Jay Wright: The Past and Present African American Story

Jay Wright.

Wright won both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship, and taught at Yale University where he was also awarded their prestigious Bollingen Prize. (Image: via Jay Wright)

Jay Wright is one of the few poets to explore the complex relationship between the past and present African American story. At 87 years old, he has built an impressive, if under-celebrated, career. He is primarily famous for his moving language, rhythmic verse, and mythological imagery.

His works have earned him several awards, including the Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and the coveted Yale’s Bollingen Prize. 

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Early life and career

Jay Wright was born in 1934 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to George Murphy and Leona Dailey. Growing up, he was exposed to diverse Mexican, Navajo, African, and Spanish cultures. He was also a minor league baseball player for two years (1953-1954).

In 1954, Wright joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps, and upon his discharge, he earned his comparative literature degree from the University of California in 1961. He then earned his master’s in comparative literature from Rutgers University in 1967.

Prominent poet Jay Wright read poems about race and culture during a forum that engages community members in conversations about inequalities. (Image: via Jay Wright)

Success in poetry

Wright’s first publication was a chapbook entitled Death as History in 1967, and his first play, Balloon: A Comedy in One Act, was published in 1968. His major publication of collected poems, The Homecoming Singer (1971), gained critical acclaim, setting him up as a talented poet. He won a Woodrow Wilson/National Endowment for the Arts Poets in Concert fellowship, which allowed him to tour black schools in the U.S. south.

Themes and influences

Wright’s poems often combine elements from African history and tribal roots. He alludes to the experience of enslavement, liberation, and cultural alienation. He also draws inspiration from Native American culture and European history from medieval times through Renaissance to modern times. In The Homecoming Singer, the persona is a seeker on a personal spiritual journey in a Mexican setting.

jay wright
His major publication of collected poems, The Homecoming Singer (1971), gained critical acclaim, setting him up as a talented poet. (Image: via Jay Wright)

The evolution of Wright’s poetry

Some critics argue that Wright’s poems have changed over time. They point to A Plea for the Political Man and Death as History as examples. Others argue that his poems have similar themes, tone, and technique. Wright said that his collected poems, from The Homecoming Singer to Explications/Interpretations, constitute a progressive series.

Recent poetry

Wright’s recent collected volumes include Thirteen Quintents for Lois (2021), The Prime Anniversary (2019), and Disorientations: Grounding (2013). In his poems, Wright usually ponders a persona’s path to self-discovery.

Few can say they fully understand Jay Wright’s poems, but his personas typically strive to find their identity as individuals or as part of a community.

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