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Reading the Bones

An Interview with Charles Wright

ISSUE:  Winter 2019

Illustration by Denise Nestor

In his response to my first letter to him, Charles Wright said of my own decision to write poems, “I hope it gives you what it has given me—a life.” I took this wide view from such a hard gazer of a poet as both balm and call. I first encountered Wright’s poetry through his book Bloodlines when I was in graduate school, writing a doctoral thesis on the American elegy. In particular, I wanted to look closely at how books of poems centering on loss and family served as vocational affirmations to the poets who wrote them. I thought I was thinking about grief, how poets made art out of bereavement. When I found Bloodlines, however, I knew I was in over my head, and that has been one of the greatest gifts of my reading life. Here was a sterner poetry than I had encountered before, and a poet who did not flinch from pain. If Wright’s poems do not assuage our griefs, his landscapes, meditations, and portraiture—his journal forms, dropped lines, direction allusions—nevertheless console us by affirming such burdens: “Grief is a floating barge-boat, who knows where it’s going to moor?” (“Toadstools”). While Wright’s poems move from ground level upward, they nevertheless lead us back downward: “Through plate after plate, down / Where the worm and the mole will not go” (“Virgo Descending”). We may not wish to go, but these poems guide us anyway.

Charles Wright’s poetry has become a kind of touchstone for American literature. He has published more than twenty-five collections and chapbooks, along with two books of essays, interviews, and notes, as well as translations of Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana. Throughout his career, Wright has gathered his work into several “selecteds.” His early books, a “trilogy of trilogies,” are found together in Country Music, The World of the Ten Thousand Things, and Negative Blue, with later collections appearing in Bye-and-Bye: SelectedLate Poems. Now his body of work has finally been gathered into one book, Oblivion Banjo: The Poetry of Charles Wright

Wright’s signature poetic style weaves his meditative obsessions on what he’s called “landscape, language, and the idea of God” into a kind of prayer book, a contemporary commonplace book, a visionary “Appalachian Book of the Dead.” While reading through his poems, one encounters the ineffable, but no faint-of-heart mysticism. These poems call us as readers to face the hardest realities in our lives, and still: “We just don’t know what counts— / It’s as simple as that, isn’t it, we just don’t know what counts” (“Body and Soul”). Grounded in the old—Dante, Ezra Pound, the T’ang poets, the Carter Family, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins—Wright’s poems carve a new lineage and liturgy, wending from landscape and description toward his own vernacular music. A Southern writer who admittedly employs almost no narrative, Wright is a master of the poetic line, not just the line break. 

Approaching his work from almost anywhere in his oeuvre, one finds it as stained glass through which a novice may glimpse his literary zodiac—Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Cézanne and Georgio Morandi, St. Augustine and the Gnostics—gathered at the same table. Perhaps no other living poet has yoked the tangible and the intangible with such devotional practice. Wright has written a necessary body of work, a star map of the self, recalling Jefferson’s Bible or John Keats’s injunction that one’s life be a vale of soul-making. He has indeed written his own, a valley of the shadow as much as of the light. We enter and move through its shifts and turns—like history itself, we encounter such passage of time as modality of prayer: “Things have a starting place, and they have an ending. Render the balance, Lord. Send it back up to the beginning” (“History is a Burning Chariot”). 

We find in this work a through-line we can hold. Indeed, Oblivion Banjo in the hand reveals the weight of Wright’s selected works in a physical sense, a book one has to balance. Even from the cover art, the volume is striking: a fingertip cloaked in bright sand, an “inch of light” (“Delta Traveller”) against a stark black backdrop—one finger raised in darkness, questioning or pointing, cauled with dust and light. 



EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted through correspondence between July and September 2019. It has been edited for length and clarity.


ANDY EATON: Let’s begin by talking about Oblivion Banjo, which draws together your poetry collections, from Hard Freight in 1973 to Caribou in 2014. How does it feel to see such a book out in the world? Often the individual collections are excerpted rather than taken whole. How did you go about gathering poems for Oblivion Banjo? What went into deciding which poems to keep in, which to leave out?

