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