James Wright: A Life in Poetry may be an unexceptional title for Jonathan Blunk’s engrossing biography, but it’s hard to think of a more fitting one ... Transcendence was his obsessive theme and his lifelong project ... Blunk documents all of this dispassionately, letting the facts of Wright’s life speak for themselves — sometimes to a fault ...resulting paragraphs can be desultory, full of fascinating but unintegrated information ...draws on nearly 200 interviews with Wright’s family, friends and literary peers, many of whom are now gone...in the extensive endnotes that Blunk really shines, illuminating his sources and his resourcefulness... That’s literary biography at its fine-grained finest.
Adopting a clear, novelistic style, Mr. Blunk’s narrative is both cogent and thoroughly informed. On Wright’s trail for three decades, he wears his research lightly. There are, inevitably, minor glitches...it might have been good to have more of Wright’s ecstatic and occasionally catty voice in his letters. But these are quibbles. With his lucid portrait of Wright, Mr. Blunk has performed a major service. Wright holds an honored place in mid-20th-century poetry.
...hardships lend some narrative drama to Blunk’s biography, an intermittently entertaining read that will serve as a useful source for readers interested in the poet’s life. Ultimately, however, James Wright comes across as unsatisfyingly exterior. Wright’s dramas played out within his mind and on the pages he left for us. It is there — in his poems and wonderful letters — that we find his humor, his tenderness, his insecurity, his unique and unforgettable voice. In the end, we must turn to Wright’s own words to get a true sense of the man, which is just the way he would have wanted it.
Jonathan Blunk’s absorbing new critical biography should go a long way in correcting that state of near neglect. Offering an unabashed appreciation of Wright’s poetry but also an evenhanded assessment of the poet’s tortured life, Blunk’s impressive study is as compelling as Wright’s own story ... Wright’s work, as Blunk shows with admiring scholarship, is itself often hauntingly elegiac in tone and content, rooted in a past that cannot be shed but only pushed away, ever to return.
Jonathan Blunk, the authorized biographer, shows considerable empathy for his subject, and his sensitivity to the poetry shines through this long and detailed work ... With notable candor, Blunk reports the copious harrowing facts: Wright’s mental distress and depression (first manifested as a teenager, with repeated breakdowns, hospitalizations and electroshock treatments); his relentless alcoholism, and byproducts of both, including explosive rage, recurring suicidal thoughts, obsession, shame, despair and loneliness. This book clearly conveys how tremendously wounded Wright was. What may not always come through explicitly enough — by following the threads of his dual diagnosis through all aspects of his life and work — is how he turned those wounds into a creative benefit ... Altogether, Blunk provides a sweeping and eye-opening account, for which readers will be grateful.
[Wright] kept a voluminous journal that Blunk mines extensively in this seamless fine-fabric of a biography that, while limning its subject with great compassion, arouses a powerful appetite for Wright’s writing as well as that of his beloved forebears and colleagues.
Blunk meticulously explores Wright’s years of teaching, his painful bouts of depression, his recurring alcoholism, and how his poems were crafted ... Quoting generously from Wright’s poems throughout, Blunk carefully chronicles the ongoing development of his style as he moved from regular meter and rhyme to free verse, simple language, and striking imagery ... A much-needed, engaging, and discerning biography that should help Wright find a new generation of readers.
...[an] admirable, if sometimes overbearing, authorized biography. Given access to Wright’s unpublished work and drawing on more than 200 interviews, Blunk offers a wealth of details about the poet’s personal and professional life, to an extent that can be off-putting ... Unarguably the definitive work on Wright, this biography contains perhaps more than a simple admirer of his work needs to know.