Wright, Charles 1935–
Wright, Charles 1935–
(Charles Penzel Wright, Jr.)
PERSONAL: Born August 25, 1935, in Pickwick Dam, TN; son of Charles Penzel and Mary Castleman (Winter) Wright; married Holly McIntire, April 6, 1969; children: Luke Savin Herrick. Education: Davidson College, B.A., 1957; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1963; graduate study, University of Rome, 1963–64. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian.
ADDRESSES: Home—940 Locust Ave., Charlottesville, VA 22901-4030. Office—Department of English, Bryan Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903.
CAREER: University of California, Irvine, 1966–83, began as assistant professor, became professor of English; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Souder Family Professor of English, 1983–. Fulbright lecturer in Ven-ice, Italy, 1968–69, distinguished visiting professor, Universita Degli Studi, Florence, Italy, 1992. Military service: U.S. Army, Intelligence Corps, 1957–61.
MEMBER: PEN American Center, Fellowship of Southern Writers, Academy of American Poets (chancellor), American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Fulbright scholar at University of Rome, 1963–65; Eunice Tietjens Award, Poetry magazine, 1969; Guggenheim fellow, 1975; Melville Cane Award, Poetry Society of America, and Edgar Allan Poe Award, Academy of American Poets, both 1976, both for Bloodlines; Academy-Institute Award, American Academy and Institute of the Arts, 1977; PEN translation award, 1979; Ingram Merrill fellow, 1980 and 1993; National Book Award in poetry (cowinner), 1983, for Country Music: Selected Early Poems; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination in poetry, 1984, for The Other Side of the River; Brandeis Creative Arts Citation for poetry, 1987; Merit Medal, American Academy and Institute Arts and Letters, 1992; Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, 1993; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995; Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, Academy of American Poets, 1996; Wood Prize, Poetry magazine, 1996; Book Prize, Los Angeles Times, and National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, both 1997, and Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Ambassador Book Award, and Premio di Poesia, Antico Fattore, all 1998, all for Black Zodiac; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2002.
Six Poems, David Freed, 1965.
The Dream Animal (chapbook), House of Anansi (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1968.
Private Madrigals, limited edition, Abraxas Press (Madison, WI), 1969.
The Grave of the Right Hand, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1970.
The Venice Notebook, Barn Dream Press (Boston, MA), 1971.
Hard Freight (also see below), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1973.
Bloodlines (also see below), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1975.
China Trace (also see below), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1977.
Colophons, limited edition, Windhover (New York, NY), 1977.
Wright: A Profile, with interview and critical essay by David St. John, Grilled Flowers Press (Iowa City, IA), 1979.
Dead Color, limited edition, Meadow Press, 1980.
Country Music: Selected Early Poems (includes Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1982.
Four Poems of Departure, limited edition, Trace Editions (Portland, OR), 1983.
The Other Side of the River (also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
Five Journals (also see below), limited edition, Red Ozier Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Zone Journals (includes Five Journals; also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems, 1980–1990 (includes The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.
Xionia, Windhoven Press (Iowa City, IA), 1990.
Chickamauga (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1995.
Black Zodiac (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1997.
Appalachia (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems (includes Chickamaunga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
A Short History of the Shadow, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
Buffalo Yoga, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2004.
The Voyage, Patrician Press, 1963.
Backwater, Golem Press (Boulder, CO), 1973.
(Translator) Eugenio Montale, The Storm, Field Editions, 1978.
(Translator) Eugenio Montale, Motets, Windhover (New York, NY), 1981.
(Translator) Dino Campana, Orphic Songs, Field Editions, 1984.
Selected writings have been recorded by the Library of Congress Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature and the Modern Poetry Association.
SIDELIGHTS: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Wright creates verse that is a "strange alchemy, a fusion of the direct, understated lyrics of ancient Chinese poets like Tu Fu and Wang Wei, the lush language of nineteenth-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the allusive, rhetorical movement—the 'gists and piths'—of Ezra Pound's Cantos," according to Ted Genoways in the Southern Review. Wright is a notable American poet whose reputation has increased steadily with each poetry collection he has published. From his early collection The Grave of the Right Hand to lauded works such as The Other Side of the River, Zone Journals, Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, Appalachia, Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, and A Short History of the Shadow, Wright has worked in a style that creates a feeling of immediacy and concreteness by emphasizing objects and personal perspective. Wright's literary perseverance has resulted in what David Young described in Contemporary Poets as "one of the truly distinctive bodies of poetry created in the second half of the twentieth century." Many critics believe that Wright's childhood in rural Tennessee remains a vital force in his writing, for he shows a typically southern concern for the past and its power. Young, for example, wrote in his Contemporary Poets piece that Wright's "Southern heritage makes him both a powerful storyteller and a writer unafraid of ornate, carnivalesque language." Yet Wright reaches beyond his southern roots, creating images of landscapes from Italy to Virginia in what Genoways typified as a "search for transcendence in the landscape of the everyday." According to Genoways, "Wright's poems yearn for the ideal, but are tempered by a suspicion of futility."
