Wright, Charles (Penzel, Jr.)
WRIGHT, Charles (Penzel, Jr.)
Nationality: American. Born: Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, 25 August 1935. Education: Davidson College, North Carolina, 1953–57, B.A. 1957; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1961–63, M.F.A. 1963; University of Rome (Fulbright fellow), 1963–64. Military Service: U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, 1957–61: Captain. Family: Married Holly McIntire in 1969; one son. Career: Professor of English, University of California, Irvine, 1966–83. Since 1983 professor of English, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Fulbright lecturer, University of Padua, 1968–69; visiting lecturer, University of Iowa, 1974–75, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1978, and Columbia University, New York, 1978; distinguished visiting professor, Universita' Degli Studi, Florence, Italy, spring 1992. Awards: Eunice Tietjens award (Poetry, Chicago), 1969; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; Poetry Society of America Melville Cane award, 1976; Academy of American Poets Edgar Allan Poe award, 1976; American Academy grant, 1977; P.E.N. translation prize, 1979; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1980; National Book award, 1983; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1987; award of merit medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1992; Distinguished Contribution to Letters award, Ingram Merrill Foundation, 1993; Ruth Lilly prize, 1993; Los Angeles Times book prize, 1997; National Book Critics Circle prize, 1997; Pulitzer prize, 1998; Ambassador Book award, 1998; Antico Fattore Premio (Italy), 1998; Library Lion, New York Public Library, 1999. Address: 940 Locust Avenue, Charlottesville, Virginia 22901, U.S.A.
The Voyage. Iowa City, Patrician Press, 1963.
6 Poems. London, Freed, 1965.
The Dream Animal. Toronto, Anansi, 1968.
Private Madrigals. Madison, Wisconsin, Abraxas Press, 1969.
The Grave of the Right Hand. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1970.
The Venice Notebook. Boston, Bam Dream Press, 1971.
Backwater. Santa Ana, California, Golem Press, 1973.
Hard Freight. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1973.
Bloodlines. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1975.
Colophons. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1977.
China Trace. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1977.
Wright: A Profile. Iowa City, Grilled Flowers Press, 1979.
Dead Color. Salem, Oregon, Seluzicki, 1980.
The Southern Cross. New York, Random House, 1981.
Country Music: Selected Early Poems. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1982.
Four Poems of Departure. Portland, Oregon, Trace, 1983.
The Other Side of the River. New York, Random House, 1984.
Five Journals. New York, Red Ozier Press, 1986.
Zone Journals. New York, Farrar Straus, 1988.
The World of the 10,000 Things. New York, Farrar Straus, 1990.
Xionia. Iowa City, Iowa, Windhover Press, 1990.
Chickamauga. New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.
Black Zodiac. New York, Farrar Straus, 1997.
Appalachia. New York, Farrar Straus, 1998.
North American Bear. Sutton Hoo Press, 1999.
Negative Blue. New York, Farrar Straus, 2000.
Recording: The Tongue Is a White Water, Watershed, 1985.
Translator, Motets, by Eugenio Montale. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1981.
Translator, Orphic Songs, by Dino Campana. Oberlin, Ohio, Oberlin College, 1984.*
Bibliography: In Bulletin of Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut), 43(1), March 1986.
Critical Studies: Interview, in Field 17 (Oberlin, Ohio), fall 1977; by Helen Vendler, in New Yorker, 29 October 1979, and in Part of Nature, Part of Us, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1980, and The Music of What Happens, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1988, both by Vendler; interview, in Poetry West (Salt Lake City, Utah), summer 1981; Calvin Bedient, in Parnassus (New York), summer 1982; George F. Butterick, in Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1982, edited by Richard Ziegfeld, Detroit, Gale, 1983; in The Still Performance by James McCorkle, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1989; "Slide-Wheeling around the Curves" by Calvin Bedient, in The Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) winter 1991; by James McCorkle in The Still Performance: Writing, Self, and Interconnection in Five Postmodern American Poets, Charlottesville, Univeristy Press of Virginia, 1992; interview, in North Carolina Literary Review, spring 1994; "Metaphysics of the Image in Charles Wright and Paul Cezanne" in Southern Review, winter 1994; The Point Where All Things Meet, edited by Tom Andrews, Oberlin, Oberlin College Press, 1995; in Some Necessary Angels, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997; "A Poetry of Transcendence" by Floyd Collins, in Gettsbug Review, winter 1997; in Uncertainty + Plenitude, Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1997; in The Muse of Abandonment Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 1998; in Five Points: A Journal of Literature and Art (Atlanta, Georgia), spring-summer 1998.* * *
We sometimes admire poetry for its powers of representation and sometimes for its self-contained formal and musical appeal. Charles Wright's work is notable for its balancing of these impulses; he nearly always manages to have it both ways. His southern heritage makes him both a powerful storyteller and a writer unafraid of ornate, carnivalesque language. His integrity makes him an indefatigable investigator of experience and truth, while his fascination with poetic form and verbal expressiveness drives him to greater and greater forms of experimentation. The result is a sizable and impressively consistent poetic canon taking shape as one of the truly distinctive bodies of poetry created in the second half of the twentieth century.
