Wright, Charles (Vol. 146)
Charles Wright 1935-
(Full name Charles Penzel Wright Jr.) American poet and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Wright's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 13, 28, and 119.
Acclaimed as one of America's finest contemporary poets, Wright is known for his image-rich metaphysical lyrics that attempt to transcend the physical world, particularly the landscapes of the American South and Italy. The author of a renowned body of postwar American poetry—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Black Zodiac (1997)—Wright often is described as a “painterly” poet, who cites artist Paul Cézanne as one of his many influences. Wright's best known works are collected in his “trilogy of trilogies,” a series of three larger volumes that each reprint three or more collections of his earlier poetry. These anthology volumes are Country Music (1982), The World of Ten Thousand Things (1990), and Negative Blue (2000).
Born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright lived in both eastern Tennessee and North Carolina during his childhood. His father was a civil engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wright received his religious education in the Episcopal Church, and remained very involved in the organization well into his adult life. Although he eventually left the religion, his Episcopalian past at times manifests itself through the spiritual nature of his poetry and his occasional allusions to the rites and dogma of Anglicanism. Wright graduated from Davidson College in 1957, with a degree in history, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Intelligence Service for the next four years. He was stationed in Verona, Italy, for three of these years and began reading the poetry of Ezra Pound and Eugenio Montale, the Italian Nobel laureate. The poem “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” by Pound so impressed Wright that he began writing poetry himself. The landscape and architecture of Italy, combined with the literature he was encountering, left lasting influences on Wright's life and work. Following his military service, he returned to the United States in 1961 and entered the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he earned an M.F.A. in 1963. Wright spent the next year in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Rome and began translating the poetry of Montale, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Cesare Pavese from Italian into English, all under the guidance of teacher Maria Sampoli. Wright returned to the University of Iowa for the next academic year and later revisited Italy as a Fulbright lecturer. In 1969 he was married to photographer Holly McIntire. Wright taught at the University of California, Irvine, from 1966 to 1983 and has since served as the Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He has twice translated works by Montale, including The Storm (1978), for which he received the P.E.N. Translation Prize, and Motets (1981). Wright's first collected volume, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), encompasses his poetry written from 1963 to 1969. He followed with two small volumes, The Venice Notebook (1971) and Backwater (1973). Wright won critical acclaim for his collection Hard Freight (1973), which was nominated for the National Book Award. Wright won distinctions for subsequent volumes, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Bloodlines (1975); the National Book Award for Country Music; the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Chickamauga (1995); and the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Black Zodiac. Wright's entire body of work was honored with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1993.
Wright's three anthology collections—Country Music, The World of Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue—include the majority of the work in his oeuvre. These collections follow a Dantean structure of three works inside three larger works, each successively concerned with the past, present, and future. The poems in these volumes regularly use odd-syllable lines, with seven-syllable lines often serving as the foundation for the piece. Wright's principal themes of family, the presence of the dead alongside the living, and a preoccupation with the past have placed him as a distinctly southern poet, writing of matters that prominently figure in the southern consciousness. In Wright's poems, narrative is only present as an unseen thread that connects the whole—his primary concern is the expression of the contemplative moment. Wright's poetic worlds include the remembered past, the present, and the future, usually with himself as the narrator, juxtaposed against what has gone before and what will be. The first volume in Wright's series of trilogies, Country Music, is primarily concerned with remembrances of the past. It contains all of Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace (1977), and also reprints a brief prologue from The Grave of the Right Hand. The three separate works in Country Music all demonstrate different aspects of Wright's poetic sensibilities. Each poem in Bloodlines, for example, is fourteen lines long, though none are sonnets in the expository sense. The elegiac China Trace is composed entirely of twelve-line poems that, in their cumulative effect, seem to suggest one long poem. The brief lyrics in China Trace pay homage to the economy of form that characterizes classical Chinese poetry and are early examples of the journal poem style that Wright developed to great effect in some of his later works. Wright followed Country Music with Four Poems of Departure (1983) and The Other Side of the River (1984). Written while he was living in California, these works squarely confront Wright's fears of middle age and diminishing talents, as well as his reasons for moving far from his roots. Wright's next collections, Five Journals (1986) and Zone Journals (1988), explore the medium of the poetic journal and how it can be used to traverse time and place.
Wright's second volume in his trilogy of trilogies, The World of Ten Thousand Things, reprints all of the poems published in The Southern Cross (1981), The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals, and Xionia (1990), the last of which previously appeared only in a limited fine-press edition. The Southern Cross—which appeared after Colophons (1977) and Dead Color (1980)—bears the influence of American poet Hart Crane and represents an attempt at self-portrait for Wright. It opens with a long poem, “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” and closes with the even longer title poem, “The Southern Cross.” In between these long works in The Southern Cross, there are three distinct sections. The first is concerned with sense memory and the past, the second consists entirely of self-portraits, and the third section experiments with a technique borrowed from the composer John Cage. In it, Wright gives himself specific objectives, such as “write a poem that contains no verbs,” and then tries to accomplish his goals. Zone Journals is a quasi-diary of Wright's fiftieth year and describes various stages in his life, expressed through locations. These “zones” include California, Virginia, Tennessee, England, and Italy. Written in Wright's trademark meditative mode, Zone Journals muses about the nature of art and the life of the artist.