Wright began writing poetry while serving in Italy with the U.S. Army. While there, as Wright recalled in George F. Butterick's essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982, he "began using Ezra Pound's Italian Cantos first as a guide book to out-of-the-way places, then as a reference book and finally as a 'copy' book." Writing in Contemporary Poets, Young noted Pound's influence on Wright. "It might be said," Young speculated, "that Wright is reconstituting Pound's failed program along new and successful lines: more centered, less bookish, more ready to mend what is broken and relinquish authority in areas where it will not hold firm." But Young concluded that Wright's "postmodern temper is more that of a listener and observer: attentive, modest, but firmly committed to a music that realizes poetry's highest aims, the aims of Dante."
Ezra Pound's influence is readily evident in The Grave of the Right Hand, Wright's first major collection. These poems "have the polished clarity one would expect from a master of the plain style," Georgia Review contributor Peter Stitt observed. "They are obviously meant to speak to the reader, to communicate something he can share." At the same time, The Grave of the Right Hand is the most symbolic of all Wright's works, with images of gloves, shoes, hands, and hats recurring throughout. Through these images, the poet introduces what will become his recurring themes, which Butterick summarized as "mortality, the uses of memory, the irrepressible past, states of being, personal salvation, the correspondence between nature and the spiritual work, and, most broadly, the human condition."
Wright is credited with finding his own voice in Hard Freight, which Peter Meinke called in a New Republic review "less Poundian, less hard-edged, than his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand." Poetry reviewer John L. Carpenter likewise applauded Wright for reaching for his own style in Hard Freight: "It is less incisive and less deliberate than the first book, but it is more experimental, less ironclad and defensive." It is in this volume that the poet first exhibits his technique of creating poetry by compiling catalogs of fragmented images. It is a device which requires "that the reader assist in the creative activity," found Washington Post Book World contributor Edward Kessler. "[Wright's]; almost spastic writing can at times be enlivening and fascinating, like watching the changing fragments of a kaleidoscope."
But this technique is not appreciated by all critics, some of whom find it excessive. As Sally M. Gall declared in Shenandoah: "[Wright]; frantically piles up details, images, similes, and metaphors as if sheer quantity can replace quality of perception. His catalogues can be perniciously boring rather than enlightening." Kessler, however, disagreed with this assessment, stating that Wright's "senses are awake, and even when he cannot quite bring his things of the world into a satisfying shape, his fragments are rife with suggestions. This man is feeling his way toward a personal definition."
Bloodlines bears similarities to Hard Freight, but many reviewers felt that Wright's voice is even stronger in this later volume. Yale Review contributor J.D. Mc-Clatchy, for instance, observed, "Charles Wright has come completely home in Bloodlines, a book that confirms and emphasizes his reputation." Carol Muske also noted the power of this collection in Parnassus: Poetry in Review: "[Wright] is on the move. His poems fairly explode from the page in hurly-burly refrain, elliptical syntax, and giddy shifts that recall Hopkins." McClatchy added that Wright "recreates not aspects but images of his past experiences—prayer meetings, sexual encounters, dreams—mingling memory and fantasy. The poems are suffused with remembered light."
Hard Freight, Bloodlines, and China Trace comprise what Wright considers to be a poetic trilogy. Explained Kathleen Agena in Partisan Review, "Like Wallace Stevens, Wright has conceived of his work as a whole. Individual poems are arresting but none of them quite has its meaning alone. The poems elucidate and comment on each other, extending and developing certain key metaphors and images." In China Trace, Wright again considers universal connections to the past. According to Butterick, the poet describes this collection as "a book of Chinese poems that don't sound like Chinese poems and aren't Chinese poems but are like Chinese poems in the sense that they give you an idea of one man's relationship to the endlessness, the ongoing-ness, the everlastingness of what's around him, and his relationship to it as he stands in the natural world."