Wright's first four collections, gathered in a selected form as Country Music, show him finding and consolidating his powers as a poet. He writes short poems, prose poems, striking longer sequences, portraits (often titled "Homages"), and self-portraits. Personal memories—of childhood, of Italy (especially Verona and Venice), where he served in the U.S. Army and later returned to teach, and of California, where he lived and taught until 1983—play a role, but they are always mixed with a detached impulse to meditate, to isolate and arrange the details of experience as a means of creating beauty. The great romantic issue of transcendence, the symbolist urge to attain the visionary, is never very far away:
There is a shine you move towards, the shine
Of water; you want it to step from,
And out of, wearing its strings and slick confetti.
You come to the sea, but turn back, its surgy retractions
Too slippery and out of place,
Wrecked looking-glass, bundles of grief.
And inland, the necklace of lakes—High Lonesome
And pendant, the 40s its throat,
Its glint like icicles against the skin...?
There's no one to wear it now, or hand it down.
The river will have it, shine
Of the underlight, shine of the lost quarter;
The river, rope of remembering, unbroken shoe,
The flushed and unwavering mirror...
This is the eighteenth section of the sequence "Skins" from the collection called Bloodlines. It is an acceptance of the element of water, an expression of faith in the visionary possibilities of this world. Its combination of highly fanciful figures—confetti, necklace, shoe—and of more mundane and recognizable details—slipperiness, reflection, the shine of water—illustrates the carefully mixed nature of Wright's style. The expert handling of line, pause, syntax, and sound, in this case to achieve an elevated, incantatory mode of speech, is also characteristic.
The title of the first selected poems, Country Music, with its epigraph from Hemingway ("The country was always better than the people"), is not casual. Wright's feeling for place, whether the American South, West, or Northwest or the Italy of Lake Garda and the Adige River, is intense and compelling. "Blackwater Mountain," a poem in Hard Freight, begins with a careful evocation of a place and time: "That time of evening, weightless and disparate, / When the loon cries, when the small bass / Jostle the lake's reflections, when / The green of the oak begins / To open its robes to the dark …" The middle of the poem suggests that the poet is recalling duck hunting with his father, particularly one unsuccessful search for a wounded duck. It ends with these lines:
I stand where we stood before and aim
My flashlight down to the lake. A black duck
Explodes to my right, hangs, and is gone.
He shows me the way to you;
He shows me the way to a different fire
Where you, black moon, warm your hands.
One senses the influence of Montale here in the organizing of the experience and the deliberate openness to mystery, but even more striking is the poem's effective grounding in its sure sense of place, past and present. The lake and duck are not literary; they belong to experience and draw their authenticity from the poet's reverence for the natural world.
In the collections since Country Music, brought together in The World of the 10,000 Things, Wright has moved into more and more ambitious and original poetic forms. Many of the poetic structures cultivate a challenging capaciousness. The Southern Cross opens with the dazzling eight-page poem "Homage to Paul Cézanne," and it closes with the seventeen-page title poem. This latter piece, with unnumbered sections and long, often broken (i.e., stepped-down) lines mixing memory, reflection, speculation, and often quite varying tones, is a sort of journal-become-poem. It turns out to have been the prototype for much of Wright's later work, poems that risk the prosaic and the garrulous while managing both an impressive music and a strict economy. The Other Side of the River tends to restrict these poems to a length of three pages or so as a rule, while Zone Journals lets them go. Made up of just ten poems, it has as its centerpiece the forty-seven-page "A Journal of the Year of the Ox," which, for all its length, does not feel different in kind from the poems around it. Again, the titles are not casual, and one feels that Wright is reinventing the journal as poem and the poem as journal, accomplishing a form of great flexibility and inclusiveness.
"A Journal of English Days," for example, is a twelve-page poem that covers a period spent in England from September to December. The speaker visits a number of places, returning often to Kensington Church Walk, where Pound lived. He ponders the weather, memory, the changing details of the season, an England sometimes seen through the eyes of fellow artists ("Chelsea Embankment, 5p.m. Whistler pastels squished / Down the fluted water, orange, / Tamarind, apricot / jade on the slate slip of the river"), and, as always, he conducts his search for stability and reassurance, for some truth or divinity behind the intriguing brocade of nature. The poem's close is typical in its duality, a weary dismissing of the search, on the one hand, followed by a recollected moment of vision, on the other:
How sweet to think that Nature is solvency,
that something empirically true
Lies just under the dead leaves
That will make us anchorites in the dark
Chambers of some celestial perpetuity—
nice to think that,
Given the bleak alternative,
Though it hasn't proved so before,
and won't now
No matter what things we scrape aside—
God is an abstract noun.
—Flashback: a late September Sunday,
the V & A courtyard,
Holly and I at one end,
Bronze Buddha under some falling leaves at the other:
Weightlessness of the world's skin
undulating like a balloon
Losing its air around us, down drifting down
Through the faint hiss of eternity
Emptying somewhere else
O emptying elsewhere
This afternoon, skin
That recovers me and slides me in like a hand
As I unclench and spread
finger by finger inside the Buddha's eye...
Suddenly God is not an abstract noun, and the search is rewarded, temporarily and on precarious verbal terms, by a moment of vision and wholeness.
It might be said 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. Certainly his temperament is more suited to the tasks at hand. Whereas Gertrude Stein accurately characterized Pound as a "village explainer," 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.