Charles Wright Wright, Charles (Vol. 146) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Voyage (poetry) 1963

Six Poems (poetry) 1965

The Dream Animal (poetry) 1968

Private Madrigals (poetry) 1969

The Grave of the Right Hand (poetry) 1970

The Venice Notebook (poetry) 1971

Backwater (poetry) 1973

Hard Freight (poetry) 1973

Bloodlines (poetry) 1975

China Trace (poetry) 1977

Colophons (poetry) 1977

The Storm [by Eugenio Montale; translator] (poetry) 1978

Dead Color (poetry) 1980


(The entire section is 115 words.)

David St. John (review date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1981 Poetry Selections,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 40, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 225-34.

[In the following excerpt, St. John offers a positive assessment of The Southern Cross.]

In a yearly roundup of this sort, because of the limitations of space, it is difficult to discuss in even the most cursory way more than a handful of books. Still, there were a number of poetry books published in 1981 that deserve mention. …

Charles Wright's stunning new book, The Southern Cross, is full of the familiar verbal iconographies and textural chromatics that have made his earlier books so distinctive and...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Peter Stitt (review date Spring 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Problems of Youth … and Age,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 184-93.

[In the following excerpt, Stitt offers a positive assessment of The Southern Cross.]


In their various ways, all five of these poets [Charles Wright, Elizabeth Spires, Bin Ramke, Laurie Sheck, Robert Penn Warren] assume the existence of an important relationship between poetry and knowledge—they write to embody meaning, suggest truth, achieve wisdom—which sets them apart from those writers whose primary interest is in the aesthetic value of the created art object, irrespective of any message it may coincidentally carry. Beyond...

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Joel Conarroe (review date 27 June 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Southern Cross, in Washington Post Book World, June 27, 1982, p. 10.

[In the following excerpt, Conarroe praises The Southern Cross as Wright's finest work to date.]

Charles Wright was born several years after James Wright (no, they are not the Wright brothers), and although he has not acquired the fame of his namesake, he is slowly gaining a body of devoted readers and earning praise from demanding critics. The Southern Cross, his fifth book, will gain him new admirers. It is his strongest work to date.

Wright uses an untranslated passage (what faith!) from Dante's Purgatorio as his epigraph. I...

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Calvin Bedient (review date Spring-Summer 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tracing Charles Wright,” in Parnassus, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1982, pp. 55-74.

[In the following positive review of The Southern Cross, Bedient offers a close analysis of Wright's evolving metaphysical themes, aesthetic perspective, and poetic style in this and previous volumes.]

Charles Wright, who longs to elude his too-local life, eludes you even when he isn't trying. He's trying on the cover of his third volume, Bloodlines, where reflected lights (irregular white patches like blotches on an abstract canvas) hide the eyes behind his sunglasses (eyes you know are looking at you). Haloed by a washtub hung on a cabin wall, he's a mock...

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Steven Gould Axelrod (review date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Southern Cross, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 1, Winter, 1983, p. 111.

[In the following review, Axelrod offers a generally positive assessment of The Southern Cross, but concludes that “Wright is not yet a poet of quite the first rank.”]

One way to suggest the nature of Charles Wright's most recent poems [in The Southern Cross] is to indicate what they are not. They mention several names but contain no developed characters. They are devoid of the hustle and bustle of ordinary life and suggest no particularity of place. Wright's Italy and Laguna Beach remain studiously verbal; he makes no effort to bring them...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Elizabeth Frank (review date 7 April 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Middle of the Journey,” in The Nation, April 7, 1984, pp. 421-24.

[In the following review, Frank offers a positive evaluation of The Other Side of the River.]

