Minneapolis Convention Center | April 11, 2015
Episode 82: Charles Wright at 80: A Celebration of Poetry and Teaching
(John Casteen, Jennifer Chang, Dave Lucas, Mary Szybist) Four students of Charles Wright reflect on his influence on three generations of poets, and read selected poems that have proven durable and instructive in their own writing and pedagogy. Wright's presence as a teaching practitioner is remarkable because he taught so energetically while holding the pace and discipline of his own poetic practice. Few other teaching poets have so clearly modeled the principles he laid out for his students and composed such a remarkable body of work.
Published Date: June 17, 2015
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis. The recording features Jennifer Chang, Dave Lucas, and Mary Szybist. You will now hear John Casteen provide introductions.
Good morning, and welcome. My name is John Casteen. I’m glad to have all of you here for this panel honoring the eightieth birthday of the poet Charles Wright. Charles Wright probably needs a scant introduction, so I will be brief. He was born on August 25, 1935. He will turn eighty this year. He’s the winner, of course, of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and is the current Poet Laureate in the United States. Most germane to this panel, Charles is, I think, instrumental in what I think of as the genetics of the influence in writing programs, but also in the lives of writers all over the U.S. A friend of mine and I once tried to make a list of all of the people we knew had been Charles’s students or students of Charles’s students, and the list was prodigious. It would take us forty-five minutes to do all of the names justice. Charles is really the author of generations of generous and thoughtful training in craft, the idea of a real loyalty—an ongoing, lifelong loyalty to one’s obsessions—and the surefootedness of the poetic line. I think those are some of the common denominators for me. Before my remarks, I’d like to introduce my fellow panelists in the order in which they will appear.
First, Jennifer Chang holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Virginia, and did her doctoral work there. She’s currently on the faculty of the English department at George Washington University. She co-chaired—I believe this is true—that you still co-chair the advisory board of Kundiman?
And is the author of a book of poems, The History of Anonymity, from the VQR Poetry Series, the University of Georgia Press.
Also to my right is Dave Lucas, who holds an MFA from UVA and a PhD in English literature from the University of Michigan, currently teaches at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he runs the Brews and Prose Reading Series. He’s the author of a volume of poems, Weather, also of the VQR UGA Poetry Series.
Presenting last, to my left, is Mary Szybist. Mary did her undergraduate work at the University of Virginia with Charles, took an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is the author of the books Granted, from Alice James, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Incarnadine, which won the National Book Award last year. She teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
My name is John Casteen. Like Mary, I’m an alumnus of the University of Virginia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mary and I went through both of those programs together. I’m the author of a book of—well, two books, Free Union and For the Mountain Laurel, both from the VQR and UGA Series. I teach at Sweet Briar College, presently...
(awkward silence and some laughter)
Little too soon?
Most of what I have to say has to do with Charles’s presence in my life as a teacher. Charles was the first person to tell me that he thought that I would be a good teacher. When he told me that, I had no idea what he was talking about; it didn’t make any sense to me at all. He knew something about me before I knew it about myself. No one would resist the temptation to hagiography at an event like this more than Charles himself would. Partly that’s because he distrusts hagiography in general. He’s, I think, a keener observer of things than would allow a more sentimental kind of memory. But Charles has a fundamental humility about writing and teaching. He’d deflect attention away from himself in the classroom, and he’d deflect attention away from “the self” in his writing and poetic practice. I’ve known Charles since 1991, with you, I think, and it seems like for twenty-four years now I’ve been listening to him say that he has no business asserting any opinion that would derail ambiguity, that he knows nothing, that he has no wisdom or expertise at all to impart, and for twenty-four years I’ve been hearing him rely on the conversational fallback of the rhetorical question, “What do I know? What do I know?” He says that all the time. He’s asking rhetorically, as though the only possible answer could be “nothing,” verbally, but in his poems he’s been giving direct conditional answers with an ongoing sense of revision and transmutation to that question for his entire career. And watching that has been tremendously instructive.
Charles as a teacher always had a fundamental insistence on taking the work with the utmost seriousness but not taking himself seriously at all. He came to the college where I teach and gave a reading two weeks ago. The microphone was pretty lousy, and he got frustrated at a certain point and asked the audience if they could hear him, and people sort of politely made clear that they couldn’t, and he pretended very loudly to bite the microphone, but with the sound effect, then looked down at everyone and said, “Did you hear that?”
