Charles Wright Essay - Wright, Charles (Vol. 6)

Wright, Charles (Vol. 6)

Wright, Charles 1935–

Wright is a prize-winning American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

Charles Wright's second book, Hard Freight …, begins with a moving "Homage to Ezra Pound,"… Hard Freight is less Poundian, less hard-edged, than his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970). There are in both books many poems about other writers (Rimbaud, Rolfe, Kafka, Wilde in the present book) but, except for the Pound poem, I prefer his poems that catch his fascination with the "way the light falls/Like a cheap dress on a wrought chair," as in "Congenital."… These are often hard poems to get into, but Wright's strangely lit and colored landscapes create a cumulative effect, disturbing and hypnotic. (p. 26)

Peter Meinke, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 24, 1973.

At first glance, Hard Freight … may seem a journey in a time machine, a visit to the 'fifties. Here are those poems from Italy, with such titles as "Slides of Verona" and "Oscar Wilde at San Miniato"; here are "homages" to Pound and Rimbaud, and a stanza made out of fragments from Kafka's diaries (here, even, are the Notes that tell us so). Here, in the usual unlikely context, are phrases like "Dante explained it, how…."

But of course first glances aren't to be trusted. Wright's book is indeed a time machine of sorts, but the destinations and the destinies to which, when it is working at its best, it transports us have nothing, or nothing much, to do with literary fashion. Often, perhaps usually, the journey is backward, and "The way back is always into the earth." (p. 106)

It may be that no single poem here has quite the permanent and classic weight of "The Grave of the Right Hand," the title poem of Wright's earlier collection. But I couldn't have said of that book, as I can of this one, that I everywhere admire the exactness of these verses, composed, line by absolute line, of associations at once strange and just. "Nouns are precise, they wear/The boots of authority," Wright says at one point, and usually one can only obey. (p. 107)

John N. Morris, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission) Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

Like Mark Strand, and earlier Whitman and Christopher Smart, Wright is given to catalogues [in Hard Freight], and when they contain fresh image and metaphor they are stimulating. His senses are awake, and even when he cannot quite bring his things of the world into a satisfying shape, his fragments are rife with suggestions. This man is feeling his way toward a personal definition….

Wright sometimes fails to write his poems, being content to present the reader with materials. Several poems have titles that suggest their random form: "Slides of Verona," "Notes for Oscar Wilde," "Definitions." It is a poetry that proceeds by feints and jabs, demanding that the reader assist in the creative activity…. [His] almost spastic writing can at times be enlivening and fascinating, like watching the changing fragments of a kaleidoscope. Yet one hungers for a stronger imagination to fuse the disparate materials the poet has collected. In some cases, thinking of the emperor's new clothes, I begin to wonder if the poem is really there….

On the other hand, in several poems, such as "The Fever Toy" and "Blackwater Mountain," he has achieved more than a series of parts. The latter poem is concerned with duck hunting and a young boy's experience with a mentor, possibly his father, whose face in the firelight resembles the moon. Returning alone to the scene of the hunt, the speaker understands his emotions, and the writing is no longer fragmentary…. The lines have been given coherence by means of a structure that is too often lacking in Wright's poems. (p. 3)

Edward Kessler, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 5, 1974.

Charles Wright [overloads his poems] chronically in Hard Freight. He frantically piles up details, images, similes, and metaphors as if sheer quantity can replace quality of perception. His catalogues can be perniciously boring rather than enlightening, built on the repetition of such dullers as "It will not," "the yellow of," "This is," or "the [concrete noun] of [abstract noun]." Other poems crawl excruciatingly through definitions: "White," "Nouns," "Slides of Verona," "Tongues," and—but of course—"Definitions."

The intractably lumpy structure of the bulk of his poems conveys a sense of the poet's awful difficulty in writing or even living. It is as if he is telling himself to start over at a fact-taking rather than synthesizing stage, down with the nitty gritty things themselves. Hard Freight is an apt name for his second book…. [In "Dog Creek Mainline" we] are given the somewhat unfortunate metaphor of the tongue like white water moving over the "dry skin of the world," rasping along to strong echoes of Pound and Stevens.