The final volume of his collected trilogies, Negative Blue, contains Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia (1998). The poems that comprise Chickamauga are concerned with small things in the world and the unique qualities of smallness. The longest poem in the book, “Sprung Narratives,” alludes to English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins's invention of sprung rhythm (a poetic rhythm that tries to approximate the natural cadence of speech) by suggesting that memory, rather than being a narrative, is actually composed of snippets of images, conversations, and impressions that continually overlap and then separate from one another, creating an evolving collage. Composed in his sixties, Black Zodiac finds Wright philosophizing about growing old and infirm, but not without recognizing the mystical qualities of aging. In Appalachia, Wright invokes the work of French philosopher Simone Weil and questions her assertions about who and what God is, a question that has long been at the heart of Wright's more spiritual poetry. Although his individual poems are well regarded, Wright's collections have received the widest praise, because as a whole, his work forms a unique vision and philosophy, with each separate poem seemingly structured to flow right into the next.
Wright has been lauded for the striking imagery in his poetry and his ability to create beautifully phrased stanzas, including his trademark mixture of long and dropped lines. In addition, Wright is esteemed for his ability to perceive the sacred in the ordinary and for his pursuit of profound existential questions in a combination of high-minded cultural allusions and folksy, self-effacing idiom. Critics have noted that his best work often maintains a tension between the physical world of nature and the metaphysical world beyond. Despite the regional descriptions that dominate his poetry, critics assert that Wright's work is neither autobiographical—at least not in a confessional sense—nor concerned with the particulars of history, unlike that of his early mentor Ezra Pound. In addition to Pound, critics recognize the influence of Emily Dickinson, Dante Alighieri, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot in Wright's work. Reviewers generally regard The Southern Cross as Wright's finest single work, along with China Trace and Black Zodiac. Following The Southern Cross, however, some critics discerned a period of laxity in Wright's poetry during the 1980s, a stylistic stagnation that receded with Zone Journals and the acclaimed Black Zodiac. Although some reviewers criticize Wright's tendency to use lush figurative language out of context, others find that the power of Wright's imagery makes up for any lapse in focus. Similarly, some critics find that Wright's musings about the nature of life and death often fall flat, owing in large part to his narrow focus and somber equivocation, while others praise Wright's attempts at finding insight from language and landscape. With the publication of Negative Blue as the capstone of his recollected “trilogies of trilogies,” Wright's poetry continues to win admiration for his distinct lyric meditations and well-developed poetic eye.
The Voyage (poetry) 1963
Six Poems (poetry) 1965
The Dream Animal (poetry) 1968
Private Madrigals (poetry) 1969
The Grave of the Right Hand (poetry) 1970
The Venice Notebook (poetry) 1971
Backwater (poetry) 1973
Hard Freight (poetry) 1973
Bloodlines (poetry) 1975
China Trace (poetry) 1977
Colophons (poetry) 1977
The Storm [by Eugenio Montale; translator] (poetry) 1978
Dead Color (poetry) 1980
Motets [by Eugenio Montale; translator] (poetry) 1981
The Southern Cross (poetry) 1981
Country Music: Selected Early Poems (poetry) 1982
Four Poems of Departure (poetry) 1983
Orphic Songs [by Dino Campana; translator] (poetry) 1984
The Other Side of the River (poetry) 1984
Five Journals (poetry) 1986
Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87 (interviews) 1988
Zone Journals (poetry) 1988
The World of Ten Thousand Things (poetry) 1990
Xionia (poetry) 1990
(The entire section is 115 words.)
SOURCE: “Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1981 Poetry Selections,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 40, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 225-34.
[In the following excerpt, St. John offers a positive assessment of The Southern Cross.]
In a yearly roundup of this sort, because of the limitations of space, it is difficult to discuss in even the most cursory way more than a handful of books. Still, there were a number of poetry books published in 1981 that deserve mention. …
Charles Wright's stunning new book, The Southern Cross, is full of the familiar verbal iconographies and textural chromatics that have made his earlier books so distinctive and powerful. Wright's palpably physical sense of language—of language as sensual, supple material—invites us to see him in terms one usually reserves for the visual arts. Yet Wright's poems are clearly aware of and delighted by their own painterly and sculptural qualities; their architectures are simultaneously intellectual and spiritual, an achievement executed, as Wright once wrote, by “setting the Imagist technique loose in the Symbolist current.” Though Wright has always spoken of the profound influence Pound and Montale (the latter of whom he has translated) have had upon his work, The Southern Cross—even by its title—shows the enormously rich resource the poetry of Hart Crane has become for him. It could just as...
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SOURCE: “Problems of Youth … and Age,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 184-93.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt offers a positive assessment of The Southern Cross.]
In their various ways, all five of these poets [Charles Wright, Elizabeth Spires, Bin Ramke, Laurie Sheck, Robert Penn Warren] assume the existence of an important relationship between poetry and knowledge—they write to embody meaning, suggest truth, achieve wisdom—which sets them apart from those writers whose primary interest is in the aesthetic value of the created art object, irrespective of any message it may coincidentally carry. Beyond this basic similarity, however, differences begin to appear, the most obvious being that three of these poets are young, one of them is middle-aged, and one is old. The surface trappings of wisdom, including an obvious sense of self-confidence, appear as an inverse function of age—the young poets at first glance look to be the wisest, while the older ones seem unsure of the truth they possess. Actual wisdom, however, remains a direct function of age—the older poets convince us in ways the younger can only approach.
In terms of style, the disparity is even greater. The older poets—Charles Wright and Robert Penn Warren—have fought through to distinctive styles that seem theirs alone. On the other hand, the younger...
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SOURCE: A review of The Southern Cross, in Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1982, p. 10.
[In the following excerpt, Conarroe praises The Southern Cross as Wright's finest work to date.]
Charles Wright was born several years after James Wright (no, they are not the Wright brothers), and although he has not acquired the fame of his namesake, he is slowly gaining a body of devoted readers and earning praise from demanding critics. The Southern Cross, his fifth book, will gain him new admirers. It is his strongest work to date.