You know, along with Debra Nystrom, my first teacher at UVA, Charles really showed all of us how to be the kind of person for whom there was no daylight between the constructed persona on the page and the real person in the real world. His ethic was that you don’t say things you don’t mean, you don’t do things that you don’t have a reason for doing, in life or on the page, and that if you have a choice between artifice and silence, there’s an obvious one to prefer, and that has always been tremendously useful to me. Charles has never been one of those people you meet who’s sort of a walking version of a CV—you know, constantly telling you where they’ve published or what they’ve done or what awards they’ve picked up. Maybe you’ve met those people. Perhaps this weekend!
You know, Charles comes across as a person, not as a personage. He’s like that for many, many, many different kinds of people who find their way into his classroom, and that was true a long time ago, and I think it’s still true now. He can talk to a lot of different kinds of people. He sees the self as a conduit through which poems flow. I think he has a longstanding and probably pretty verbal belief that the oracular understanding of how poems are made is the right one—that if you make yourself available, it comes through you into the world. Thus the person who writes the poem is the medium, not the subject. And he taught us, as I said at the very first, the loyalty to our own obsessions and fascinations, to the idiosyncrasies of our own subject matter and approach, and he taught us—this is a direct quote—“never to denigrate one’s own work.” He always displayed an equanimity toward his older work, toward older impulses, older subject matter, older ideas that were the best he could do at the time, but not ultimately satisfying to him, ultimately insufficient. And I’ve never heard him judge his older work. And I’ve always heard him tell people not to denigrate their own work, not only because their poems deserve better, but because their classmates will do it for them, you know? He always had that insistence that the poem matters. That it’s the poem itself that matters, at the cellular level, beginning with the stanza, the integrity of the stanza, the integrity of the line, the importance of the richness of the vocabulary, and of the phoneme.
As a teacher in the classroom, many, many different kinds of students were bringing him many, many different kinds of poems, and I was struck even then, as a boneheaded nineteen-year-old, by the way he was able to meet many different kinds of work on its own terms. He was not asking, “Is this a good kind of poem for you to have tried to write?” He was asking, “How do we make this poem more like what it wants to be?” And that sense of divorcing his own ego, or his own preferences, from the student’s wishes always seemed to me to privilege what was on the page in a way that I’ve admired and have tried to carry forward in my own teaching. The proof of that practice of his is that his former students vary wildly in style. I mean they’re all over the place. If you look at the list, it’s sort of formidable. You can’t—you know, it’s like looking at somebody whose children look really dissimilar from one another, and you’re asking yourself, “Really?” But that’s how he was. Is. That sense of integrity of the poem leads his students to sound more like themselves. That’s what I loved about him as a teacher.
When I was his student at UVA, I formed what was either the dumbest or the smartest learning approach I’ve ever heard of, and I still don’t know which it was. And specifically it was that I just made a standard practice—just a rule for myself that I would never read my teachers’ poems when I was their student. And I know that a lot of people feel very strong in the opposite direction—that they don’t feel that they should trust the advice if they can’t see what the person giving the advice made of it. I never wanted to read my teachers’ work perceiving that the advice they were giving me would lead inexorably toward the kind of results that they themselves produced. I wanted to be able to receive their advice open-endedly, without being steered toward the single solution that they had derived for themselves, and so, in a way I suppose that’s why I’m talking a lot more about Charles’s demeanor in the classroom than his poems, which I also love, but which I read much later. I think that there is a subconscious tendency for a lot of teachers to be somehow gratified by the work of students. The gratification that Charles always seemed to find had to do with the work itself, not to do with the work’s resemblance to his own. And I appreciate that very much.
