Charles Wright found his subject matter and method as a poet in the 1980s with Southern Cross, and has, since then, circled around a series of themes, references, and related styles, which bring together meditations about human and natural existence, often with a gently philosophical tone; judicious use of figuration and imagery drawn from the natural, especially that of the various places he has lived over the years, and in particular, his native South and Charlottesville; citations and elaborations on the work of Dante, Tu Fu, and other figures from the past; and careful use of poetry's rhetorical and musical resources, to produce verse that is indelibly Charles's and yet which bears the ring of the universal.
Given the vibrant public engagement of our most recent US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, I am curious to see in which direction Charles takes this post. He is a warm, generous person--that has been my experience with him, going back to my two-year stint at U.Va.--but also somewhat quiet and publicity-shy. And, like several recent poet laureates, he is an elder and may not choose (or even be able to sustain) the peripatetic approach that some other poet laureates, such as Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Billy Collins, and Natasha have undertaken. Any vocal, public advocacy for poetry would be wonderful, though, as will the fact that through this appointment, more readers will come to know about Charles Wright's poetry.
Here is one of his poems borrowed from the Academy of American Poets' website. It is the quintessence, at least to me, of what Charles Wright's work looks and sounds like. Read it aloud and it will reveal even more.
Body and Soul II
(for Coleman Hawkins) The structure of landscape is infinitesimal, Like the structure of music, seamless, invisible. Even the rain has larger sutures. What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together, Is faith, it appears--faith of the eye, faith of the ear. Nothing like that in language, However, clouds chugging from west to east like blossoms Blown by the wind. April, and anything’s possible. Here is the story of Hsuan Tsang. A Buddhist monk, he went from Xian to southern India And back--on horseback, on camel-back, on elephant-back, and on foot. Ten thousand miles it took him, from 629 to 645, Mountains and deserts, In search of the Truth, the heart of the heart of Reality, The Law that would help him escape it, And all its attendant and inescapable suffering. And he found it. These days, I look at things, not through them, And sit down low, as far away from the sky as I can get. The reef of the weeping cherry flourishes coral, The neighbor’s back porch light bulbs glow like anemones. Squid-eyed Venus floats forth overhead. This is the half hour, half-light, half-dark, when everything starts to shine out, And aphorisms skulk in the trees, Their wings folded, their heads bowed. Every true poem is a spark, and aspires to the condition of the original fire Arising out of the emptiness. It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite. It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by. Shooting stars. April’s identical, celestial, wordless, burning down. Its light is the light we commune by. Its destination’s our own, its hope is the hope we live with. Wang Wei, on the other hand, Before he was 30 years old bought his famous estate on the Wang River Just east of the east end of the Southern Mountains, and lived there, Off and on, for the rest of his life. He never travelled the landscape, but stayed inside it, A part of nature himself, he thought. And who would say no To someone so bound up in solitude, in failure, he thought, and suffering. Afternoon sky the color of Cream of Wheat, a small Dollop of butter hazily at the western edge. Getting too old and lazy to write poems, I watch the snowfall From the apple trees. Landscape, as Wang Wei says, softens the sharp edges of isolation.
Excerpted from A Short History of the Shadow by Charles Wright. Copyright © 2002 by Charles Wright. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. All rights reserved