undefinedCharles Wright. Photograph by Dan Addison

 

From his dustjacket photographs, you might expect Charles Wright to be a dour man. In person, though, he gives a quite different impression—trim, elegant even in blue jeans, generous, with a Southerner’s softspoken courtliness. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, he grew up in the South and went to college there. And a few years ago, after a long spell of teaching at the University of California at Irvine, he returned to the South, as poet in residence at the University of Virginia. 

Wright’s work stands out among his generation of poets for the austere luxuriance of its textures, its mingling of domestic subjects and foreign methods, and its bold and unpretentious ambition. During the past two decades he has written eight books of poems: The Grave of the Right Hand (1970), Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), China Trace(1977), The Southern Cross (1981), Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1983; winner of that year’s American Book Award in Poetry), The Other Side of the River (1984), and Zone Journals (1988). He has also translated two volumes of poetry, by Eugenio Montale and Dino Campana—and when I visited him he was putting together a collection of prose writings.  

I had been invited to dinner with the Wrights—Charles, his wife, the photographer Holly Wright, and their son Luke, who had just been accepted at Sewanee and could tell us anything we wanted to know about computers. They live in a handsome Victorian house in Charlottesville. Their dining room has been converted from a parlor, and is large enough for a fireplace and grand piano. We sat at an eighteenthcentury Sheraton walnut table. But the formality was offset by odd details—a witch ball, the bit from the horse of the infamous bandit Joaquin Murieta. Opposite my chair was an imposing oil portrait of Wright’s greatgrandfather Charles Penzel, for whom the poet was named. Penzel, from minor Bohemian nobility, had emigrated to America at sixteen. No sooner had he settled down than the Civil War erupted At twentythree he took a bullet in the mouth as he yelled “Charge!” during the Battle of Chickamauga. After that tumultuous start, Penzel eventually became a banker in Little Rock, Arkansas, and even wrote poems. One, addressed to a war widow and printed up in a newspaper of the time, begins: “Beyond the flight of Time, / Beyond the reign of Death, / There surely is some better clime, / Where life is not a breath.” 

After dinner we went up to right’s huge attic study. It’s kept obsessively neat—a trait, he says, he gets from his father, a civil engineer whose desk was scrupulously organized. Here is a poet for whom—as one looks around the room—arrangements matter. On one wall of shelves his books are arranged by their size, not by author or subject. In fact, there are fewer books than one might imagine, but more images: stacks of postcards, a zebra rug, gadgets, bird skulls, an heirloom sword—totems all. We pull up chairs next to what he calls his shelf of sacred texts—his lifelong masters, the voices that enabled him to find his own. There beside us are Dante, Pound, the Bible, Plath, Hemingway, Babel, Stevens, Williams, Crane, Roethke, Whitman, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Hopkins, Montale, an anthology of Chinese verse. 

Across the room from us, in a narrow dormer alcove, is his desk with its Hermes portable typewriter. Above it are photographs of his wife and of Verona, taken during his first visit there in 1959. Beside these, a drawing of Campana, and a page from an old edition of Inferno, Canto XXIV. “What I look at has everything to do with what I think,” he quickly explains. 

Near the desk, at the end of a daybed, is what looks like an old tin footlocker. Stencilled on the front of it is the name H. W. Wilkinson. It rings a bell.  

 

INTERVIEWER 

May I ask what you keep in the box? 

CHARLES WRIGHT 

Of course. Family things, mostly. Old letters, land grant deeds in Arkansas, a couple of family trees. That sort of stuff. Actually, the land grant deeds are interesting—one signed by James K. Polk, one by John Quincy Adams, and one by Andrew Jackson. Simpler presidencies in those days, when you could spend time signing grants for the territory. The whole lot was in a bottom drawer of my father’s desk when he died and I’ve just rather unceremoniously stuck it in this tin box I bought in an antique shop in California. Family letters in almost indecipherable hands from the mid-eighteen-hundreds in Arkansas, a couple of documents from a greataunt of mine tracing the family lines on my father’s side, from Maryland through Virginia to Tennessee and finally to Arkansas. A lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair, if you can believe that! There are bunches of snapshots from my childhood as well. And my old arrowhead collection I had as a boy. And a skeleton or two—all the poems I wrote in Italy when I was in the army, which I have vowed to throw away every year since 1961, but haven’t succeeded in doing yet. And a diary of sorts I kept the first year I was in the army, in California and Italy, before I began trying to write those poems. Wretched stuff. Execrable stuff. I can’t bring myself to read it or throw it away. I’m going to do both soon. I guess I keep thinking there might be something I can use one day. But after all these years of ransacking that box for material, I should know better. A kind of poetic memento mori, I suppose.  