There’s one piece of Charles’s advice that I heard of very recently and that I have intentionally taken wrong. I mean that in a good way. Charles and Mary came to the Virginia Festival of the Book two weeks ago, and they gave a question and answer session following a reading which was brilliant, typically. And in the question-and-answer session, Charles veered distinctly toward the discussion of silence in poems, and he was sort of getting in the direction of: The best poems do what prayer does, and prayer connects us with the infinite or the sublime in a way that exists before language. It suggests that cognitive thought is available to the mind of the infinite before we attach words to it, therefore the best poem must be the silent poems. And I believe that he believes that. I can see the silences in his work, much as I can see the way that a lot of his favorite musicians use silence between notes, but the advice that he gave himself about that is not the advice I got from him in the classroom, which has been probably the most important advice I’ve ever gotten as a poet. Essentially I didn’t understand from Charles that the poem was an enactment of silence. I did understand that it was an enactment of something animal and cosmic and important and sacred and holy, whether in a secular sense or a religious sense. It’s not by accident that he revers Gerard Manley Hopkins. But the way in which I always understood poems to enact something like prayer was not silent at all, because the most important lesson I learned from Charles Wright has to do with the poem as a physical act of the body. I always understood from him, both from the way he acted, the way he read poems aloud, the way he wanted to hear them read aloud by other people, that the poem was a physical act of the human body, that a poem was alive only in the human voice, and that it could only ever be latent on the page. That sense of physicality—of the poem being a made thing that comes out of the human experience of having a body in the world—that underlies all of those physical metaphors that you find through fifty years of his poems. That’s why he comes up with all of those tangible comparisons for figurative speech.
In closing, I guess I want to say very briefly, the first time I ever went into a college classroom to teach poetry, the first time that I ever realized that it was my job, all of a sudden—in an inexplicable way—I didn’t think anybody should have entrusted me with this responsibility, possibly with good reason. I didn’t understand why anyone had entrusted me with this responsibility, and I went into the men’s room before teaching the class, and I ran very cold water out of the faucet, and I splashed it on my face and stood up and looked in the mirror, and I said to myself, “You now have to do as good for those students as Charles Wright and Jorie Graham did for you.” A very important moment for me. It was the only time I ever felt nervous going into a classroom, but it was surpassingly nervous, and I suppose that I will spend the rest of my teaching life, hoping to continue to bring it around.
Thanks very much.
Next up is my friend and colleague Jen Chang.
Thank you, John, for asking me to fill in for Lisa Rusbar, who couldn’t be here, and thank you to my fellow students of Charles. I have not been back to AWP in six or seven years, and this is the only panel I would have come back for, so it’s been really wonderful to spend time thinking about Charles as my teacher.
So I’m just gonna read from my little script. I’m calling this “Improvisations on Charles Wright” because it’s very disorganized, so here I go.
I remember once, in office hours, Charles asking me what church I belong to. It was a question I’d never been asked before and didn’t, in that moment, expect, as I had just given him a couple of poems, which he had just read, and which I would have said, if anyone would have asked, are about my father or the night or New Jersey. I knew the price of admission to Charles’s office hours: I had to make him laugh. So instead of saying I was church-less, or born and raised atheist, I said, “My family belongs to the church of the Mushu Pork.” This pleased him and distracted him. “You know, I know that’s not real Chinese food” was his rejoinder. So then, instead of addressing the question, we talked about line breaks or some cluttered syntax or Phillip Larken, but thinking back now, it is this question that animated the life of my imagination as a writer—it’s filled me with doubt and wonder. Which church could I belong to, and how? Why was this the question that my poems led Charles to ask me?
One thing I learned from reading Charles long before I became his student was that the questions worth asking were hard to articulate and harder to answer; an awkward choreography of never quite answering the question is what leaves the poem to dance. I have learned so much from Charles as first his reader and then his student and then once again as his reader. Yet so many of these lessons are evasive, ineffable, radiantly contradictory, strange, and too dynamic and vast to assign an image to. “What church do you belong to?”
Perhaps I’m leaning too heavily on adjectives when I ought simply to turn to his poems. “Portrait of the Artist with Hart Crane” is a poem of his I teach most often, as it’s a gateway to the thornier mysteries of his later work.
I’m going to read the poem now.
(Reads “Portrait of the Artist with Hart Crane”)
If the line, “The subject of all poems is the clock,” shines like truth, the sudden sputter of doubt in the next line, “I think,” a qualifying clause, an iambic engine near breakdown, unveils the writer at work. “I think” expresses hesitation before turning to deliberation of image making. The body of time takes hold of a human body. My students often wonder if the speaker is drunk. There’s a cigarette butt, an empty wine glass, a long-dead modernist poet in post-cranial lull under the Venetian pergola, but the poets perform a moral arithmetic—“One day more is one day less”—which is to say the poet’s hard at work writing the poem. The sun’s business is radiance, the poet’s business, evanescence. To write with a pencil “made of rain” like the watery light of Crane’s future is to pattern a void, or, as Charles writes in a later poem, “Out of nothing, nothing comes. The rain keeps falling.” One writes because of and despite Hart Crane, because of and despite the rain. It’s a knowledge students often don’t like, or aren’t ready for. It makes them uncomfortable to recognize that death is the mother of beauty. To be honest, I don’t like thinking about time either, even though that’s what I’m writing about. Time is what lets us know that we’re gonna miss the bus; it’s the length of the song, an ideal increment, a day’s duration. Time doesn’t tell us where to go, but it tells us when.
