Charles Wright Wright, Charles (Vol. 119) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Wright Black Zodiac

Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Born in 1935, Wright is an American poet and translator.

For further information on Wright's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 6, 13, and 28.

Charles Wright was born on August 25, 1935, in Pickwick Darn, Tennessee. He graduated from Davidson College in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and from the University of Iowa in 1963 with a Master of Fine Arts degree. In 1957 he entered the Army and was stationed in Italy as a member of a counterintelligence unit. He became captivated by poetry, particularly the landscape around him and its descriptions as presented in Ezra Pound's Cantos, which he used as a guidebook to the terrain. He also read T. S. Eliot, Dante, and other poets. Visual experience is an important feature in Wright's poetry, a fact acknowledged by critics and by Wright himself. Wright claims that his visual metaphors are not attempts to express abstract ideas, but the reverse; it is the sensate world which stimulates the abstract. Many reviewers believe that Wright's childhood in rural Tennessee remains a vital force in his writing, for he shows a typically Southern concern for the past and its power. Wright's major works fall into a trilogy of trilogies, or triptychs. Wright feels that the word "trilogy" implies an interrelationship on a strictly textual level, but he prefers to view his works as different views of the same life experiences. His first book of poetry, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), while garnering praise, is seen as a pastiche of Pound. In his second book, Hard Freight (1973), Wright is credited with finding his own voice. In this first triptych, Hard Freight, Bloodlines (1975), and China Trace (1977), Wright experiments freely with concepts and style, and his major theme of man's interrelationship with the world and metaphysical spirituality take shape. Although his work includes first-hand experience and personal subjects, he avoids subjectivity. Helen Vendler uses the term "the transcendent I" to describe this perspective. Wright's reputation and recognition continued to grow through his second and third triptychs, and he is widely regarded as one of America's foremost living poets. The penultimate volume of his third triptych, Black Zodiac (1997), won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1998. In addition to the Pulitzer, Wright has won numerous other awards and fellowships.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Grave of the Right Hand (poetry) 1970
Hard Freight (poetry) 1973
Bloodlines (poetry) 1975
China Trace (poetry) 1977
The Southern Cross (poetry) 1981
Country Music: Selected Early Poems (poetry) 1982
The Other Side of the River (poetry) 1984
Zone Journals (poetry) 1988
The World of Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980–1990 (poetry) 1990
Chickamauga (poetry) 1995
Black Zodiac (poetry) 1997
Appalachia (poetry) 1998

Publishers Weekly (review date 24 February 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Black Zodiac, in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 8, February 24, 1997, p. 84.

[In the following brief review, the critic provides a favorable assessment of Black Zodiac.]

"Out of any two thoughts I have, one is devoted to death," proclaims Wright in this ominous collection of new work. Perhaps because these poems were written around his 60th birthday or perhaps because an imperative moves all good Southern writers to flirt with dissolution, Wright has begun to consider the end that nears. On these pages he creates and explores an almost surreal present purgatory built from varying amounts of Zen Buddhism, memories, paradox and pastoral opulence. Gertrude Stein, Sappho, his physician and a golf buddy all cast their influence. The language is lilting and pacific even as its embedded imagery disturbs: "Honeysuckle and poison ivy jumbling out of the hedge, / Magnolia beak and white tongue, landscape's off-load, love's lisp" ("Apologia pro Vita Sua, III"). Attachment to the things of the world tightens: "Swallows darting like fish through the alabaster air, / Cleansing the cleanliness, feeding on seen and the unseen. / To come back as one of them!" ("Meditation on Song and Structure"). On the page, as always, Wright's passages refuse to cohere into peaceful stanzas. Scattered and making a break for the righthand margin, the lines add to the unease that haunts the book, magnifying a nagging sense of disorder and mortality amid an effort at resignation.

James Longenbach (review date 14 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Between Soil and Stars," in Nation, April 14, 1997, pp. 27-30.

[Longenbach teaches at the University of Rochester. In the following review, he praises Black Zodiac and compares the collection to Wright's overall body of work.]

Almost thirty years ago, Charles Wright began a poetic project of astonishing scope. A trilogy of books, later winnowed and collected in Country Music (1982), offers a highly compressed autobiography, tracing Wright's spiritual journey from the soil to the stars. In the next three books, gathered with a coda in The World of the Ten Thousand Things (1990), Wright adopts more wayward structures, his long lines reaching in countless directions at once. Read in its entirety. The World of the Ten Thousand Things seems to me one of the great American long poems—a lovingly detailed survey of our world that is also a visionary map of the world beyond. "Out of our own mouths we are sentenced," says Wright at the end of this journey, "we who put our trust in visible things."

With the publication of Black Zodiac, however, The World of the Ten Thousand Things is revealed as merely the second installment in Wright's lifelong project; a third trilogy is under way. In Chickamauga, published two years ago and awarded the 1996 Lenore Marshall Prize, Wright returned to short poems, eschewing the open-ended poetic "journals" with which he concluded The World of the Ten Thousand Things. This haunted, elegiac book could not have been more beautiful, but Wright worried in poems like "Looking Again at What Looked At for Seventeen Years" if he was doomed merely to repeat himself. That worry now seems strategic. While the poems of Chickamauga look backward, the poems of Black Zodiac begin the even more difficult task of looking forward, anticipating the paradiso with which Wright's trilogy of trilogies will no doubt conclude. Black Zodiac is the synthesis of Wright's contrary drives toward waywardness and compression, the soil and the stars. It is also his most richly satisfying single book.

