Charles Wright 1935-
(Full name Charles Penzel Wright Jr.) American poet and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Wright's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 13, 28, and 119.
Acclaimed as one of America's finest contemporary poets, Wright is known for his image-rich metaphysical lyrics that attempt to transcend the physical world, particularly the landscapes of the American South and Italy. The author of a renowned body of postwar American poetry—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume Black Zodiac (1997)—Wright often is described as a “painterly” poet, who cites artist Paul Cézanne as one of his many influences. Wright's best known works are collected in his “trilogy of trilogies,” a series of three larger volumes that each reprint three or more collections of his earlier poetry. These anthology volumes are Country Music (1982), The World of Ten Thousand Things (1990), and Negative Blue (2000).
Born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright lived in both eastern Tennessee and North Carolina during his childhood. His father was a civil engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wright received his religious education in the Episcopal Church, and remained very involved in the organization well into his adult life. Although he eventually left the religion, his Episcopalian past at times manifests itself through the spiritual nature of his poetry and his occasional allusions to the rites and dogma of Anglicanism. Wright graduated from Davidson College in 1957, with a degree in history, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army Intelligence Service for the next four years. He was stationed in Verona, Italy, for three of these years and began reading the poetry of Ezra Pound and Eugenio Montale, the Italian Nobel laureate. The poem “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” by Pound so impressed Wright that he began writing poetry himself. The landscape and architecture of Italy, combined with the literature he was encountering, left lasting influences on Wright's life and work. Following his military service, he returned to the United States in 1961 and entered the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he earned an M.F.A. in 1963. Wright spent the next year in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Rome and began translating the poetry of Montale, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Cesare Pavese from Italian into English, all under the guidance of teacher Maria Sampoli. Wright returned to the University of Iowa for the next academic year and later revisited Italy as a Fulbright lecturer. In 1969 he was married to photographer Holly McIntire. Wright taught at the University of California, Irvine, from 1966 to 1983 and has since served as the Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He has twice translated works by Montale, including The Storm (1978), for which he received the P.E.N. Translation Prize, and Motets (1981). Wright's first collected volume, The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), encompasses his poetry written from 1963 to 1969. He followed with two small volumes, The Venice Notebook (1971) and Backwater (1973). Wright won critical acclaim for his collection Hard Freight (1973), which was nominated for the National Book Award. Wright won distinctions for subsequent volumes, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Bloodlines (1975); the National Book Award for Country Music; the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets for Chickamauga (1995); and the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Black Zodiac. Wright's entire body of work was honored with the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 1993.
Wright's three anthology collections—Country Music, The World of Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue—include the majority of the work in his oeuvre. These collections follow a Dantean structure of three works inside three larger works, each successively concerned with the past, present, and future. The poems in these volumes regularly use odd-syllable lines, with seven-syllable lines often serving as the foundation for the piece. Wright's principal themes of family, the presence of the dead alongside the living, and a preoccupation with the past have placed him as a distinctly southern poet, writing of matters that prominently figure in the southern consciousness. In Wright's poems, narrative is only present as an unseen thread that connects the whole—his primary concern is the expression of the contemplative moment. Wright's poetic worlds include the remembered past, the present, and the future, usually with himself as the narrator, juxtaposed against what has gone before and what will be. The first volume in Wright's series of trilogies, Country Music, is primarily concerned with remembrances of the past. It contains all of Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace (1977), and also reprints a brief prologue from The Grave of the Right Hand. The three separate works in Country Music all demonstrate different aspects of Wright's poetic sensibilities. Each poem in Bloodlines, for example, is fourteen lines long, though none are sonnets in the expository sense. The elegiac China Trace is composed entirely of twelve-line poems that, in their cumulative effect, seem to suggest one long poem. The brief lyrics in China Trace pay homage to the economy of form that characterizes classical Chinese poetry and are early examples of the journal poem style that Wright developed to great effect in some of his later works. Wright followed Country Music with Four Poems of Departure (1983) and The Other Side of the River (1984). Written while he was living in California, these works squarely confront Wright's fears of middle age and diminishing talents, as well as his reasons for moving far from his roots. Wright's next collections, Five Journals (1986) and Zone Journals (1988), explore the medium of the poetic journal and how it can be used to traverse time and place.