Wright uses an untranslated passage (what faith!) from Dante's Purgatorio as his epigraph. I looked up the English version only after finishing the book, by then having decided that the passage must concern shadows and substance. It does, but I deserve no credit for prescience: Wright is preoccupied with ghosts and their demands. He tells the same story over and over, trying to get it right and wanting to be assured that in time he too will be remembered, that someone will speak his name. Though relatively young, he is troubled by disintegration and by a void in the heart. And in lines that echo Lowell's poignant “My mind's not right,” he sings, in “Laguna Blues,” “Something's off-key in my mind. / Whatever it is, it bothers me all the time.”
Charles Wright's poetry is more rigorous and demanding than...
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SOURCE: “Tracing Charles Wright,” in Parnassus, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1982, pp. 55-74.
[In the following positive review of The Southern Cross, Bedient offers a close analysis of Wright's evolving metaphysical themes, aesthetic perspective, and poetic style in this and previous volumes.]
Charles Wright, who longs to elude his too-local life, eludes you even when he isn't trying. He's trying on the cover of his third volume, Bloodlines, where reflected lights (irregular white patches like blotches on an abstract canvas) hide the eyes behind his sunglasses (eyes you know are looking at you). Haloed by a washtub hung on a cabin wall, he's a mock frontier-saint of purity—washed in the beyond, cleaned to blankness, bouncing back brilliance.
Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), China Trace (1977), and The Southern Cross (1981) perpetuate with a horizon-pale passion what Yeats called “the inspired condition.” Their often astonishingly beautiful lines seek to “pull that rib of pure light” that must still lie in language somewhere, it's such a solitary Adam. Not that Wright is occult: on the contrary, he would make the intangible stark. To him revelation came early and has remained unsparing: it is that the dead, who are superior to us, who know more and feel more, are always near us. He hails the superhuman, writes of...
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SOURCE: A review of The Southern Cross, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 1, Winter, 1983, p. 111.
[In the following review, Axelrod offers a generally positive assessment of The Southern Cross, but concludes that “Wright is not yet a poet of quite the first rank.”]
One way to suggest the nature of Charles Wright's most recent poems [in The Southern Cross] is to indicate what they are not. They mention several names but contain no developed characters. They are devoid of the hustle and bustle of ordinary life and suggest no particularity of place. Wright's Italy and Laguna Beach remain studiously verbal; he makes no effort to bring them to life, being content to let “word” and “thing” remain apart. Except for occasional parody, the poems possess no humor. Neither do they allow a tone of excitement. Frank Bidart's poetry, studded with BLOCK LETTERS, is Wright's counterpole. Wright's subdued and inward poems resemble those of John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons and Mark Strand. Their center is missing, as if they sought to meditate and elaborate on an abstract proposition that is teasingly suppressed. Wright's skepticism about the power and uses of textuality does not prevent his linguistic creation but limits and mutes it. These are poems palpably written in an age that deeply questions poetry.
In the volume's title poem the tragic skepticism underlying...
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SOURCE: “The Middle of the Journey,” in The Nation, April 7, 1984, pp. 421-24.
[In the following review, Frank offers a positive evaluation of The Other Side of the River.]
Midcareer can be a precarious time for the accomplished poet. Manifest strengths need to be consolidated without slipping into habit or manner. The dangers of obligation to one's audience and past achievement line up against the pressures of having to find fresh things to say and new ways of saying them. Charles Wright, Robert Pinsky and Jon Anderson all have considerable bodies of work behind them; none is any longer young. Of the three, Wright and Pinsky are by far the more interesting, and face the midcareer perils with triumphant results. Wright's material is mostly rural and elegiac, Pinsky's urban and contemporary, but each puts memory to the uses of transfiguration and each does it the hard way—through art.
Wright's seventh book, The Other Side of the River, has the lean bluegrass modernist music and the faintly surreal imagery that have marked his work from the beginning. It has something new as well: hard, direct statement and fearlessly drawn conclusions. Wright's earlier books (Hard Freight, Bloodlines, The Southern Cross) revealed his abiding loyalty to the South of his childhood during the Depression and World War II, and this past supplies his new work, too, with...
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SOURCE: A review of The Other Side of the River, in Washington Post Book World, May 20, 1984, p. 6.
[In the following review, the critic offers praise for The Other Side of the River.]
Charles Wright's stunning new book of poems [The Other Side of the River] is both a reckoning with a personal past and a meditation upon life's impermanence. Wright's poetry is always verbally electric, and his work here seems more charged and more exciting than ever.
For Wright, the currents of his past run between twin poles—the Tennessee of his childhood and the Italy of his young adulthood. It's to these places Wright returns in memory, to both reclaim and recover them, and the poems are often peopled with the characters who mattered then and, therefore, matter again now.
In a fine poem about his great-grandfather, “Arkansas Traveller,” he writes, “To speak of the dead is to make them live again; / we invent what we need.” In “Lonesome Pine Special,” a poem about lost American landscapes, he writes, “It's true, I think …, / That all beauty depends upon disappearance, / The bitten edges of things, / the gradual sliding away / Into tissue and memory, / the uncertainty / And dazzling impermanence of days we beg our meanings from, / And their frayed loveliness.”
With his painter's eye for light in landscape and his sculptor's feel for...
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SOURCE: “The Circle of the Meditative Moment,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 402-14.
[In the following excerpt, Stitt discusses aspects of circular poetic structure and offers a positive evaluation of The Other Side of the River.]
