Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio to a glass factory worker and a laundress -- neither of whom were educated beyond the eighth grade -- James Wright drew on his life experiences of poverty, nature, industry, and social inequalities to produce the kind of poetry that would eventually lead to a Pulitzer Prize. "I have written about the things I am deeply concerned with," he once said, "crickets outside my window, cold and hungry old men, ghosts in the twilight, horses in a field, a red-haired child in her mother's arms, a feeling of desolation in the fall, some cities I've known."
Wright once told an interviewer that he grew interested in poetry "At age eleven…when a friend 'started to teach me Latin. He gave me the collected works of Lord Byron.'" Wright was so inspired that he wrote his first poem right then and there; "Fortunately," he said, "(it) has been lost."
His home on a small farm just outside a poor steel mill town was full of enough contrast and inspiration, though, to continue to push the young man toward a life of poetry. Though he was originally "enrolled in a vocational training program" at the local public high school, Wright began studying literature instead upon the urging of some of his teachers, who recognized early on the boy's ability. He served in the army during World War II (just after his high school graduation), but resumed studies at Ohio's Kenyon College in Gambier afterward. While there, he was awarded the Robert Frost Poetry Prize. After his 1952 graduation, he married his first wife, Liberty Kardules (with whom he would eventually have two children), and won a Fulbright Scholarship a the University of Vienna in Austria; upon returning to the States, Wright pursued both his master's degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, which he received in 1954 and 1959, respectively.
Before Wright had even left school, though, he had already begun attracting national attention. In 1957, he published his first volume of traditional poetry, The Green Wall, and W.H. Auden chose some of Wright's work from it for publication in the Yale Younger Poet's Series. His book Saint Judas was again brought Wright into the limelight as he received the Ohioana Book Award.
By the time Wright's second poetry collection was published, in 1959, he had separated from his first wife (they would later divorce). Wright's third book was born out of that time of personal struggle; entitled The Branch Shall Not Break, the 1963 collection is an exploration of more contemporary verse and has been called "one of the most influential volumes of the 1960s."
In 1966, Wright took a teaching job at Hunter College. One year later, he remarried, to sculptor Edith Anne Crunk, the source of inspiration for many of his later poems. He also published another celebrated volume of poetry (his fourth) that same year. It was his next collection, though, that would earn him the highest honor of his career. Funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Wright's 1971 Collected Poems won him the 1972 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Wright once said that he wrote in "Ohioan." One of his best-known poems, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," is a meditation on his native Ohio, with Wright's description of the mill towns and football stadium and the dreams of heroes. In his 1968 collection of poems titled Shall We Gather at the River Wright brings back the images of the Ohio River Valley in many of his works.
Wright continued to write and publish poetry until the very year of his death from cancer in 1980. Annie rallied her husband's friends and peers to help edit and publish James Wright's final work, This Journey, in 1982.
This time, I have left my body behind me, crying
In its dark thorns.
There are good things in this world.
It is dusk.
It is the good darkness
Of women's hands that touch loaves.
The spirit of a tree begins to move.
I touch leaves.
I close my eyes and think of water.
-- Trying To Pray, James Wright
Photos courtesy of Mrs. Ann Wright.