Wright's second volume in his trilogy of trilogies, The World of Ten Thousand Things, reprints all of the poems published in The Southern Cross (1981), The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals, and Xionia (1990), the last of which previously appeared only in a limited fine-press edition. The Southern Cross—which appeared after Colophons (1977) and Dead Color (1980)—bears the influence of American poet Hart Crane and represents an attempt at self-portrait for Wright. It opens with a long poem, “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” and closes with the even longer title poem, “The Southern Cross.” In between these long works in The Southern Cross, there are three distinct sections. The first is concerned with sense memory and the past, the second consists entirely of self-portraits, and the third section experiments with a technique borrowed from the composer John Cage. In it, Wright gives himself specific objectives, such as “write a poem that contains no verbs,” and then tries to accomplish his goals. Zone Journals is a quasi-diary of Wright's fiftieth year and describes various stages in his life, expressed through locations. These “zones” include California, Virginia, Tennessee, England, and Italy. Written in Wright's trademark meditative mode, Zone Journals muses about the nature of art and the life of the artist.
The final volume of his collected trilogies, Negative Blue, contains Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia (1998). The poems that comprise Chickamauga are concerned with small things in the world and the unique qualities of smallness. The longest poem in the book, “Sprung Narratives,” alludes to English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins's invention of sprung rhythm (a poetic rhythm that tries to approximate the natural cadence of speech) by suggesting that memory, rather than being a narrative, is actually composed of snippets of images, conversations, and impressions that continually overlap and then separate from one another, creating an evolving collage. Composed in his sixties, Black Zodiac finds Wright philosophizing about growing old and infirm, but not without recognizing the mystical qualities of aging. In Appalachia, Wright invokes the work of French philosopher Simone Weil and questions her assertions about who and what God is, a question that has long been at the heart of Wright's more spiritual poetry. Although his individual poems are well regarded, Wright's collections have received the widest praise, because as a whole, his work forms a unique vision and philosophy, with each separate poem seemingly structured to flow right into the next.
Wright has been lauded for the striking imagery in his poetry and his ability to create beautifully phrased stanzas, including his trademark mixture of long and dropped lines. In addition, Wright is esteemed for his ability to perceive the sacred in the ordinary and for his pursuit of profound existential questions in a combination of high-minded cultural allusions and folksy, self-effacing idiom. Critics have noted that his best work often maintains a tension between the physical world of nature and the metaphysical world beyond. Despite the regional descriptions that dominate his poetry, critics assert that Wright's work is neither autobiographical—at least not in a confessional sense—nor concerned with the particulars of history, unlike that of his early mentor Ezra Pound. In addition to Pound, critics recognize the influence of Emily Dickinson, Dante Alighieri, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot in Wright's work. Reviewers generally regard The Southern Cross as Wright's finest single work, along with China Trace and Black Zodiac. Following The Southern Cross, however, some critics discerned a period of laxity in Wright's poetry during the 1980s, a stylistic stagnation that receded with Zone Journals and the acclaimed Black Zodiac. Although some reviewers criticize Wright's tendency to use lush figurative language out of context, others find that the power of Wright's imagery makes up for any lapse in focus. Similarly, some critics find that Wright's musings about the nature of life and death often fall flat, owing in large part to his narrow focus and somber equivocation, while others praise Wright's attempts at finding insight from language and landscape. With the publication of Negative Blue as the capstone of his recollected “trilogies of trilogies,” Wright's poetry continues to win admiration for his distinct lyric meditations and well-developed poetic eye.