition referred to is “Let the dead bury the dead.”) Once again we confront the deep emotional conflict that can result in some of the most sublime poetry. Some graduate student might consider exploring this phenomenon in the lives and poetry of Wright and James Schuyler. In Wright, the conflict shows. In Schuyler, it never shows, even after we know of it, at least for this reader. The underside of it all, at least with Wright, is sometimes operatic. The alcoholic Wright arrives at the three poems cited above after spending time away from his wife and sons at Robert Bly’s farm with Bly, his then wife Carol and other visiting poets. Then comes this: “When Wright spent a(nother) weekend with the Blys in early October, he recounted Liberty’s (his soon to be estranged first wife) bitter remark as he left: ‘They think you’re something, but they don’t know you like I do.’ In a blind rage, she had struck him repeatedly with the steel handlebars from a broken bicycle. That November, Liberty finally agreed to speak to her priest about a divorce.” Blunk quotes generously from Wright’s work, and where he only refers to a poem, you’re free to turn to the Collected Poems and experience or re-experience the poem for yourself. Page 284 of the biography is blessed with the opening of Wright’s “The First Days”: “The first thing I saw in the morning Was a huge golden bee ploughing His burly right shoulder into the belly Of a sleek yellow pear Low on the bough.” You will quarrel with Wright now and then, but you cannot quarrel with that. Shoulder and belly, yes. It’s notable how often Wright’s most striking moments involve living things other than us. Other examples: those memorable horses in “A Blessing,” that Botticellian turtle in This Journey, and this in his response to poems by his young son Franz: “I especially value the startling one about the wolf-spider. Did I ever tell you about the spider I found on a country road, just outside the very old town of Anghiari in Italy? The town itself is medieval, sloping down a very steep hill and suddenly sweeping out to the edge of a steep cliff at the bottom of the town. Annie and I had climbed the hill behind the town and found ourselves in a strange Tuscan countryside. Wind had been blowing across hilltops for days, and everything was covered with dust — everything, including several small children whom we met along the road, strolling along and carrying a little caged bird. We sat to rest in some dusty brushwood by the roadside, and I looked into a spiderweb between bushes. It positively sagged with dust. And as I watched, a slim, brilliantly yellow spider stepped out of her doorway in the center of the web. In all that dust she was amazing: she was totally untouched by the smallest speck, as though she had just gone inside and taken a shower.” (The Wrights are the only American father and son both of whom have won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category, poetry.) The passage above later gets reworked into a poem. As a poet, Wright drew heavily from his own letters and journals, sometimes with much revision, sometimes with little. Downers abound throughout this biography, but there’s the other side as when in 1978 Wright writes to Donald Hall: “I had my coffee, my Perrier, and my notebook, and my God I was happy. I felt like Thoreau and e. e. cummings rolled into one fat Ohioan.” At the heart of this book is a complex, troubled and moving love story (It arrives in the nick of time, for Wright and for the reader) — the relationship between Wright and his second wife Anne, who entered his life fully aware of his chronic alcoholism and other difficulties. This is probably not a book for the general reader. But if you have read and admired Wright’s work and are familiar with other poets of his time, it’s a compelling and rewarding read. And Blunk, while being admirably thorough, never oversteps the biographer’s role. He’s not a biographer who’s going to try to tell you what Hart Crane was thinking when he jumped from the deck of the Orizaba into the Gulf of Mexico. The portrait on the front of the dust jacket is by Thomas Victor, who has done definitive portraits of many writers. I lack the technical knowledge to say what makes his portraits so special: I just know that Victor somehow seems to get inside his subject.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mike Zickar