When we speak of poetic form we usually mean patterns of rhyme and meter; I would prefer, however, to begin with the definition given by W. P. Ker in his book Form and Style in Poetry: “… it is the scheme or argument that is the form, and the poet's very words are the matter with which it is filled. The form is not that with which you are immediately presented, or that which fills your ears when the poem is recited—it is the abstract original scheme from which the poem began.” Form, we may say, is the pattern of thought which organizes and precedes everything else, including the words of the poem, its sound patterns, its content, and its themes.
Among the many patterns into which a poem could fall, two contrasting possibilities—linear form and what I will call circular form—are especially useful for understanding an important aspect of contemporary poetry. The basis for distinction between them is the way time is managed within the poem. All poems, as they are read, move forward within the realm of real or external time; that is, the reader discovers, perhaps with dismay, that he is a few minutes older when he...
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SOURCE: “Life as a Poetic Puzzlement,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 19, 1984, p. 7.
[In the following review, Eshleman offers an unfavorable assessment of The Other Side of the River.]
For the most part, the writing in Charles Wright's new book [The Other Side of the River] is languorous, nostalgic and flecked with puzzlements about the meaning of life. At best, he has a Whitmanian eye for landscape and botanical detail, and renders the names of the places and things that have touched him in the past.
However, the modest talent for “naming” is permeated with generalized commentary that rises like bubbles and disappears:
What is it about a known landscape that tends to undo us, That shuffles and picks us out For terminal demarcation, the way a field of lupine Seen in profusion deep in the timber Suddenly seems to rise like a lavender ground fog At noon? What is it inside the imagination that keeps surprising us At odd moments when something is given back We didn't know we had had In solitude, spontaneously, and with great joy?
This is seductive writing, and the seduction lies in the way the observed lupine and its simile appear to register something about the speaker's experience. But the commentary surrounding the observation is arbitrary and a “poetic game” (especially in the last...
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SOURCE: “Writers & Writing: Through Memory and Miniatures,” in New Leader, August 20, 1984, pp. 17-18.
[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of The Other Side of the River.]
The title poem of Charles Wright's latest collection, The Other Side of the River, flows easily from memories of hunting along the banks of the Savannah where it divides South Carolina and Georgia to other Southern boyhood recollections:
It's linkage I'm talking about, and harmonies and structures And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.
But these reminiscences are similes for the present as well. Wright mentions, for instance, that at 15 he climbed a mountain, with five days' supplies on a pack horse, to repair a fire tower. After dark, from his camp, he could see the lights of a town by a lake, 3,000 feet below. Now he muses,
These nights are like that, The silvery alphabet of the sea increasingly difficult to transcribe, And larger each year, everything farther away, and less clear, Than I want it to be, not enough time to do the job, And faint thunks in the earth, As though somewhere nearby a horse was nervously pawing the ground.
By the time the...
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SOURCE: “Charles Wright,” in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 388-97.
[In the following essay, Vendler examines Wright's meditative approach to history, time, art, and the physical world in Zone Journals.]
Lashed to the syllable and noun, the strict Armageddon of the verb, I lolled for 17 years Above this bay with its antimacassars of foam On the rocks, the white, triangular tears sailboats poke through the sea's spun sheet, Houses like wads of paper dropped in the moss-clumps of the trees, Fog in its dress whites at ease along the horizon, Trying to get the description right. If nothing else, I showed me that what you see both is and is not there, The unseen bulking in from the edges of all things, Changing the frame with its nothingness.
(“A Journal of True Confessions”)
Restless and observant senses provide the words for the unseen in Charles Wright, as they did for the religious poets Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne, both (given that their subject was the unseen) unnervingly visual writers. All ways of formulating the paradox of the unseen felt in the seen falsify the experience of that...
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SOURCE: “The Art of Poetry XLI: Charles Wright,” in Paris Review, Vol. 31, No. 113, Winter, 1989, pp. 185-221.
[In the following interview, Wright discusses his introduction to poetry and formative years, his artistic development and aesthetic concerns, and his approach to composing poetry.]
From his dust-jacket photographs, you might expect Charles Wright to be a dour man. In person, though, he gives a quite different impression—trim, elegant even in blue jeans, generous, with a Southerner's soft-spoken courtliness. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, he grew up in the South and went to college there. And a few years ago, after a long spell of teaching at the University of California at Irvine, he returned to the South, as poet-in-residence at the University of Virginia.
Wright's work stands out among his generation of poets for the austere luxuriance of its textures, its mingling of domestic subjects and foreign methods, and its bold and unpretentious ambition. During the past two decades he has written eight books of poems: The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), China Trace (1977), The Southern Cross (1981), Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1983; winner of that year's American Book Award in Poetry), The Other Side of the River (1984), and Zone Journals (1988). He has also...
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SOURCE: “Short Reviews,” in Poetry, Vol. CLV, No. 3, December, 1989, pp. 229-31.
[In the following review, Gregerson comments on Wright's themes and artistic aims in Zone Journals.]
The ten “journals” that constitute the body of this book [Zone Journals] make a single formal and epistemological case, a case that has long been emerging in the larger body of Wright's work. Their case is for immanence, the deferred material presence of truth; for permeability and open-endedness; for the liminal, where eschatology incorporates the risen body of the past; for rehearsal, which is the only performative mode of consequence; for the invocatory, which is the antithesis of the iconic. The rejection of closed form in these poems is by no means the rejection of the artifactual: in Wright's theatre of imagination the lineaments of human manufacture or poesis chronically bleed through the scrim of nature. The blue jay moves “in a brushstroke.” Cloudbanks are “enfrescoed still / just under the sky's cornice.” The poetic project is always and already implicit in the observable world: “lightning bugs / alphabetize on the east wall.”
