A People’s Poet, James Wright

On his 94th birthday, let’s delve deeper into the talent of James Wright and his lasting impact on the American poetic landscape.

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James Wright was a rare poetic emblem of the American pastoral. The span of his poetic career of 20-plus-years not only distinguished Wright as a skilled and talented writer, it also showed the progression and change in his writing style. His career from beginning to end paralleled the development of contemporary poetry and perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the poetic movement of the American 1960s and onwards.

Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927, Wright experienced the struggles of a working-class family—his father worked in a factory and his mother in laundry. His childhood poverty and his experiences with personal hardships (he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943) influenced his work. He had a keen and compassionate understanding of the human experience, making him a poet for the people.


Wright published his first collection, The Green Wall, in 1956 which was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize. This first collection maintained the formalist, rigid structures of traditional verse poetry. But as his experience as a writer grew, so did his style. Departing away from conventional styles, Wright began experimenting with the looser poetic structures which soon embodied the political surrealism and confessionalism of the 1960s.

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

“A Blessing” by James Wright

Wright is evidently known and celebrated with this specific poetic style of visceral, concentrated poetry. His poetry may read as simple in rhetoric, but a close reading reveals that it’s bursting with complicated metaphors that intensified his new style of pastoral surrealism. Wright’s close friendship with his contemporary, Robert Bly, influenced his own work and the two poets soon reimagined a unique poetic movement called deep image poetry.

The uncomplicated style of deep image poetry focused on the idea of a singular image written with visceral intent to generate meaning by the poet and, by extension, within the reader. The idea is to steep the simplicity of the image with intense vividness to compel the reader, which Wright was a clear master of.

As a writer, Wright understood the need for clarity and simplicity. Within his poetry, he dealt with alienation and human suffering, which made him more accessible to his readers. So on his birthday, I urge you all to take a look at Wright’s poetry.

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