CHARLES WRIGHT: It feels kind of like the end of the road, a position I feel very comfortable in. As far as I know, it is my last book. God knows, it’s big enough to be. I probably should have left more out. Well, I did leave out an entire first book. I spent a summer a couple of years ago going through everything I had, and tried to keep whatever didn’t make me cringe. If I had left in whatever I thought was really good, we would have an embarrassingly slim volume. As it is, I have an embarrassingly fat volume, and will have to live with that.

Your nine early books have been called by yourself as well as by critics, at times, a “trilogy of trilogies,” or “the Appalachian Book of the Dead.” I’ve always liked that sense of the work as cohering around a larger impulse as those descriptions suggest. How does that notion of the early trilogies fit in with the overall work, the books that followed, now that they are all gathered together?

I don’t think it fits in too well. It was fun for a while, and I was serious about it, but it really doesn’t stand up for me. At least, not in the way I envisioned it. I originally thought of it as a scaffolding for the books I hoped to write. I naturally had the Divine Comedy in mind: Country Music, The World of the Ten Thousand Things, and finally Negative Blue. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it still has its moments. Then, “The Appalachian Book of the Dead” started taking shape. It turned out there were six books from A Short History of the Shadow through Sestets (collected in Bye-and-Bye), with Caribou as the coda. So the early trilogies don’t fit in gracefully with the overall resulting book Oblivion Banjo, but they—the trilogies and “The Appalachian Book of the Dead”—are the front and back of the same train, heading down the line into the dark. Toot, toot!

What you said about the “cringe” makes me think there’s always got to be a sense of distance between the maker and the work, yet at the same time one has to pour oneself into it. So it must take time to have the work really come into focus, sometimes a week, sometimes decades. What is something that helps you gauge the sense of meaning-making in a poem? What’s happening in one of your poems when it doesn’t make you cringe?

Well, my cringe factor is fairly high. Of course, there is regular cringe and then there is deep cringe. It’s the deep cringe that tolls the bell. And we all know for whom the bell tolls. If I can get through a poem of mine and say to myself, “Well that’s not too bad,” then I feel okay. Cringeability comes from bungled rhythm, stupidity, or just failed intellectual perception. Stupidity, of course, for not knowing what to do with the idea you thought you had in mind. That tends to happen a lot, or at least more than one would want it to. I’m not an “idea” poet, but an impressionist. Sometimes ideas get entangled, and that’s all right even though it’s the same idea as before. I figure I’ll get it right one of these days. And when, or if, I do, there will be no more cringing. There will be deep satisfaction.

I like thinking of the poems being on “the same train,” moving together into and through the world. That also makes me think of who reads or finds poems. I don’t want to assume reader or audience in any academic sense, but in a deeper way; is there a tradition you see your work aligned with? A long lineage you could name? Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned “poetry lite,” and your work is clearly moving on a different track; could you describe that track?

Well, I’d like to say since from Ecclesiastes on down, but I can’t. I’m basically a landscape poet in the manner of the T’ang Dynasty Chinese poets, so what’s not there is what’s important. But there isn’t any real lineage. Like everyone else, I’ve read around, and of course find an affinity for some more than others. Pound and William Carlos Williams, for example; Hart Crane, Hopkins, and Emily Dickinson. Auden and Larkin are two poets I enjoy and admire, but I can’t put them on the train. There is no stylistic antecedent, I think, though there is some trace of Pound, the person I discovered poetry through.

There are a couple of things I remember Pound saying (I read them sixty years ago) that I have found helpful over the years. One is always be serious when you write, and don’t be “viewy.” Make sure there is something important behind what you are describing. The trouble with trying to be serious is that you can tumble into “seriousity,” and that ain’t good. Pound, of course, said a lot of things, and a lot of them got him into trouble. My favorite comment is “I started out with a swollen head and ended up with swollen feet.”