I thought a lot about time when, years after I finished my MFA at UVA, I began re-reading The Cantos. I’d always love Pound’s early poems; his mistranslations of the Chinese were my first encounters of Asian literature, and the erotic glimpses afforded by his Albas still excite me. However, various attempts at reading The Cantos had stalled; his epic built out of lyric fragments, described by Pound as “a poem to include history,” took a long time to read, was hard, and had me looking in too many directions. Upon rereading, I began to recognize the form. Each Canto layers language, landscape, and history, and performs a process of knowing by alternately confronting and withdrawing from an image or an idea. Pound weaves in certain strains of music, a continuing yet intermittent melody that trains the reader’s attention just as the poem’s challenging elusiveness strains it. But there are moments, too, of startling lucidity and feeling.
And I’m quoting from Cantos 8— “Canto LXXX.”
(Reads from “Canto LXXX”)
Reading The Pisan Cantos in particular was a clarifying experience. I knew these Cantos as an early influence on Charles. Pound’s ability to see other landscapes, the landscape of central Italy, to see history and memory radiating out of the most quotidian images—birds resting on a telephone wire, for example, had clearly given Charles a vision for future poetics. And speaking of birds resting on a telephone wire, here is “Cantos LXXV.” I thought it would be a smaller room, but it’s worth looking at because you’re reading all this stuff and it’s like nothing makes sense, and suddenly you get to this page, and it’s just—it’s a musical score. It’s called the Chant des Oiseaux, the “song of the birds,” and Pound wrote this along with the other Pisan Cantos while he was imprisoned in an American disciplinary training center in Pisa. He was locked in a six-by-six-foot cage, exposed to the elements, wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone, but he would look out from this cage every day and see the Apennine Mountains and birds on the wire, and in some ways this is what that looked like to him: musical notes on a page.
Locked in a six-by-six-foot cage, exposed to the elements, he could see the Apennine Mountains and birds on a telephone wire, which he kept count of in his head and in his poem. “Canto LXXV” is citation and ekphrastic, a found poem, but is also a metonym for his lover, the violinist Olga Rudge, who had once performed the song of the birds. It’s a visual representation of what Pound saw every day from his cage: the landscape of his mind and heart mirroring his material landscape in an abstract, yet highly specific way. Charles’s poems urge the reader to look outside oneself, to the material world that subsumes you and to the past, historical, natural, and personal, that consume you. He teaches us that it can never be the Ego that is the nothing that nothing has come to. Nothing ought to be the soul, the uncertainty of the soul, the soul of our uncertainty, and only in looking for and at nothing can we begin to see it. “Which church do you belong to?” one might ask. Looking at the birds is a way of looking at the sky. For Pound this looking was a vision of freedom, and indeterminate future, a game of numbers that’s oddly poetic, a song, a consolation of history as a faraway love, and a much sullied paradise. If I had learned to read Ezra Pound through Charles Wright, I had also learned to read Charles Wright through Ezra Pound. He re-imagines “Canto LXXV” in the last section of his longer lyric “Scar Tissue,” where the birds are named and counted and quarrelling.
(Reads from “Scar Tissue”)
Looking at the birds, the poet sees his own reflection, a quarrel with himself only, and here he’s complicating Yeats’s definition of poetry. The self is divided into Ravens and Blackbirds, variations on a theme, one pair of nature’s false friends, the difference between a raven and a blackbird is the difference between Poe and Stevens, the dark story and the dark thought. And that’s another one of Charles’s many layers in a poem. And while their quarrel might be read as an allegory of Charles’s anxiety of influence, it ultimately culminates in his primary poetics, the effort that erases the self. The blackbirds become invisible as yesterday’s prayer, an incantation so very familiar to all of us poets. “Working hard, Lord, working hard.”
Two brief passages stick out to me in an essay Charles wrote long ago about his teacher, Donald Justice. This is the first one:
“He was a teacher in the best possible way. He opened you to what was possible and what was impeccable in his own work,” and “We don’t say enough about our teachers. We are all a product of who we read and who told us what.”
