Wright, Charles (Vol. 28)
Charles Wright 1935–
American poet and translator.
Wright is widely regarded as one of America's most important living poets. Although Wright's poetry has been strongly influenced by his Southern upbringing and contains many personal details about his home in Tennessee, it conveys a sense of universal connections to the past, rather than employing a confessional stance. Wright's poetry is marked by strong internal rhythms which contribute to an overall musicality of language. A typical Wright poem is filled with objects which give it the illusion of immediacy and concreteness. Wright's poems transcend traditional religious definitions of spirituality and move toward embracing mysticism of natural forces. The combination of a sustained, detached vision and abundant images and objects gives his poetry a painterly quality. His use of personal scenes and anecdote contribute to a sense of self-portraiture, but without subjectivity or intimacy. Helen Vendler has used the term "the transcendent I" to refer to Wright's impersonal perspective.
Wright's career has steadily gained momentum since the publication of his first major collection, The Grave of the Right Hand, in 1970. China Trace (1977), Wright's fourth major volume, clearly shows his individuality and poetic range. In this work, Wright models some poems after Chinese poetry and incorporates a catalogue-like rush of photographic imagery. Many critics consider The Southern Cross (1981) to be Wright's best volume of poetry. Its subject matter is closely connected to his home and past, and the celebration of the physical world emerges as its major theme. Wright combines first-hand experience and personal subjects to convey a sense of spiritual yearning for what has been lost in the past.
In 1983, Wright received an American Book Award for Country Music (1982). Richard Tillinghast described the poetry in this book as "austere and somewhat difficult of access," but possessing the same musically rhythmic language and imagery which makes reading Wright's poetry such a rewarding experience.
(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)
Because Wright's poems, on the whole, are unanchored to incident, they resist description; because they are not narrative, they defy exposition. They cluster, aggregate, radiate, add layers like pearls. Often they stop in the middle, with a mixed yearning and premonition, instead of taking a resolute direction backward or forward. It may be from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale … that Wright learned this pause which looks before and after; Wright recently issued his translation, done in the sixties, of Montale's powerful 1956 volume entitled La Bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Poems).
The translation offers an occasion for a glance at both Montale and Wright; the conjunction helps to define what sort of poet Wright has become. Montale wrote La Bufera during the post-war years, and his pauses in the midst of event come as often as not in the midst of nightmare: "The Prisoner's Dream" shows a speaker imprisoned in a time of political purges, tempted, like everyone else, to "give in and sign," but instead waiting out the interminable trial, addressing from prison his fixed point of reference—a dreamed-of woman who represents beauty, justice, truth…. This poetry, though it implies a better past and an uncertain future, incorporates them in the burning-glass of the present. It renounces, as forms of articulation, narrative, the succession of events, the sequence of action and reaction. The spatial form, one of many in...
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David St. John
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…. Though Wright has always spoken of the profound influence Pound and Montale … have had upon his work, The Southern Cross—even its title—shows the enormously rich resource the poetry of Hart Crane has become for him. (pp. 230-31)
In many of the poems in The Southern Cross, Wright's concerns revolve around the idea of self-portraiture—not autobiography, with its implication of self-absorption and completeness, but self-portraiture. The distinction is important to Wright, as a quality of self-objectification details all of his poems. Just as each of the emblematic and imagistic strokes (of each poem's lines) in each self-portrait serves to approximate the figure, so the sequence of self-portraits in The Southern Cross serves to give us perhaps a less literal but more vivid and multidimensional reading of the poet.
For Wright, it is always language, its textures...
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The Southern Cross is surely Charles Wright's best book, the one he has been preparing for through all his earlier volumes. Like Bin Ramke and Robert Penn Warren, Wright is a Southerner, a fact which has a profound relevance to the texture of his verse. His poems throb with stylistic richness, most palpably in a lushness of image and word; one needs a delicate touch indeed to feel the subtle modulations of theme that lie just beneath this surface. (p. 188)
[The] spiritual setting of this entire volume has much in common with the Purgatorio of Dante, from which Wright has chosen a comprehensive epigraph: the concluding seven lines of Canto XXI…. Wright in this book is always aware of and searching for evidence of the spiritual within the real, always aware of the possibility of angels.