Midcareer can be a precarious time for the accomplished poet. Manifest strengths need to be consolidated without slipping into habit or manner. The dangers of obligation to one's audience and past achievement line up against the pressures of having to find fresh things to say and new ways of saying them. Charles Wright, Robert Pinsky and Jon Anderson all have considerable bodies of work behind them; none is any longer young. Of the three, Wright and Pinsky are by far the more interesting, and...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Washington Post Book World (review date 20 May 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Other Side of the River, in Washington Post Book World, May 20, 1984, p. 6.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for The Other Side of the River.]

Charles Wright's stunning new book of poems [The Other Side of the River] is both a reckoning with a personal past and a meditation upon life's impermanence. Wright's poetry is always verbally electric, and his work here seems more charged and more exciting than ever.

For Wright, the currents of his past run between twin poles—the Tennessee of his childhood and the Italy of his young adulthood. It's to these places Wright returns in memory, to both...

(The entire section is 325 words.)

Peter Stitt (essay date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Circle of the Meditative Moment,” in Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 402-14.

[In the following excerpt, Stitt discusses aspects of circular poetic structure and offers a positive evaluation of The Other Side of the River.]

When we speak of poetic form we usually mean patterns of rhyme and meter; I would prefer, however, to begin with the definition given by W. P. Ker in his book Form and Style in Poetry: “… it is the scheme or argument that is the form, and the poet's very words are the matter with which it is filled. The form is not that with which you are immediately presented, or that which fills your ears when the...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)

Clayton Eshleman (review date 19 August 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Life as a Poetic Puzzlement,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 19, 1984, p. 7.

[In the following review, Eshleman offers an unfavorable assessment of The Other Side of the River.]

For the most part, the writing in Charles Wright's new book [The Other Side of the River] is languorous, nostalgic and flecked with puzzlements about the meaning of life. At best, he has a Whitmanian eye for landscape and botanical detail, and renders the names of the places and things that have touched him in the past.

However, the modest talent for “naming” is permeated with generalized commentary that rises like bubbles and disappears:...

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Phoebe Pettingell (review date 20 August 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Writers & Writing: Through Memory and Miniatures,” in New Leader, August 20, 1984, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review, Pettingell offers a positive assessment of The Other Side of the River.]

The title poem of Charles Wright's latest collection, The Other Side of the River, flows easily from memories of hunting along the banks of the Savannah where it divides South Carolina and Georgia to other Southern boyhood recollections:

It's linkage I'm talking about,
                                        and harmonies and structures
And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.

But these reminiscences are...

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Helen Vendler (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Charles Wright,” in The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics, Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 388-97.

[In the following essay, Vendler examines Wright's meditative approach to history, time, art, and the physical world in Zone Journals.]

Lashed to the syllable and noun,
                                                            the strict Armageddon of the verb,
I lolled for 17 years
Above this bay with its antimacassars of foam
On the rocks, the white, triangular tears
                    sailboats poke through the sea's spun sheet,
Houses like wads of paper dropped in the moss-clumps
of the trees,
Fog in its dress whites at ease along the...

(The entire section is 3051 words.)

Charles Wright with J. D. McClatchy (interview date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Art of Poetry XLI: Charles Wright,” in Paris Review, Vol. 31, No. 113, Winter, 1989, pp. 185-221.

[In the following interview, Wright discusses his introduction to poetry and formative years, his artistic development and aesthetic concerns, and his approach to composing poetry.]

From his dust-jacket photographs, you might expect Charles Wright to be a dour man. In person, though, he gives a quite different impression—trim, elegant even in blue jeans, generous, with a Southerner's soft-spoken courtliness. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, he grew up in the South and went to college there. And a few years ago, after a long spell of teaching at...

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Linda Gregerson (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Short Reviews,” in Poetry, Vol. CLV, No. 3, December, 1989, pp. 229-31.

[In the following review, Gregerson comments on Wright's themes and artistic aims in Zone Journals.]

