In Praise of Charles Wright

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Charles Wright.

The poet between now and not-now; between know and not-know; between the sun’s fire and a mountain’s snow; the poet between Dante and dude.

He says he wished for anonymity—not for his poems but for Charles Wright: an anonymous author of astonishing poems—yet few, very few, American poets have made as great a name for themselves in their lifetime. There is only one Charles Wright. His name is his fate, an imperative mood said as though from the lips of The Muse: “Charles, write!” And has he ever.

I never answer the question, Who is your favorite poet? Ever. But when Wright writes that he—quite like Stevens—“has talked about one thing for thirty years” I find myself hoping that he does so for thirty more. His books read like natural history, explaining everything and yet nothing, just as science tells us what a particle deep in the void weighs but can’t explain to us why we’re here. He is the master of the shoulder shrug at the end of a poem.

The triple trilogist, the rural landscapist, the italianista; the ambidextrous craftsman, first in meter (because) and then in free verse (because why not); the poet-king of the valley; the fool on the hill; he writes like the trickster who daydreams in a rickshaw that’s too beautiful to take out of the barn but that he takes out of the barn anyway, driver-less, relaxing in the back as it glides along powered by his soft and puckish whistling.

No one sounds like him. No one knows like him. You know a Charles Wright poem when you see one or when one you hear one, but we don’t say Wrightian or Wrightonic or Wrightesque yet—although someday we will. And surely he will wince.

He is my southern uncle. He has made me less afraid of his south and, because of that, more afraid of it, more afraid, and amazed, by what poetry can do and is; the kinships it can form. When I read his poems I understand better my beautiful condition of being completely American and yet being American completely by accident: if you break his poems down to their first five antecedents, Pound would be the only American in the pack. And the Italian Pound at that. And fifth.

But put the pieces together and is it ever American: the arched and pop registers of the voice; his landscapes, on the lower frequencies, singing their songs of family history; the inference from the deep reclusion emanating from his poems that right over the hillside lurks the duties of the university.

There are poets I love that I can’t read when I’m writing. Like Milton. They are poets who, for all their greatness, write as though they want to write the last poem, shut the book, put an end to poetry itself. But I always read Charles Wright. And even more so when I’m writing. Less to take from him than to remember what’s possible, to remember what an American poem can aspire to be: unfolded, open-ended, inclusive, archeological with quieter tools, oneiric, badass, a thing to be reckoned with.

There has never been a perfect poet. The writing of poetry is a courtship with error: Homer’s military history was wrong; Dante’s cosmology was wrong; the first monster in The Faerie Queene is Error; Donne’s alchemy was wrong, Keats’s geography was wrong, Pound’s economics were horribly wrong. Perfection is not a part of poetry’s past nor its future. “As if I craved error,” Claudia Rankine wrote, “as if love was ahistorical”—the love we find through poetry is.

Poetry is an iridescent pinwheel that, as it turns, reveals its poets in quickly passing, flickering moments. Some stay with us longer than others, touch us deeper than others, and enliven us with what for a poet is far greater than admiration: envy. Charles writes. And I’m full of wonder and envy. I read and I learn and I grow. First by the word, then by the line, then the stanza, then the poem, then the book, the oeuvre. Poets love other poets strangely. It’s a love that indeed feels ahistorical, this love I have for the better craftsman, il migglior fabbro—first Arnaut Daniel, then Ezra Pound, and now the trilogy’s been set. When I feel stuck I open a book by Charles Wright and feel moved. And even if I’m not actually moving the world seems different. Call it an inherited power, a love that moves the sun and other stars.

Charles Wright Caribou
Barnes and Noble



Rowan Ricardo Phillips, winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, and the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, is the author of The Ground (FSG, 2012). He lives in New York City and Barcelona.

Charles Wright is the United States Poet Laureate. His poetry collections include Country Music, Black Zodiac, Chickamauga, Bye-and-Bye: Selected Later Poems, Sestets, and Caribou. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the 2013 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee in 1935, he currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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