Charles Wright Biography


Charles Wright was born in a rural section of northeast Tennessee, not far from the city of Kingsport near the Virginia state line. His family lived in Oak Ridge during World War II, where his father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority as a civil engineer, then settled in Kingsport during Wright’s primary school years. Wright attended a school with eight students in Sky Valley, North Carolina, prior to graduating from the Episcopal Boarding School in Arden, North Carolina, in 1953. Wright recalls that “both of these schools made a profound impression on me, and gave a lot to write about later, mostly in Hard Freight (1973) and Bloodlines (1975).” He enrolled in Davidson College intending to major in history and spent what he describes as “four years of amnesia, as much my fault as theirs, probably more,” trying to write fiction during that time, “sketches . . . which were never more than extended descriptions of landscape.”

Wright joined the Army for four years after graduating in 1957, training at the Army Language School in California where he wrote “what I thought was a journal . . . really only whining and inarticulate pang.” In Verona, Italy, where he was stationed in 1959, Wright read Ezra Pound’s poem “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula,” an evocation of the supposed place of Catullus’s villa on the tip of the Sirmione Peninsula, a place “more beautiful than Paradise,” and he felt that at that moment, “My life was changed forever.” What Wright calls “the continuous desire to write that I had since I was a senior in high school had finally found its form: the lyric poem.” Wright regards Pound as “a tremendous influence, the first poet I ever read seriously,” and would follow Pound, who had just returned to Italy following his incarceration in St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C., through the streets of Venice without feeling able to actually introduce himself.

Following four years in the army’s intelligence division, where he “drifted into the Italian landscape, and was never the same again,” Wright entered the Graduate Poetry Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1961, explaining with wry humor that he was admitted since he “applied in August and no one happened to read my manuscript.” He felt that this was the first...

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The process of the poem “Black Zodiac” is an illumination of Wright’s practice, a testing, measuring and searching, always with an attitude of awareness and curiosity. “Unanswerable questions, small talk,/ Unprovable theorems, long abandoned arguments—” are the elements of a poetic journey, and the poet knows he “has got to write it all down.” After a series of images that convey the feeling of a vast field for contemplation, the poet muses about the difficulties of reaching any kind of conclusion, calling himself and his company “Calligraphers of the disembodied, God’s word-wards”—as close to a compliment to his profession as he will allow himself. His task is to “Witness and walk on,” remaining modest with respect to a muse or deity that is called upon to “Succor my shift and save me . . . .” This is the poet’s creed, and his faith, as in all his work, is in his power to see and say something about the ineffable. “Description’s an element, like air or water” he asserts, and concludes the poem with an echo of the most powerful of biblical utterances: “That’s the word.”


Charles Penzel Wright, Jr., was born in Hardin County, Tennessee, in 1935. After World War II, his family moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, where he was reared. During his final two years of high school, he attended Christ School, an Episcopal preparatory school in Arden, North Carolina. This experience, and his upbringing in the Episcopal church, has contributed profoundly to the religious quality of his poetry, what he has called its “spiritual anxieties.” After graduation from Davidson College, Wright served four years (1957-1961) in the United States Army. For three years he was stationed in Italy, an experience of extreme importance; while living in Verona, he acquired a copy of The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (1928), and reading these poems in their Italian settings moved him to begin writing poetry himself in 1959. Pound has remained among Wright’s major poetic influences.

After military service, Wright attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from 1961 to 1963. He spent the next two years as a Fulbright student at the University of Rome, translating Montale’s poetry, and then returned to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1965-1966. He taught at the University of California, Irvine, for seventeen years before returning to the South in 1983 as writer-in-residence and professor at the University of Virginia. He and his wife, the photographer Holly Wright, settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Wright was appointed the Souter Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia in 1988. While living and working primarily in Charlottesville, Wright has spent considerable time in Europe, serving as a distinguished visiting professor at Universita Degli Studi in Florence in 1992 among other appointments. From 1999 to 2001, he was the poetry editor of The New Republic and, in 2005, was honored in Vancouver, B.C., by the program “Charles Wright at Seventy: A Celebration and Retrospective.”