INTERVIEWER 

And one of your greatgrandfathers was a senator from Arkansas, wasn’t he?  

WRIGHT 

Oh, farther back than that. In the late 1830s—I don’t know how many greats that makes him. 1837 is the date of the picture we have of the Senate chamber down in the dining room. He’s in it, along with Ambrose Sevier, the other senator from Arkansas, and a distant relative. It’s an interesting engraving—Longfellow is up in the balcony, as well as Aubudon and the original Cassius Clay. His name was William Savin Fulton. I got the picture because no one else in the family wanted it. I suppose it is rather ugly, but I’m fond of it. He was the family’s “illustrious ancestor.” Most families have one back down the line, I guess. He’s still known as Governor Fulton in the family, for some reason. I just used his recipe for egg nog at Christmas, it’s a real killer. I don’t know that much about him, really. I suppose there might be more in the box, in some of the letters, but the handwriting is difficult to read, and I’m not sure what else I need to know. Nothing, probably. He just shines back there, our distant star, whose name we all know, but not much else.  

INTERVIEWER  

Now I remember: you dedicated The Southern Cross to the same mysterious H. W. Wilkinson whose name is stencilled on that tin locker. It’s meant, then—that dedication—as a gesture to your past? This trunk is really a sort of voicebox, a memory and a throat for the past. The poems in The Southern Cross have that character too.  

WRIGHT 

Mr. Wilkinson is as mysterious to me as he is to you. His name was on the box when I bought it, and that’s all I know about him. The Southern Cross was dedicated to the box, actually, as you surmise, and not to Mr. Wilkinson per se: he’s just a standin for a catchall, if such a thing is possible. A voice box is a nice way to put it, although it’s been more so in the past than it is now. Especially around the time of Bloodlines and, as you say, The Southern Cross. I used some of its material also in “Arkansas Traveller,” from The Other Side of the River. My greatgrandfather’s obituary from the Little Rock paper in 1906, some fragments from the letters about the move from Tennessee to Arkansas in the early 1800s. Stuff like that. I guess I thought it was cute, as well, to dedicate a book ostensibly to someone I didn’t know. But, as you say, the real gesture was to my past, a way of letting those speak whose voices are too faint to hear. So it’s a voice box in that sense, too; it amplifies the deep and desperate whispers of those who have disappeared into a kind of request for recognition. Sort of like La Pia in Canto V of the Purgatorio, though in no way so poignant or affecting: “Deh, quando tu sarai tomato al mondol e rzosato de la lunga vial . . . recorditi dime, che son La Pia . . .” “Remember me, remember me . . .” Well, I hope that some of the poems in which I use their leftovers do remember them. And the first poem in The Southern Cross, “Homage to Paul Cezanne,” takes up that charge somewhat—though the dead are not named, I did have my own family, from the box, in mind. “A throat for the past.” That’s a nice way of putting it.  

INTERVIEWER  

You’ve mentioned your early poems. Is it nostalgia that makes you keep them? What are they like? Or better, what did they know and not know how to do?  

