Charles Wright

b. 1935


We've all led raucous lives,/ some of them inside, some of them out./ But only the poem you leave behind is what's important. Charles Wright (from 'Littlefoot')

Stone Canyon Nocturne

Charles Wright

Spider Crystal Ascension

Charles Wright

Clear Night

Charles Wright

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About Charles Wright

Charles Wright [b. 1935] is a poet whose work "catches the visible world at that endless moment before it trails into eternity" [Philip Levine]. This search for transcendence has sustained his long poetic career and has made Wright one of the most widely admired poets in America today.

He was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, this rural southern childhood providing the first of several landscapes which have been vital forces in his writing. After majoring in history at Davidson College, Wright spent four years in the US Army during which time he was stationed in Verona, Italy. The Italian countryside, coupled with his discovery of the work of Ezra Pound, [he used The Pisan Cantos as a kind of guidebook to his travels in Italy], were to have a lasting impact on his imagination. In an interview in The Paris Review Wright identifies northern Italy as one of his "sacred places" and speaks of its transformative power: "I never looked at anything the same way again…its landscape has become the inner landscape I walk through." Italian poetry, particularly Dante and later Montale and Campana, both of whom Wright translated to great acclaim, was also part of this poetic awakening.

Wright returned to America in 1961 determined to become a writer. He enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop where he was taught by Donald Justice and his fellow students included Mark Strand. In 1966 Wright began teaching at the University of California, Irving before returning to Italy in 1968 as a Fulbright Scholar. Since 1983 Wright has taught at the University of Virginia.

His first major collection, The Grave of the Right Hand [1970], bears the influence of Pound and introduces some of Wright's abiding themes: memory, the past, the natural and spiritual world and personal salvation. Hard Freight [1973] established Wright's distinctive voice, particularly his associative technique which juxtaposes striking images and invites readers to make connections. As he says in his Paris Review interview, he is less interested in narrative, at least the kind of story-telling that southern writers are often celebrated for. Instead he focuses on what he calls "luminous moments" which, in his early work, take the form of intense lyric poems.

Hard Freight was followed by Bloodlines [1975] and China Trace [1977], the three collections re-published as a trilogy with the title Country Music: Selected Early Poems [1982]. More than a straightforward 'selected', this reflects Wright's interest in how poems, and indeed whole collections, can connect, extending and developing key metaphors and images. While still not a narrative in the conventional sense, this concept of each collection as part of a single work suggests at least a submerged narrative, as Wright implies when he describes the three sections of Country Music in ter"s of past, present and future which together create "an autobiography by fragmental accretion."

Two further trilogies were to follow: The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990 contains the individual collections The Southern Cross [1981], The Other Side of the River [1984] and Zone Journals [1988]. The latter two mark a shift in style from the concentrated lyrics of his earlier work to a more open meditative mode utilising longer forms. The third of his trilogies, Negative Blue [2000] brings together his published work of the 1990s – Chickamauga [1995], Black Zodiac [1997] and Appalachia [1998]. Together they established Wright's reputation as a leading American poet: Chickamauga, described by the critic James Longenback as "bearably human yet in touch with the sublime", won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize while Black Zodiac was awarded both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Since then Wright has published regularly – almost a collection a year – including A Short History of the Shadow [2002], Buffalo Yoga [2004] and Scar Tissue [2006]. Some of these later books return to the shorter poems and elegies of his early work and are marked by a preoccupation with mortality. This includes his most recent collection, Sestets [2009], which is made up of six line poems that concentrate on memory, landscape and music.

The range of Wright's approaches and the consistent seriousness of purpose which underlies them can be seen in this selection for the Archive. 'Clear Night', 'Spider Crystal Ascension' and 'Stone Canyon Nocturne' all come from his first trilogy and are written in his early concentrated style. In their surreal physicality they bear out Wright’s comment that his poems come from "what I see, rather than from an idea I had in mind: idea follows seeing rather than the other way round." Wright's work has always been influenced by religious language and imagination, both his Christian upbringing in the south and his later deep engagement with eastern traditions through the work of ancient Chinese poetry. His work often conveys a sense of yearning for mystical experience alongside a recognition that today this may not be possible. This tension is beautifully expressed in 'Clear Night' when he speaks of wanting "to be bruised by God" and in the ambivalent "Something" of 'Bedtime Story' which is "inching its way into our hearts". 'A Short History of the Shadow' shows Wright in his more expansive style, using a sequence of poems to ponder whether "a little word" can contain the infinite.

Alongside image, Wright acknowledges that rhythm is also an important originating impulse for his poems. His work is celebrated for its compelling music, a grave and beautiful movement which Wright does full justice to in these recordings.

Selected bibliography

Sestets Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010

Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems Farrar Straus Giroux...

Country Music: Selected Early Poems Wesleyan University...

A tour of the Archive with Monica Ali

On my initial visit to the Poetry Archive, the historical recordings caught my attention first. I did not know that...

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Books by Charles Wright