    A beautiful biography. This author really understood the day-to-day activities of James Wright through digging through his diary, interviews with friends and colleagues, studying Wright's poetry, and so this book serves as a nice map for Wright's complex life, but it is so much more than that too. Blunk does a great job detailing Wright's passion for poetry and how he essentially committed his whole life to it, with everything else being of much less significance. He details Wright's struggles to A beautiful biography. This author really understood the day-to-day activities of James Wright through digging through his diary, interviews with friends and colleagues, studying Wright's poetry, and so this book serves as a nice map for Wright's complex life, but it is so much more than that too. Blunk does a great job detailing Wright's passion for poetry and how he essentially committed his whole life to it, with everything else being of much less significance. He details Wright's struggles to connect with others, his rampant alcoholism, and what surely must have been depression. But he also does a great job of communicating Wright's joy. The book was easy to read, with short breaks within each chapter. It was hard to put down!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Becky Loader

    James Wright is a major voice in modern poetry. Oh, but what complicated relationships he had! Well worth the read.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    James Wright was among the generation of American poets that were born in the period between U.S. involvement in the first World War and the October 1929 stock market crash: a group that would run from Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell to Adrienne Rich and Derek Walcott. I'm tempted to refer to it as the greatest generation, however, it's more likely that it will need to be described as the last generation of poets who had to accommodate the high or fine art claims of poem-writing to the mass James Wright was among the generation of American poets that were born in the period between U.S. involvement in the first World War and the October 1929 stock market crash: a group that would run from Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Lowell to Adrienne Rich and Derek Walcott. I'm tempted to refer to it as the greatest generation, however, it's more likely that it will need to be described as the last generation of poets who had to accommodate the high or fine art claims of poem-writing to the mass production of American vernacular music and pop as a bulwark for the mass industrial production of ideological messages. What happened to the country through the introduction of wireless technology happened first to this generation. Radio is first among factors involving poetry as a craft in the toppling of metonymic structures underlying the poem's atmosphere. For James Wright, poetry's way was to master and redeem the toxic masculine noosphere underlying the poem's cultural authority; Wright's biographer uses Teilhard de Chardin's "We are not human beings having a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings having a human journey" as his biography's epigraph. To which I'm tempted to respond: no shit, Sherlock. The middle of three boys raised in Martin's Ferry, Ohio by a Hazel Atlas Glass machinist and his high-strung, domineering and explosively loose-tongued wife, James Wright rode academic scholarships through Army stints in Europe and the Far-East, Kenyon College, marriage to a local girl overmatched by her husband's literary ambitions, and graduate school in the Northwest under the tutelage of Theodore Roethke, before landing in Minneapolis in the fall 1958 -- it's here, as near as anywhere else, that Blunk's biography really gets interesting. For lovers of James Wright's poems, the lore from this period is replete. Until now, however, it has been only lore. Wright was well-loved in Poetry World by those elders of his own and the subsequent generation who knew or heard from, or drank with him over the years -- in the bar, especially, his commandeering of poem-lore argued through the chops of an eidetic memory that the blood on the floor of poem-language proved the real through which ambition for poetic fame becomes the only fitting convivio. Blunk took on this project late in the 2oth century, and gave it proper time. I think his research and his notes are an astonishment. Any number of poet's lives should be so lucky. No doubt he felt a debt of honor of Wright's second wife, Anne Runk's cooperation, to finish the book while she was still alive. Runk-Wright and Wright's youngest son, Marshall, are all that's left of the immediate family. Blunk has been constrained, by Wright's own journal writing, to hew more closely to the daily log once it was clear what that was, and for this reason, the last hundred pages of the biography drags a bit, as the chapters organize around years, and academic piece-work sponsors the Wrights' pilgrimages to their second home -- Europe, especially Italy. There's much more to say here of the Wright High Lonesome, which emerges most clearly in the Minneapolis sections that Wright more and more came to regard as a Midwest pit, though it was also his "Orplidean country."

