An extraordinarily gifted and beloved poet, as well as a translator and an English professor, James Wright left an indelible mark on American poetry. At least several of his often anthologized poems (among them “A Blessing,” “Milkweed” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”) seem likely to be remembered for a long time.
Jonathan Blunk, the authorized biographer, shows considerable empathy for his subject, and his sensitivity to the poetry shines through this long and detailed work. But be forewarned: It is a sad, even tragic, story.
Born and raised in the industrial Ohio Valley, Wright went to Kenyon College after serving in the Navy. Following a Fulbright year in Vienna, he enrolled at the University of Washington, writing his Ph.D. dissertation on Charles Dickens. He spent eight years in the Twin Cities, teaching at the University of Minnesota and then Macalester College, before moving in 1966 to Hunter College in New York. He died in 1980, just 52 years old.
The book opens in 1958, with a pivotal event in Wright’s career — finding Robert Bly’s new literary magazine, the Fifties, in his mailbox. It occasioned a new birth in his poetry and a momentous, mutually beneficial and ultimately unbreakable friendship. While Wright’s undisguised hatred of Minneapolis never abated, he often stayed at Bly’s farm in Madison, Minn., where he found release from his usual torments.
Blunk concentrates on Wright’s intense devotion to poetry, and he fleshes out the genesis and development of various poems and collections, such as the long gestation of “The Branch Will Not Break,” perhaps his most cherished book. All the while the poet’s great intelligence, volubility, generosity and humor are on display.
But a literary biographer must also be intrusive, only insofar as the life informs the work. With notable candor, Blunk reports the copious harrowing facts: Wright’s mental distress and depression (first manifested as a teenager, with repeated breakdowns, hospitalizations and electroshock treatments); his relentless alcoholism, and byproducts of both, including explosive rage, recurring suicidal thoughts, obsession, shame, despair and loneliness.
This book clearly conveys how tremendously wounded Wright was. What may not always come through explicitly enough — by following the threads of his dual diagnosis through all aspects of his life and work — is how he turned those wounds into a creative benefit. Despite the fact that he was high-functioning much of the time, Wright’s struggles wreaked havoc on relationships and account for his erratic performance in the classroom and elsewhere. They surely also left subtle and not so subtle imprints on his poetry. Remarkably, many of Wright’s poems are life-affirming and celebratory. Many others are understandably anguished, peopled by outcasts, the downtrodden, with whom he felt an affinity.
Altogether, Blunk provides a sweeping and eye-opening account, for which readers will be grateful.
Mark Gustafson is a writer and occasional classics professor. He lives in Minneapolis.
James Wright: A Life in Poetry
By: Jonathan Blunk.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 496 pages, $40.
Events: 7 p.m. Dec. 4, Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota, Mpls.; 7 p.m. Dec. 5, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.