Jay Wright (b. 1935)
Contributing Editor: Phillip M. Richards
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Often the central dramatic action of the poem is the contemplation of past events or the attempt to recover a community's experience. One might ask students, what is the purpose of these historical quests? Jay Wright's poems often dramatize a persona's attempt to discover his continuity with past ancestors and events. The poetry attempts to recapture historical experience as a means of establishing the poetic persona's personal identity.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The crucial themes in Wright are the poet's quest to establish himself as a member and artist-spokesman for his tribe (African-Americans, Africans, and Hispanics). The poet seeks to establish this sense of kinship by dramatizing the historical and psychological continuities that link him with his ancestors. Wright's books, then, are quests for identity by means of historical understanding.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Wright's poetry is closely allied to the Black Mountain school as it is exemplified by the work of Charles Olson.
The bulk of Wright's published poetry was written during the 1960s and 1970s during a period of interest in the African roots of the African-American experience. Some of the work of The Homecoming Singer (Wright's first book) shows the influence of the beat movement. Significantly, he alludes to early poems by Amiri Baraka, which were influenced by the same beat ethos.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Wright's attempts to link himself with an African past reflect a central theme in twentieth-century black poetry. Wright's efforts in this connection recall poems on Africa by Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. One might compare the primitivism of Hughes's and Cullen's early poetry with Wright's attempts to give cultural specificity to African ritual. Wright's historical themes also link him to the historical poetry of Robert Hayden as well as to that of Harper.
T. S. Eliot is a hidden influence in much of Wright's work. The early poems in The Homecoming Singer feature a youthful, male, self-mocking persona much like that of "Portrait of a Lady" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Wright's ritualistic poems that meditate upon history and its meaning owe something to Four Quartets.
The best introductions to Wright appear in Callaloo 6 (Fall 1983), which includes good essays by Stepto and Barrax, and a highly theoretical essay by Kutzinski.
Jay Wright's own statement on his poetic craft, "Desire's Design, Vision's Resonance" in Callaloo 10 (Winter 1987): 13-28, is also extremely useful.
Vera Kutzinski's chapter on Wright in her book, Against the American Grain: Myth and History in William Carlos Williams, Jay Wright, and Nicolas Guillen, is the most comprehensive critical statement on Wright's poetry.