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JAY WRIGHT

by Brent Hayes Edwards

Jay WrightI first encountered the work of Jay Wright when I was a freshman in college. One chilly winter day, I was poking around the periodical room in the library and came across a journal of “African diasporic arts and letters” called Callaloo. The particular issue I picked up contained an essay by Jay Wright, a writer I’d never heard of, called “Desire’s Design, Vision’s Resonance: Black Poetry’s Ritual and Historical Voice.” It was a fortuitous find. The voice of the essay dazzled me: it was critical and scholarly but also idiosyncratic and arresting, magisterial and unapologetic in its referential range and its demands on the reader. The essay did not deign to explain who or what “Obatala” was. It did not pause to translate its quotation of Ramón Xirau: “Todo poesía se acerca a lo sagrado.” I liked the idea that “black poetry” was something this capacious—an ocean this wide and treacherous—and so I didn’t mind the extra homework that sent me to the stacks. In fact, I’m still there, in Wright’s bibliography, with Wilson Harris, Christopher Okigbo, Marcel Griaule, Suzanne Langer, J. B. Danquah.

Along with another essay in the same issue, Nathaniel Mackey’s “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol,” Wright’s essay completely exploded my notions of what it meant to write about literature. Right from its very first lines: “Ancestors enjoy the disturbances they create in us. They have special ways of twisting the spirit and inhibiting contrary desire.” I sat with those words for weeks. The fact that Wright and Mackey were both poets and critics, that conjunction—between a poetry that reflects on its own form, and a criticism that attends to its own aesthetics—was to me an anchor and a starting point, rather than a distant ideal.

There is too much to say about the “dimensions” in Jay Wright’s work (to describe it with one of its own key structural metaphors) and what it has meant to me over the years. I am daunted by the prospect of even attempting to catalogue its range, and the voices that inhabit it: penitent, postulant, correspondent, initiate, seeker, lover. So I’ll confine myself to the facts.

Jay Wright was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After playing minor league baseball in the San Diego Padres organization and serving in the military, he earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in the same subject here at Rutgers. So I suppose that in a sense I can invoke the title of Wright’s first book and say that I am a certain kind of “homecoming singer” this evening, welcoming him back to campus. He also studied music, and I think is still very much a bass player, an activity that reverberates in his remarkable, vocalese-inflected poetic tributes to jazz musicians.

In one interview he comments that, “for me, the multicultural is the fundamental process of human history,” and you can take that as a certain kind of autobiographical statement as well, from a poet who has lived for extended periods in Mexico and Scotland in addition to the many places in the United States he has called home, including Vermont, where he has resided for many years now. He has taught regularly at universities too numerous to mention, but has mainly devoted himself to his writing, above all poetry and drama. His books include The Homecoming Singer, Soothsayers and Omens, Dimensions of History, The Double Invention of Komo, Explications/Interpretations, Elaine’s Book, Boleros, and Transformations. In case you thought you already knew the “complete” Wright, I should mention that he has a few books on the way, including one called Music’s Mask and Measure.

His awards are too many to mention, but I’ll list a few: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Merrill Foundation Award, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literary Award, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986. He was named a fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1996, and in 2005 won one of the major prizes in American poetry, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, which celebrates lifetime achievement. Most recently he received another lifetime achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation. These honors recognize the poetry that discovers in myth a “mode of knowledge” rather than a suitcase or a badge, that takes the earth not as property or foundation but as “parchment and intention.” Like the pianist Art Tatum in one poem in Boleros, this verse “tunnels through the dark,” stealthy and patient, to “come out of the right side of the song.”

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Editor’s Note: Jay Wright lauched last year’s Writers at Rutgers Reading Series on September 20, 2006. Held at the Zimmerli Art Museum, the reading drew and captivated a crowd of over 125 people. Brent Edwards delivered a version of these remarks at the reading.

© 2007 Future Traditions Magazine
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Department of English | Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.