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Jay Wright

(b. c. 1935)


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(b. c. 1935), poet, playwright, musician, educator,

and MacArthur Fellow. Jay Wright's biography is a composite of uncertain and contradictory stories. He was born in either 1934 or 1935 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Leona Dailey, a Virginian of African and Native American descent, and George Murphy (also known as Mercer Murphy Wright), a construction worker, jitney driver, and handy man who claimed to be of African American, Cherokee, and Irish ancestry. Wright spent most of his childhood in the care of foster parents in Albuquerque. In his teens, he lived with his father in San Pedro, California. While in high school, Wright began to play minor league baseball and developed what would become a lifelong passion for the bass. From 1954 to 1957, he served in the U.S. Army medical corps. During most of his service, he was stationed in Germany, which gave him the opportunity to travel extensively throughout Europe. After he returned, Wright enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley under the G.I. Bill. He majored in comparative literature and graduated in only three years. Before continuing his literary studies at Rutgers in 1962, Wright spent a semester at Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1964, Wright interrupted his graduate studies to spend a year teaching English and medieval history at the Butler Institute in Guadalajara, Mexico, one of many extended visits to that country. Back at Rutgers, he completed all but his dissertation in pursuit of a doctoral degree in comparative literature.

While at Rutgers in the 1960s, Wright lived and worked in Harlem, where he encountered several other young African American writers, among them Henry Dumas, Larry Neal, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. Unlike the work of these and other poets associated with the Black Arts movement, Jay Wright's poems approach African American spiritual, intellectual, and social history from a cross-cultural perspective. Already in the 1960s and 1970s, Wright's was one of the most original voices in contemporary African American and American poetry, a voice that influenced younger poets such as Nathaniel Mackey and Cyrus Cassells. But Wright's increasing distance from a budding Black Arts movement that rejected all European-derived literary forms and traditions did not attract a large readership.

Wright's self-declared “passion for what is hidden” (Elaine's Book, 1988) frequently takes the shape of a spiritual quest heavily infused with autobiographical elements. From the early collection The Homecoming Singer (1971) and the three book-length poems Dimensions of History (1976), The Double Invention of Komo (1980), and Explications/Interpretations (1984)— which, together with Soothsayers and Omens (1976), make up Wright's first poetic cycle-to Elaine's Book and Boleros (1991), Wright's poetic persona, which may be both male and female, traverses and connects far-flung geographies: New Hampshire, his home base since 1973; Mexico; the Southwest; California; and, more globally, Western Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia. Wright's poetry insists on continuities across, as well as within, cultures. The scope and depth of Wright's vision derive from his extensive research in medieval and Renaissance literatures, music, anthropology, the history of religions, and the history of science. An admixture of Italian, German, and Spanish interspersed with Dogon, Bambara, and other African ideograms, Wright's literary English amounts at times almost to a foreign language. African American music, such as the blues, jazz, and a host of Caribbean and Latin American song and dance forms, plays an equally crucial role in his poetic projects.

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Subjects: Literature.


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