One rationale for the book's obsessive piling up of details is hidden in this image of the tongue's "slick ceremonies" gathering and refracting light. Wright is more explicit about his poetic method in the six-poem sequence "Firstborn." There he informs his infant son in Latin as well as English that "All things that are are lights." He has come to believe a new commandment: "Indenture yourself to the land." It would seem to follow, then, that Wright is quite conscious of how cluttered his poems are but hopes that somehow light will be pressed out by the weight of sheer thingness. He seems to have set himself an impossible task. Sometimes almost in spite of himself Pound and the Venetian seascape join, as in the last lines of "Postscript," and the heavy nouns start to lift:

        Across the salt marsh, the wind,
        Bright bird that she is, sings in the eelgrass.
        Her breath is a clear elixir.                (pp. 61-2)

Sally M. Gall, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1974.

I had read Charles Wright's earlier book The Grave of the Right Hand and was very impressed. Hard Freight is just as good. It is less incisive and less deliberate than the first book, but it is more experimental, less ironclad and defensive. The poems have a strong sense of place, whether Tennessee, Southern California, or Italy. Many poems begin with closely observed description, then proceed to internalize the setting by mixing the inner and outer worlds, the ending establishing the outer world completely inside the poet by distortion….

I notice that the poems in this book tend to be either rather short or rather long, as if these represented two different genres. Short poems like ["Epithalamion," "Night Letter," "Chinoiserie," and "Congenital"] are relatively abstract and allegorical, with little sense of place. ["Northhanger Ridge," "Dog Creek Mainline," "Sky Valley Rider," and "Blackwater Mountain"] develop a fuller, more complete structure, beginning with careful place-setting and expanding through long curves to an abstract ending whose effect depends on the contrast with the beginning. I suspect that these two different lengths or "genres" could be successfully combined in an intermediate length like that of the poems in ["The Lost Displays"] section of his earlier book. The first stanza of ["Blackwater Mountain"] (a fine poem) need not be quite so slow and so purely visual, and a few details are flaccid. On the other hand the first stanza of ["Night Letter"] (also a fine poem) need not be so dependent on a portentous and highly literary tone. There are other excellent poems in this book. Wright seems to be trying to fuse the inner and outer worlds, and has equal respect for both. Very often he succeeds. (p. 171)

John R. Carpenter, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1974.

"Bloodlines" … is a book of real poems by a real poet. It has flaws, caused mostly by a sensibility that has to split off a part of itself in order to get a poem written, so that the abstractions can't get sufficiently biographical, and the recollections can't get sufficiently abstract. But Wright's two long sequences here, one anecdotal and one, I suppose, "philosophical," have the single indispensable quality needed for poetry—a self-sustaining language, where meaning scarcely matters till the second time round…. It is not surprising that Wright, in his autobiographical sequence, includes a poem on being taught the Palmer method of handwriting in elementary school, when, as his note says, he first saw "words as things." What above all distinguishes the true poet [is] his seeing words as things—things that make a shape on the page, things that lock together as though they had invisible hooks on them, things that have a savor and shine of their own as recognizable as anything palatable, things that have valences as elements do, things that have a color and a musical note so precise that they determine their own orchestration into certain melodies and chords. All this seeing is before and beyond any question of meaning, and it is this seeing that is lacking in most writers of verse, who think that if their meaning is vividly (or luridly) enough put, that they have written a poem. They have not; they have only written a feeling vividly. A poem has an independent life where language and meaning are inseparable, and in his lucky moments, Wright (like Simic and Glück, to name two other young poets who have a similar gift), lives in that unstable synthesis. (p. 14)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1975.

Charles Wright has come completely home in Bloodlines, a book that confirms and emphasizes his reputation. His earlier work, rinsed of context, was elegantly expatriate symbolism, with cool surfaces and murky depths, with phrases angled across one another to avoid a synthetic rhetoric. As he defined "The New Poem,"

          It will not have dirt on its thick hands.
          It will not be part of the weather.
          It will not reveal its name.
          It will not attend our sorrow.
          It will not console our children.
          It will not be able to help us.

But with fortunate contradiction, Bloodlines declines that prescription and gathers poems that both reveal and attend. The volume is largely autobiographical, reminiscent of earlier Wright poems like "Photographs" from The Grave of the Right Hand (1970) and "Northhanger Ridge" from Hard Freight (1973). But the meditation here on his "pockets of great abandon" is more constant and compelling…. In two sequences of irregular sonnets and several long poems, he recreates not aspects but images of his past experience—prayer meetings, sexual encounters, dreams—mingling memory and fantasy. The poems are suffused with remembered light…. The despair of loss is transformed into an enduring wonder…. [These] poems succeed one another, adding a point, subtracting an advantage. They build and cohere with loving precision, and it is a joy to watch Wright open both himself and his style…. (pp. 103-05)

J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1975.