on James Wright: A Life in Poetry by Jonathan Blunk (Farrar Straus & Giroux)

Just after the 1959 publication of his second collection of poems, Saint Judas, James Wright said, “What I would like is a poetry in our own language that is not so weighed down by guilt toward the past, which is able to contain images of what is real to us and belongs to us, and which is sometimes happy.” He strove unceasingly for the next twenty years to make poems with these qualities. Eerily, the poems not only met his prerequisites of plain-spokenness, a reckoning with the past, and equanimity, but also retained a whiff of the antagonistic sources from which they arose and struggled to detach: inarticulate rage, oppressive memory, and dread. The rage could erupt outside the work.

Wright_Young.jpgHis closest poet-friends and observant critics remarked on the collision of opposites in his work and person. In 1964, Robert Bly said that Wright’s poems were “made of mingled streams of savagery and tranquility.” A year later, Paul Carroll described his personality as comprising “wretchedness and grandeur” leavened by “an infectious, bubbling lopsided humor.” In James Wright: A Life in Poetry, Jonathan Blunk gives us an efficiently nuanced portrait of the poet, scoping out his obsessions and turmoils but without the garishness that may typify a biography stocked with messy content. It is a harrowing tale nonetheless.

The book’s subtitle provokes a question: what does it mean to have “a life in poetry”? What is entailed in sustaining this profession? Wright’s life was not especially eventful but Blunk manages to recreate a momentum entirely based on Wright’s determination to write poems and teach literature. His first marriage was a torment, his two sons were afterthoughts (“Wright had little talent for parenting and no real presence in their lives”). As an undergraduate at Kenyon College, he wrote his senior thesis on Hardy. At the University of Washington, he wrote poems under the tutelage of Theodore Roethke and cranked out his dissertation on Dickens. Opportunities to teach turned up at the right moments but he was penurious, living on his wife’s earnings as a nurse. Allen Tate forced his dismissal from the faculty at the University of Minnesota in the spring of 1963 just as The Branch Will Not Break was published. An embittered, alcoholic, and now divorced Wright went to New York City to teach at Hunter College. He and his second wife traveled several times to Italy.

Wright_Middleaged.jpgBlunk deftly balances his reporting of the linear, factual life with the whirling, repetitive obsessiveness of the inner life. His stance regarding the latter echoes the forbearance of Wright’s closest friends. When Wright visited Robert Bly’s farm for the first of many visits, Carol Bly remarked, “He is insane and almost dangerous.” But Louis Simpson concurred with the opinion of others when he said, “Jim was essentially an innocent … a very pure spirit.” E.L. Doctorow, a longtime friend who met Wright as a classmate at Kenyon, said, “Everything was treated at a level of intensity that made him difficult to be around for long … There was nothing held back.” Galway Kinnell said, “Things hurt him as if he had no protection at all.” Doctorow also found in Wright “an intensity of self-generated perception, a raging, all-consuming subjection to your own consciousness, a kind of helplessness, finally.”

Blunk never permits us to indulge a click-shut judgment. This leaves the reader in a position very much like Wrights’: experiencing difficulty in identifying the “problem” of himself. He spoke of “the great weariness that comes over me sometimes — a curious hunted feeling … an exhaustion of spirit that is strangely exciting.” He wrote this to Sonjia Urseth, his “muse” for years, a non-stop disconsolate plea for her affection and attention in a long surge of letters that was part of his graphomania. This epistolary relationship, impassioned and ineffectual, points to an essential knot in his psyche. Abandonment and loss were his constant companions, and Sonjia’s aloofness allowed him to keep it that way. Yet Blunk also lets us sense the pathos of Wright’s frantic yearning.

WrightCover_0.jpgWright seems to have read everything and was famous for his phonographic* memory. He could recite long passages of Dickens or Pope or Rilke or Vallejo, regaling or tiring out his friends and students. Blunk keeps a focus on Wright’s search for language to express “what is real to us” as the poet shifted from his early formal training toward the “deep image” poetry preached by Bly. It is stated as fact that Wright’s poetry continued to “change” until the end – but Blunk never gets close enough to the poetry to prove it. The only flaw in James Wright: A Life In Poetry is the shortage of poems included. Did anything ever ”change” for Wright? “This is what I hope for,” he told James Dickey when questioned about a certain poem, “I would like to be a grown man.” He went looking for that remote possibility in himself in each new poem.

About Pablo Neruda, Wright wrote, “A great poet is a disturbance. If poetry means anything, it means heart, liver, and soul. If great poetry means anything, anything at all, it means disturbance, secret disturbance … I want poetry to make me happy, but the poetry I want should deal with the hell of our lives or else it leaves me cold.” The daunting size of this demand was apparent to Wright’s admirers and a reason for the admiration. Wright disturbed people in a way that may seem quaint now. It was a time of turning away from the cold strictures of the New Critics. Stricken, frumpy yet distinguished, Wright came across as a would-be southern agrarian poet who woke up with a hangover to find Tomas Tranströmer making coffee downstairs. When he ended his poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” with the line “I have wasted my life,” the audience held its breath.

Wright_Marker.jpgDuring his lifetime, Wright’s poems were most usually criticized for their “sentimentality.” Paul Zweig, who knew Wright, observed, “He … is so determined to bring his language as close as possible to the simplicity of emotional statement that an air of oversimplification and clumsiness is often felt.” In the late 1970’s, Leonard Nathan dug deeper: “Wright’s idea of the good may be the product of a deliberately diminished approach to the world, that makes it hard for him to get beyond his sense of pathos, his melancholy.” In other words, in the poetry Wright dialed down the turbulent constant frenzy of his inner noise, sought control, and came as close as possible to being a happy grown man. But unlike his short-term lover Anne Sexton, he preferred to make his griefs generic. Robert Hass noted that although Wright was celebrated for acknowledging the suffering of working people, “it is what he writes from, not what he writes about.” Alan Williamson liked Wright’s “emotional exclamatoriness” while a reviewer in The Georgia Review saw only a “decline into mawkishness.”

Wright’s friendships mattered a great deal: Robert Bly, Louis Simpson, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, John Logan, Elizabeth Kray (director of the Academy of American Poets), Richard Hugo, Hayden Carruth. My copy of William Heyen’s American Poets in 1976 includes a short prose piece by Wright about meeting the young Bill Knott which triggered another memory: “in that sinister moment when it is so frighteningly difficult to tell the difference between the feeling of pain and feeling of gratitude, Louis [Simpson] observed that ‘sometimes, even in the weariness of literature, poetry can happen.’” In the end, this is what I admire about Blunk’s biography: its calm affinity for the sinister moments balanced with the restrained gratitude for the poems. He provides us with enough cogent writing to provoke our own horror and joy.

[Published October 17, 2017. 496 pages, $$40.00 hardcover]

* "Phonographic" isn't a typo. Consider this note I received via email from David Rivard about Wright's prodigious memory-of-sound:

"Jon Anderson once told me a story of Wright visiting Iowa while Jon was a grad student in the 60’s. After the reading when Jon made his way to tell Wright how much he loved his poems, Wright said that he’d seen a couple of poems by Jon recently in the North American Review, then he recited them to him!"