Shall We Gather at the River?: The Chatter around Charles Wright and His New Laurels

Part the First:
My wife has been keeping me up to speed on the Farcebook chatter concerning the appointment of Charles Wright to become our new poet laureate starting in the September now rushing our way on heat waves, and I notice that many commentators and wags — mostly poets, werepoets, poetasters, ranters, humblebraggers and poetry lickers — are both taking the announcement quite personally and responding quite cagily.  As a longtime reader of Wright’s elegant wrestlings with ultimate questions and immediate circumstances, his pilgrimages in words and his evasions, confessions, explorations and cautious approaches to ecstasy, I take it all personal, too.  If there’s any one poet who can address the ineffable in lively concrete terms and tease a response out of it in ways I yearn for but can never manage myself, it’s Charles Wright.

I take for my title a phrase from the cover of one of James  Wright’s books, but the New Wright (like “The New Poem”) seems as much consumed by the problems of “we” and “gather” and “river” as vexed questions as the late James Wright was.  Charles said many years ago of the “new poem” that it will not be able to save us, but he can’t get shed of the question “what will?” and the hope that there’s an answer and, like the hymn the title also refers to, involves matters of the spirit.

In the first part of this improvisation, I want to say something on the record about Charles Wright’s history.  In the second, more focused post I want to try to find words for what has transfixed me about his themes, methods and hypnotic, you-can’t-not-listen voice for over three decades.  I hope you won’t hold it against me that, even thirty years ago, I was late to the dance of Wright’s music.  I’m still reeling and jigging, trying to catch up.

charles wright 2This is Charles before I encountered his work.  I’m guessing it’s a photo from his Irvine days or before but not an official U. S. Army photograph from his Italian period.  It might be the image of the character behind The Grave of the Right Hand, but by the time he’d written “Dog Creek Mainline” and then Black Zodiac this stance has faded, only to be revived as self mockery.  I think.

charles wright 1This photo is the update I enjoy looking at as I consider the paperwork on why Charles Wright is a natural choice, the natural choice, to stand for us poetry addicts in such a fraught, conflicted and tangled (emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically) era as we have conjured in our desperation to do and think and feel something of consequence (without missing a single tweet, text, post, tag, like, rant, reality series scuffle, foodie swoon or sniffle.)

It would be foolish to make book on who the next poet laureate will be or the one after that because the mist-covered (“shrouded” wouldn’t be right) committee who make the selection seems, even as new invisible voices replace old ones, to favor two or three sets of criteria.  Think of Dove, Hass, Trethewey — all at the time of their election young, energetic, newly arrived at the center of the poetic conversation, recently tapped for a major prize.  Then think of Levine, Merwin, Wright — veterans of many decades, oft-laureled, widely anthologized poets whose published books fill whole shelves.  A third category might be popularity — Billy Collins, who is, like the others above, an original, which I hope is an important consideration.  He is also widely read and imitated.  I have no suspicion that the laureate search anyone’s idea of a process for declaring someone “the best American poet this morning.”  And this scheme I posit makes good sense to me, though one can never be certain that the younger laureate will bring more energy to the vaguely-described “job” or that the older campaigner will bring more dignity to it.  Some of the honorees over the years have written poems that now live deep in my heart’s core, and others have not, but if this distribution according to weathering and career stage is in operation, I trust it in the long run, which is not to say I wouldn’t volunteer right now to be on next year’s version of the committee.  And I’m pleased that (as best I can recollect) none of the poets who aim their poems at people with no interest in deep study of the art of poetry have been appointed to the post.

What criteria dictate that this poet should be tapped and knighted or crowned or burdened with this responsibility, which is “high profile” only in the poetry world (which can occasionally resemble Wayne’s World), but small potatoes to the NASCAR crowd, J Lo’s fans, Honey Boo Boo’s followers, the Freemason Brotherhood or the Episcopal Church?  We civilians will never know, but we can say some things about the poet’s work and impact.

black zodSo suppose Charles Wright is a selection from the senior crowd (my generation) who somehow escaped election back when he was the Next New Thing.  The critical community reaches consensus on almost no one, but evidence and testimony accumulate, and Wright has written about a score of poetry collections and enough public-fare journals and articles (counting interviews) to fill two U. of Michigan Press books in the Poets on Poetry series.  He’s received the Pulitzer (and been “bridesmaid” multiple times — 4?), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Griffin International Prize, a couple of Library of Virginia annual prizes and their Lifetime Achievement Award.  Chancellor of this, archon of that.  He’s been written about by enthusiastic admirers like Helen Vendler, Peter Stitt, James Longenbach, Henry Hart, J. D.  McClatchy, Mark Jarman, Willard Spiegelman and Lee Upton.  Joe Moffett has written a book for the University of South Carolina’s Understanding Contemporary American Literature series called, pro forma, Understanding Charles Wright (though that’s a boast few would make, or want to, as “grappling with” is more to the point).  Robert Denham has published a two-volume companion to Wright which explores the poems one-by-one up to 2007; it’s a project seemingly dedicated to the idea of drawing the reader closer to the poems with background information, but again, “understanding” would seem simplistic and somehow misplaced.  Perhaps the best companion to Wright’s work is High Lonesome: On the Poetry of Charles Wright, edited by Adam Gianelli, dedicated to his “undisputed importance” and filled with reprints and news essays and reviews.  There are others, plenty of exhibits in the evidence locker, and they’re worth perusing.

This is a quick sketch of the public record for those who have posted their disapproval or a cunning “interesting” or “well, well” upon the announcement of Wright’s appointment and who would want to know why it’s only natural to consider him, has been for years.

In my next post, I’ll make a more personal statement about why I’d be willing to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Honk if Charles Wright’s Poetry Rocks You.”  I promise not to say he always writes the best poem ever or that I never turn away from a Wright poem wondering what has just happened or not happened on the page.  I’ll try to articulate what he’s serving that I have an abiding appetite for, though I cannot rustle such dishes up myself.

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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