Let me say more about my teacher. I fear that in my remarks on Charles I am suggesting that he taught me to read a lot, write a lot, and accept the little I know. I’m not saying that, and I’m also not not saying that. And yet, the fruit of not knowing can be so sweet—in its abundance, ‘there’s so much I don’t know’ is vexing, and our infinite appetite for knowing, ‘but I must know,’ even more so. My faith in poetry and language fall short often, but my face is there. It brings me to the page as a reader and a writer. It brings me to want to share what’s on that page. You know, I know that to talk about one’s best teacher risks failure, and I confess I’ve failed Charles countless times. Every time I’ve read a poem again, and again, and then again, and finally see what I did not or could not before. I recognize the possibility that there is still more to see: the grief of words and the praise. It’s the same with writing. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I keep doing it. I learned that from my teacher. I have faith in my not knowing. And so I’m going to close with the last section of one of my favorite poems of Charles’s from his own journals. It’s from Chinese Journal. It’s the last stanza.
(Reads from Chinese Journal)
Good morning. I know John said to avoid hagiography, so I will not selling the relics and dispensations I had planned previously but see me afterward if you’re inclined. Thank you all so much for being here today. I know that the 9:00 a.m. slot on Saturday morning is something like a gauntlet being thrown down for all of us, so I imagine the presence of all of you here speaks very much to yours and our collective reverence for a great poet, and a better person. Thank you.
My name is Dave Lucas. I studied with Charles Wright in the MFA program at the University of Virginia between 2002 and 2004. One of the things that I learned there is that one of the great pleasures of being a student of Charles’s is the sense of community and even of family among fellow students of his, such as Jen, and Mary, and John, and it’s very much an honor for me to be among their company today. I want to talk today about Charles’s own rigorous ideas of form and structure, as well as his remarkable capacity for imparting that rigor to his students without imposing on them his own aesthetic. As committed to his own sense of form as he has always seemed to me, he is just as invested in the idea that other poets must find the forms and structures that suit the poems they want to write. I want to begin with the first Charles Wright poem I ever loved from his 1998 collection Appalachia. The poem is an elegy called, “Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May.”
This poem, like so many of Wright’s poems, addresses his fundamental doubts about everything. The weather outside his window, the weather in the mind, life and death, salvation and extinction. Charles tells us so much about each of these by telling us how little he knows about all of them. In fact, one of the great lessons I’ve taken from Charles and one that you’ve heard echoed here already today, since I never quite got that lesson from Plato and Socrates, is that as persons and as poets we must be skeptical of any sentence that begins with the phrase “I know,” especially when we find those words creeping out of our own mouths. And yet, for all his doubts, Wright’s faith in form and structure is firm, and similarly so his sense that as with language, landscape, and the idea of god, the essence of form and structure lies beyond our ability to comprehend. He has imagined form to be as organic as the spider spinning her web, the structure of her existence from her own body. He writes, “I think one’s poems should come out of one’s body and life the way webbing comes out of a spider.” But this has never meant autobiography in any recognizable sense. As we know, those poems of his are no more about the events of his life than the spider’s silk is about anything. As long as the poem is of the poet, it need not be about the poet. But form is also a temporary stay against the organic processes of decline and decay, a glimpse of order in the world of entropy. In this way form is also a ritual. Marking time, the lyric poem is an attempt to defy time. This is, after all, the poet who writes that “form is a transubstantiation of content” and that “each line should be a station of the cross.” “Each line should be a station of the cross.” No pressure there for the rest of us, huh, Charles?
So when he writes “Rainy Saturday, Larry dead three weeks now,” he is counting time through the changes in weather, the changing calendar, and the ultimate changes of life and death. And in particular he is counting with his lines of odd-numbered syllables. That particular line has eleven if you’re keeping track. In theory these lines are engineered to avoid falling into the bumpty-bump of tetrameters and pentameters, but I think there’s something more than that to them. I think they function as ritual every bit as much as they do as prosody. The ritual counting of rosary beads, for instance. As his colleague Stephen Cushman has written, “Through these certain structures, syllable, line, stanza, sequence, Wright evokes the ultimate uncertainty that is his great subject.” By the time we reach the end of the poem, part of the rain has now fallen, the rest still to fall, with its characteristic thirteen syllables, we understand the fecklessness of any attempt to master time simply by measuring it, but we can also revel in the beauty of such attempts, in beauty, that elusive quality made possible because time passes.
