Virginian poet Charles Wright was interviewed on PBS a couple years ago.He struck me as humble and purposeful. Each word is carefully considered and placed, not with patting it down but opening something up. He seems more of a archivist who considers than a preacher who tries to convince. His poems seem more the outcomes of long pondering and deft play than of trying to change one’s own mind. [the transcript].
Here’s a poem he read:
I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it was and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and word-thunder
would silence the Silence and all that,
that words were the Word,
that language could lead us inexplicably to grace,
as though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I was young.
I still do.”
Wonderful poem. He’s got a sweet comedic bent and turn.
He uses the line breaks aloud. More than reinforcing the syntax and the meaning, they are oratory pauses mapping well to the text.
So many thousands of English or in-English translation poets exist in the band of what will resonate. A far better entry point to meet him in video than in CV.
Sestets from 2009 is in my hands. Blackbird Archive has 6 poems.
I’m reading from his Sestets: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) and Scar Tissue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), both of which work the longer line. He uses a plainspoken vocabulary with the sense of being mildly amused but not pitching to be taken as clever. He’s there to mull and amuse himself. We listen in to his plain rhythm and syntax. He has a lively tack through it an and a lightly comic alert eye to concrete details. For example in Sestets (his 19th book), p. 16, the first half of Anniversary II read,
“Dun-coloured moth past the windowpane
Now he’s got the right idea,
Fuzzy and herky-jerky,
Pulled by invisible strings towards light where it is.”
How much different it might have been had he not seem to be governed by Grice’s cooperative principles. He doesn’t blather on, nor is it frenetic leap. The spacing on the page does work. The intro line does setting of indoor and to say a moth and its colour. Would it prove something more to the audience to name a species? To say moth alone would be an abstraction and wouldn’t give a picture.
Dun, brown, old-fashioned word for excrement. It sets a tone of distance and attitude. If it were golden or wheat or bark, it might be the same colour, but the one syllable, dun has a weight to it. It feels moody with a touch of dour and a touch of romantic.
It goes past the windowpane. Is it on the inside, disturbed into flight and is trying to get out, or was visible out there only when it went past the window in the night. That has an implication at the end of the stanza where he is within or is the light that draws a moth.
But instead of staying with the moth, there’s the observe, the silent line observing then a conversational conclusion to bring it from the distance to the immediate now. And furthering it to alert it is playing with sound of herky-jerky that matches the sort of motion very well. The lines on the window of page jerk as if in moth flight themselves. The playfulness is then checked with a depth of reference to gnosticism. Even without understanding all its connotations, there’s a tenderness and respect and equal terms given to the moth as companion. If you want to go deeper, it packs out to Mani, the religion that flourished and perished, and his meditations surrounding light and dark and intellect and reason. A moth is already a symbol of transience but the transience takes on larger than its own life, or our lives but the ephemeral nature of cultures over centuries.
The last line in the stanza suggests puppetry. The strings then are not just of the moth’s instincts but all of our instincts. A universal force to be pulled towards the light, even when one is a creature of the night.
How much different that line would be with a comma as “pulled towards the light, where it is”. It is already not in the light. It is already flapped past the light that one is in. The room may be dimly lit enough to see a moth at the window instead of just the black hole and the reflection of the room within. But still having seen the moth, one recognizes being in a desirable place, a place where light is.
The poem is entitled Anniversary II and doesn’t indicate which anniversary it might be. Of a personal event, a death perhaps. A loss of some sort. It doesn’t matter really. It is the quiet time for taking stock.
There’s something else that seems to mark his words, which is an informing himself, grounding in details while giving the reader credit, no overexplaing. For example, in “Return of the Prodigal”, he doesn’t need the word Son in the title so leaves it off. “Lupine and paintbrush stoic in ditchweed,/ larch rust a smear on the mountainside”, he draws the season and landscape but it doesn’t feel like an enumerated list, and isn’t blurred out into painterly comparisons. It is chosen as if for sound and precision.
Life drawings have a sharp accuracy that fiction from the head doesn’t replicate. If you precisely record not what you felt or want to convince someone of but your own direct experience, there’s a flavour that crafting in other ways doesn’t get.
By calling out particular species and particulars and pivoting as he does I stay engaged much like there is in Tweed by Phil Hall. Back to Wright,
We might know there is a mist or distance to the mountainside by adding the descriptor smear. Color isn’t enough when you could dilvulge place by name. There’s an ownership and stewardship to naming. Not some water, some plants but caring enough to give names. Anything else is dismissal, disinterest. If that’s the case why isn’t one writing about subjects that do interest. Without caring reader and writer are redundant.
In Scar Tissue he writes about writing about landscape. “The Minor Art of Self-defense”, p. and says it is the process of being present that matters, the writing, not the subject. “Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique,/ a method of measure,/ a scaffold for strcturing./ I stole its silences, stepped into its hue and cry.//Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God.”