It is both a testament to the originality and power of Wright’s poetry—as well as its singular peculiarities and distinctive features—that fellow poets and serious critics have strained to describe and define its qualities and characteristics from its initial appearance. The elements that account for Wright’s voice and that make up his primary fields of interest seem too disparate to allow for an ultimate coherence. His language ranges from the invitingly colloquial to the formidably classic in ways that provide jolts of energy that are intriguing and startling, and his employment of a wide range of formal arrangements has not provided any specifically Wrightian structure that can be easily identified. Inspired by the infinitely fascinating aspects of landscape viewed and recorded with evocative images, Wright stubbornly resists the understandable temptation to turn the terrain into a pantheistic source of comfort and persists in an extensive and extended meditation on the mysteries of an indescribable and elusive deity who is, nonetheless, for the poet, a distant but discernible presence in human endeavor.
Particularly articulate about his work, Wright stated some of his core principles concerning composition in an essay titled “Improvisations on Form and Measure,” the title itself proclaiming his commitment to a thoughtful, carefully constructed poetic design. His observation: In poems, all considerations are considerations of form, the fundamental principle from which all others follow. Proceeding in this fashion, Wright insists “The line is a unit of Measure: measure is music: the line is a verbal music,” a direct exposition of the approach to poetry that he learned from his reading of Pound. Pound’s utilization of a lyric mode is the grounds for Wright’s determination to maintain a verbal music in his poems, a strategy built on the query-response: “Do poems have to sing? No. Do good poems have to sing? Probably. Do great poems have to sing? Absolutely.” However, in an apparent contradiction to Pound’s well-known definition of literature as “news that stays news,” Wright observes, “What you have to say—though ultimately all-important—in most cases will not be news. How you say it just might be.” It is an indication of his respect for, but not slavish devotion to, Pound, or any of the other historical figures (including painters Paul Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi, author Thomas Hardy, or Chinese poet Han Shan) who Wright regards as so crucial to his work that he has said they are “great ghosts we need to seance with.”
Regarding the “great ghosts” from his personal pantheon, Wright told Calvin Bedient that “I always thought that what I wanted to be was Walt Whitman in Emily Dickinson’s house, but now what I see I really want to do is be Emily Dickinson on Walt Whitman’s road,” explaining that he aimed for Whitman’s “length of line and expansiveness of life gusto with her intelligence walking along, and her preoccupations, which are my preoccupations.” To order the line, Wright has worked with a number of structuring possibilities, using what he calls “a tight free verse off an iambic base,” and stating that he counts “every syllable and every stress in every line I write” to make sure “that they differ.”
As important as form is for Wright, it does not take precedence over his frequent reference to John Keats’s comment that poetry is about “soul making,” and one of Wright’s more revealing comments about poetry is his insistence that “the destination is the cross, and all that implies.” His use of familiar Christian terminology is a conscious choice, but Wright’s religious focus has always been a search unconstrained by any kind of doctrinal certainty. Instead, it is a spiritual journey born of an unusual geographic juxtaposition, linking Wright’s upbringing where “I was formed by the catechism in Kingsport, the evangelical looniness at Sky Valley Community in North Carolina, and by country songs and hymns,” with the historical and theological depth of Dante and the Italian Renaissance. This linkage is described by Wright in metaphorical terms as “a connection, a lushness, in my mind between my east Tennessee foliage and the Venetian leafage that keep coming out in my poems,” and is exemplified by Wright’s frequent use of the language and rhythms of country music pioneers such as his neighbors from childhood, the famed Carter family, whom he calls the “all-time great American poet-singers” and whose “song lyrics themselves (are) traditional and oddly surreal at the same time.” This inclination toward the vernacular is Wright’s way of maintaining a close contact with the region that left an indelible imprint and which, in the mountains of the Blue Ridge near his home in Charlottesville, continues to offer what seems like an infinitely varying landscape and skyscape for contemplation and rumination.
First published: 1973 (collected in Hard Freight, 1973)
Type of work: Poem
“Blackwater Mountain” is a vivid lyric, drawing on a memory of an experience with someone who the poet wished to understand and impress, and who is now recalled and revived in poetic time.
“Blackwater Mountain” begins with a...
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