James Wright Interviews (1972)


When James Wright came to give the 1972 Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading, he had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his Collected Poems (1971), and interviews with Wright appeared in both the Seattle Times and the University of Washington Daily.

From the Seattle Times, May 25, 1972:


Pulitzer Prize poet in Seattle
by Julie Emery


Dr. James Wright, America's newest Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, is in Seattle with kind words for the nation's young people. Wright said the young are writing "a great deal of poetry and have a special gift."


"This doesn't happen in every generation," said the University of Washington alumnus.  "They're creating their own music."


The formal British influence in poetry is being shaken off, Wright said -- a movement that began with him and a group of his friends in about 1960.  This has been interpreted by some as a more relaxed tone in verse. Wright said this generation of youth has "something to deal with" (social problems) that is much more difficult to cope with than that which he faced in early years. The result is some "extraordinarily beautiful" poetry, he said. "Young people are charting their own course, and they deserve it," he remarked.  "We've laid too much on them."


The viistor won the Pulitzer for his 1971 work, Collected Poems.


Wright is here to dedicate the Roethke Auditorium and to present the ninth annual Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading at 8 p.m. today in the university's Kane Hall.  Wright was a student of Roethke, also a Pulitzer winner and poet-in-residence at the university who died in 1963.

Poetry can be taught only if it is taught as poetics, Wright said.  (Poetics is the literary criticism treating of the nature and laws of poetry.)  "Roethke was very good at this," he said. Roethke was a "great teacher who had a strong genius and who was more learned than he liked to let on," Wright said.


Wright, a professor at Hunter College in New York City, received a master's degree from the U.W. in 1954 and a doctorate there in 1959.  He regards himself primarily as a teacher, he said, writing verse only for his "own amusement, for the pleasure of a few friends, and for money."

During his interview on the campus, Wright lapsed into poetry of various persons--including Walt Whitman--to put his points across.  His conversation is musical.  He described a student, for example, as having eyes that looked so big that they would "fall out at any moment."


"And my!  Did they destroy me in discussion!" he added.


A graduate student, he said, "is a neurosis which no one yet has described."


On religion, he said: "I don't believe in God.  He hurts too much."


He described Jesus as a "half-insane logician."


At age 11, Wright said, he became interested in poetry when a friend "started to teach me Latin."


"He gave me the collected works of Lord Byron," the poet recalled.  Young Wright wrote his first tragic poem at that time, which he said "fortunately has been lost."


Wright said he received so much attention after receiving the prize that he and his wife had to "take the phone off the hook."


"It'll fade," he predicted, "and I'll be a footnote in some high-school anthology."


From the University of Washington Daily, May 25, 1972:


Wright--definitely not tongue-in-cheek
By Cassandra


Dr. James Wright, 1972 Pulitzer prize-winner for poetry and a UW alumnus, will present the ninth annual Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading at the dedication of Roethke Auditorium tonight at 8.

Wright said yesterday the younger generation had one advantage over its elders: hope.  "People your age do something we did not do," Wright said, talking about the growth in contemporary poetry.  "In music, all we did was listen.  You create your own.  What that means I'm not sure.  But it's the only hope we've got."


Wright spoke of the "terrific outburst of creativity" that has recently arisen: "Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen--it doesn't happen in every generation.  The Elizabethans, one period of Greek history...it didn't happen in my generation.  We fought a war."  He sighed.  "I have learned violence makes no sense.  Maybe it did once--as when we fought the Nazis--but it doesn't make sense now. You wouldn't hit anybody, would you?  Neither would I."


"I think I learned that from my students," he said.  Wright is a professor at Hunter College in New York City.  He said, "You belong to a generation that have been hit on the head with sticks, and you understand this is meaningless."


Wright was a good friend of Prof. Theodore Roethke, also a former Pulitzer winner, who was a member of the University's faculty from 1947 until his death in 1963.  He will present the ninth annual Roethke Memorial poetry reading at the dedication of Roethke Auditorium at 8 p.m. this evening.


Wright is also a follower of Roethke.  He told The DAILY he believed in the "Horation quality" of severe control with extreme creativity.


When he heard he had won the Pulitzer, Wright said, "I didn't believe it; I thought I didn't deserve it.  I still don't think I deserve it."


"After four days, Annie (Wright's wife) and I had to take the phone off the hook.  It frightened me very much."


Toward the end of the interview, Wright began to discuss his philosophy: "Since the world was made, think of all the people who have lived.  We might have disliked some of them, but some of them we could have loved.  My old friend Oscar Williams told me once, 'Be happy we're two raindrops in the same shower.'  St. Augustine found that time and eternity have no causal relationship with each other, but sometimes they intersect.  So it is the depth in life that matters and not the length.  It's the difference between making love to someone and with someone."


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