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Jay Wright

1934–

On May 25, 1934, Jay Wright was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is an African American playwright, poet, and essayist. He played professional baseball before studying comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley and Rutgers University.

He is the author of several collections of poetry including: Disorientations: Groundings (Flood Editions, 2013); Polynomials and Pollen: Parables, Proverbs, Paradigms, and Praise for Lois (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008); The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (2008); Music's Mask and Measure (Flood Editions, 2007); The Guide Signs: Book One (Louisiana State University Press, 2007); and The Guide Signs: Book Two (2007).

His other books of poetry include Transfigurations: Collected Poems (2000); Boleros (1991); Selected Poems of Jay Wright (1987); Explications/Interpretations (1984); Elaine's Book (1986); The Double Invention of Komo (1980); Dimensions of History (1976); Soothsayers and Omens (1976), and The Homecoming Singer (1971). He has also written more than thirty plays, a dozen of which have been published.

About Wright's work, critic Harold Bloom wrote, "As an immensely learned poet, Wright tries to defend himself against incessant allusiveness by stripping his diction, sometimes to an astonishing sparseness... His most characteristic art returns always to that commodious lyricism I associate with American poetry at its most celebratory, in Whitman, in Stevens, in Crane, in Ashbery."

Wright's honors include the 2000 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Rockefeller Brothers Theological Fellowship, and the Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award.

He was the recipient of the 1996 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Wright was named the 2005 recipient of Yale University's Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. He lives in Bradford, Vermont.

By This Poet

2

The Healing Improvisation of Hair


If you undo your do you wóuld 
be strange. Hair has been on my mind. 
I used to lean in the doorway 
and watch my stony woman wind 
the copper through the black, and play 
with my understanding, show me she cóuld 
take a cup of river water, 
and watch it shimmy, watch it change, 
turn around and become ash bone. 
Wind in the cottonwoods wakes me 
to a day so thin its breastbone 
shows, so paid out it shakes me free 
of its blue dust. I will arrange 
that river water, bottom juice. 
I conjure my head in the stream 
and ride with the silk feel of it 
as my woman bathes me, and shaves 
away the scorn, sponges the grit 
of solitude from my skin, laves 
the salt water of self-esteem 
over my feathering body. 
How like joy to come upon me 
in remembering a head of hair 
and the way water would caress 
it, and stress beauty in the flair 
and cut of the only witness 
to my dance under sorrow's tree. 
This swift darkness is spring's first hour. 

I carried my life, like a stone, 
in a ragged pocket, but I 
had a true weaving song, a sly 
way with rhythm, a healing tone.

Somewhere between here and Belen

Somewhere between here and Belen,
the Rio Grande will narrow to a muddy bead,
no more than three feet across from shore to shore.
My friend, Nick Markulis, claims
he loves the river's color there, and will bathe
his toes in the water, and will go on and on
about a dry river in Athens that measures its life
                                   in olive groves.
Stratis Thalassinos told me about these peculiar
waters that disappear and turn up again,
and, of course, you know of Arethusa's
fountain in Syracuse.
I do not accuse Markopoulos (do I have
the name right? — Markopoulos, Markulis,
fugitive names, fugitive lives docking in Halifax)
of being too conversant with asphodel meadows,
but one cannot remain composed
when hunters and cultic figures press their claims
upon a sainted afternoon.
Think now of the intimate authority of La Candelaria,
the Sunday morning concert,
the walk through the abandoned streets,
where all was an occasion of Bogotá,
a memory of Mazatlán, a shaping
necessity we might have met at Salamis.
Who can be sure
that this white cloth will be dissolved by death?