Selected Criticism

Wright, James (1927–1980)
Folsom, Ed
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

James Wright was one of the most accomplished poets of the "Deep Image" movement, a school of poetry initiated by Robert Bly that called for poets to turn to their own psychic depths for their imagery, to seek out places of interior solitude where images resided that were resonant of a collective unconsciousness. Wright's poetry works on deep associational levels, but its imagery often is derived from his rural midwestern experience; he explores the beauty and the emptiness of often dreary lives in small Ohio and Minnesota towns, revealing at once a compassion and a cold eye. While few readers would immediately associate Wright's poetry with Whitman's, his concern with the condition of the American soul drew him to Whitman, who occasionally appears as a lost and tragic figure in Wright's poetry: "The old man Walt Whitman our countryman / Is now in America our country / Dead" (Collected Poems 141).

Writing at a time when Whitman had been claimed by the Beat poets, Wright in 1962 published a remarkable essay called "The Delicacy of Walt Whitman," in which he tried to wrest Whitman from the Beats by relocating his poetic power in his "delicacy of music, of diction, and of form." He saw in Whitman's work not ruggedness and bombast and formlessness and unbridled freedom, but rather "restraint, clarity, and wholeness," all suggesting a "deep spiritual inwardness" and a "deep humility" (Collected Prose 4). The Whitman that Wright constructed emerged in fact as a kind of forebear of the Deep Image movement, but Wright's sensitive readings of poems like "Reconciliation" and "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown" nonetheless demonstrated an attention to detail in sound, meter, and diction that most commentators on Whitman had ignored.

In a posthumously published poem, Wright evoked the gentle and delicate Walt Whitman that he insisted we recognize: "Walt Whitman, the chaste wanderer / Among the live-oaks, the rain, railyards and battlefields / Lifts up his lovely face / To the moon and allows it to become / A friendly ruin" (This Journey 86).


Wright, James. Collected Poems. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1971.

———. Collected Prose. Ed. Annie Wright. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983.

———. This Journey. New York: Vintage, 1982.

Yatchisin, George. "A Listening to Walt Whitman and James Wright." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1992): 175–195.


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