Thursday, June 12, 2014

Charles Wright Named US Poet Laureate + Poem

Charles Wright
Congratulations are in order to the newest Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Wright (1935-), now Souder Family Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, and one of the most important American lyric poets of his generation. Wright, a native of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, is the author of more than two dozen volumes of poetry, beginning with The Grave of the Right Hand (Wesleyan University Press, 1970), and including Country Music: Selected Early Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), which received the National Book Award for Poetry; Black Zodiac (FSG, 1997), which received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Scar Tissue (FSG, 2006), which received the 2007 Griffin International Prize for Poetry; and Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems (FSG, 2012), which received the 2013 Bollingen Prize.

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 
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

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