Saturday, June 28, 2014

America's New Poet Laureate

Charles Wright

Last month, Charles Wright was named by the Library of Congress as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. Wright is one of the most celebrated poets of a generation of American poets that includes such figures as W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, Donald Hall, C.K. Williams, John Ashbery (and the late Adrienne Rich). Among the many honors he has been awarded, he is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize for American Poetry.

Not much happens in a poem by Charles Wright, one critic wrote admiringly. His poems are out-loud contemplations, meditations on language, landscape, and the idea of God. A Wright poem has a deceptive off-the-cuff feel, something Wright achieves through the use of a sometimes folksy idiom and also through his choice of poem titles. He pulls most of his titles from popular culture, frequently from the lyrics of country music classics. One of the pleasures for the reader is following Wright's unfolding thought process to the place where he leads you. It is an amble facilitated by a lyrical use of language that leads us frequently to a clearing where we are suddenly confronted with a beautiful and arresting image. Wright has said, “Most of my poems start with me looking out the window or sitting in the backyard as dusk comes down, and what that sort of translates into---into my thinking at the moment.” And in a PBS interview he explained, “I don’t start out with ideas for poems, which is fine for other people, but it doesn’t seem to work that way very well with me. And so one tries to describe the landscape in terms of what’s not there by describing what’s there. I know that sounds kind of hokey, but I’ve been trying to pursue that for all these years. Of course, I haven’t succeeded, but then if you really succeed at something, then you haven’t taken on something hard enough.”

I have read Wright since the early days, attracted by the use of landscape as allegory for the interior life and for the metaphysical world, an approach to poetry he shares with the classic Chinese poets (and artists) of the Tang dynasty. The entry point seems to be the line on the horizon, where the sky meets the earth, where the light of some insight seeps in from some other place, like the horizontal bar of light in a Mark Rothko painting. As Wright has become older, the longer, more discursive poems of his earlier years have given way to poems considerably shorter, but that still retain Wright’s characteristic concerns and modus. Wright explains, “As one gets older, one tries to do more with less. I was much more loquacious when I was younger.” And in another interview he has said “We have more to say when we’re younger. We have better things to say when we’re older, not necessarily more.” Wright prefers the shadows: “If you write your work, public attention to it is best. Who cares who wrote [the Old English classic] “The Seafarer”? Nobody. It’s a great poem. I’m of a mind that poetry is basically a private thing, and that’s probably not a good thing for a laureate to think. But I’ll do the best I can.” In a recent PBS interview Wright said, “Well I would actually prefer all my work to be anonymous and to be discovered in a monastery about 500 years from now.”

Caribou is Wright’s latest book of verse, and one that he thinks may be his last. In one of the lines in a poem in the collection, he refers to what he is writing as “old man’s poetry,” and indeed the poems here are elegiac in nature, concerned with mortality and expressing a sort of bemused summing up that comes with a shrug and some humor. It is hard for me to imagine a young person feeling at home in this collection, but for those of us who have followed Wright all along, it seems an essential and poignant epilogue. And to those who have followed him over the years with some attention, we are not surprised to arrive here.

Well, two things are certain---
the sun will rise and the sun will set.
Most everything else is up for grabs.
It’s back on its way down now
As a mother moose and her twin calves
Step lightly, lightly
Across the creek through the understory
And half-lit grasses,
Then disappear in a clutch of wild bushes.
If one, anyone,
Could walk through his own life as delicately, as sure,
As she did, all wreckage, all deadfall,
Would stay sunlight, and ring like crystal among the trees.

From Caribou, by Charles Wright

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