Constituting nature as the threshold of speech, the poet locates a prior authority for his own ruminations, making nature the underwriter for poetry's speculative line. In weaker gestures, the circle of self-reference may smack a bit of...
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SOURCE: “Charles Wright and the Landscape of the Lyric,” in New England Review, Vol. XII, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 308-12.
[In the following review, Winckel offers a positive evaluation of Zone Journals.]
Part of the pleasure of a good lyric poem is the way it allows us to exist simultaneously in all time, not simply to transcend the present, but to pull fragments of past and present together into one charged moment. From the poems in his early collections (Hard Freight, Bloodlines) to the more recent (China Trace, The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals), Charles Wright's poems have moved toward a lyric presence able to enfold increasingly more and more layers of time, space, emotion. It's as if to accommodate the poet's past as it widens and lengthens behind him, the poetic voice has increasingly opened out to contain it more fully.
In Zone Journals, Wright's more recent collection, memories flow in and out with a fluid force and wave-like motion. The persona stands at an intersection of many deeply felt moments. We drift through lovingly recalled memory-scapes that sweep in and over us until the literalness of the past begins to blur. Delineating walls between events, places, even loved ones, wash away, and we are left to examine the rubble.
… A bumblebee the size of my thumb rises like Geryon From that hard Dantescan...
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SOURCE: “Slide-Wheeling around the Curves,” in Southern Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 221-34.
[In the following review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, Bedient analyzes perceived weaknesses in Wright's poetry from the 1980s. While praising Wright's uncommon ability to “pierce the skin of familiarity with rays of darkness,” Bedient contends that Wright's “journal” poems and subsequent writings lack the authority, focus, and provocative surrealism of his earlier work.]
After T. S. Eliot, Charles Wright has been the modern poet in English most afflicted and gifted by a sense of his own insufficiency before the absolute—that “black moth the light burns up in,” as he put it in “Death” in China Trace (1977). His sensibility itself has seemed like a gorgeous insect crippled on the windshield of the speeding galaxy. Through his startling figures and, if less so, his eloquent rhythms, he has intimated an unthinkable glory of which life is otherwise bereft.
Wright's work was, and more or less still is, melancholy. It closes the traditional accordion of poetic moods with a breath-gutting thwump. (For this reason, I think Wright deludes himself in Halflife: Improvisation and Interviews, 1977–87 in holding that his “poems are put together in tonal blocks, in tonal units that work off one another.” Even Sylvia Plath had a bigger...
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SOURCE: “Amid the Groves, Under the Shadowy Hill, the Generations are Prepared,” in Poetry, Vol. CLVIII, No. 5, August, 1991, pp. 280-95.
[In the following excerpt, McClatchy offers a positive assessment of The World of Ten Thousand Things.]
Does it make any sense to discuss these seven poets [Charles Wright, Charles Causley, Reynolds Price, Marvin Bell, Brad Leithauser, Debora Greger, and Peter Sacks] in generational clusters? They fall conveniently into three groups, but the approach is as likely to discover differences between the poets in any one group as differences among the groups themselves. Nor is convenience any sure guide toward generalization. …
What I have long admired in Marvin Bell's work is his willingness to think aloud, to speechify and speculate, to entertain ideas. Charles Wright shies from those impulses, preferring always to slip behind the detail, the image, the slow anonymous music of language itself. He may well be the best poet of his generation; certainly he is the most luxuriant. “Some people think that luxury is the opposite of poverty,” Coco Chanel once remarked. “Not so. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” Wright's work has changed over the years, grown more ample and ambitious, but from the beginning his voice was refined, even fastidious. Its music is virtuosic but never flashy, plush but never dragging. The World of the Ten Thousand...
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SOURCE: A review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, in America, April 25, 1992, pp. 361-62.
[In the following review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, Unsino concludes that Wright's poetry lacks analysis and a guiding artistic aim.]
These are the journals [The World of Ten Thousand Things] of a poet who believes he is in paradise, and landscapes are his rambling theme. The volume includes three books previously published, The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, reals, and one published only in a limited edition, Xionia. Charles Wright at his best is like his own hermit crabs of “New Year's Eve, 1979,” spinning across the floors of their tidal pools: “Their sky is a glaze and a day. … / What matters to them is what comes up from below, and from out there / In the deep water, / and where the deep water comes from.” Here Wright probes reality and creates a cosmic view of the world.
Wright's strengths are a natural, social approach to experience, a flat-bellied masculinity, understated hardness and stamina. He is impressive with the breadth of his narration in “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” about a famous 18th-century military expedition: John Donelson's river voyage from the Long Island of the Holston River in Virginia to his destination at Nashville. The narration builds by cloud-shifts to a...
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SOURCE: “A Tenth and Four Fifths,” in Poetry, Vol. CXLI, No. 6, March, 1993, pp. 349-58.
[In the following review of The Southern Cross, Kennedy commends Wright's poetic ear and controlled lines, but finds shortcomings in the lack of theme in his poetry.]
Charles Wright continues on his serious quest for ineffable beauty and serenity [in The Southern Cross]. Like other Romantic aspirants whom he admires (Keats, Hart Crane), Wright is subject to fits of gloom—see, for instance, the song lyric “Laguna Blues.” At times, the hardships of his quest make him yearn for irresponsibility, insensibility, even freedom from words. No living person other than the poet is sharply seen, although a lot of names are dropped. Several poems are entitled “Self-Portrait,” while yet another paints the poet in Hart Crane's company. The world of Wright's poems contains few actions, being filled with perceptions, feelings, and twinges of memory. Not always sure that his quest, after all, is worth fulfilling, Wright sees his own role as artist with a skeptical, appealing modesty: “Mercy upon us, / we who have learned to preach but not to pray.”
