James Arlington Wright was born on December 13, 1917, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His father worked for fifty years at a glass factory, and his mother left school at fourteen to work in a laundry; neither attended school beyond the eighth grade. While in high school in 1943, Wright suffered a nervous breakdown and missed a year of school. When he graduated in 1946, a year late, he joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Japan during the American occupation. He then attended Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill, and studied under John Crowe Ransom. While there, he also befriended future fellow poet Robert Mezey. Wright graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952. Wright traveled to Austria, where, on a Fulbright Fellowship, he studied the works of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna. He returned to the U.S. and earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Washington, studying with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. He went on to teach at The University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and New York City’s Hunter College.
The poverty and human suffering Wright witnessed as a child profoundly influenced his writing and he used his poetry as a mode to discuss his political and social concerns. He modeled his work after that of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, whose engagement with profound human issues and emotions he admired. The subjects of Wright’s earlier books, The Green Wall (Yale University Press, 1957), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, and Saint Judas (Wesleyan University Press, 1959), include men and women who have lost love or have been marginalized from society for such reasons as poverty and sexual orientation, and they invite the reader to step in and experience the pain of their isolation. Wright possessed the ability to reinvent his writing style at will, moving easily from stage to stage. His earlier work adheres to conventional systems of meter and stanza, while his later work exhibits more open, looser forms, as with The Branch Will Not Break (Wesleyan University Press, 1963).
Wright was elected a fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1971, and, the following year, his Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press) received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Wright died in New York City on March 25, 1980.