|A younger Charles Wright poses in his study the walls of which, by the way, look a lot like mine. Just sayin'.|
Every year, it’s the same goddamned thing. It’s the day the folks at the Library of Congress announce the appointment of a new Poet Laureate. I stand by my phone. Well, OK, Being 2014 my phone is in my shirt pocket, but I stand ready to fish it out at moment’s notice if I don’t accidentally end the call fumbling for it. But even then, they could call me back. Just hit re-dial. And every year someone else gets the nod
You would think that some year they would pick an elderly white guy outsider with a tiny body of work encompassing one skinny collection and assorted electronic ephemera. But it never happens. The committee always seems to spend its time reading actual books of poetry and noting stacks of awards and fellowships.
This year they turned to Charles Wright, a 78 year old white Southern poet who has already picked up a National Book Award in 1983 for Country Music: Selected Early Poems and a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1998 for Black Zodiac plus a bushel basket of assorted little magazine awards and academic laurels.
Now I have to be gracious in my role as blogging poetry maven and tell you all about him. Gritting my teeth though every key-stroke, here goes.
Wright was born on August 28, 1935 in the excessively charmingly named town of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee. He was evidently weaned on Southern novelists, particularly William Falkner whose brother his mother once dated. That kind of Kevin Bacon connection can evidently be quite powerful because by high school the young man determined to become the Great American Novelist. So did I, by the way, fat lot of good it did either of us.
The young man went off to Davidson College in North Carolina, one of the South’s most selective and prestigious private liberal arts institutions. In addition to his studies, Wright busied himself trying to write that novel. The result was lush descriptive passages, evocative moods, a deep sense of time and place. But nothing happened. Wright discovered that he was, in his own words, “one of the rare Southerners who cannot tell a story.”
Whether motivated by disappointment or the looming threat of the draft, Williams enlisted in the peace time, Cold War Army and spent most of his four years of service in Europe—a kind of a Hemingwayesque expat, except in uniform and expected to occasionally act like a soldier. While in Italy he picked up a new edition of Ezra Pound’s Selected Poems. He was gobsmacked. He had found just the medium for a man of literary bent and lack of narrative sense. By his own admission he began to gobble up poetry, trying to absorb all he could.
Soon he was writing his own, which naturally owned more than a tip-o’-the-hat to Pounds lush language and sense of place.
After getting out of the service Wright enrolled at the already famous and well established University of Iowa Writers Workshop where poets and writers were nurtured, produced, and spit out into the academic literary world with the regularity of Fords off an assembly line. He also got to return to Italy to study on a Fulbright Scholarship.
He started producing chap books and well reviews small press collections in the mid-‘60’s building slowly his own voice out of his study and major influences which included not only Pound and his fellow early 20th Century Imagists and Modernists, but also the more delicate poetry of Chinese Tang Dynasty. His earliest poems were short and deceptively simple with recurrent symbolism.
With his fifth full-fledged collection, Southern Cross in 1981 he really leapt to the forefront of contemporary poets despite being out of sync with most dominant schools including the Beats, confessional poets, and the politically engaged. His poems grew longer, more complex, and often dealt with the South and its lingering mystery. He considers three collections taken together, each a trilogy of shorter books, Country Music, The World of Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue, as his Appalachian Book of the Dead. Wright said, “All three trilogies do the same thing, and they have essentially the same structure. Past, present, future: yesterday, today, tomorrow.”
In later books, his style would shift again and his focus broaden from his native South. He returned to shorter poems once again and recurring themes of nature and mortality. Prolifically he has produced at least one short collection every year.
Like most important American poets, Wright supported himself with an academic career. from 1966 to 1983, he taught at the University of California, Irvine and was a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets and Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. You know, Thomas Jefferson’s school.
Retired since 2010 Wright spends his time gobbling up fiction, a passion he denied himself in his years as an active poet fearing that narrative would cloud his mind to the creation of verse. He is especially fond of the literary crime fiction of the likes of Elmore Leonard.
He spends most of his year in Charlottesville with his wife, where reporters reached him seeking comment on his appointment. The New York Times reported that he seemed stunned and a little unsure of how he would handle the largely ceremonial post. Other recent Poet Laureates have undertaken various projects to promote the reading and understanding of poetry. He said he would take some time to ponder what to do. He was preparing to take his annual extended summer trip to a remote cabin in northwestern Montana without even a telephone to tie him to the world.
Damn, he is even stealing the state of my birth.
A sample of Wright’s work excerpted from the poem The Appalachian Book of the Dead from Black Zodiac, 1997
Sunday, September Sunday ... Outdoors,
Like an early page from The Appalachian Book of the Dead,
Sunlight lavishes brilliance on every surface,
Doves settle, surreptitious angels, on tree limb and box branch,
A crow calls, deep in its own darkness,
Something like water ticks on
Just there, beyond the horizon, just there, steady clock ...
Go in fear of abstractions ...
Well, possibly. Meanwhile,
They are the strata our bodies rise through, the sere veins
Our skins rub off on.
It always amazes me
How landscape recalibrates the stations of the dead,
How what we see jacks up
the odd quotient of what we don’t see,
How God’s breath reconstitutes our walking up and walking down.
First glimpse of autumn, stretched tight and snicked, a bad face lift,
Flicks in and flicks out,
a virtual reality.
Time to begin the long division.