A Reading by Charles Wright
To pin down Wright’s poetry becomes an impossible task, because the work is so large. The poems even look big—sprawling across the page as if it were a canvas, lines breaking and stepping down to ride hard at the right margin, poem titles becoming longer than your average poetic line, poems building into sequences, into books, into trilogies. And despite their Whitmanesque proportions, the poems very often carry the kind of compression we find in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, producing what Wright has called “the odd marriage of Emily and Walt.” And Wright’s poems are literally odd—if you count the syllables in each line, you’ll see what I mean. Preoccupied with circularity and symmetry, Wright is something of a mathematical mystic. He once wrote that “my poetic structures tend towards the conditions of spider webs: tight in their parts but loose in the holes and endlessly repetitious.”
Despite their intricate structures and metaphysical concerns, the poems are conversational, intimate, accessible, or, as he once coined, “metaquotidian.” Wright’s ability to keep working in the style he perfected in the late 1970s, to continuously reinvigorate that style while dwelling on similar concerns and landscapes, recalls the works of painters like Cézanne and Morandi—two of his heroes. Like the painters, Wright knows that to look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it, convert it into something beyond itself. Or, with some Heraclitus thrown in, you can’t see the same thing twice. In Wright’s poem “Black Zodiac” he says:
Fortunately for us, Wright has followed his own advice, producing one of the most vital bodies of work of our time. The bulk of Wright’s work can be found in three volumes: Country Music, The World of the Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue, each of which gathers work from three other books. Wright calls this trilogy of trilogies The Appalachian Book of the Dead, which he finished as the twentieth century was drawing to a close and parts of which have received almost every poetry award in existence: The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, The Ruth Lilly Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and so on. So far in the twenty-first century, he has published the books A Short History of the Shadow, Buffalo Yoga, Scar Tissue, and most recently, Littlefoot. He comes to Richmond this evening from Charlottesville, where he is the Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia. So, help me welcome Charles Wright.
[“In Praise of Thomas Hardy,” Charles Wright, A Short History of the Shadow, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002.]
The poem is called “In Praise of Thomas Hardy” because he said, “I refuse to stop using the word ‘small’ as a verb,” so if you didn’t catch it, I used it as a verb. I hope. Otherwise, it has nothing to do with Thomas Hardy. Actually, most of my titles have nothing to do with the poems that follow them. You know you’re in trouble when your titles get more interesting than your poems. I reached that point about twenty-five years ago, so every once in a while I try to go back to a normal title like this one, called “River Run.”
[“River Run,” Charles Wright, A Short History of the Shadow, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002.]
Laurie Anderson wrote that song. Charles Wright stole the line.
This poem is called “Relics.” It mentions an Italian writer named Aldo Buzzi, who wrote a fabulous book called Journey to the Land of the Flies [and Other Travels] about Sicily and has written other things and was a screenwriter, and I think is still alive at about ninety-eight, living in Milano.
[“Relics,” Charles Wright, A Short History of the Shadow, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002.]
I think the idea of a guy being a saint because he’s so skinny he can walk in the rain without getting wet is ridiculous. One person laughed once at that, and I had to stop the reading and get down and put my head on the floor and thank him.
This is called “The Gospel According to St. Someone.”
[“The Gospel According to St. Someone,” Charles Wright, Buffalo Yoga, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004 .]
This poem is called “Arrivederci Kingsport.” Kingsport is a little town in East Tennessee on the Holston River where Daniel Boone set off from to make the Wilderness Trail. And where Yours Truly and your new president, Edward Ayers—no matter what they say in his biography—grew up, and so did his wife. It’s a great place to grow up in. It’s a great place to leave from. Arrivederci, of course, means ciao—you know: goodbye. There’s a list, oh, of about, I don’t know, about ten names here, none of whom you know. But you know who they are, because you have the same ten in your own lives—whoever you are. As I say, it’s in East Tennessee, about five miles from the Virginia line.
[“Arrivederci Kingsport,” Charles Wright, Buffalo Yoga, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.]
They used to end all dances with “Goodnight Sweetheart” back in the Pleistocene Age—1951—Jesus Christ, it’s 1951? I was sixteen then. It just isn’t fair. Well, this poem mentions Richmond, so I figured I better read it, because I’ve never read it before, and I hope I don’t stumble over it—called “My Own Little Civil War.”
[“My Own Little Civil War,” Charles Wright, Buffalo Yoga, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.]
I got involved in something this summer where all the participants were given a leather bound copy of their book. And this was in the summer, when I was in Montana, and I couldn’t leave it for the mice to eat, because it’s got really good glue in it and stitching and stuff, and so I changed my other one for this one. The trouble is, you can’t open the goddamned thing. You know, it’s made out of leather.
Back in the mid 1950s, when Time magazine was more important than it is now, they ran a cover story about the Silent Generation—those of us who were born in the 30s, basically (I was born in 1935)—and who came of age in the mid-50s and didn’t seem to protest anything or didn’t seem to do anything. The Eisenhower years, where everything was cool . . . not quite. Anyhow, we were called “The Silent Generation,” and so I wrote three poems called “The Silent Generation”—this is the third one. I tried to get somebody to make an anthology called “The Silent Generation Speaks,” but he didn’t do it. He collected over about a hundred and fifty names of poets born in the 30s . . .
[“Silent Generation III,” Charles Wright, Scar Tissue, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006 .]
[“Time Will Tell,” Charles Wright, Scar Tissue, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.]
You are all much too young to be listening to these poems. I hope someday you have the occasion to think back and say, “I remember when that old fool warned me about what was going to happen, and I didn’t pay any attention to him whatsoever.” As well you should not. This is called “The Woodpecker Pecks, but the Hole Does Not Appear.” That’s the funny part of my reading—it has nothing to do with the poem.
[“The Woodpecker Pecks, but the Hole Does Not Appear,” Charles Wright, Scar Tissue, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.]
This book [Littlefoot] is a book-length poem, and I’m gonna try to read one section. I’m not gonna try, I’m gonna do it, but I don’t know if it will make any sense—but then, none of those make any sense, either, so what the hell. Midnight and Five Minutes to Midnight were famous show horses when I was growing up—late 40’s and early 50’s. And they went from town to town throughout the South, doing whatever show horses did—single-foot, Tennessee walk, and things. They were very famous horses. This is set in the mountains of Montana—well, part of it is and part of it isn’t, but the first part is.
[“Littlefoot 14,” Charles Wright, Littlefoot: A Poem, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.]
I want to read a couple of short ones. I’ll read six of them, because they’re six lines each. I wrote a whole sackful of them. But the form is self-defeating, ultimately, because you say this, and you kind of wrote this, or you say this, and then you say something you think is important, or you say this and . . . and you can’t get out of it because you’ve only got six lines, there’s nowhere to go. But I’ve cut them back down. Some of them have good titles, like this one:
[“Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time,” Charles Wright.]
This is called “Walking Beside the Diversion Ditch Lake.”
[“Walking Beside the Diversion Ditch Lake,” Charles Wright.]
“The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at [Mid]Night,” (or, “The Ghost of Walter Ben-ya-meen Walks at Midnight”).
[“The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight,” Charles Wright.]
[“Bees Are the Terrace Builders of the Stars,” Charles Wright.]
[“When the Horses Gallop Away from Us, It’s a Good Thing,” Charles Wright.]
And one last one called “No Angel.”[“No Angel,” Charles Wright.]