I like that about “swollen feet.” One has to travel one’s own distance, and it’s not always pretty. This makes me think of teacher-poets. You yourself taught for many years at UVA and in California. Many of your students have gone on to live lives with writing or making in the middle of them. What hope—or warning—do you have for newer poets now?

There are, I guess, two things I would say. The first is to be aware that you are working in a dead or dying genre. So read all the bones you can, keep your head up, your back straight, and walk hard till the sun goes down. The second is don’t take advice from anyone—read the bones, keep your head up, your back straight, and walk hard till the sun goes down. On a less serious note, you’ve got to realize almost nobody gives a damn about what you are doing. So listen hard, read hard, and be brilliant. It’s simple.

There’s an unsettled or quietly disruptive quality in your work, a spiritual leaning, perhaps, rather than a stance, at least not a fundamental one; a sense of figuring things out; a sense of mystery. I’m also thinking, formally, of your poems that use an odd-numbered syllabic line or raise a stanzaic structure which they also push against across the page. Yet the poems are grafted, wrought, deliberately structured. How might you describe this style or affection or tendency? Is it, for example, chaos over order, organic rather than synthetic?

Thank you. What I mean to say is that if I had been asked at gunpoint, “What are the characteristics of your work?” those four things would have been part of my answer—a quietly disruptive quality; a spiritual leaning; a sense of trying to figure things out; a sense of mystery. That’s what I would like the aura of my work to be. Not to mention its specificity. 

As far as a syllabic-based line, that’s a hangover from the days when I used to write in true syllabics. In the old days (I mean sixty years ago) syllabics were a halfway house for people trying to wean themselves from iambic pentameter on their way to free verse. Some of it seems to have hung on for me. If I had to say, it would be order over possible chaos. Of course, a lot of things are like that. Religion, for instance.

You say this may be the last book. A student once asked me about their own work, “What if this is the last poem I write? What if I never write anything better?” In my thinking, this concerns the ends or aims of art. Seamus Heaney was a poet you knew and visited and one thing from Seamus I’ve held on to is that “the end of art is peace.” For him, in a Northern Irish context, that had a particular significance suited to his time and place. How would you describe what the end of art might be? What might be, for you in your life, the end or aim of a poem?

I would say that peace is the end of art. Most art (all good art) comes out of some kind of turmoil, mostly personal. But if peace were the order of things, what would be the point? You’d be sitting in the sun strumming your lyre, etc. The aim of a poem is to get it finished, to get to the end, hoping for some kind of light, some kind of insight, some kind of transference, some kind of transcendence, whatever that may be. 

Notably—as you’ve called them—“landscape, language, and the idea of God” have been threads or movements in your work, and I’ve read that you distinguish between “content” and “subject.” These seem like uniquely visual considerations, a painterly or photographic understanding. What is required to sustain a life of looking and seeing? Or is there a reliance on suddenness, on stimulation, inspiratio?

Hope, curiosity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, beauty, bad eyesight, lack of imagination, a mania for trying to get it right at least once. Of course, suddenness does happen, and one is grateful for it. That feeling that something is talking to you, that something is saying, “this way” and you have to listen to it, even if it turns out to be the devil—there’s more than one way into the darkness. As for ways out, as Ben Hogan once said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” Listen, look hard.

Your use of notes in the backs of your books evolves from the early to the late collections. By the time of A Short History of the Shadow, or more recently, Caribou, the notes might be read as extensions of the poems themselves, or more specifically, the titles of the poems. I see a kinship here with the ancient Chinese rivers-and-mountains poets, with those sometimes long titles setting the tone, a place, alluding to tradition. What are some of your motivations for including the notes, and why are they attached to certain poems but not others? 

The notes are there merely to acknowledge, mostly from where I stole things, or laundered things. Mostly the latter. They are, to my mind, mostly academic or good manners. Sometimes they are there to set up an acquaintanceship with some other book or writer. Sometimes they are very specific and sometimes quite vague. As far as your hint that they may be extensions of the poems themselves, I had never thought of that, and it’s an interesting thought. I also like your idea about titles. Titles do fascinate me (I won’t go into “titleism,” a former invention of mine). I do love the immediateness of Chinese titles. Yes, I do.