By his own admission, Wright has focused on three subjects for the past thirty years: language, landscape and the idea of God. Wright's sensibility is always speculative and never prophetic, however, and though his poems are drenched in spiritual longing, they seem resolutely secular as well. Whenever he approaches the brink of hushed wisdom—"The meat of the sacrament is invisible meat and a ghostly substance"—he pulls back with a crisp aside: "I'll say." In the final lines of "Lives of the Saints," Wright is even willing to play the part of God's straight man:

The afternoon says, life's a loose knot in a short rope.
The afternoon says,
show me your hands,
show me your feet.
The lives of the saints become our lives.
God says, watch your back.

Wright is a poet of jeweled surfaces, but he is always irreverent and often funny—not in spite of the spiritual longing but in service of it. His ironic asides and (more potently) his artfully mixed metaphors remind us that any statement about the transcendental world is provisional and incomplete; there is nothing sanctimonious about a poet who writes of "eucharistic side-bars" or "the patron saint of What-Goes-Down." In "Disjecta Membra," the magnificent sequence with which Black Zodiac concludes, Wright whispers homilies to himself: "Simplify, open the emptiness, divest—/ The trees do, each year milking their veins / Down, letting the darkness drip in." Here, the long line breaks and drops down, ending with the metaphorical kick that is Wright's signature: "I.V. from the infinite." This metaphor—earthy, unpredictable, a little off—allows us to take the poem's wisdom more seriously. Wright sustains the largest ambitions by attending to minutiae.

"Whatever it was I had to say," Wright admits, "I've said two times, and then a third." This fear of repeating himself is linked to a dread of routine—the dailiness of work and the decay of the sexual body. "How soon we come to road's end," begins "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," the sequence that opens the book. But if the poems...

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Albert Mobilio (review date 29 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Word's Worth," in Village Voice, April 29, 1997, p. 55.

[In the following excerpt, Mobilio favorably reviews the collection Black Zodiac, praising Wright's use of metaphor and verse structure.]

The firecrackers are spent and the ballrooms have been swept up. That April carnival known as National Poetry Month has worked its celebratory magic on the strophe-hungry hordes and now we can get down to the gritty job of actually reading some verse. Assembled here are a few distinct voices—Charles Wright, Lisa Jarnot, Mark McMorris—who, taken together, give some measure of the current scene's energetic polyphony. Indeed, each poet could be said to...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Carol Muske (review date 31 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Guided by Dark Stars," in New York Times, August 31, 1997.

[In the following review Muske praises Black Zodiac, and excerpts several of Wright's poems.]

Autobiography is what Charles Wright has been writing—in poetic form—for over 30 years. It has been an uncommon kind of life accounting, and his new book, Black Zodiac, extends his oblique definition. For a life story, in Wright's terms, exists as much in what is not there as in what is. In Black Zodiac, as the title hints, Wright ruminates on the "dark stars" that guide our fates and provide the contrast that shapes us: the shadow, the photograph's negative, the mirror's reversals. He...

(The entire section is 1606 words.)

Lee Oser (review date Autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Black Zodiac, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, pp. 794-95.

[In the following review Oser praises Wright's use of language in Black Zodiac.]

For an avowed ascetic, Charles Wright's work is curiously inspissated: thick and intense. He is a master of spiritual bricolage, an heir to the eclecticism of Emerson, Whitman, Eliot, and Pound, but with an existential darkness that threatens to overwhelm the page. His spiritual resources include Christianity with its liturgical seasons, deism (Monticello looms nearby), Chinese Buddhism, mythology, and all sorts of literature—a scholia-poem called "The Lives of the Saints" quotes...

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Willard Spiegelman (review date October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetry in Review," in Yale Review, Vol. 85, No, 4, October 1997, pp. 166-75.

[In the following excerpt, Spiegelman examines visual observation in Wright's poetry.]

What James Joyce called the "ineluctable modality of the visible" continues to haunt and challenge our best poets. It may be their most ambiguous legacy from Romanticism. William Wordsworth's Boy of Winander, the unlettered poet who "blew mimic hootings to the silent owls / That they might answer him," stood amid a Lake District tableau that buried itself in his consciousness before he himself was buried within it: "the visible scene / Would enter unawares into his mind." Few of our poets are...

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Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr. (review date 20-27 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Black Zodiac, in America, Vol. 177, No. 20, December 20-27, 1997, p. 24.

[In the following review Hosmer comments on Black Zodiac, comparing the development of themes in this collection to Wright's earlier poetry.]

Charles Wright's 11th book of poetry, Black Zodiac, is an intriguing, occasionally very difficult, but immensely rewarding collection of 20 poems. The first poem, "Apologia pro Vita Sua," is an overture introducing major concerns (death, faith, identity, language and art), directing attention to basic elements of the natural world and its rhythms (earth, air, light) and establishing the dominant...

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Mel Gussow (review date 16 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Good Ear for the Music of His Own Life," in New York Times, April 16, 1998, pp. E1, 10.

[In the following review Gussow assesses Black Zodiac, and provides some revealing quotes from a telephone interview with Wright.]

Charles Wright has won many prestigious prizes for his poetry, but 1998 is quickly developing into a halcyon year. Last month he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection Black Zodiac. On Tuesday he received a Pulitzer Prize for the same book.

The latest prize is special, he said yesterday, "but it doesn't change anything." Speaking by telephone from his home in Charlottesville, Va., he...

(The entire section is 866 words.)