Works such as Zone Journals and the collection The World of the Ten Thousand Things reflect Wright's "departure from his earlier crystalline short lyrics that aimed for inevitability of effect," Helen Vendler observed in the New Republic. These journal poems "weave diverse thematic threads into a single autobiographical fabric" which can be read as a single work, Richard Tillinghast wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "Freed from the stringencies of unity and closure demanded by the sort of poem most readers are used to, Mr. Wright is at liberty to spin out extended meditations that pick up, work with, lay aside and return again to landscapes, historical events and ideas." With his "subtle cadences" and "famously 'good ear,'" the critic added, Wright "continues to reveal himself as a poet of great purity and originality."
Writing in Poetry about Chickamauga, David Baker observed that Wright uses abstractions to sustain the oblique. Of Wright's style, he commented, "Almost nothing ever happens in a Charles Wright poem. This is his central act of restraint, a spiritualist's abstinence, where meditation is not absence but an alternative to action and to linear, dramatic finality." David Mason admitted in the Hudson Review, however, that Wright's poetry disappointed him. Mason found that Wright's "ideas are uninteresting, his poems undramatic; his language is only intermittently charged or lyrical." He further remarked, "There is plenty of meditative near-spirituality in Chickamauga, but it's all air and light, history without the details." According to James Longenbach in the Yale Review, Wright's career seems to change with Chickamauga, as he tries to constrain his writing. "Wright seems to feel that all he can do is spin new variations on a limited number of subjects and scenes [in Chickamauga,]," wrote the critic, although the work is "a beautiful book, bearably human yet in touch with the sublime."
Agena contended that Wright's power comes from his faith in "the mad sense of language" and his willingness to abandon himself to it. She summarized: "When Charles Wright's poems work, which is most of the time, the poetic energies seem to break the membrane of syntax, exploding the surface, reverberating in multiple directions simultaneously…. It seems to happen by accident, as if Wright simply sets the words in motion and they, playing a game according to their own rules, write the poem."
But Wright's greatest accomplishment, according to Butterick, "is the imagistic narrative." Butterick added, "How he activates and propels the line of images … is his special genius, his ability to drive spirit into the matter of words." William Logan, meanwhile, wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "[Wright's]; best work has always been founded in the hard-edged fact, not the gauze of metaphysics," and he praised Wright's "individuality and seriousness, his gorgeous images and taste for experiment." As a result, the critic concluded, "for twenty years, [Wright]; has written to a consistently high and exacting standard."
Wright continued to impress readers and reviewers with Black Zodiac, which secured a host of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award, following its appearance in 1997. Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist that Wright is "wholly in his element in these gleaming pages," while Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr. hailed the volume in an America review as "an intriguing, occasionally very difficult but immensely rewarding collection." Lee Oser, meanwhile, reported in World Literature Today that Wright "writes very well" and acknowledged that he "clears some serious ground." Barbara Hoffert, in her Library Journal review, heartily endorsed Black Zodiac, declaring that its "luscious jumble of language simply must be experienced firsthand," and James Longenbach, in a Nation appraisal, described the collection as "haunted, elegiac" and deemed it Wright's "most richly satisfying single book."
Wright's following collection, Appalachia, inspired further praise and appreciation. Library Journal reviewer Hoffert reported that in this volume Wright mines his themes in "new and exciting ways," while Booklist critic Seaman called Wright "a philosopher-poet with a gift for whimsical imagery." Fred Muratori, another Library Journal reviewer, affirmed that Appalachia constitutes an "animated collection," while a Kirkus Reviews critic deemed the volume "characteristic" of Wright's poetic pursuits.
If China Trace completed the first of Wright's trilogies, Appalachia completed the third such trilogy sequence, along with Chickamauga and Black Zodiac, as Wright revealed to Genoways. The middle sequence consists of The Southern Cross, The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals. "It's an odd sequence," the poet commented. "All three trilogies do the same thing, and they have essentially the same structure. Past, present, future: yesterday, today, tomorrow." And just as the earlier trilogies were ultimately gathered into larger volumes—the first sequence in Country Music and the second in The World of Ten Thousand Things—so too was the third sequence collected in the year 2000 volume Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems. Writing in World Literature Today, Ashley Brown called this final installment "one of the most ambitious poems of our time," while a contributor for Publishers Weekly noted that Wright gathers a "decade's worth of striking descriptions and laid-back meditation" in the collection, which concludes with seven new poems. For this reviewer, Wright's own career makes a unified poem, a "continual, often compelling exploration of seeing, thinking and the dialectic between them." Taken together, Wright's three trilogies have been referred to as "The Appalachian Book of the Dead."
