By the time I discovered the poetry of Charles Wright, his work had received prestigious awards, but not the Pulitzer, which I thoroughly expected him to win, and he did. Since then, I’ve continued to follow but not study his poems beyond my own ponderings. So when I learned of The Early Poetry of Charles Wright: A Companion, 1960-1990 written by English professor Robert D. Denham, I eagerly requested a review copy, which the publisher, McFarland, kindly sent.
As the author said in the Introduction, “Each of Wright’s poems can be read as a discrete work, but each is also part of an expansive quest.”
Sometimes this quest focuses on the poet’s life, sometimes on a fitting form, sometimes on spiritual questioning. In lesser hands, such aims might make for self-absorbed writing that doesn’t connect well with readers, but Wright’s acute powers of observation and fresh phraseology connect with us on an artistic, spiritual, and intellectual level. At times, though, the poet’s subject matter can be elusive and exclusive, so I welcomed Denham’s knowledge of poems I’d enjoyed, admired, but not necessarily understood!
Again in the Introduction, the author explained: “In the present book the notes that accompany most of the poems follow the usual conventions of annotation. They identify Wright’s sources (he is a comparatively allusive poet), along with people, places, things, and events that might not be immediately obvious. They also point to perceived influences, parallels to other poets, biographical details, historical explanation, and other kinds of supplementary and expository information, and they translate the occasional foreign word and phrase, ordinarily Italian.” Yeah!
To take full advantage of Professor Denham’s explications of the poems, you do well to have a copy of Wright’s two trilogies alongside, so you can see what’s going on that you might have missed (as I did) when reading Country Music: Selected Early Poems and The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990.
In summarizing Country Music, for example, the author provides a chart to point out the “Condensed form; process of squeezing down; the pilgrimage moves upward.” Also on the chart, we see that Hard Freight deals with the past in a “book of disparate individual lyrics” with “…narrative structure,” while Bloodlines focuses on the present in a “book of sequences” with both imagistic and narrative tone and structure. Addressing the future, China Trace has “movement toward a spiritual hope” in a “forty-six part poem beginning in childhood and ending in the constellation of fixed stars.”
The World of the Ten Thousand Things follows a past, present, and future timeline, too, in each of the books with The Southern Cross focusing on large concepts in the past. The Other Side of the River brings narrative-based poems into today, while Zone Journals and Xionia are concerned with what’s to come.
To give us further grounding, Professor Denham includes quotes from Wright himself. For example, in discussing “The New Poem” from the first trilogy, Wright defined that poem as “a reaction… to the idea that everything in the sixties was going to be different and make our lives different and was going to change everything.”
In “Spider Crystal Ascension,” Wright wanted to “compress the language and the thought to such a point that it stops being small and starts to enlarge…. Which is to say, rather than writing a lot to get larger and larger, you write less and less.”
References to poets, painters, and even post cards occur in the second trilogy. For example, in “Composition in Grey and Pink,” Denham says, “The instruction that Wright gave himself for this poem was to produce a watercolor in words.” How did that go?
“The souls of the day’s dead fly up like birds, big sister,
The sky shutters and casts loose.
And faster than stars the body goes to the earth.
Heat hangs like a mist from the trees.
Butterflies pump through the banked fires of late afternoon.
The rose continues its sure rise to the self.”
In my opinion, that watercolor in words went amazingly well.
For “October,” Wright just wanted to write a seasonal poem, and for “Driving through Tennessee,” we learn that “Wright’s instruction to himself was ‘to write a poem that was basically commentary’.”
“In the moonlight’s fall, and Jesus returning, and Stephen Martyr
and St. Paul of the Sword…
– I am their music”
Besides the mood music and gorgeous lines, what interests and surprises me is how Wright sets goals and guidelines for his frequent experiments with poetry! If the average poet were to say, “I’m gonna write a commentary in a poem,” the lines would most likely come out as stiff as brocade with none of the beauty. Besides, who even thinks of writing a poem just to see if you can get a verb on every line as Wright does in “California Spring”?
Are you starting to think what I’m thinking? Not only is this a writer of absolutely beautiful poetry but a poet who lives in the poem.
His poem “Ars Poetica” says it well:
“I like it because I’m better here than I am there,
Surrounded by fetishes and figures of speech:
Dog’s tooth and whale’s tooth, my father’s shoe, the dead weight
Of winter, the inarticulation of joy . . .
The spirits are everywhere.
and once I have called them down from the sky, and spinning and
dancing in the palm of my hand,
What will it satisfy?
I’ll still have
The voices rising out of the ground,
The fallen star my blood feeds,
this business I waste my heart on.
And nothing stops that.”
Oh, thank God, Charles. Thank God.
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, has authored 27 traditionally published books in all genres, including 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden, Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, and Living in the Nature Poem.
The Early Poems of Charles Wright, paperback