The ten “journals” that constitute the body of this book [Zone Journals] make a single formal and epistemological case, a case that has long been emerging in the larger body of Wright's work. Their case is for immanence, the deferred material presence of truth; for permeability and open-endedness; for the liminal, where eschatology incorporates the risen body of the past; for rehearsal, which is the only performative mode of consequence; for the invocatory, which is the...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Nance Van Winckel (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Charles Wright and the Landscape of the Lyric,” in New England Review, Vol. XII, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 308-12.

[In the following review, Winckel offers a positive evaluation of Zone Journals.]

Part of the pleasure of a good lyric poem is the way it allows us to exist simultaneously in all time, not simply to transcend the present, but to pull fragments of past and present together into one charged moment. From the poems in his early collections (Hard Freight, Bloodlines) to the more recent (China Trace, The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals), Charles Wright's poems have moved toward a lyric presence able to enfold...

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Calvin Bedient (review date January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Slide-Wheeling around the Curves,” in Southern Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 221-34.

[In the following review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, Bedient analyzes perceived weaknesses in Wright's poetry from the 1980s. While praising Wright's uncommon ability to “pierce the skin of familiarity with rays of darkness,” Bedient contends that Wright's “journal” poems and subsequent writings lack the authority, focus, and provocative surrealism of his earlier work.]

After T. S. Eliot, Charles Wright has been the modern poet in English most afflicted and gifted by a sense of his own insufficiency before the absolute—that “black...

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J. D. McClatchy (review date August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Amid the Groves, Under the Shadowy Hill, the Generations are Prepared,” in Poetry, Vol. CLVIII, No. 5, August, 1991, pp. 280-95.

[In the following excerpt, McClatchy offers a positive assessment of The World of Ten Thousand Things.]

Does it make any sense to discuss these seven poets [Charles Wright, Charles Causley, Reynolds Price, Marvin Bell, Brad Leithauser, Debora Greger, and Peter Sacks] in generational clusters? They fall conveniently into three groups, but the approach is as likely to discover differences between the poets in any one group as differences among the groups themselves. Nor is convenience any sure guide toward generalization. …...

(The entire section is 1133 words.)

Stephen Unsino (review date 25 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, in America, April 25, 1992, pp. 361-62.

[In the following review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, Unsino concludes that Wright's poetry lacks analysis and a guiding artistic aim.]

These are the journals [The World of Ten Thousand Things] of a poet who believes he is in paradise, and landscapes are his rambling theme. The volume includes three books previously published, The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, reals, and one published only in a limited edition, Xionia. Charles Wright at his best is like his own hermit crabs of “New...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

X. J. Kennedy (review date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Tenth and Four Fifths,” in Poetry, Vol. CXLI, No. 6, March, 1993, pp. 349-58.

[In the following review of The Southern Cross, Kennedy commends Wright's poetic ear and controlled lines, but finds shortcomings in the lack of theme in his poetry.]

Charles Wright continues on his serious quest for ineffable beauty and serenity [in The Southern Cross]. Like other Romantic aspirants whom he admires (Keats, Hart Crane), Wright is subject to fits of gloom—see, for instance, the song lyric “Laguna Blues.” At times, the hardships of his quest make him yearn for irresponsibility, insensibility, even freedom from words. No living person other...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

Helen Vendler (review date 7 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Nothing That Is,” in New Republic, August 7, 1995, pp. 42-5.

[In the following review, Vendler offers a positive evaluation of Chickamauga. Vendler contends that Wright's “eschatological” poems are rich with striking imagery and lyric meditations on life, death, and poetic representation.]

The title poem of Charles Wright's new book [Chickamauga] doesn't mention the Civil War battle of Chickamauga or the soldiers who died in it, and in this it is typical of Wright's practice. The poem climbs to a vantage point where the anonymity of history has blanked out the details. What is left is the distillate: that something happened at this...

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James Longenbach (review date October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 144-57.

[In the following excerpt, Longenbach offers praise for Chickamauga, although he notes that Wright's narrow focus and “world-weary” tone suggest the poet's limitations.]