For Wright, though, poetic form is spatial as well as temporal. Wright’s poetics also includes his understanding of the page itself as a landscape as specific to him as the meadows near the Yaak River or the foothills about the Piave. A Charles Wright poem has its own sound, of course, but also its own look, in large part because of his use of the drop down hemi-stitch, or to put it in his much more poetic phrase, the low-rider. He attributes to Cézanne his concern with the architecture of the poem, the landscape of the word, but he borrows the low-writer from Pound and uses it to his own effects. ‘Make it old,’ is the new ‘make it new.’ The low-writer spreads the line out across the page horizontally while the poem continues its familiar decent down the page. The outlines of the printed poem come to define the limits of the page’s blank space, much as Wright has suggested that the visible world suggests the invisible landscape beyond the landscape we look at here. The low-writer also expands the surface area of the poem, allowing for a longer line that neither sags nor breaks, but it also allows Charles to modulate his tone. And if you know the person, you know that the modulations in tone are some of the best parts of conversation with him. I think that’s there in the poems, too. So that he can open a stanza with a line that, in my opinion, risks melodrama, “The world was born when the devil yawned,” then temper the statement with the drop-down phrase, “the legend goes,” at once making the claim and distancing himself from it. The next line asks, “and who’s to say it’s not true?” So in a single breath, and in two and a half lines, he can repeat the legend, doubt it, and then doubt the doubt. As long as I’ve known him, or known of him, Wright has worked, and has taught others to work, in the synapse between certain structures and uncertain metaphysics, and for all the idiosyncrasy and the rigor of his own poetic method, Wright’s own pedagogical approach has always been more matter of negative capability than of egotistical sublime. When I was a recovering pentametrist, (audience laughter) Charles would happily discuss ionics and inverted first feet with me during his office hours. When I turned my focus to free verse, he would talk to about that more mysterious idea, the integrity of the line, and workshop Charles seemed to aim his suggestions simultaneously at the poem under discussion, and somehow outward at poetry itself.
But form and structure are not merely characteristics of finished poems; they’re also habits for composing them. What Charles also taught me as a writer was not to fear ‘not writing’—that patience and attention were disciplines to be cultivated just as much as composition and revision. One day, frustrated with what I’d been writing, or more accurately what I’d not been writing, I confessed to him that I wished I was one of those writers who could write every day. “Hell,” he said to me, “nobody does that. They just tell you [that] you are because they feel like you’re supposed to.” (audience laughter) Part of me knew he was saying this simply to make me feel better, but another part of me felt that I had just been given permission to wait, to look around and listen and think, as he so often shows himself doing in his own poems, and that the poems themselves would come from there. Not exactly silk from a spider, but I’ll take it.
If Charles Wright had never taught a single course or workshop, he would still stand as one of the most influential and exemplary poets of our time. Fortunately for us, we also have his example and his influence as a teacher and as a person. The same benevolence and curiosity, the same self-effacing humor and generosity that we find in his poetry, we find as well in his mentorship and friendship. His advocacy on behalf of younger writers, although I think he’d wince to hear me using that in the comparative, “younger writers,” and his model as a constant student of the craft of poetry. For someone who insists on how little he knows, he always seems to know just how to speak to a student or friend in need of guidance.
Here’s hoping that he continues to write and speak, and that we continue to read and listen for years to come. Thank you.
It’s daunting to try to say something about Charles Wright, for whom I have so much admiration and gratitude, and daunting actually to say anything about him as a teacher. I know many of you know his poems intimately and have worked with him. I hope there’s some room for conversation at the end.
When asked in his Paris Review interview what he looks for in the poems he reads by younger poets, Charles Wright answered, “language that has a life of its own, seriousness of subject matter beyond the momentary gasp and glitter, a willingness to take on what’s difficult and beautiful, a willingness to be different and abstract, a willingness to put on the hair shirt, and go into the desert and sit still and listen hard and write it down, and tell no one.” I don’t remember Charles explicitly saying this in his undergraduate writing workshops when I was his student. It was never Charles’s way to tell us what kind of poem we should want to write. But this is what I came to understand in his classes, or something very like it. Regardless of whether or not I had the skill to do it, he gave me permission to take on what was difficult and beautiful. I would not have had the words to explain it then, but my time with Charles, with his thoughts, with his questions, his seriousness, which was always serious no matter how funny, showed me how much was possible in poetry as well as how much was required. Was I willing to put on the hair shirt and go into the desert and sit still and listen hard and write it down, and tell no one?