Time is the most serious and pervasive theme in The Southern Cross, and appears both in a preoccupation with death and in a preoccupation with memory and the burden of the past. The best poems here are the two long ones—"Homage to Paul Cézanne" (eight pages), which opens the volume, and "The Southern Cross" (seventeen pages), which closes it. That these are also probably the strongest poems this outstanding poet has yet written indicates that his talent is both meditative and expansive—he works best in extended forms. "Homage to Paul Cézanne" is an intimate meditation on the dead…. (p. 189)
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[With The Southern Cross, Charles Wright creates] two new kinds of environment, civilization as manifest in gem-like labyrinths like Venice, and lush quasi-savage blossoming vegetation of the sort that flourishes in latitudes where the southern cross is prominent in the night sky. Furthermore, Wright could be said to depend absolutely on place, to work from it, in his crucial journeys, traced in so many poems, from rest to intense engagement with ethereal thresholds, tints of light, floating gestures—"an incandescent space," he says in one poem, "where nothing distinct exists, / And nothing ends, the days sliding like warm milk through the clouds." I quote these lines because they make explicit the poet's preference for the hazy, the milky, the upper-atmospheric; these are the trappings of his transcendent states of infancy.
I use the term "infancy" advisedly. Charles Wright's apotheoses are characteristically visions of a presexual, light-suffused mist, the matrix of dreams and the medium of serenity and soaring, of effortless floating, a rising-upwards that is very much more pleasant but far less emotionally pressing than the sultry risings and impassioned upwellings and poolings in the poetry of Louise Gluck. Whereas she clearly returns to the profound tensions and jealousies of childhood, Wright explores an almost fetal suspended state just prior to birth…. The desire to return to the softer outline he had at the...
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"Country Music" (poems originally published between 1970 and 1977) is … [a] substantial selection from a poet in his middle 40's. The title, though it playfully alludes to the music of the American South, where [Wright] was born and brought up, more accurately refers to the silent "music" of the landscape. (p. 14)
Mr. Wright's Tennessee boyhood provides the subject matter of many of these poems, but … he is no literalist. Rejecting plot and naturalistic detail, he would draw our attention, in his finely crafted poems, to subtler essences. (pp. 14, 31)
In contrast to many of his contemporaries who might say, with Jim Harrison, "In our poetry we want to rub our nose hard / into whatever is before it," Mr. Wright has a distinctly different purpose: "I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace." To avoid the problem of literal reference in "Tattoos" and "Skins," two poetic sequences from his third book, "Bloodlines" (1975), he simply appends a list of brief notes to the poems, a few words for each; for instance: "Recurrent dream," "The Naxian lions; Delos, Greece," etc. The result of this distancing is often disorienting and at times disturbing: One wishes Mr. Wright would step into his own poems more often.
But the impersonality of his approach is a quite conscious choice, and in "The Southern Cross" (1981) there are five...
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Country Music, Wright's Selected Poems,…, offers the poems that the poet would suggest convey his best thoughts over twenty years. It contains 153 pages of work, and a good idea of his career so far is furnished by it. There is a blank verse sonnet sequence of 20 poems in it, entitled "Skins," and they trace from first to last something of Wright's flat, hard declaration, his closed, and bitter ruminations, his unhappiness with his lot, and perhaps with ours, as his human relatives, if not his personal relations…. Along the route of this sequence, Wright looks at the world as he knows it, this natural world, and puzzles about the promises religion once made to him, for it was that Tennessee, middle-class upbringing, church and dogmatic, its indoctrination of him to what he now sees is illusion and vanity of belief and superstitious hope, that pains him most…. In fact, bitterly, Wright, in many of his poems, ends with the celebration of the process of nature's ceaseless cycling of the particles everything is made of, and everything is, of course, insentient, unfeeling, and unknowing, as we must be as we dissolve into it. I say bitterly, because often enough this commonplace is put forward by Wright with an energy that shows that he is quarreling with the voices of his past, with those beliefs that made up his childhood and youth, and which his whole life is no more than a unremitting struggle to overcome. (pp. 5-6)
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