“In living as in poetry,” said James Merrill in “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia,” “your art / Refused to tip the scale of being human / By adding unearned weight.” Even at a time when Elizabeth Bishop's light touch is fashionable, these lines remind us of how rarely a poet honors the circumscribed role that poetry plays in American culture. Poets have surely been on the defensive at...

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David Mason (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 166-75.

[In the following excerpt, Mason offers an unfavorable assessment of Chickamauga and contends that Wright enjoys undeserved praise and prominence within the literary establishment.]

Why is most contemporary poetry so dull?

Consider three thoughts that occurred to me while reading the work of Charles Wright: his ideas are uninteresting, his poems undramatic; his language is only intermittently charged or lyrical; he is among the best-known poets of his generation. If you believe, as I do, that these three statements do not add up, you will also catch...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

David Baker (review date April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Restraint,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXVIII, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 33-47.

[In the following excerpt, Baker offers a favorable assessment of Chickamauga, drawing parallels between the rhetorical sagacity of Wright and Ralph Waldo Emerson.]

I am not concerned here with artistic timidity, moral constraint, or polite decorum—that is, restraint as puritanic virtue—but rather with tactics of restraint which allow us to gauge a poem's opposite pole, its power and passion. Even Walt Whitman is at his most persuasive when his enthusiasms are informed by subdued counter-pressures. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” those ominous, looming “dark patches,”...

(The entire section is 1360 words.)

Calvin Bedient (review date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry and Silence at the End of the Century,” in Salmagundi, No. 111, Summer, 1996, pp. 195-207.

[In the following excerpt, Bedient discusses Wright's explorations of language and existential silence, or nothingness, in Chickamauga and previous works.]

Our print-besmeared and bomb-shrill century has made silence more acute than ever before. It has made of silence a crisis. At the century's end, two American poets, Carolyn Forché and Charles Wright, stand out for their preoccupation with it, a preoccupation so profound that their poetry, like T. S. Eliot's, approximates prayer.

There is between these two poets an almost clean...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)

William Pratt (review date Autumn 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chickamauga, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1996, p. 967.

[In the following review of Chickamauga, Pratt concludes that Wright's “poetry of sad wistfulness” is tantalizing and promising, though often succumbs to abstractions and stunted revelations.]

Here is a book of poems [Chickamauga] about the American Civil War, right? Wrong. Then what is it about? Aging and death, mostly, but also about places like Laguna Beach (“Seventeen years in Laguna Beach— / Month after month the same weather”), Venice (“Venice is death by drowning, everyone knows”), and Charlottesville (or was it Wallace Stevens who...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Calvin Bedient (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wanted: More Complexity,” in Southern Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 136-49.

[In the following excerpt, Bedient commends Wright's skeptical meditations in Chickamauga, but notes that Wright's treatment of the subject of language is not wholly successful.]

Complexity, meaning integration achieved against multiple currents, against odds, is indispensable to major poetic accomplishment. The exquisitely simple lyric—say, “O wild West Wind”—is rare; and given its extreme brevity, “O wild West Wind,” at least, is not so very simple. It is undeniably a great lyric. But major? Major implies the inner bonding of much complexity,...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Judith Kitchen (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “What Persists,” in Georgia Review, Vol. LI, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 331-55.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen examines the structure, meditative themes, and theoretical underpinnings of Wright's poetry in Chickamauga.]

The most obvious and salient fact about the natural separation of poetry from criticism is that in the greatest ages of poetry there has been little or no criticism. Criticism comes, if at all, after the art.

—Karl Shapiro

Things have changed since Karl Shapiro's time—and this is Karl Shapiro's time. But during his long career of writing both poetry and...

(The entire section is 2355 words.)

Christopher R. Miller (essay date Summer 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetic Standard Time: The Zones of Charles Wright,” in Southern Review, Vol. 34, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 566-86.

[In the following essay, Miller examines the development of Wright's aesthetic and philosophical concerns upon the publication of Black Zodiac and discusses the evolving technical style by which he approaches such themes in his poetry since the mid-1970s.]

