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 time that he truly began studying poetry, by being involved with the distinguished Iowa faculty, including writers such as Donald Justice, the director of the program, who Wright feels “had a major effect on my life.” Wright remembers the atmosphere in class as “electric, insatiable, the feeling that you were at the center of the most important thing going on anywhere on earth.” Although the poets Wright was encouraged to concentrate on at Iowa were well-known American modernists such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, he also discovered Chinese poetry though Pound’s Cantos, leading toward the ideogrammatic imitations of China Trace (1977) and other Asian-oriented poems such as his versions of Han Shan and the Zen stylings of poems such as “Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember a Line by Li-Po.”
Wright had translated Eugenio Montale’s motets while in Iowa, where he earned an M.F.A. in 1963, and his application for a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue this interest was successful. He spent the next two years at the University of Rome, studying with Maria Sampoli, an expert on Montale’s work, leading to his 1978 translation of Montale’s La bufera, e altro (1956; The Storm, and Other Poems) which then won a P.E.N. Translation Prize. Wright taught at the University of Iowa in 1965 and 1966 and joined the faculty of the University of California at Irvine in 1966. He traveled to Europe periodically while living in California, returning to Italy as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Padua in 1968 and again in the summer of 1985—a trip that inspired “Journal of the Year of the Ox” in Zone Journals (1988)—and visiting London in 1983, which became...
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