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Charles Wright: The Poet Laureate without a Program

“History handles our past like spoiled fruit.”

If you haven’t discovered Charles Wright until now, he’s a great choice for U.S. poet laureate, and as an excellent beginning point, I recommend his mid-career trilogy, Negative Blue. Becoming a fan of Wright’s is easy. It’s not an acquired taste. As Craig Morgan Teicher says, “He writes in long sequences that gather power by accretion, a kind of gentle collaging, where description is set next to aphorism, lines of longing, questioning, contemplating. And yet, though it luxuriates in thought and feeling, this is a fast-moving poetry, accessible, easy and fun to quote.”

And while he’s had about as much success as one could ever imagine as a poet, it doesn’t seem like it comes from grasping. A voice of quiet authenticity, his poems reflect a humility and a kind of take-it-or-leave-it attitude. He’s also someone who found his style, kept at it, and became a master. When people think of Wright they think of his singular style, and his philosophic reticence (grounded in landscape) first. He writes in “Chickamauga”:

The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath.”

And perhaps it is the face behind the mask that have people wondering about the new U.S. poet laureate. True to form, in one of his first public statements after learning of his new post, he said that, as laureate, “I will not be an activist laureate, I don’t think, the way Natasha [Trethewey] was … and certainly not the way Billy Collins was, or Bob Hass, or Rita Dove, or Robert Pinsky; you know, they had programs. I have no program.”

And good news for writers struggling to find their own sense of music and style. Wright was a late bloomer. He wasn’t writing and reading at the age of three, as so many claim.

I did try to write stories in college … but I was just no good at narrative and fiction. And when I discovered the lyric poem that advanced not by narrative steps, but by blocks and layers and imagery, I said, gee, I probably could do that. So let me try that. And that’s sort of what I’ve been doing, oh, for the last 50 years or so. And I feel very happy to have found it because it obviously changed my life and gave me something to do.”

His poems have a way of resonating long after you’ve left them. And interestingly enough, as a poet he continues to have a wellspring of creativity that doesn’t seem to have waned with the passing years. I also recommend his latest selected poems, Bye-and-Bye. Wright says, “It’s always been the idea of landscape that’s around me that I look at, the idea of the music of language and then the idea of God or that spiritual mystery that we doggedly follow, some of us, all of our days, in which we won’t find the answer to until it’s too late. Or maybe it’s not too late. Maybe it’s just the start, I don’t know.”

Maybe the best way to for writers and other aspiring creatives to “get with the program” is to follow Wright’s example and find your own voice by getting “deprogrammed.” Life will continue on without us, Wright’s poetry reminds us. Best then to listen, reflect, and find your own sources of inspiration and creative discipline.

This world is not my home … The rust will remain in the trees, and pine needles stretch their necks, their tiny necks. And sunlight will snore in the limp grass.”

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