By: Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley, eds.
Reviewed by: Dennis Sampson
Wesleyan University Press, 2008
The American poet James Wright was a voluminous correspondent, and these more than five hundred pages of A Wild Perfection are merely a sampling of his letters. Wright was a poet of supreme importance to his generation, and to the generation that followed. He was also, as these letters indicate, a man of tremendous compassion and intelligence. He lived, as Rilke said of the sculptor Auguste Rodin, "at the very center of his art."
Wright came from a working-class background. His father worked for Hazel-Atlas Glass for many years in small-town Ohio. With the help of the GI Bill, he earned a PhD from the University of Washington. Then came his first marriage, two children, and a disastrous stint as an English professor at the University of Minnesota, where he was a colleague of the poets Allen Tate and John Berryman. There was alcoholism. There was divorce. There were mental breakdowns. Wright ended up at Hunter College in New York City, where he met his second wife, Anne. There he stopped drinking, traveled often to Italy, and died at the age of fifty-three of throat cancer. In an early letter to James Dickey he confesses, "Poetry is a terrifyingly difficult and magnificent thing," and both the terror and the magnificence of his life are in evidence in these letters that cover a thirty-three year period. "It is a ferocious battle to try and make sense out of one’s own life," he proclaims late in his life, "but it is everything—everything."
Wright seems not to have belonged to one school of thought or the other, although the great Spanish poets of the last century, Neruda in particular, deeply affected him, enough so that after his first two formal books of poetry were published he dropped the formal approach altogether. Robert Bly, to whom many of these letters are written, was an encouraging presence early on. Wright in these letters is loving, tender, unembittered, and determined to write the best poems that he could. Whatever smacked of commercialism, whatever mocked the beauty that he knew so well existed in this world, were absolute anathema to him. You get a sense of this, however, only now and then in his letters (particularly in the one to J. D. McClatchy where Wright violently recoils at the idea of writing something, at McClatchy’s request, in reaction to the suicide of Anne Sexton, with whom Wright had a close friendship) and this strikes me as strange. I want to see more of that side of him.
Wright was a poet of various doubts. At one point he even felt that he was perhaps no poet at all, as he says in a letter to Bly, and yet his defense of his work in response to James Dickey’s assessment of his early poems in a mere aside in The Kenyon Review is filled with fury, anxiety, and self-loathing—a rare glimpse into the darker regions of this man’s beautiful heart. What Dickey had to say was right, though, and Wright came to understand this, setting the stage for the creation of his strongest volumes of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break and To a Blossoming Pear Tree.
These letters of Wright, which offer perhaps the most significant aspect of his personality as both a man and a poet, may finally give way to a more comprehensive understanding of him in time to come. I hope so. In any case, reading these letters one is permitted to know what it means to be an American poet, and a great one, staring out from the center of his art. Feb 2009
Dennis Sampson’s sixth book of poetry, Within the Shadow of a Man, will be published by Settlement House Press later this year.