  6. 5 out of 5

    Peggy

    What seemed particularly beautiful to me as I read this book was how James met his early life's challenges to emerge in middle age as a gentle spirit, attentive to friends, loving to family, and dedicated to literature as a teacher and poet. I am so accustomed to reading about the noisier Beats from the same generation that James's bio took me by surprise. He was born into a humble family and grew up in Martin's Ferry in Appalachian Ohio, a place of natural beauty dominated by a blue-color What seemed particularly beautiful to me as I read this book was how James met his early life's challenges to emerge in middle age as a gentle spirit, attentive to friends, loving to family, and dedicated to literature as a teacher and poet. I am so accustomed to reading about the noisier Beats from the same generation that James's bio took me by surprise. He was born into a humble family and grew up in Martin's Ferry in Appalachian Ohio, a place of natural beauty dominated by a blue-color industry. He chafed against the town's cramped ethos, but found a lifetime of inspiration there of place and people. Exposed to the kind of public school education that made America a world leader in the twentieth century, James's intelligence provided him with a means to escape his small town. He attended Kenyon College, then went on to the University of Washington for his Ph.D. Facile with languages, gifted in memory, he taught literature throughout his career, keeping numerous undergraduate students enrapt and attentive with his wide-ranging examples and quotations from writers who spanned history and geography. James was also prone to the prevailing diseases of the time--a nervous breakdown in high school, ongoing battles with alcohol addiction. His first marriage was difficult and his divorce had a devastating impact upon his two sons. Yet his poetry prevailed, his voice proclaiming a luminous wonder of life. It's clear to me (though the author simply lets the facts speak for themselves and does not pound out an argument for Wright's influence) that his translations of Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Juan Ramon Jimenez contributed to Americans' growing awareness and appreciation of Spanish and Latin American poetry in the later twentieth century. Similarly, his leaping, "deep image" poetry has been hugely influential on successive generations of poets. What a wonderful experience, to spend time with James Wright by reading this biography. I'm grateful to my local public library for including it in its collection.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Laura Cobrinik

    Jonathan Blunk's biography, "James Wright: A Life in Poetry," was wonderful. As a published poet myself, someone who has gong to many Dodge Poetry Festivals in New Jersey, I am hitting myself and pounding myself for not ever hearing about the poet, James Wright, especially since poets, Maxine Kuman, William Carlos Williams, Rita Dove, Sander Zulauf, and many others whom I am very familiar with were mentioned throughout the book. I would say that this biography is a "rags to fame (riches) and back Jonathan Blunk's biography, "James Wright: A Life in Poetry," was wonderful. As a published poet myself, someone who has gong to many Dodge Poetry Festivals in New Jersey, I am hitting myself and pounding myself for not ever hearing about the poet, James Wright, especially since poets, Maxine Kuman, William Carlos Williams, Rita Dove, Sander Zulauf, and many others whom I am very familiar with were mentioned throughout the book. I would say that this biography is a "rags to fame (riches) and back to rags" story of a brilliant man, a talented poet, who despite his addictions to Smoking, Alcohol, and his periods of Mania and Depressions, was able to write and publish so many poems and books--We know that Wright loved Martin's Ferry, Ohio, that despite the fact that he had a failed first marriage and that his second marriage was a little better than the first, that Wright taught poetry and writing at many colleges around the country--Blunk shows us that Wright tried to be a good father to his two sons, that with all of Wrights addictions he still gave readings to "packed" auditoriums, sometimes singing the poems, and although he had papers and opened books on the podium in front of him, that most of his readings were memorized.... Why it had to take me until January of 2018, when Blunk's mother called my Mom all the way from Ohio, to let us know that her son, Jonathan's biography was going to be reviewed in The New York Times. Luckily, my Mom answered her good friend, Jonathan's Mother and sent a picture of Jonathan and myself when we were only 1 1/2 years old....That was the last time that I had seen Jonathan until her gave a fantastic reading at County College of Morris, in Randolph, NJ. I recommend this book to all poets. Thank you Jonathan for writing this book. You have such a gift for writing!! Laura Cobrinik, Boonton Township, NJ