WRIGHT 

They didn’t know how to do anything. Mostly, I guess, because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. And I myself had no clue. I had read The Pisan Cantos and The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. So I started at the end instead of the beginning, trying to write about what I was seeing—Italy—in terms of what I had been reading—Pisan Cantos. Wrong from the start—an Attic disgrace. If one has to write poorly before one can write well—which I think is true—and if that can be extended to read that one has to write deplorably before one can write extraordinarily well, then I definitely started in the right place for the latter. I suppose it’s nostalgia that makes me keep them. That and the sense of duty that one shouldn’t destroy one’s stunted darlings. Keep them out of sight, yes, but don’t abuse them. Rather like the retarded greataunt in the attic, that mainstay of Southern gothic. Soon, I know, I must harden my heart and dispose of them. Euthanasia, so to speak. But for the moment, to continue your figure from the last question, they lie there like a bone in the dark throat of my past. It’s not their fault. They just never had a chance.  

INTERVIEWER 

Even with those early poems, it seems a bit of a late start. You were already in the army, weren’t you? Why then—or rather, why not before then?  

WRIGHT 

Why I didn’t before then is unanswerable, probably. Who knows why we don’t do things? I would imagine it was because poetry was never presented to me in a way that generated any excitement. I certainly remember nothing of it either in boarding school or in college. In college, in fact, there was one creative-writing course taught every other year by the Shakespeare professor—not exactly a commitment on the school’s part. And all the straight English courses I took seemed to revolve around prose, not poetry. An ongoing debility, I might add, almost everywhere. It didn’t help, I suppose, that I was a history major as well. I did try to write stories in college, or what I thought were stories—mood pieces, really, purple prose on the model of Thomas Wolfe. I had no idea how to do anything, and no one told me or showed me. If I had been a photograph, I would have been underexposed and underdeveloped. As it was, I was merely undereducated. But then, my college never claimed it was in the business of turning out writers—William Styron, for instance, left after his freshman year. It turned out lawyers, doctors and Presbyterian ministers. At least back in those days it did. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound that I discovered a form that seemed suited to my mental and emotional inclinations—the lyric poem, a form, or subgenre, I guess, that didn’t depend on a narrative structure, but on an imagistic one, an associational one. “Gists and piths,” as they say, instead of intricacy of narrative line.  

INTERVIEWER 

Okay, but why then? What took?  

WRIGHT 

That’s a bit easier. Mostly it’s because I read a poem that just overwhelmed me, blew me away, as the saying goes. It was “Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula” by Pound, from the Selected Poems. I loved the sound of it—it was in iambic pentameter, although I didn’t know it at the time, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have know what that was. That it was describing the very location I was reading it in—Sirmione peninsula, in the ruins of the villa of the Roman poet, Catullus—didn’t hurt either. In any case, it was enough of a thunderclap to move me swiftly through the Selected Poems, and farther down the road as well. I bought a Guanda paperback edition of The Pisan Cantos, recently translated into Italian with the original English on the facing page, and read that. Understanding almost nothing, I might add, except some place names. Pound had, a year before—this was in 1959—returned to Italy and was living above Merano, in Brunnenberg, so his books were available at the local bookstores. At least they were available in Verona, where I lived. Later I got a Faber & Faber Cantos, and bought Rock Drill and Thrones, too. But it was The Pisan Cantos that struck me, along with “Cathay” in the Selected Poems. It was the first poetry I ever bought. I was twentythree. Anyway, that’s why then, finally, I began to try to write poems.  

INTERVIEWER 

You say you began writing in Italy. You could as easily say you began writing in the army—but you don’t.  

WRIGHT 

Well, being in the army is physical, being in Italy is metaphysical. Or so it seemed at the time. So you could say, and I often do, that I began writing poems in the army in Italy. The metaphysics of the quotidian. The army, actually, was very good to me, much better to me than I was to it. I gave them four years of my time and they gave me back, it turned out, a life. The army was only the base, as Stevens says, but it was the base. And from it I drifted into the Italian landscape and was never the same again. I never looked at anything the same way again. I never listened to anything in the same way. My eighttofive in the army was the old way, the rest of the time was the new way. And since I never wrote poems, or what I thought of as poems, during army hours, I suppose I tend to think of my writing as being in Italy, off duty, as opposed to the army workaday world. The army was still the United States—off duty was a foreign country. The army was fact, Italy was fiction. Again, the metaphysics of the quotidian. Or, poetry is the fiction we use to prove the fact. Something like that.