Wright followed up Negative Blue with A Short History of the Shadow, a "moody, winning collection," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Here Wright serves up a sampling of many of his traditional themes: evocations of Blue Ridge landscapes, tips of the hat to his favorite poets, as well as a genial recognition of the "fleetingness of all things," as the same contributor mentioned. Muratori, writing in Library Journal, pointed out Wright's "signature style: slow pace and passive imagery," both at work in these "gravely wistful" poems. Oser, writing in World Literature Today, noted that Wright and his peers are "the last generation that did not have its brains softened by television." Oser went on to note that in A Short History of the Shadow, Wright "sounds an extended note of suffering, loitering among landscapes that show a spiritual kinship to Hardy's, though the major influence remains, as ever, Pound." For William Logan, writing in the New Criterion, however, the poems of A Short History of the Shadow, compared to those of his three trilogies that took a quarter-century to finish, "are written in the sketchy, hither-thither manner, like the musings of a man waking from anaesthesia, into which Wright's hard early style has gradually softened." Logan further noted that Wright's "specialty is romantic vision," and that he "finds the sublime in the unlikeliest of places." Yet in the end, Logan felt that despite the fact that Wright is "one of our most talented poets,… too many of these poems skim the surface of the poet's impressions the way a cook skims fat." Jay Parini, reviewing the collection in the Nation, was more positive in his evaluation. Parini felt the poems in A Short History of the Shadow harkened back to Wright's "middle period," beginning with The Other Side of the River. Parini went on to note that Wright "fetches the reader's attention with compelling aphorisms, with phrases arranged to crate a subtle, alluring music." Wright is, Parini further suggested, "all ears, all eyes, sifting the world that falls before him with astonishing freshness, thinking shallowly so he can see and hear profoundly."
Through his numerous collection of poetry and particularly his "Appalachian Book of the Dead" sequence, Wright has consistently proved that he is, as Parini and other critics maintain, "among the best poets" of his generation. Yet Wright remains stoic about such achievements: it is not the poet, but the poems, as he concluded to Genoways. "One wants one's work to be paid attention to, but I hate personal attention. I just want everyone to read the poems. I want my poetry to get all the attention in the world, but I want to be the anonymous author."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Andrews, Tom, The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright, Oberlin College Press (Oberlin, OH), 1995.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 28, 1984.
Contemporary Poets, 5th edition, St. James Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 165: American Poets since World War II, Fourth Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Friebert, Stuart, and David Young, editors, A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Longman (New York, NY), 1980.
Ingersoll, Earl W., and others, editors, Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, NJ), 1989.
Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1987.
Vendler, Helen, The Music of What Happens, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1988.
America, December 20, 1997, Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr., review of Black Zodiac, pp. 24-26.
Booklist, April 15, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Black Zodiac, p. 1337; November 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Appalachia, p. 466.
Hudson Review, spring, 1996, David Mason, review of Chickamauga, p. 166.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1998, review of Appala-chia, p. 94.
Library Journal, April 15, 1997, Barbara Hoffert, review of Black Zodiac; October 1, 1998, Fred Muratori, review of Appalachia, p. 94; April 1, 1999, Barbara Hoffert, review of Appalachia, p. 9; April, 2003, Fred Muratori, review of A Short History of the Shadow, pp. 112-113.
Nation, April 14, 1997, James Longenbach, review of Black Zodiac; May 20, 2002, Jay Parini, review of A Short History of the Shadow, p. 30.
New Criterion, June, 2002, William Logan, review of A Short History of the Shadow, pp. 75-82.
New Republic, November 24, 1973, Peter Meinke, review of Hard Freight.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review, spring-summer, 1976, Carol Muske, review of Bloodlines.
Poetry, April, 1996, David Baker, review of Chickamauga, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, April 24, 2000, review of Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, p. 81; February 25, 2003, review of A Short History of the Shadow, p. 56.
Shenandoah, fall, 1974, Sally M. Gall, review of Hard Freight.
Southern Review, spring, 2000, Ted Genoways, "An Interview with Charles Wright," pp. 442-452.
Washington Post Book World, May 5, 1974, Edward Kessler, review of Hard Freight.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1997, Lee Oser, review of Black Zodiac; autumn, 2000, Ashley Brown, review of Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, p. 821; spring, 2003, Lee Oser, review of A Short History of the Shadow, pp. 105-106.
Yale Review, autumn, 1975, J.D. McClatchy, review of Bloodlines; October, 1995, James Longenbach, review of Chickamauga, p. 144.
Poets.org, http://www.poets.org/ (November 11, 2003), "Charles Wright: The Academy of American Poets."
University of Virginia News Online, http://www.virginia.edu/ (May 9, 2002), "Poet Charles Wright Is Named to American Academy of Arts."