In this new collection, Wright opens up his lines and lets them run for as long as they like; at times he breaks them in half and lets one half drop:
The lime, electric green of the April sea...
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SOURCE: “The Nothing That Is,” in New Republic, August 7, 1995, pp. 42-5.
[In the following review, Vendler offers a positive evaluation of Chickamauga. Vendler contends that Wright's “eschatological” poems are rich with striking imagery and lyric meditations on life, death, and poetic representation.]
The title poem of Charles Wright's new book [Chickamauga] doesn't mention the Civil War battle of Chickamauga or the soldiers who died in it, and in this it is typical of Wright's practice. The poem climbs to a vantage point where the anonymity of history has blanked out the details. What is left is the distillate: that something happened at this place, that its legacy of uneasiness inhabits the collective psyche (Wright was born in Tennessee), that it will not let us go and demands a response. A confessional poet might write about his own family's legacy from the war. A socially minded poet might recount the havoc of battle. A moral poet might debate what Melville called “the conflict of convictions.” A landscape poet might describe the vacant battlefield as it is now. Wright is none of these, does none of these things.
What can a lyric poetry be that sidelines the confessional, the social, the moral, the panoramic? It can be—and in Wright's case, it is—eschatological. Eschatology sees the world under the sign of the last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven,...
(The entire section is 2993 words.)
SOURCE: “Poetry in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 144-57.
[In the following excerpt, Longenbach offers praise for Chickamauga, although he notes that Wright's narrow focus and “world-weary” tone suggest the poet's limitations.]
“In living as in poetry,” said James Merrill in “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia,” “your art / Refused to tip the scale of being human / By adding unearned weight.” Even at a time when Elizabeth Bishop's light touch is fashionable, these lines remind us of how rarely a poet honors the circumscribed role that poetry plays in American culture. Poets have surely been on the defensive at least since the time of Plato. But more often than not, they have responded to an indifferent public by adding weight to what they do; Ezra Pound said that poets should be acknowledged legislators. Less common is a poet like Thomas Hardy, who turned from novels to poems (at least in part) because nobody paid any attention to poetry. “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved,” wrote the novelist weathering the publication of Jude the Obscure, “the Inquisition might have let him alone.” Rather than exaggerating poetry's claim on our attentions, Hardy diminished it: by seeming to ask so little of themselves, his poems offer more than we could have imagined receiving. It's difficult to think of Hardy or Bishop or...
(The entire section is 1653 words.)
SOURCE: “Poetry Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 166-75.
[In the following excerpt, Mason offers an unfavorable assessment of Chickamauga and contends that Wright enjoys undeserved praise and prominence within the literary establishment.]
Why is most contemporary poetry so dull?
Consider three thoughts that occurred to me while reading the work of Charles Wright: his ideas are uninteresting, his poems undramatic; his language is only intermittently charged or lyrical; he is among the best-known poets of his generation. If you believe, as I do, that these three statements do not add up, you will also catch the drift of my rhetorical opening. We live in a world in which reputation has little to do with accomplishment. Given the broad context of contemporary American poetry, often so prosaic and self-regarding that it turns away anyone who is not a “professional reader,” Charles Wright is a relatively honorable practitioner. Yet, going over most of his work in preparation to review Chickamauga, his new collection, I found very little that would justify paying hard-earned money to acquire it. Most of his poems are so flat and passive that they should have been left in a drawer; instead, they have been published in prominent magazines like The New Yorker.
Wright's defenders will remind you of his Italian and...
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SOURCE: “On Restraint,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXVIII, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 33-47.
[In the following excerpt, Baker offers a favorable assessment of Chickamauga, drawing parallels between the rhetorical sagacity of Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]
I am not concerned here with artistic timidity, moral constraint, or polite decorum—that is, restraint as puritanic virtue—but rather with tactics of restraint which allow us to gauge a poem's opposite pole, its power and passion. Even Walt Whitman is at his most persuasive when his enthusiasms are informed by subdued counter-pressures. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” those ominous, looming “dark patches,” which accompany his confessions of secular guilt, temper his later transcendental encouragements to “flow on … with the flood-tide.” The poem's polar forces—obliteration and regeneration, liability and acceptance—hold themselves in a kind of checks-and-balance. The result is precarious and powerful. Other poets use different methods of restraint: Dickinson with her severe, compact technique (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”); Bishop in her very stance, what Jeredith Merrin calls an “enabling humility.” Restraint can ironize, enable, even sustain, a poet's great passions and wildness. …
Charles Wright uses large, summary abstractions the way most poets use images. His images alone sustain the...
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SOURCE: “Poetry and Silence at the End of the Century,” in Salmagundi, No. 111, Summer, 1996, pp. 195-207.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient discusses Wright's explorations of language and existential silence, or nothingness, in Chickamauga and previous works.]
Our print-besmeared and bomb-shrill century has made silence more acute than ever before. It has made of silence a crisis. At the century's end, two American poets, Carolyn Forché and Charles Wright, stand out for their preoccupation with it, a preoccupation so profound that their poetry, like T. S. Eliot's, approximates prayer.
There is between these two poets an almost clean division of labor. If by the end of the century silence has become polarized beyond any extremes known before, Forché's The Angel of History is the great work on the silence at the pole of the appalled and the disappeared, and Charles Wright's many books a great body of work on the silence that rebukes language, hence repudiates subjectivity and history as well—the silence of the Thus, the absolute, the Beyond. The silent World of God. …
… Charles Wright's work shares with Forché's, and in every fiber, an acid stain of apology, an I-dissolving, balked love and dismay. But Wright's poetry lines up not with Forché's refusal to abandon what has been abandoned by everything, but with T. S. Eliot's filterings...