In the first poem of Black Zodiac (1997), Charles Wright seems to bid farewell to an idea that has sustained most of his career. He has tried, he says, to “resuscitate” journal and landscape—“Discredited form, discredited subject matter”—to no avail. This...

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David Wojahn (review date Summer-Fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Survivalist Selves,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XX, Nos. 3-4, Summer-Fall, 1998, pp. 180-89.

[In the following excerpt, Wojahn offers a favorable evaluation of Black Zodiac.]

When the Coptic monks of Nag Hammadi concealed their sacred papyri in clay jars and hid them in caves for safekeeping, they did so in fear of persecution. They were, after all, classified as heretics by the church. The monks surely had no idea that it would take some eighteen centuries for their trove of Gnostic texts to see once again the light of day. And they scarcely could have imagined that the Nag Hammadi tractates, with their weirdly eclectic mixture of Christian, Judaic,...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)

Zoë Ingalls (essay date 18 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Charles Wright, Poet of Landscape, Melds Tradition and Innovation,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, September 18, 1998, pp. B10-11.

[In the following essay, Ingalls presents an overview of Wright's formative experiences, his poetry and artistic concerns, and critical reception.]

In the beginning, Charles Wright didn't know he wanted to write poetry.

“It sort of came like a thunderbolt out of the blue,” he says.

The year was 1959, and he was 23, newly arrived in Verona: Italy, as a member of the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps. He had read some fiction and a little T. S. Eliot as an undergraduate at Davidson...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)

Kate Daniels (review date Summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Old Masters,” in Southern Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 621-34.

[In the following excerpt, Daniels concludes that the poems of Appalachia reveal an “emptiness” indicative of Wright's unresolved spiritual longing.]

Could two poets be more different than Adrienne Rich and Charles Wright? Rich conceives of her job as fierce seeing—“the thing itself and not the myth,” she wrote, famously, in “Diving into the Wreck”—but Wright attempts the opposite:

Nothing's more abstract, more unreal,
                                        than what we actually see.
The job is to make it otherwise.


(The entire section is 1030 words.)

J. D. McClatchy (essay date October-November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ars Longa,” in Poetry, Vol. CLXXV, No. 1, October-November, 1999, pp. 78-89.

[In the following essay, McClatchy provides an overview of Wright's artistic and thematic development from the publication of The Grave of the Right Hand through Appalachia. While offering a generally favorable assessment of Wright's poetry, McClatchy faults the retrospective arrangement of Wright's work into a unified series of trilogies.]

Some long poems are born long; some achieve length; and some have length thrust upon them. In the beginning, there was an orderly sequence to a poet's career, from the lyric to the epic, and genres were steadied by tradition. In...

(The entire section is 4538 words.)

Charles Wright with Ted Genoways (interview date Spring 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Charles Wright,” in Southern Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 2000, pp. 442-52.

[In the following interview, Wright discusses his education and formative influences, the thematic unity of his trilogy of collected works, and his poetic style, technique, and approach to serious philosophical subjects.]

All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation.

—Charles Wright, Halflife

Charles Wright's poetry is a strange alchemy, a fusion of the direct, understated lyrics of ancient Chinese poets like Tu Fu and Wang Wei, the...

(The entire section is 4622 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Blasing, Muthu Konuk. Review of The World of Ten Thousand Things, by Charles Wright. Michigan Quarterly Review 31, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 425.

Blasing offers his evaluation of The World of Ten Thousand Things.

Bond, Bruce. “Metaphysics of the Image in Charles Wright and Paul Cézanne.” Southern Review 30, No. 1 (January 1994): 116-25.

Provides comparative analysis of Wright's poetry and Cézanne's paintings, drawing attention to their shared concern with the incomplete quality of human experience and aspects of transcendence, primitivism, and transmutation in their works.


(The entire section is 530 words.)