(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 21)

With the publication of Appalachia in 1998—a work that completed a trilogy which scholar Harold Branam regarded as “the culmination of [Wright's] career”—followed by A Short History of the Shadow in 2002, Charles Wright appeared to be concluding a major phase of his writing life. As Wright was in his seventh decade, it would not have been unreasonable to expect future work to be more in the mode of occasional individual pieces or further refinements of predominant themes which had been set out and explored in fourteen separate volumes and several collections since the early 1960's. In a heartening contradiction to expectations of reduction, Wright has continued in Buffalo Yoga to compose poems that evince no diminution of inventive energy or imaginative power.

Discussing his work in 2002, Wright said, “As an old song-and-dance man, I’ve got a couple of turns left to show.” While Wright has often been associated with early Chinese masters, poets of the Italian Renaissance, and various American practitioners of the vernacular in his pursuit of what poet John Keats called “soul making” poetry, an informative comparison with the later stages of W. B. Yeats's continuously evolving poetic perspective is useful in reading the poems of Buffalo Yoga.

Like Yeats, Wright has worked from a specific location, recalling the landscape of Eastern Tennessee around Kingsport, where he grew up, and then gazing with an almost daunting intensity at the terrain of the Blue Ridge, the Southern Highlands of Appalachia around Charlottesville, where he teaches at the University of Virginia. This region is his poetic home ground and an apparently inexhaustible source of fascination and contemplation. Wright has remarked that his poetic strategy is based on the precept that “Idea follows seeing,” and a crucial component of his poetry lies in revealing what seem like infinite aspects of the visible. Similar to the ways in which Yeats employed the geography of County Sligo in western Ireland, the discernible features of the Blue Ridge hills are echoed and expanded in conjunction with the mind's meditations on what is seen.

As Yeats was intrigued with the traces of Chinese culture that he understood through the reports of British travelers to Asian colonies of the empire, Wright has followed Ezra Pound—a poetic mentor who was repatriated to Italy coincident with Wright's deployment there as a soldier in the U.S. Army—in his study of the works of artists like Li-Ho, Wang Wei, and Han Shan. Just as Yeats described in “Lapis Lazuli” two Chinese sages whose “ancient, glittering eyes, are gay” in spite of their cognizance of life's “tragic scene,” Wright has increasingly used versions of Zen motifs to counter his extensive theological representations of a universe in which God is elusive and undefinable.

As poet Edward Hirsch put it, God (in Wright's poetry) “exists in a moment, but the Moment is eternally unavailable.” Wright's examinations of Buddhist thought have tempered and adjusted the Christian concepts that he knew almost as a birthright in the American rural South and which continue to inform central aspects of his poetry. As Wright said with regard to some queries about his dispute with language poetry, “The destination is the cross, and all that that implies,” and extended the reach of his theological metaphor, by adding, “It's either Atonement or At Onement, but it is one of them.”

Yeats's complete mastery of the familiar meters, rhyme schemes, and formal structures developed through centuries of British poetry enabled him to establish a poetic voice that was both reassuringly recognizable yet strikingly singular. Enlivening old forms while writing amid the full flowering of modernism, Yeats does not appear to be contained by any single historical moment. As anthologies indicate, Wright is working among peers for whom no iron-bound limits exist, while asserting his own conviction that one “must know the rudiments of meter and structure in English verse” and while conceding to the popular mode that “There is always an emotional half to the equation,” insisting that “the other half is always craft.”

Wright's craft is based on what he describes as a line which functions as an overall unit, rather than a bridge among bridges—“a long, image-freighted line,” in his words—which depends, to an extent, on a seven-syllable count as an ordering device. The result is a poetry that is strengthened but not ruled by a structure that serves the mood and subject, not rigid but sufficiently rigorous to imply a purposeful form in action.

The parallels with Yeats are informative with respect to the station that Wright has reached at this point in his poetic progress and can provide a way of understanding the larger outlines of the poems in Buffalo Yoga. Although he does not dwell excessively on the physical limitations incumbent on increasing age, there is a sense in Wright's poetry of a need for the soul “to clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress,” as Yeats put it so indelibly in “Sailing to Byzantium.” For Wright, emphasis is placed on the soul undergoing a continuous pattern of reconstruction through the process of poetic creation, and the singing for Wright is dependent on the language of the song.

The first section of Buffalo Yoga—which is called “Proems” as in “Prologue to Poems”—is designed to establish a linguistic field...

(The entire section is 2254 words.)