You’ve published several long poems, and Littlefoot is book-length. How long was that book in the works? Did you know it would be book-length when you were working on the early sections?

It took probably two years or so to finish, I can’t remember now. I do remember when I finished the first ten sections, I liked the way they went together (or didn’t go together in a way I liked) that I got the idea of going on with this as a common venture, and so I just plowed ahead. Now, it’s a book-length poem because I say it is. It has no narrative that proclaims it so. But it does have all the little things I use to keep it together: image connection, subject matter, and other bits and pieces that I use to move my poems along. Also, the old adage that “it’s a poem because I say it’s a poem” certainly does apply. In “A Journal of the Year of the Ox” I had the twelve months to hold it together and to usher it along. Here, I was not so fortunate. Though I must say that I had the last section in mind from about halfway through it. Landscape is the Gorilla Glue of my poems.

In the poem “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” you write of “Journal and landscape / —Discredited form, discredited subject matter—,” that you “tried to resuscitate both, breath and blood, making them whole again // Through language, strict attention—.” A few lines later it’s “To no avail.” Both extended and concise forms are so rich and powerful in your work. In the end, did those forms “resuscitate” for you in some way?

Well, I hope so, as that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. At least for me they are resuscitated. I hope, of course, they breathe in other ears as well. I’ve tried to make landscape a serious matter, not just something “viewy.”  I tried the same with the journal, tried to make it a serious form, or vessel, for poetry. To answer your question: Yes, they did. 

In the poem “Delta Traveller” (Bloodlines), an early and beautiful elegy, you write of “One inch of pain and an inch of light.” Later, in “Plain Song” (Caribou), the dead “ooze, half-inch by half-inch, / Under the doorway of dejection.” There are quite a few “half” moments throughout your work, and there’s often a movement of diminishment. But I wanted to ask, with these as examples, during a poem’s composition, how much are you aware of a particular figure as a recurring one, as something that has evolved or might speak to other poems you have written?

All of my poems, in a way, speak to each other, as they are so obsessively alike in so many ways. And since so many refer to the same problems (problems I posit myself), the recurring figure is always a vague shape in the background (or foreground) that seems to haunt me. I am always aware, indeed hyperaware, that that figure is again stalking me (or I’m stalking him) in just about everything I do. 

One thing I love in reading your poems all together is how they at once move toward the big stuff while they shrug off notions of an ultimate “one truth”—“Sorry, pal, there isn’t one” (“Ancient of Days”). And yet, there’s an affection—or even love?—for the words and things within all of that. Could you speak to your draw toward the ineffable, and at the same time the move toward the vernacular, along these lines?

Ah, The Big I. Probably a holdover (or a holdout) from my Episcopal upbringing. Or maybe because it’s so there, so unavoidably there. At least to me. It’s so untactile and one wants to get a handle on it, or to get one’s hand in its hair. I don’t know. I’ve always been drawn to it. Everyone is, of course, but some of us are more gossipy about it and just can’t keep our mouths shut. As for the vernacular, you have to approach it in this way, otherwise it becomes too Bibley and codified. As Ken Burns keeps saying about country music, it’s something that all of us feel, though not everyone is Sarah or Alvin Carter. I’m not trying to preach, I’m just after a good time. 

Elsewhere you say, “I am drawn to that state of emptiness which I can never get to, in which you are open to real things and not the junk of this world.” What constitutes for you—or how might one discern—“real things” versus “the junk”? Is it a matter of “we just don’t know what counts”?

That is the problem, how to distinguish junk from reality. Because junk is reality on a major level, and reality is junk on another. It is a matter of not knowing what counts. And being pompous about it, as I was, is not helpful. So I’m now going to get out of here with my pomposity in my shoes. 


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