A Wild Perfection The Selected Letters of James Wright

James Wright; Edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley, with Jonathan Blunk

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




672 Pages



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"There is something about the very form and occasion of a letter—the possibility it offers, the chance to be as open and tentative and uncertain as one likes and also the chance to formulate certain ideas, very precisely—if one is lucky in one's thoughts," wrote James Wright, one of the greatest lyric poets of the last century, in a letter. A Wild Perfection is a riveting account that captures the exhilarating and moving correspondence between Wright and his many friends. In letters to felloe poets Donald Hall, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinell, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, and Robert Bly, Wright explored many subjects, poetic and personal, from his creative process to his struggles with depression and illness.

Bright threads of wit, gallantry, and passion for describing his travels and his beloved natural world run through these letters, which begin in 1946 in Martins Ferry, Ohio, the hometown he would memorial in verse, and end in New York City, where he lived for the last fourteen years of his life. A Wild Perfection is no less than an epistolary chronicle of significant part of the midcentury American poetry renaissance, as well as the clearest biographical picture now available of this major American Poet.


Praise for A Wild Perfection

"The early letters are enough to make the book worthwhile. Wright's sincerity and relentless self-examination allow the reader behind the scenes, and show the poet struggling with the contradictory urges that fuse his work."—Peter Campion, Parnassus

"James Wright's letters hide nothing of his interior conflict between a hope for beauty and terror of disintegration . . . Wright's greatest flaw as a writer—a loss of control over his own impulse to sentimentality—was the very vulnerability that made him so attractive to others. The letters help us undertand this by showing us a man more self-aware, more dignified in his struggles, than we might otherwise have realized . . . At his best, Wright balanced his sympathy with more determined artistry, lucidity with an openness to what cannot be fully understood. The letters give us a sometimes painful evolution, arriving at a maturity visible in his strongest late poems."—David Mason, The Hudson Review
"A Wild Perfection [is] a perfect title for the spontaneous outpourings of James Wright. The editors, Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley, have made careful selections that cover all phases of Wright's career without trying to cover up his flaws, and they provide succinct descriptions of what was happening at various stages so that the reader can put together the pieces of the puzzle and sense the import of any given letter. The compilation is beautifully executed, a treat for scholars and lay readers alike. Wright emerges from his own pages, relentlessly hardworking, perennially eager to learn, generous in his praise, at once plagued by his depressions and alive to possibility. . . . It's possible to dip into this collection at random and find Wright wrestling with his demons (drink and depression), reveling in his enthusiasms, discovering new writers, rereading the classics, and always, always, always holding himself to such impossible standards that he cannot help but fail in his own eyes. No self-satisfaction shows here, and that is what is so refreshing about this collection: Wright articulates his doubts and inadequacies, and they in turn lead to his innovations. The reader feels rewarded, but by more than vicarious experience: it's as though the letters were arriving fresh in the mailbox and we were encountering them firsthand, almost beginning to fashion replies. . . . One delights in Wright's honesty, his willingness to go right to the root of any issue, etiquette be damned. . . . Because the editors have been judiciously selective, Wright's lifelong effort to articulate a personal poetics becomes a dominant theme. His questions are so intelligent and his self-criticism so intense that he far outshines his followers, many of whom rather mindlessly took up the "deep image" without fully analyzing its function within the poem. . . . The reader senses how sincere this young man is, his inner life laid bare so that we come to know the man first, and the poet only by extension."—The Georgia Review

"Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Wright (1927–1980) is well served by his wife and Maley, an English professor specializing in his verse, who have gathered nearly 35 years' worth of correspondence, from his high school graduation to his death. The letters begin in 1946; Wright has already started translating foreign poets into English, informing a teacher that 'Catullus is as dear to me as are sleep and music.' Through the decades, his rough translations of poets from Rilke to Lorca also find their way into his correspondence. Wright could go on at great length, especially to his closest friends, who included fellow poets such as Robert Bly and James Dickey—in the latter case, only after Wright offered a humble apology for responding angrily to a bad review. Short biographical notes preface each of the book's sections, but more context would have been welcome for matters such as Wright's 'catathymic' (i.e., manic) depression. For many, though, the most valuable material will be an appendix of more than 50 pages of previously unpublished poems and early drafts of published work. That, and the raw evidence of Wright's personal voice—with its passion for poetry and deep sensitivity to others—greatly enhance our understanding of his poetry."—Publishers Weekly

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A Wild Perfection

I began in Ohio. I still dream of home.
--from "Stages on a Journey Westward"
At Fort Lewis, Washington, Twelve years ago, when I was eighteen, We fired all day long at...

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  • James Wright; Edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley, with Jonathan Blunk

  • James Wright (1927-80) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1972. His books include Saint Judas, Shall We Gather at the River, and The Branch Will Never Break. FSG published Above the River: The Complete Poems in 1990.