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SOURCE: A review of Chickamauga, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, p. 967.
[In the following review of Chickamauga, Pratt concludes that Wright's “poetry of sad wistfulness” is tantalizing and promising, though often succumbs to abstractions and stunted revelations.]
Here is a book of poems [Chickamauga] about the American Civil War, right? Wrong. Then what is it about? Aging and death, mostly, but also about places like Laguna Beach (“Seventeen years in Laguna Beach— / Month after month the same weather”), Venice (“Venice is death by drowning, everyone knows”), and Charlottesville (or was it Wallace Stevens who wrote “An Ordinary Afternoon in Charlottesville”?) And are these poems? Yes, if “the prose tradition in verse” still continues, as Ezra Pound insisted it should, and as Marianne Moore continued it, by writing what she said was called poetry only because there was no other category in which to put it. At his best—and he is often at his best—Wright produces prose poems in long, broken lines of verse, with whimsical titles like “Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember a Line by Li Po.”
Wright also tries to observe Pound's principle that poets should “Be influenced by as many great artists as you can,” since almost every one of his poems contains an allusion to another poet or a painter; but he is not...
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SOURCE: “Wanted: More Complexity,” in Southern Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 136-49.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient commends Wright's skeptical meditations in Chickamauga, but notes that Wright's treatment of the subject of language is not wholly successful.]
Complexity, meaning integration achieved against multiple currents, against odds, is indispensable to major poetic accomplishment. The exquisitely simple lyric—say, “O wild West Wind”—is rare; and given its extreme brevity, “O wild West Wind,” at least, is not so very simple. It is undeniably a great lyric. But major? Major implies the inner bonding of much complexity, even if the result is—as increasingly it has been required to be—half open. …
Charles Wright's Chickamauga returns us to the anguish (which is not to say the achievement) of “transubstantiated moments.” Chickamauga, “site of a Civil War battle on the border of the poet's native Tennessee,” as the dust jacket instructs, is a misleading title; no poet brushes history aside more readily than Wright in order to focus on the turning pages of the scripture of light or to listen to the phantom wealth of “the silence.” History? It “handles our past like spoiled fruit.” It is judged mercilessly, with little of Milosz's profound regret.
The beautiful, doomed name “Chickamauga” may...
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SOURCE: “What Persists,” in Georgia Review, Vol. LI, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 331-55.
[In the following excerpt, Kitchen examines the structure, meditative themes, and theoretical underpinnings of Wright's poetry in Chickamauga.]
The most obvious and salient fact about the natural separation of poetry from criticism is that in the greatest ages of poetry there has been little or no criticism. Criticism comes, if at all, after the art.
Things have changed since Karl Shapiro's time—and this is Karl Shapiro's time. But during his long career of writing both poetry and criticism, the gap between the two has simultaneously widened and narrowed. Theorists have discovered what writers always knew (“The meaning of poetry, as far as language is concerned, is the meaning of hey-nonny-nonny. To the poet, hey-nonny-nonny means what the other words in the poem failed to say.”—Karl Shapiro, In Defense of Ignorance, 1960), but they've added a complex new vocabulary to the old insights. In fact, sometimes the “old” vocabulary isn't what it seemed. A previously unpublished essay by Randall Jarrell (which appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of The Georgia Review) reveals that prominent “modernist” critic to have had quite a few insights we have always termed “postmodernist.” The...
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SOURCE: “Poetic Standard Time: The Zones of Charles Wright,” in Southern Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 566-86.
[In the following essay, Miller examines the development of Wright's aesthetic and philosophical concerns upon the publication of Black Zodiac and discusses the evolving technical style by which he approaches such themes in his poetry since the mid-1970s.]
In the first poem of Black Zodiac (1997), Charles Wright seems to bid farewell to an idea that has sustained most of his career. He has tried, he says, to “resuscitate” journal and landscape—“Discredited form, discredited subject matter”—to no avail. This declaration, from “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” may surprise readers who have come to know Wright through his strange territories of memory and experience: the hypertrophic green backdrops of his Tennessee youth; the Italian paesaggio of his army service and Fulbright travels; the Pacific of his seventeen-year residence in Laguna Beach; and, most recently, his Charlottesville backyard, a sort of suburban cloister for his daily meditations. Wright's dismissal of the journal might also seem too harsh: though the exhausting vigil of “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” doesn't beg to be repeated, the poet has successfully preserved vestiges of the form up to the present.
Discredited or not, landscape and journal still...
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SOURCE: “Survivalist Selves,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1998, pp. 180-89.
[In the following excerpt, Wojahn offers a favorable evaluation of Black Zodiac.]
When the Coptic monks of Nag Hammadi concealed their sacred papyri in clay jars and hid them in caves for safekeeping, they did so in fear of persecution. They were, after all, classified as heretics by the church. The monks surely had no idea that it would take some eighteen centuries for their trove of Gnostic texts to see once again the light of day. And they scarcely could have imagined that the Nag Hammadi tractates, with their weirdly eclectic mixture of Christian, Judaic, Manichean, and Neoplatonic traditions, would have found a particularly avid readership among American poets of the 1990s. Charles Wright and Brenda Hillman are a case in point: both have acknowledged James M. Robinson's edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English as an important inspiration for their recent work, and although it would be wrong to label these writers as neo-Gnostics (poets tend to use their influences to create metaphors, and for the most part eschew attempts to make of their poems a “philosophy”), the debt they and many of their peers owe to the Gnostic tradition is considerable. Why Gnosticism? To some degree because its message is self-affirming, though it is a self-affirmation of a distinctly bleak and unromantic...
