The Poem

Charles Wright’s “Homage to Paul Cézanne” consists of eight unnumbered sections of sixteen lines each that examine the nature of the relationship between the living and the dead. “Homage to Paul Cézanne” opens Charles Wright’s fifth volume of poems, The Southern Cross, which inaugurates a departure in both technique and outlook from his earlier volumes. It stands on the threshold of the poet’s mature style, and, as the poet himself acknowledged, “Homage to Paul Cézanne” holds a special place in his entire work.

The poem begins by describing the dead and what they are wearing at night, when their presence is both visible and ascertainable. Although some specific features are singled out, the speaker’s voice (presumably the poet’s) keeps reassuring the reader that the dead are “like us,” in many respects, and act accordingly: “Like us,/ They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.” After putting together some familiar and some less familiar traits, in the second section their presence is further qualified by pointing out some rules or even laws underlying their behavior: “Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge/ Close to the surface of all things.”

The third section of the poem deals with the degree of integration with nature and the landscape, which the dead have succeeded in achieving in order to communicate both their story and their utmost desire—never to be forgotten:...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Forms and Devices

Having opted, in his fifth volume, for a less elliptical and encoded poetic mode, and in favor of a more discursive type of utterance, implicitly Wright moved, on the whole, in the direction of a more fully fledged sentence structure, more classical in form and, therefore, more transparent and explicit. This strategy imparted to the poem a greater rhetorical forcefulness, without losing the flexibility of a modern free form. Each section has a specific inner structure, which can be further examined in terms of a center or of a symmetry axis in order to observe the way meaning gets organized in smaller or larger syntactical units.

The best way to assess how meaning emerges in a Wright poem is to consider the individual line, which in this poem varies in length (number of syllables and of stresses) and, moreover, is not vertically grouped or linked by means of rhyme. This way of building a complex poem imparts a sense of an overall pattern whose intricate order is coupled with much local (horizontal) freedom. The poet achieves his line in the same manner the painter employs his palette knife or brushstroke.

Both the beginning and the ending of the poem—the first and the eighth sections—are more daringly “poetic” than the rest. There is room for language employed figuratively in the traditional sense. In the first section, moonshine is “fish-light”; leaves have gotten “little arks”; envelopes “wait” on desks; water...

(The entire section is 402 words.)


Andrews, Tom, ed. The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1995.

Bourgeois, Louis. “An Interview with Charles Wright.” The Carolina Quarterly 56 (Spring/Summer, 2004): 30-37.

Wright, Charles. Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-1987. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

Wright, Charles. Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.