The Wright choice for poet laureate

The Library of Congress exercised superb judgment earlier this month by selecting Charles Wright to succeed Natasha Trethewey as  U.S. poet laureate.

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 11.05.21 AMThere are few modern giants still standing in the world of poetry — there’s W.S. Merwin, of course, but I have a hard time identifying too many others (I welcome any and all of your suggestions, my friends).

Let’s see … Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy … ?

Wright is undeniably a part of this group. He’s not only prolific; he also practices his craft well within that shimmering notion of a “tradition” that T.S. Eliot described in his famous, foundational essay.

Which made me a little surprised with some of the announcements of Wright’s naming, especially in the Washington Post, because they emphasize (and over-repeat) that Wright is a “Southern poet” who was born in Tennessee.

They refer to his Southern background so many times that it seems like they’re surprised by it, or else it’s some kind of novelty. I can’t help visualizing him in some stereotypical way — as having a drawl or listening to Carrie Underwood (I don’t know, maybe he does).

It’s not that: It’s just that the geographic insistence gives the impression to unfamiliar audiences that Wright is some kind of regional talent, not the bearer of literary tradition in a grander, older context (which he is).

The Wright I know is the admirer (disciple?) of Dante who describes his experience of reading Inferno during a summer in Laguna Beach, Calif., in an essay included in the volume The Poet’s Dante (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Or else, for me, Wright is the speaker  who has an intriguing encounter in the poem “A Journal of the Year of the Ox”:

Who is it here in the night garden,
Gown a transparent rose
Down to his ankles, great sleeves
Spreading the darkness around him wherever he steps,
Laurel corona encircling his red transparent head cap,
Pointing toward the Madonna?

This mysterious figure has some advice for the poem’s speaker about his craft, about life in general:

Brother, remember the way it was
In my time: nothing has changed:
Penitents terrace the mountainside, the stars hang in their
                     bright courses
And darkness is still the dark:
                     concentrate, listen hard,
Look to the nature of all things….

There are many works in which poets describe imagined meetings with other poets. Dante meets Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio … Eliot encounters a poet (Yeats?) in Little Gidding … Heaney meets Joyce in Station Island …. and Wright speaks to Dante in the above passage. There now, do you see it? Tradition.

A full circle.

There’s a linkage to the distant literary past that’s vitally alive in Wright’s poetry, as this passage might suggest, and I’m excited by the Library of Congress’ decision for a simple reason: It may give an immensely important poet a chance to become even more widely known.


Paris Review: J.D. McClatchy in conversation with Charles Wright


11 thoughts on “The Wright choice for poet laureate

  1. Perhaps they mention his Southern background for the same reasons you seemed to refer to…a drawling down-home, whisky from a jug drinking poet. You seem to imply that a Southerner would not read Dante. Would not know how to converse with the great ones. I’m not blaming you, that’s the image many have of Southern people, so perhaps the lauds mention his Southern background as a way for all of us to come face to face with our pre-judged images and expectations.

  2. Point taken, and I’ve tried to clarify in an update to the post. It’s the regional identification in new announcements that’s strange to me. It leads to the stereotype.

    Oh no. I think you’ve misunderstood this post. I don’t mean that at all about Southerners — if Faulkner can have one of his characters reading a well-thumbed edition of Catullus, I can easily imagine that there’s a copy of Dante nearby, too.

  3. As a former Midwesterner and proclaimed “Yankee” when I lived in Raleigh, NC, for a time, I do think there is something otherworldly about many “Southern” writers, something akin to the magical realism attributed to many Latin American writers. Of course, I’m speaking in generalities. It feels like there’s a mythology they’ve grown up with that adds another dimension to their world view. And this world view often includes “the classics” as things that are lived and breathed, along with the night-blooming jasmine and wisteria. It includes a certain type of darkness, a willingness to witness the grotesque along with the ethereal. I don’t know. It’s too elusive, so very difficult to put my finger on. Suffice to say, I think that Wright is more than a brilliant choice. Am I stereotyping the “Southern Writer?” It’s funny, I suddenly recall a gentleman in a writing class I took once saying that “of course, it’s fine to call a ship or a plane or car ‘she’ as long as we’re admiring ‘her’ beauty, right?” So am I justified in writing something so stereotypical of “Southern Writers” because I’m do so in a complimentary way?

  4. Thanks for this, Jil. On the otherworldly quality of Southern writing that you describe — I think Shelby Foote wrote something in a letter to Walker Percy on that same elusive quality. I’ll have to look for it. Their entire correspondence is wonderful. They’re very aware of the South’s mythology and, in your phrase, “the grotesque along with the ethereal.” Your point’s much more nuanced than mine, which was just that too much focus on geography takes away from the fact that Wright’s work transcends place/region/time. Hopefully more people will read him!

  5. In her wonderful book, “Mystery and Manners,” Flannery O’Connor has this to say about the issue of the grotesque and Southern mythology:

    “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

    Every time I read that, I laugh, both in amusement and in recognition. Then, I think about this other quotation of hers:

    “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

    Of course, Miss Mary Flannery’s pretty far out to one end of that Southern Writer/Poet continuum, but that doesn’t diminish the truth of what she says. What I do wonder is whether people might be referring to Wright as Southern, not as a direct reference to Faulkner, Welty, or O’Connor, but to what I hear as a new Southern voice. An example would be Wendell Berry. At its best, his poetry’s memorable and pleasing. Some of it I think more pedestrian. Still, his vision is wide-ranging, his concerns are contemporary, and his grounding in the classics can’t be questioned. I don’t know Wright’s work all that well, but I suspect he possesses the same qualities, and those will help him to escape Southern stereotyping.

  6. Thanks Shoreacres for bringing O’Connor into the mix and into this thread. I can see what you mean about how Wright is being framed as a Southerner, and that might be true in other stories about his accession to the post. The news stories I read just seemed to emphasize it in a way that I think is too much or misunderstands his work, since he sometimes starts a poem in the particulars (like his native Tennessee) of a Southern landscape, but also transcends it/universalizes it. He’s definitely worth your time — even if you just need 5 minutes of mental palate cleansing, Wright is a wonderful go-to.

  7. Now I know I’m going to have to take some time to immerse myself in Wright, since what you say about that particular-to-universal movement is something I tend to do, too. Also, this occurred to me. There’s that old and somewhat trite saying that “everyone’s gotta be somewhere.” But it’s trite because it is true, and writers who can capture the immediacy of being “somewhere” are among my favorites — whether they’re writing poetry or non-fiction.

    In fact, I believe I’ll put some of his work on my agenda for the upcoming holiday. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Happy to oblige, Shoreacres, and I recommend the Wright collection “The World of Ten Thousand Things.” That’s where you’ll find his Ox poem, featuring a cameo by Dante.

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