Charles Wright Wright, Charles (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Wright 1935–

American poet and translator.

Wright is widely regarded as one of America's most important living poets. Although Wright's poetry has been strongly influenced by his Southern upbringing and contains many personal details about his home in Tennessee, it conveys a sense of universal connections to the past, rather than employing a confessional stance. Wright's poetry is marked by strong internal rhythms which contribute to an overall musicality of language. A typical Wright poem is filled with objects which give it the illusion of immediacy and concreteness. Wright's poems transcend traditional religious definitions of spirituality and move toward embracing mysticism of natural forces. The combination of a sustained, detached vision and abundant images and objects gives his poetry a painterly quality. His use of personal scenes and anecdote contribute to a sense of self-portraiture, but without subjectivity or intimacy. Helen Vendler has used the term "the transcendent I" to refer to Wright's impersonal perspective.

Wright's career has steadily gained momentum since the publication of his first major collection, The Grave of the Right Hand, in 1970. China Trace (1977), Wright's fourth major volume, clearly shows his individuality and poetic range. In this work, Wright models some poems after Chinese poetry and incorporates a catalogue-like rush of photographic imagery. Many critics consider The Southern Cross (1981) to be Wright's best volume of poetry. Its subject matter is closely connected to his home and past, and the celebration of the physical world emerges as its major theme. Wright combines first-hand experience and personal subjects to convey a sense of spiritual yearning for what has been lost in the past.

In 1983, Wright received an American Book Award for Country Music (1982). Richard Tillinghast described the poetry in this book as "austere and somewhat difficult of access," but possessing the same musically rhythmic language and imagery which makes reading Wright's poetry such a rewarding experience.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)

Helen Vendler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Because Wright's poems, on the whole, are unanchored to incident, they resist description; because they are not narrative, they defy exposition. They cluster, aggregate, radiate, add layers like pearls. Often they stop in the middle, with a mixed yearning and premonition, instead of taking a resolute direction backward or forward. It may be from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale … that Wright learned this pause which looks before and after; Wright recently issued his translation, done in the sixties, of Montale's powerful 1956 volume entitled La Bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Poems).

The translation offers an occasion for a glance at both Montale and Wright; the conjunction helps to define what sort of poet Wright has become. Montale wrote La Bufera during the post-war years, and his pauses in the midst of event come as often as not in the midst of nightmare: "The Prisoner's Dream" shows a speaker imprisoned in a time of political purges, tempted, like everyone else, to "give in and sign," but instead waiting out the interminable trial, addressing from prison his fixed point of reference—a dreamed-of woman who represents beauty, justice, truth…. This poetry, though it implies a better past and an uncertain future, incorporates them in the burning-glass of the present. It renounces, as forms of articulation, narrative, the succession of events, the sequence of action and reaction. The spatial form, one of many in Montale, is for Wright the most natural…. [Arrested Motion], taking thought, though it is congenial to Wright, requires nevertheless certain sacrifices.

The first sacrifice is autobiography. The autobiographical sequence "Tattoos," which appeared in Bloodlines, solved the problem of reference by appending, at the end of twenty poems, a single note on each one: a sample note reads "Automobile wreck; hospital; Baltimore, Maryland." Instead of a first-person narrative of the crash and its surgical aftermath. Wright produces a montage of sensations…. In Bloodlines these verses are encountered with no title, no explanation; the note is to be read later, and then the poem reread, from the crash to the hospital…. It is easy to see how interminable, predictable, and boring a plain narrative might appear after this "jump-cut" (Wright's words) monitoring of sensation. The problem of affixing closure to sensation and perception … has bothered Wright a good deal. The automobile wreck finds closure in sententious question-and-answer, with echoes of Williams and Berryman…. (pp. 277-79)

His next experiment, in the second sequence in Bloodlines (a wonderful poem called "Skins"), was to abandon the three equal pieces—presentation, complication, and conclusion—of "Tattoos" for a set of seamless meditations, each fourteen lines long. Though these have of course affinities with sonnets, they are sonnets that go nowhere, or end where they began: either the second half of the poem repeats the first, or the last line reenters the universe where the first line left it. Even the poems which seem to evolve in a linear way show only a moment in a life-cycle itself endlessly repeated; they are therefore more fated than free, as in the case of the sixth and most beautiful meditation, about the metamorphosis of a mayfly…. The mind of the reader is delayed by the felicities of the slate wings on the slate water-film, by the dun detritus of chrysalis played off against the watershine, by the flesh flush on the surface, by the conjugation of drift and force, compression and incipience, and by the brief cycle of wings drying, rising, dropping. This sensual music precludes thought, almost; but the subject of metamorphosis is so old and so noble, the flesh as chrysalis so perennial a metaphor, that the conceptual words—image, self, imago, destiny—work their own subsidiary charm in the long run. In spite of the ephemeral nature of the cycle, Wright rescues by his vocabulary a form of transcendence. (pp. 280-81)

Wright's aim in translating Montale has been to be idiomatic, within his own idiom as well as within Montale's…. Montale—compressed, allusive, oblique, full of echoing sound—is relatively untranslatable; his poems swell awkwardly as they take on English under anyone's hands, and his infinitely manipulable Italian syntax begins to hobble, hampered by stiff English clauses. Wright's translations, as he says, taught him things:

I feel I did learn … how to move a line, how to move an image from one stage to the next. How to create imaginary bridges between images and stanzas and then to cross them, making them real, image to image, block to block.