  8. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    One of my dearest friends gave me Wright’s Above the River when we graduated from college. I’ve had it with me ever since. This book is an extraordinary complement to that one. It took me by surprise—at first perhaps only a discipline and then something much closer to me in mind and in heart. By the end of it—with Wright’s death—I was a wreck. While I did have questions at times about representations of women in the book (ie I wonder about Liberty’s perspective) and felt there may have been a One of my dearest friends gave me Wright’s Above the River when we graduated from college. I’ve had it with me ever since. This book is an extraordinary complement to that one. It took me by surprise—at first perhaps only a discipline and then something much closer to me in mind and in heart. By the end of it—with Wright’s death—I was a wreck. While I did have questions at times about representations of women in the book (ie I wonder about Liberty’s perspective) and felt there may have been a larger understanding of women poets at that time (ie Anne Sexton), the book did evolve somewhat over its course and with Wright’s life (though I wonder about closing with Annie and “Jenny” — there might have been more depth around Jenny in general). Still, Blunk refrains from comment, tries to let it stand for itself, which I cannot help but admire in him as this restraint brings Wright so fully into view, so completely off the page and into the room. Sent from my iPhone

  9. 4 out of 5

    Christie

    I am normally not one to enjoy reading about poets' lives. I usually crave more action. But the author here managed to make James Wright's life quite interesting (I mean it was, but not in the way I'm usually looking for), and made me a bit nostalgic for my own college days at Kenyon. The author's portrayal of Wright's life was honest and comprehensive. This book brings together some of Wright's poetry (never enough), as well as things written in his journals and in letters to a wide range of I am normally not one to enjoy reading about poets' lives. I usually crave more action. But the author here managed to make James Wright's life quite interesting (I mean it was, but not in the way I'm usually looking for), and made me a bit nostalgic for my own college days at Kenyon. The author's portrayal of Wright's life was honest and comprehensive. This book brings together some of Wright's poetry (never enough), as well as things written in his journals and in letters to a wide range of people. I thought this was a beautiful book about a beautiful man.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    This is an extraordinary literary biography written with respect, scholarship, and a great capacity for "listening". Never apologetic or sentimental, but incisive and richly documented, it reads well and establishes a much needed recognition of this wonderful teacher and poet.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Rusty

    Fascinating and well-told, this bio provides indispensable material about James Wright and his struggles with poetry itself and with depression. I can't recommend it highly enough.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alan Gerstle

    I once took a class with James Wright, and afterwards, he invited us to his apartment in New York. He was a very interesting man and character. He died rather young. He had the simplest of manual typewriters in his small office. He was a fascinating soul, and you could feel how deep it was, although it wasn't easily observable.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jess

  14. 5 out of 5

    Peycho Kanev

  15. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Mielke

  16. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  17. 5 out of 5

    John

  18. 5 out of 5

    Tim Peeler

  19. 4 out of 5

    Isabel Acevedo

  20. 4 out of 5

    Whitney Baker

  21. 4 out of 5

    Larry Smith

  22. 4 out of 5

    David Gutowski

  23. 4 out of 5

    Anne

  24. 5 out of 5

    Karen Boyle

  25. 4 out of 5

    John Dimoia

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cooper Renner

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Gunther

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bsday

  29. 5 out of 5

    World Literature Today

    "Biographies are sometimes deadened by a merely dutiful and exhaustive recitation of chronological facts that fail to evoke the complex totality of the living spirit they describe. Though Blunk’s writing is accurate, dutiful, and exhaustive (as biographies should be), it is also vividly alive: a reader feels on every page as if he or she is in the presence of Wright. The narrative distance is gauged perfectly, providing an objectivity infused with awareness of the deep humanity and importance of "Biographies are sometimes deadened by a merely dutiful and exhaustive recitation of chronological facts that fail to evoke the complex totality of the living spirit they describe. Though Blunk’s writing is accurate, dutiful, and exhaustive (as biographies should be), it is also vividly alive: a reader feels on every page as if he or she is in the presence of Wright. The narrative distance is gauged perfectly, providing an objectivity infused with awareness of the deep humanity and importance of this poet." - Fred Dings This book was reviewed in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of World Literature Today magazine. Read the full review by visiting our website: https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/...

  30. 4 out of 5

    Chris

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