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This review is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

Cover of James Wright: A Life in Poetry
Tony RobertsCadenzas for Typewriter
Jonathan Blunk, James Wright: A Life in Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) £29.50
James Wright found in poetry a disciplined means of self-preservation against the mental torment and alcohol­fuelled mayhem his life sought. A fine poet and charismatic teacher grounded in the metrical tradition and New Criticism, he followed a different path to the so-called Confessional, the Beat and the New York poets of the period, prompted by his assimilation of Latin verse and the poetry of Germany and South America. In The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and Shall We Gather at the River (1968), probably his best known collections, he moved toward freer forms which could accommodate the vernacular and eventually prose.

Wright, the man, lived at a pitch of intensity which sends the reader reeling. His selected letters, A Wild Perfection, reveal a passionate and restlessly experimental figure. He can be ‘hysterical and profane’, humiliated and deeply apologetic, compassionate and brutally frank. He knew his gift, if at times faint-heartedly, but was also his own most merciless critic. Of his first collection, The Green Wall (1957), he wrote it ‘stank’; his second, Saint Judas (1959), was ‘still second rate’ and he was to describe Two Citizens (1973) in an appreciative letter to Dave Smith, the poet who had reviewed it with ‘intelligent good will’, as a ‘botched effort’, a ‘bad book’. The letters give a visceral sense both of Wright’s demanding expectations of his work and what it cost him in his search for technique.

His mental states were fuelled by a bipolar condition that wreaked havoc with the life and the poetry at times. In ...

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