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James Wright Portrait

Born and raised in a steelworker's family in the steel town of Martin's Ferry, Ohio, James Wright joined the army after high school; he was sent to occupied Japan. After returning, he studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College and Theodore Roethke at the University of Washington, where he earned a Ph.D. He taught at the University of Minnesota, Hunter College, and the University of Delaware. In his first two books, Wright used regular meters and rhymes and often celebrated the social outsiders of the small towns and farms near where he grew up. "Saint Judas," on the other hand, from Wright's second book, is a portrait of another sort of outcast, Christ's betrayer. Then, on a Fulbright in Austria, he discovered the associative and sometimes partly surreal imagery of poets Georg Trakl and Theodor Storm. A visit to Robert Bly back in the U.S. helped give a name to this impulse and a rhetoric with which to bring it to realization—poetry of the "deep image." He adopted free verse forms based on colloquial American speech and constructed as a series of evocative images leading toward moments of epiphany. "A Blessing" and "Lying in a Hammock" are notable examples. At the same time, some of his poems became more political, including some written in protest against the Vietnam War, and the outcasts he depicted were more often victims of American history.