Charles’s most important teaching may not have come through explicit statement, but at the same time, some of Charles’s statements have become so vital to me, that I think of them daily, habitually, all the time. Here are a few:
1. What you have to say, most likely, will not be news. How you say it, just might be.
2. Unless you love the music of words, you are merely a pamphleteer.
3. Art tends towards the certainty of making connections. The artist’s job is to keep them apart, giving it tension and keeping it alive, letting the synapse spark.
4. New structures, new dependencies.
5. Where else do we live but in our own constructions?
The first book by Charles I ever picked up was Zone Journals. I remember standing in Daedulus bookshop in Charlottesville, and looking at the black and red abstract sketch on its cover, followed by poems titled with titles like “Yard Journal,” “March Journal,” “Night Journal”—titles that suggest their meditations were not provoked by extraordinary circumstances but by ordinary daily life. Here was an abstract and dynamic cover that said to me, ‘art’. Here was a book of journal poems that said to me, ‘life.’ The idea is entirely obvious, but the experience of that book, of reading that book, showed me how art, extraordinary art, could be made out of ordinary life. “It was like being alive twice,” Linda Greg once said, reflecting on the opportunities of a poem. I hadn’t been part of the experiences from which the poems emerged, but I could feel, could participate in, the life these journal poems made. It wasn’t so much what they had to say, of course, but how they said it, that was big news to me. Every poem seemed to emerge from sitting still and listening hard. “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” observes:
(Reads from “A Journal of the Year of the Ox”)
Attention, Charles shows us over and over, can’t be forced to yield revelation no matter how much we desire it. He has said, all his poems seem to be an on-going argument with himself about the unlikelihood of salvation. What I found in them, what I still find, is the kind of salvation of the spiritual, of the possibility of the spiritual—a way of engaging with the spiritual that does not depend on faith. He says he fell from grace when he was sixteen, but he calls his poems his devotions, and compares them to prayer beads, each one in some sense circular, returning to where it began. June Journals was an early example of how much amplitude the long line could yield, how much of the quotidian it could include while still rendering the poem as a kind of prayer bead in a larger sequence. More recently Sestets works formally with the elegance of silence. Each sestet is missing its octave, but the octave, which of course traditionally introduce the problem of the sonnet, don’t need to be spelled out. The problem is clear, given: mortality and the question of salvation. We know the problem. We know we have a finite amount of time to face that problem. So the sestets meditate on it over and over. Each like a prayer bead on a rosary that can never deliver you beyond its circle.
Recently when I was talking about these poems with someone, he said he found the poems of Charles Wright to be like fantastical Parisian boats floating past at night, bright with hundreds of delicate multicolored lights. “I like those boats,” I shot back nonsensically, having no idea what he was talking about. What I understood was the comment’s dismissiveness. But consider the light in one of those lit up poems. Here’s the end of section 21 from Littlefoot:
(Reads from Littlefoot)
This is hardly just a pleasure ride.
“Something infinite behind everything appears and then disappears,” he says, “in the other side of the river.”
“The more luminous anything is, the more it subtracts what’s around it, making the unseen seen,” he says in “Yard Journal.”
And in the “Journal of the Year of the Ox” he asks, “What is life of contemplation worth in this world? How far can you go if you concentrate? How far down?”
There’s nothing inherently virtuous about concentration here; it’s this kind of humility that seems to me the bedrock of his teaching and his poetry. In an interview he commented, “The problem with all of us as we get older, is that we begin writing as though we were somebody. One should always write as if one were nobody. We should always write out of our ignorance and desire and ambition. There’s no success in poetry, there is only the next inch, the next handhold out of the pit.”
Charles Wright might still be willing to put on the hair shirt and then to go into the desert and sit still and listen hard and write it down and tell no one. But I am grateful that he does tell. Here is another last example:
(Reads “Monastery at Vršac )
The last line is a concession about the poem as a whole. It admits that, as prayer, the poem is failure. Despite the dazzling attentiveness of these lines, the final line insists that they come closer to preaching than praying—deliberately diminishing the poem for the sake of elevating our conception of prayer. Prayer perhaps is that thing—unlike time in the summer rain—that will not erode our hearts. Whatever it is the poem points to it as something beyond these lines.
In this the poem becomes an ode to prayer itself, and perhaps even a preparation for it. Charles has said that poems aspire to the condition of prayer, and perfect prayer is silence.