Charles Wright’s Appalachia completes a poetic trilogy that began withChickamauga (1995) and continued with Black Zodiac (1997), which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The trilogy, actually Wright’s third, can be viewed as the culmination of his career, a career marked by numerous other awards. Appalachia shows again why Wright is generally considered one of America’s leading contemporary poets, although not all reviewers have cared for his characteristic style and themes. The important point is that enthusiastic reviewers (the majority) and those less enthusiastic have recognized and reacted to the same thing—Wright’s distinctive voice, which is both of his time and not of his time.
In some ways, Wright’s style is the epitome of laid-back postmodernism. His poems tend to be loose collages of images, allusions, and ideas. Since he often repeats the same themes and strategy from poem to poem—look at a landscape and think of time, death, and maybe God—the images, allusions, and ideas seem almost interchangeable. The different poems give the impression of being variations of the same work in progress. This impression of loose, repetitious form is emphasized by free-verse lines that usually carry across the page, that sometimes break down to the next level, and that are grouped in short segments of the poem. Wright also offends linguistic purists by jauntily mixing levels of discourse, juxtaposing popular culture and expressions with serious intellectual fare, as illustrated by some of his titles: “Autumn’s Sidereal, November’s a Ball and Chain,” “Giorgio Morandi and the Talking Eternity Blues,” and “After Rereading Robert Graves, I Go Outside to Get My Head Together.” As these titles also illustrate, Wright does not scruple to use a cliché, even outdated ones: “God is the fire my feet are held to,” “keep on keeping on,” “[h]ow few and how far between,” and “hubba-hubba.”
Naturally, a few reviewers have found Wright’s style prosy, but his rich mix of images, allusions, ideas, and levels of discourse gives his work tension and density not found in prose. Yet his style remains flexible enough to move with ease and suddenness from the mundane to the spiritual. He can also suddenly turn on an image: “Sunlight suffused like a chest pain across the tree limbs”; “As leaves fall from the trees, the body falls from the soul”; “. . . my body snug in my life/ As a gun in its carrying case”; and “Eternity puddles up.” Finally, in his style Wright has succeeded in capturing the American vernacular. Such a smart-alecky mixing of levels of discourse is quintessentially American, and it fits right in with Wright’s title: In Appalachia, such linguistic freedom is favored as a sign of independence, verbal agility, and perspective. While Wright is not from Appalachia (he was born in western Tennessee), he has lived in close enough proximity to pick up on the practice, which at any rate is common throughout American society.
His style, then, makes Wright an American spokesperson for his time. What is most impressive about Wright, however, is that even with this laid-back style, in the midst of a time when the media have trivialized thought, he has held onto a sense of the timeless, the spiritual. He can go from his backyard to the big issues in a moment, somewhat like a contemporary Plato explaining the eternal forms or Immanuel Kant discussing the noumena. In Wright’s thinking, there is “the secret landscape...
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