'U.Va. Profiles:' Charles Wright's Interior Landscape

February 04, 2008

 After it's over, after the last gaze has shut down,
        Will I have become
        The landscape I've looked at and walked through
        Or the road that took me there
                                                        or the time it took to arrive?
            —from Sprung Narratives by Charles Wright

February 4, 2008 — In an interview in 1998, poet and U.Va. English Professor Charles Wright said, "I'm always looking at and thinking about how the exterior landscape reflects the interior and vice versa. And almost all my poems begin with something I've seen, something observed as opposed to some idea I have for a poem."

Wright chooses landscapes as his subject. He once called his backyard in Charlottesville his "largest canvas." His poetry often emerges from his conversations with those landscapes, and his poetry and those landscapes defined him. "All forms of landscape are autobiographical," Wright said.

That autobiographical poetry, in turn, has won him dozens of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection "Black Zodiac" in 1998. In addition to his own work, Wright has served as mentor to dozens of aspiring poets as the Souder Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Italy and the Moderns

The road that took Wright to prominence was rather unusual, however; a stint in United States Army Intelligence is not typically a starting point for success as a poet.

Wright was born in 1935 in tiny Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, and graduated in 1957 from Davidson (N.C.) College, where he had studied history with plans to go to law school. After college, he served in Army intelligence for four years, spending part of that time in Italy.

"Italy is where it all started," Wright said. "The Army changed my life. The itch to write just found me."

In the bookstores and piazzas of Verona, Wright discovered Ezra Pound's poetry, particularly his Cantos, which Wright used as a literary tour guide to Italy. His first influences were modernists like Pound and William Carlos Williams.

"It's true that I like the moderns," Wright said. "They tried to say something in a musical voice, a verbal expression of an emotional value. Sound patterns are very important to me."

Because of the moderns' influence, Wright became, as critic Edward Hirsch called him, "a poet of lyric impulses."Unlike the moderns, though, Wright matured into a poet whose work was unabashedly personal. He placed himself in his poems and looked for "what's behind or might be behind what you see," Wright said. "The self is projected into what you see."

The Belle of Amherst

As with many American poets, Wright was also influenced by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But it was Dickinson's work that had the greatest impact. "I admire and revere and am awed by a good many writers; I have been in thrall to several," he said.  "But Emily Dickinson is the only writer I've ever read who knows my name, whose work has influenced me at my heart's core, whose music is the music of songs I've listened to and remembered in my very body."

After leaving Army Intelligence in 1961, Wright followed his muse to the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master's degree in fine arts in 1963. He began his teaching career at the University of California-Irvine in 1966, and then in 1968 he returned to Italy as a Fulbright scholar. While in Venice, he finally saw Pound, but as Mel Gussow reported in the New York Times, Wright lacked the nerve to speak to him.

The Poet as Teacher

Wright came to U.Va. in 1983, and fortunately his students found him much more approachable than he had found Pound. Lisa Russ Spaar, director of the program in poetry writing and associate professor of English on Grounds, considers Wright as adept at teaching as he is as a poet.

He is, Spaar said, "a beloved teacher whose students hang on his every word and hoard his aphorisms ('God only cares if you write well'): a humble, generous mentor and colleague, and his gifts as a writer and teacher have helped to transform our creative writing program into the distinguished place it is today."

Like Spaar, many of Wright's students went on to academic and literary success. Davis McCombs, a former student and assistant professor at the University of Arkansas creative writing department and winner of the 2005 Dorset Prize for poetry, drew inspiration from Wright as a teacher as well as a poet.

"I can't imagine a better example as a writer and as a human being than Charles," McCombs said. "I have often marveled in the years since at the degree to which his largeness and generosity of spirit informed so many aspects of the program. I try to emulate him as a teacher."

A Regionalist of the Mind
As a poet, Wright is harder to emulate. Over a 30-year period, he published 20 collections of his poetry starting with The Grave of the Right Hand in 1970 to Negative Blue in 2000. He has avoided computer technology, writing each of his poems in a notebook and then typing it.

When Wright won the 1996 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection, Chickamauga, poet Philip Levine, a contemporary of Wright's, a fellow Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the judges for the award, said, "Has any other American poet been writing as beautifully and daringly over the past 25 years as Charles Wright?  Possibly. But I cannot imagine whom it would be."

Wright has won dozens of awards for his poetry, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and most recently, the Griffin Trust Poetry Prize in 2007. His newest book, Littlefoot: A Poem, was published in June of 2007.

Awards and book sales please Wright but are not what motivates him. "You don't write poetry to sell books," Wright said in a 1998 interview on PBS. "You write poetry because you either have to, or it's been given to you to do so. Every time I sell a book I'm always happy and surprised."

The Richmond Times Dispatch once called Wright a "steadfastly Southern poet." Wright demurs, saying, "My head is my region. All poetry is local. All writing is local." One main theme of his poetry, he said, is "the metaphysics of the quotidian."

In "Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness," Wright wrote:

We have a bat, one bat, that bug-surfs
                                                                 our late-summer back yard
Just as fireflies begin
                    To rise, new souls, toward the August moon.
                    Flap-limbed, ungathered,
                    He stumbles unerringly through them,
                    Exempt as they feint and ascend to their remission

                    Light, Catharist light;
                    Brightness to brightness where I sit
                                               on the back brink of my sixth decade,
                Virginia moon in the cloud-ragged, cloud-scutted sky,
                Bat bug-drawn and swallow-crossed, God's wash.

Wright's poems show how the divine can be found in the day-to-day. "Redemption is in how you live your life, if you can get your teeth in there and hold on," he said.

— Written by Tim Arnold