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February 21, 2018

Book Notes - Jonathan Blunk "James Wright: A Life in Poetry"

James Wright: A Life in Poetry

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jonathan Blunk's James Wright: A Life in Poetry is an engaging and thorough biography of the poet.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"[An] engrossing biography . . . Wright comes through vividly on almost every page. Blunk began working on the book in 2002, and it's clearly the better for that long gestation . . . Blunk makes judicious use of Wright's papers, including important letters that only recently came to light . . . It's in the extensive endnotes that Blunk really shines, illuminating his sources and his resourcefulness . . . Literary biography at its fine-grained finest."


In his own words, here is Jonathan Blunk's Book Notes music playlist for his book James Wright: A Life in Poetry:



I've enjoyed putting this playlist together, combing through my biography of the American poet James Wright for his personal selections and obsessions. In the process I've realized how much music there is in the book and how central that connection was for Wright throughout his life.

"Shall We Gather at the River" – Anonymous 4
From early childhood, Wright was surrounded by country music, whether in the streets of his hometown of Martins Ferry in southern Ohio or on the radio, which broadcast the Jamboree from Wheeling, WV, across the Ohio River. Even as an adult, Wright could be found with his ear pressed against the speakers, no matter what music he was listening to. Wright chose the traditional Christian hymn "Shall We Gather at the River" as the title for his fourth collection—arguably his masterwork. My favorite recording is by Anonymous 4, from their collection American Angels. In their singing you can hear the Bible-belt earnestness and longing that sounds beneath much of Wright's poetry.

"Gretchen am Spinnrade" – Franz Schubert, performed by Kathleen Ferrier
In high school, at the height of the World War II, Wright fell under the spell of Classical music, with the encouragement of his English teacher. She took Wright to a performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony (B minor, Op. 58), by the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, and the teenage Wright was thrilled to realize it was inspired by the poetry of Lord Byron, one of his first poetic idols. Four years later, at Kenyon College, Wright became obsessed with German lieder and quickly became fluent in German. As with Tchaikovsky's programmatic symphony, the music was directly inspired by words; for Wright, the boundary between the two forms was fluid. When the great soprano Kathleen Ferrier died, the poet wrote an elegy for her that he included in his first book. Ferrier's recording of Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" was a favorite of Wright's, set to one of Goethe's lyrics for Faust. (Look for a Decca 2-disk set titled Kathleen Ferrier – A Tribute.) When Wright's first son was born in Vienna, the poet named him after Franz Schubert.

"The Great Speckled Bird" – Roy Acuff
While at Kenyon, Wright's knowledge of Classical music broadened exponentially. Each night, after he was done studying, he met with classmates to listen to and discuss the music of Copland, Milhaud, Bartok, Ravel, and countless other composers. At the same time, Wright hosted a program of satire and comedy on the campus radio station, taking as his theme song "The Great Speckled Bird" by Roy Acuff. E. L. Doctorow, a Kenyon classmate, believed that the tension Wright always felt—growing up in poverty but attending college surrounded by affluence and privilege—could be seen in the disparity between Wright's love for both German lieder and the country music of his childhood.

"Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra, with Piano Obbligato" – Ernest Bloch
As Wright completed his final year at Kenyon, classmates witnessed his obsession with the "Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra, with Piano Obbligato" by Ernest Bloch (in a recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Kubelik). Fascinated by the concluding "Fugue" movement, Wright wanted to understand how Bloch had solved the same problem Wright faced with his poetry, namely how to use a classical form within a modern setting.

"Alto Rhapsody" – Johannes Brahms
After graduating from Kenyon in 1952, Wright spent nine months in Vienna on a Fulbright grant, studying the work of Theodor Storm and the Austrian modernist Georg Trakl. Wright also discovered the operas of Mozart, Strauss, and Wagner in the concert halls of the still-partitioned city, music that accompanied him for the rest of his life. Years later, after a painful divorce and loss of his teaching job, Wright could be seen lying on the floor with the stereo at full volume, muttering to himself, "Wagner, you fascist!" Wright's landmark volume, The Branch Will Not Break, includes his translation of "Three Stanzas from Goethe," which Brahms had set to music in his "Alto Rhapsody" (Op. 53).

"Delia" – "Spider" John Koerner
Wright never lost his appreciation for folk and country music. In Minneapolis in the fall of 1959, he often invited his friend Harry Weber to come to his home to sing, and Weber brought "Spider" John Koerner and a young Bob Dylan along with him. As they tuned their guitars, Wright would ask them to begin with the ballad "Delia"—"so you'll have time to play it again later." Taken at a brighter tempo, Koerner performs the song with Dave Ray on the Red House label recording A Nod to Bob.

"Until It's Time for You to Go" – Buffy Sainte-Marie
Wright could listen to the same music over and over again, lifting the needle on his phonograph (or in others' homes) to play the same track compulsively—Sibelius's Fifth Symphony, for instance, or Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams. Galway Kinnell recalled one such fixation, after Wright first settled in New York City and sought out Kinnell in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1966. Wright responded to a quality of emotional yearning in the voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie that he couldn't hear often enough or loud enough, no matter the time of night. Much to Kinnell's regret, the song that Wright's passion seized upon was "Until It's Time for You to Go" (from Sainte-Marie's second album, Many a Mile).

"Six Variations, Op. 34" – Ludwig von Beethoven, performed by Sviatoslav Richter
Following his divorce, Wright kept only his clothes, books, and records; visiting his family in Ohio at Christmas, the only things he carried "in his raggedy old suitcase were all those symphony records." As his good friend, Eugene Pugatch, recalled, "I think whatever deeply felt religious experiences he had clearly came through music." After Wright remarried and began traveling in Europe in the last decade of his life, music often influenced the travel plans he made with Annie. In the summer of 1970, they visited the homes where Beethoven had lived in Vienna and went out of their way to hear a recital by Sviatoslav Richter in Arles, a performance that included Beethoven's Six Variations, Op. 34, and Schumann's Fantasiestucke, Op. 12. (Vol. 9 of a series of recordings by Richter on the Olympia label features contemporaneous performances of these compositions.)

"Trois Gymnopédies" – Erik Satie, performed by Aldo Ciccolini
After eight months of travel and prodigious work in his journal (which would yield his excellent posthumous volume, This Journey), Wright felt exhausted when he and Annie settled into a top-floor apartment in Paris for the month of August 1979. It would take doctors four more months to diagnose the cancer that was killing him. The couple walked all over the city, but often returned to their apartment in the late afternoon, making a ritual of tea and the music of Erik Satie. Wright always began with "Trois Gymnopédies." Mostly he and Annie didn't speak, looking out across the mansard roofs and terracotta chimney pots that stretched toward the dome of Sacre Coeur lit by sunset. (The album Wright chose was The Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1, a recording by Aldo Ciccolini on Angel Records, released in 1968.)

One of Wright's clearest statements about his ambition as a writer is yet another example of how the poet's thought and imagination relied upon music. In a letter to John Logan he wrote, "I am trying to balance language itself with my experience of the intractable world and, in that balance, ring a kind of chime."


Jonathan Blunk and James Wright: A Life in Poetry links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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