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SOURCE: “Charles Wright, Poet of Landscape, Melds Tradition and Innovation,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 1998, pp. B10-11.
[In the following essay, Ingalls presents an overview of Wright's formative experiences, his poetry and artistic concerns, and critical reception.]
In the beginning, Charles Wright didn't know he wanted to write poetry.
“It sort of came like a thunderbolt out of the blue,” he says.
The year was 1959, and he was 23, newly arrived in Verona: Italy, as a member of the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. He had read some fiction and a little T. S. Eliot as an undergraduate at Davidson College, but no poetry to speak of—no poetry that spoke to him.
He had picked up a copy of Ezra Pound's Cantos in the airport in New York, and had taken it along with him on a sightseeing trip to Sirmione, a town on the tip of a finger of land that juts into Lake Garda, pointing toward the Alps on the opposite shore.
“I sat at the end of the Sirmione peninsula under olive trees and read Pound's poem about sitting in the same place and looking at the Alps,” he recalls.
“And boom—this was one of those classic epiphanies: Maybe this is something I can do.”
Nearly 40 years later, he has done it with a vengeance. Widely regarded as one of the best...
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SOURCE: “Old Masters,” in Southern Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 621-34.
[In the following excerpt, Daniels concludes that the poems of Appalachia reveal an “emptiness” indicative of Wright's unresolved spiritual longing.]
Could two poets be more different than Adrienne Rich and Charles Wright? Rich conceives of her job as fierce seeing—“the thing itself and not the myth,” she wrote, famously, in “Diving into the Wreck”—but Wright attempts the opposite:
Nothing's more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. The job is to make it otherwise.
Wright couldn't be more bored by unmediated visions of the things we “actually see.” He is after not merely “the names of things,” but “their real names, / Not what we call them, but what / They call themselves when no one's listening” (“The Writing Life”). In Appalachia, the ninth book in his ambitious trilogy-of-trilogies project, Wright is more consumed than ever by his desire to pierce the veil of reality and glimpse the other side.
This mystical impulse at the core of Wright's work, and the lambent energy of his poetry, proceed, one imagines, from a lust for transformation and transcendence. He discovered early on the efficacy of combining a compressed,...
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SOURCE: “Ars Longa,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXXV, No. 1, October-November, 1999, pp. 78-89.
[In the following essay, McClatchy provides an overview of Wright's artistic and thematic development from the publication of The Grave of the Right Hand through Appalachia. While offering a generally favorable assessment of Wright's poetry, McClatchy faults the retrospective arrangement of Wright's work into a unified series of trilogies.]
Some long poems are born long; some achieve length; and some have length thrust upon them. In the beginning, there was an orderly sequence to a poet's career, from the lyric to the epic, and genres were steadied by tradition. In the nineteenth century, rigid categories and definitions loosened, and every stay or knot was next undone either by modernist poets or adventuresome readers. No one reads Whitman's Leaves of Grass as the long poem Whitman himself may have thought it, and some oddball critics have read a plot into Dickinson's discrete lyrics so they may be read as an epic. The Waste Land seems miniaturized next to, say, the Idylls of a King. Even so, it seems precision-tooled next to The Cantos, which Pound pursued as an epic—but did he ever have any idea where he was headed with that mishmash? Paterson too fizzled out. Hart Crane's The Bridge remains the purest and most successful example in our century of The Long...
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SOURCE: “An Interview with Charles Wright,” in Southern Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 442-52.
[In the following interview, Wright discusses his education and formative influences, the thematic unity of his trilogy of collected works, and his poetic style, technique, and approach to serious philosophical subjects.]
All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation.
—Charles Wright, Halflife
Charles Wright's poetry is a strange alchemy, a fusion of the direct, understated lyrics of ancient Chinese poets like Tu Fu and Wang Wei, the lush language of nineteenth-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the allusive, rhetorical movement—the “gists and piths”—of Ezra Pound's Cantos. The element common to each is a search for transcendence in the landscape of everyday. For Wright that landscape might be the shores of Italy, his native Tennessee, or his own backyard on Locust Avenue in Charlottesville. He calls it “eschatological naturalism: a school of one.” An imaginary argument with Tu Fu in “China Mail” reveals the underpinning—both highbrow and tongue-in-cheek, serious and self-effacing—of Wright's poetry: “Study the absolute, your book says. But not too hard, // I add, just under my breath.” Wright's poems yearn for the ideal, but...
(The entire section is 4622 words.)
Blasing, Muthu Konuk. Review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, by Charles Wright. Michigan Quarterly Review 31, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 425.
Blasing offers his evaluation of The World of Ten Thousand Things.
Bond, Bruce. “Metaphysics of the Image in Charles Wright and Paul Cézanne.” Southern Review 30, No. 1 (January 1994): 116-25.
Provides comparative analysis of Wright's poetry and Cézanne's paintings, drawing attention to their shared concern with the incomplete quality of human experience and aspects of transcendence, primitivism, and transmutation in their works.
Garrison, David. “From Feeling to Form: Image as Translation in the Poetry of Charles Wright.” Midwest Quarterly 41, No. 1 (Autumn 1999): 33-47.
Examines Wright's effort to translate emotion into language and, in turn, to explore contradictory aspects of language and the theme of mortality in his poetry.
Gussow, Mel. “A Good Ear for the Music of His Own Life.” New York Times (16 April 1998): E1.
Provides an overview of Wright's life, poetry, and accomplishments upon his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac.
Kalstone, David. “Lives in a Rearview Mirror.” New York Times Book Review (1 July 1984): 14.
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