James Wright is one of the most distinguished twentieth century American poets. Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927, he attended local schools and served in the U.S. Army on Occupation duty in Japan, then returned to study at Kenyon College near Gambier, Ohio where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He studied overseas at the University of Vienna before entering the University of Washington where he earned both his master’s and doctorate. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1972. Wright died in 1980 in New York City at the age of fifty-two. His son Franz Wright is a distinguished poet who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. James and Franz Wright hold a special place in Pulitzer history as their awards are the only examples of a parent and child winning in the same Pulitzer category.
The landscape and people of Ohio occasionally appear in Wright’s poems. One of his most famous poems is “Autumn Comes to Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” which concerns on the surface the role of football in his hometown, but is also about so much more—this poem will be the subject of a special post this fall here on buckeyemuse.
Here’s one of Wright’s poems about his native state. Buckeye Lake is the name of a lake that stretches across Fairfield, Licking, and Perry counties. It is the first large reservoir built in the U.S. and was constructed to provide a steady source of water for the Ohio and Erie Canal during the early 1800’s.
White mares lashed to the sulky carriages
Around the discarded fairgrounds
Near Buckeye Lake.
The sandstone blocks of a wellspring
Cool dark green moss
The sun floats down, a small golden lemon dissolves
In the water.
I dream, as I lean over the edge, of a crawdad’s mouth.
The cellars of haunted houses are like ancient cities
Fallen behind a big heap of apples.
A widow on a front porch puckers her lips
–James Wright, from his collection The Branch Will Not Break (1963)