Yesterday I came across a very fine review by Laura Kolbe (whose name is new to me) of recently-published poetry collections by Charles Wright and Robert Pinsky. Evoking the image of Yeats’ archetypal spiral, she provides an exquisite description of Wright’s work:
Wright’s poetic gyre is tight and small, returning again and again to the same settings and subjects — the Appalachian South, Italy, the cycle of the seasons, the presence-in-absence of God — so every poem seems to modify a gesture or opinion voiced five or six poems back, like a bell tower’s helical staircase that keeps returning the ascender to, say, the tower’s east face, but elevated slightly higher each time.
Of late I’ve been thinking about what I think about Charles Wright. Ten years ago I didn’t like Charles Wright. I’ve come to think differently.
Wright was born 1935 and is about the same age as my father. Wright and my father and I all grew up in small towns in Tennessee.
Wright lived and taught in Italy for a long time and he aligns himself closely with Italian poetic tradition. Over the past few years I’ve developed a strong attraction to the Italian language and to Italian poetry and cinema. Ten years ago I didn’t like the fact that Wright included bits of Italian in his poems. Now I do like that fact.
Perhaps back when I didn’t like Charles Wright it was because I wanted to be Charles Wright. Perhaps that’s why I ignored evidence of my admiration of him, for example when I was awestruck at a reading he gave in Sewanee.
A month or two ago I began poking about in his 2004 collection called Buffalo Yoga. On the cover of the book is a reproduction of a painting by Mark Rothko from 1968, very late in Rothko’s career (he died in 1970). It’s often noted that Rothko’s paintings became increasingly darker in his late work; this painting feels like dusk descending, in nuances and shadows and shades of darkness. I love Rothko’s paintings.
“Poet Laureate of the Twilight”. That’s the title of a 2009 article about Wright’s then-forthcoming book Sestets.
I love the music of Morton Feldman. In an article in the New Yorker, Alex Ross describes many of the things I love about it:
In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences. Harmonies hover in a no man’s land between consonance and dissonance, paradise and oblivion. Rhythms are irregular and overlapping, so that the music floats above the beat. Simple figures repeat for a long time, then disappear. There is no exposition or development of themes, no clear formal structure. Certain later works unfold over extraordinarily lengthy spans of time, straining the capabilities of performers to play them and audiences to hear them. More than a dozen pieces last between one and two hours, and “For Philip Guston” and “String Quartet (II)” go on for much longer… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”
I love the glacial slowness and snowy softness of Feldman’s music. How it can reveal–unveil–a beauty that’s founded deeply deeply within emotion’s interiority, a place where the world is no longer fast, no longer loud, where the noise has played itself out.
I love Feldman’s composition titled “Rothko Chapel.” Here’s how Ross describes it:
[It] was written in 1971, for Rothko’s octagonal array of paintings in Houston. Rothko had committed suicide the previous year, and Feldman, who had become his close friend, responded with his most personal, affecting work. It is scored for viola, solo soprano, chorus, percussion, and celesta. There are voices, but no words. As is so often the case in Feldman’s music, chords and melodic fragments hover like shrouded forms, surrounded by thick silence….
Here are some things about Wright that I more or less know. Perhaps it’s better to say that these are hypotheses:
I don’t love Charles Wright. Right now, that is.
I probably will continue not to love Charles Wright so long as I continue wanting to be Charles Wright.
I don’t want to continue wanting to be Charles Wright.
Some things about one’s self are very resistant to change.
I’m me. I’m not Charles Wright.
I don’t think my poetry sounds anything like Wright’s. No one has every said, “hey this poem sounds kind of like Charles Wright.”
Charles Wright is among our great poets.
Whether or not I love Charles Wright has no bearing on his status as one of our great poets.
There’s a Paris Review interview of Wright by J.S. McClatchy. I love the fact that, early on, Wright quotes from the Purgatorio, in Italian, in the midst of talking about his family’s move from Tennessee to Arkansas in the 1800s.
I love the fact that when McClatchy asks him to talk about why he tends to “shy away from straight narrative,” Wright says, “It’s simple, really. I can’t tell a story. Only Southerner I know who can’t. And, in truth, I have no real interest in telling one.” (Here it will be noted that Charles Wright doesn’t know me, another Southerner who can’t tell a story. Unlike Wright, however, I am interested in telling stories. It’s just that when I try they become something other than stories. I’m not sure what it is that they become, but I’m pretty sure they’re not stories. It’s McClatchy’s “straight narrative” feature of stories, a feature totally foreign to my nonlinear modes of thinking, that trips me up ever time. Basically, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a straight narrative. Everything’s much more like a gyre for those interesting artists (usually but not always poets) who  fully experience experiences and  fully recollect on experiences they’ve experienced.)
I love this observation Wright makes about himself: “One of my problems has always been that I can’t remember things that require sequence. I seem to remember only consequence. Which is to say I can’t seem to remember ideas or principles or how to do things. I remember incidents, I remember details.”
I like Charles Wright, sometimes very much, and I think I’m growing to like him more and more. Things are looking up between Charles Wright and me. And that’s good. I might love Charles Wright someday. I hope so. If it happens, I’m going to write him a letter and tell him all about it.