To immerse yourself in reading the work of poet Charles Wright is to move from the fragmentary, keenly observed particulars of the natural world and the consciousness of everyday experience to a parallel, meditative track that seems not so much a derivation of that experience than an uncovering of the deep structure of language and human thought that lies embedded within it.
In his best known poems, that seamless leap – from the shifting focus of perception to the linguistic and historical threads of awareness that render sensory experience coherent – suggests the possibility of transcendence. In the title poem of his collection “Chickamauga,” for instance, he writes:
The poem is a code with no message:
The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath,
unhoused and peregrine.
The gill net of history will pluck us soon enough
From the cold waters of self-contentment we drift in
One by one
into its suffocating light and air.
Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax
And grammar a catechist,
Their words what the beads say,
words thumbed to our discontent.
Wright, the outgoing United States Poet Laureate for the 2014-2015 term, will accept the Burchfield-Penney Art Center’s annual Charles E. Burchfield Award at 6 p.m. Wednesday in recognition of his “outstanding achievements in the arts which express a commitment to environmental sustainability” at an awards event and dinner.
For a poet who has described his own body of work as “a meditation on language, landscape, and the idea of God,” the Burchfield Award, among all the numerous awards and recognitions he has received in his career, seems like one particularly attuned to Wright’s focus and achievements as an artist. If Burchfield was “the mystic, cryptic painter of transcendental landscapes, trees with telekinetic halos, and haunted houses emanating ectoplasmic auras,” as the art critic Jerry Saltz has described him, then Wright is his literary complement, a poet whose work has been described as a “search for transcendence in the landscape of the everyday,” by the editor-critic Ted Genoways.
Wright is many ways a singular figure in contemporary American poetry.
The author of 24 poetry collections, two books of essays, and three books of translation, Wright is perhaps best known for his 30-year spanning “trilogy of trilogies,” each of which is a compilation of three earlier volumes, published as “Country Music: Selected Early Poems” (Wesleyan University Press, 1982), “The World of the Ten Thousand Things” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), and “Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2001).
Among the numerous awards and international honors his work has received are the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Bollingen Prize, Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the International Griffin Poetry Prize, as well as the 2008 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize in Poetry from the Library of Congress.
This interview with was conducted via e-mail with the help of intermediaries (Wright maintains no presence on the internet) in late April, and reviewed over the telephone earlier this month.
It has been edited for length.
Q: Like the work of Charles Burchfield, whose art and vision the Burchfield-Penney Art Center celebrates and after whom the award you will be receiving is named, your poetry is often described as “search for transcendence in the landscape of the everyday.” “Landscape’s a lever of transcendence,” you write in your poem “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” even though that leverage may not always lift in the way the poet or reader expects. Could you speak to the role the specific imagery of vision and place plays in the more abstract and spiritual aspirations of your poetry, beginning with the early poems and culminating in “Negative Blue,” the concluding volume of the project you have called your “Appalachian Book of the Dead”?
A: I’ve always thought that the natural world was a mask and/or a ventriloquist for what lay behind it, the mystery of what supports and draws us like a magnet. This is certainly one of the oldest ideas on earth. No originality here, but I do like to think my take on it is my own. The landscape stands in for what is beyond it. And if one could just get the landscape to function properly, then a door would open and the odor of Paradise would drift through. Wishful thinking, I’m afraid. Everything seen stands for something unseen, if one could just adjust one’s vision correctly. I think the Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty figured it out. I don’t know that anyone else has since. This is a spiritual, not a religious matter, therefore very difficult to talk about. I’ve done better at talking about it (around it) in my poems than I am doing here. I’m uncomfortable talking about such things, and have always been so, though they do obsess me and seem to drive my poetic thinking.
Q: What many readers find most compelling about your work is that sudden, sure-footed leap from the specific imagery of the natural world to the abstract and meditative language of immanence, self-reflection and soul craft. You’ve often cited Ezra Pound and Gerald Manley Hopkins as early influences, but that tendency seems less formal, more intuitive and vernacular in your best-known poems than in theirs. What is the process that leads to this signature shift in the lyric voice of your poems? Is it how you “see” and experience the world (“The road to Damascus runs through/ the veins in the lilac’s leaf,” you write in “Black and Blue”) or is the juxtaposition primarily the work of poetic composition (“Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax/ And grammar a catechist,” you write in “Chickamauga”) and the hard work of re-writing?
A: I would say the leap is the other way around. If I feel I’m getting too much “seriosity” in the poem (as Woody Allen would have it) I tend to turn back and try to get my feet on the ground again. However it is true that most of my poems over the years have gone from something seen into what you might call something unseen. So, to, for once, answer your question, it is how I “see” and experience the world around me. The juxtapositions have less to do with composition concerns than my natural instinct to get at the ungettable. Rewriting really does not come into it. But my rewriting seems to come inside the framework that is already there, not something new.
Q: Although it is tempting to view the entire body of your work as a single, evolving meditation on “language, landscape, and the idea of God,” you’ve chosen to organize much of it into trilogies. “Negative Blue” (2002) is a compilation of the volumes “Chickamauga” (1995), “Black Zodiac” (1997), and “Appalachia” (1998), for instance. What is the significance of your choosing to organize your work in that way? Aside from the correlation to linguistic tense (past, present and future), aren’t there echoes of Dante and the vestigial structure of Christian eschatology implied by it?
A: Actually I think of my work, the whole body of the work, as a single evolving meditation on language, landscape, and the idea of God. It’s sort of like saying the Rosary, or the beads, or mantras. That’s why there is much repetition in the poems, why the imagery so often comes back and comes back again. So the idea of the trilogies was just something I came up with to keep me going, to have a sort of end point to work toward.
Q: Much of the public discussion about contemporary poetry in America over the past two decades has revolved around its marginality and diminishing influence in the larger culture. I know you haven’t been an active participant in this debate, but something you recently told the critic Hal Crowther (“The future of poetry is Oblivion, which of course is the future of everything”) strikes me as being perhaps the most succinct response yet to this ongoing hand-wringing. But as a professor emeritus of English at the University of Virginia, and a longtime teacher of writing, are there any words of solace and advice you can offer younger poets in navigating that oblivion?
A: Take a long rein and a deep seat. No solace, no advice, just an old Western saying: Take it easy, enjoy the ride. Oblivion is everybody’s girlfriend.