These are not—though they may appear to be—idle concerns. If conclusions are not the way to get from A to B, if discursiveness itself is a false mode of consciousness, if free-association in a surrealist mode (to offer the opposite extreme) seems as irresponsible as...

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David St. John

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 powerful. Wright's palpably physical sense of language—of language as sensual, supple material—invites us to see him in terms one usually reserves for the visual arts. Yet Wright's poems are clearly aware of and delighted by their own painterly and sculptural qualities; their architectures are simultaneously intellectual and spiritual…. Though Wright has always spoken of the profound influence Pound and Montale … have had upon his work, The Southern Cross—even its title—shows the enormously rich resource the poetry of Hart Crane has become for him. (pp. 230-31)

In many of the poems in The Southern Cross, Wright's concerns revolve around the idea of self-portraiture—not autobiography, with its implication of self-absorption and completeness, but self-portraiture. The distinction is important to Wright, as a quality of self-objectification details all of his poems. Just as each of the emblematic and imagistic strokes (of each poem's lines) in each self-portrait serves to approximate the figure, so the sequence of self-portraits in The Southern Cross serves to give us perhaps a less literal but more vivid and multidimensional reading of the poet.

For Wright, it is always language, its textures and music, that reclaims and collates all of the images of the self, all of the moments lost to the freeze frame of the blinked eye. Self, in Wright's poems, is the necessarily constant but web-cracked lens through which the world and the body are seen in their decomposition and regeneration. Self is that zero, that perfect circle of consciousness, through which all elemental shiftings—the blown dust, the drowned flame—and all spiritual aspirations are, for better or worse, to be regarded. (p. 231)

David St. John, "Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1981 Poetry Selections," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1982 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. XL, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 225-34.∗

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Southern Cross is surely Charles Wright's best book, the one he has been preparing for through all his earlier volumes. Like Bin Ramke and Robert Penn Warren, Wright is a Southerner, a fact which has a profound relevance to the texture of his verse. His poems throb with stylistic richness, most palpably in a lushness of image and word; one needs a delicate touch indeed to feel the subtle modulations of theme that lie just beneath this surface. (p. 188)

[The] spiritual setting of this entire volume has much in common with the Purgatorio of Dante, from which Wright has chosen a comprehensive epigraph: the concluding seven lines of Canto XXI…. Wright in this book is always aware of...

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Mary Kinzie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With The Southern Cross, Charles Wright creates] two new kinds of environment, civilization as manifest in gem-like labyrinths like Venice, and lush quasi-savage blossoming vegetation of the sort that flourishes in latitudes where the southern cross is prominent in the night sky. Furthermore, Wright could be said to depend absolutely on place, to work from it, in his crucial journeys, traced in so many poems, from rest to intense engagement with ethereal thresholds, tints of light, floating gestures—"an incandescent space," he says in one poem, "where nothing distinct exists, / And nothing ends, the days sliding like warm milk through the clouds." I quote these lines because they make explicit the poet's...

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Richard Tillinghast

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Country Music" (poems originally published between 1970 and 1977) is … [a] substantial selection from a poet in his middle 40's. The title, though it playfully alludes to the music of the American South, where [Wright] was born and brought up, more accurately refers to the silent "music" of the landscape. (p. 14)

Mr. Wright's Tennessee boyhood provides the subject matter of many of these poems, but … he is no literalist. Rejecting plot and naturalistic detail, he would draw our attention, in his finely crafted poems, to subtler essences. (pp. 14, 31)

In contrast to many of his contemporaries who might say, with Jim Harrison, "In our poetry we want to rub our nose hard / into whatever is before it," Mr. Wright has a distinctly different purpose: "I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear / Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace." To avoid the problem of literal reference in "Tattoos" and "Skins," two poetic sequences from his third book, "Bloodlines" (1975), he simply appends a list of brief notes to the poems, a few words for each; for instance: "Recurrent dream," "The Naxian lions; Delos, Greece," etc. The result of this distancing is often disorienting and at times disturbing: One wishes Mr. Wright would step into his own poems more often.

But the impersonality of his approach is a quite conscious choice, and in "The Southern Cross" (1981) there are five poems entitled "Self-Portrait" that are the opposite of what a "confessional" poet would write in the same context…. Mr. Wright's poems make a statement about that indeterminacy of the artist's personality which has been familiar since Keats's assertion of "negative capability" but which is rare in its actual appearance in poetry. This "country music" is austere and somewhat difficult of access, but its rhythms and images are exquisite and fully reward the reader's effort. Charles Wright is among a handful of contemporary poets carrying the art to its outermost limits. (p. 31)

Richard Tillinghast, "From Michigan and Tennessee," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 12, 1982, pp. 14, 31.∗

Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Country Music, Wright's Selected Poems,…, offers the poems that the poet would suggest convey his best thoughts over twenty years. It contains 153 pages of work, and a good idea of his career so far is furnished by it. There is a blank verse sonnet sequence of 20 poems in it, entitled "Skins," and they trace from first to last something of Wright's flat, hard declaration, his closed, and bitter ruminations, his unhappiness with his lot, and perhaps with ours, as his human relatives, if not his personal relations…. Along the route of this sequence, Wright looks at the world as he knows it, this natural world, and puzzles about the promises religion once made to him, for it was that Tennessee, middle-class...

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