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Seasons serve as backdrop to Charles Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection

April 15, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
Charles Wright, professor of English at the University of Virginia, discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poetry, "Black Zodiac."
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Charles Wright and his collection of verse, “Black Zodiac,” won the prize for poetry this year. Wright is Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of 11 other poetry books, as well as works of criticism and translation. He was born in Tennessee educated at Davidson College, the University of Iowa and the University of Rome. He has won many prizes, including the American Book Award in poetry, which went to “Black Zodiac” earlier this year. Thank you for being with us and congratulations.

CHARLES WRIGHT, Pulitzer Prize, Poetry: Thank you very much, Elizabeth. Nice to be here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Please tell us about “Black Zodiac.” The book begins in the spring and ends in cold December, but something tells me these poems weren’t all written in one year.

CHARLES WRIGHT: No. It was about, oh, two, two and a half years, and the seasons were something of a background for the poems which came out of my daily life about the daily life of a person trying to come to terms with how things passed, where they come from, where they go, and various luminations on that sort of thing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why the name “Black Zodiac”? I read the poems, and I wasn’t sure.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, that’s fairly complicated because it has to do with the overall trajectory of a large group of poems that I’ve been doing over the last 27 years. Basically, it means that the end result of all one’s strivings in my case is going to be as far as only as one can see, that one cannot go past the Zodiac, cannot go past the stars, that one is forever here, and that’s okay. But one sometimes wonders that perhaps it might be nice to be elsewhere sometimes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So many of the poems are about time. And you’ve said that the key subject of poetry is the clock. What do you mean by that?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, I said that once. That was one line in a poem that I think that the true subject of all poems is a clock, I think, because time is what–time is the great destroyer. Time is what feeds us and takes it away at the same time. Time is what starts us and time is what ends us. We live in time. We would like to live outside of time. But we can’t, of course. And so the clock is what we all write about. Our lives are all about the clock. It starts at 12, and it ends at 12.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As you said, the poems are about what you see around you. Many are in your own backyard, it seemed to me. Is that what you like to write about?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, that’s where I find myself sitting a lot of the times, and all my poems basically are about the metaphysics of the quotidian, the daily life, as I said earlier, and I’m very attuned to what I look at, and landscape is something that’s quite ravishing to me and is seductive. And 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.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read a poem for us, please?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Sure. I want–these are all pretty long poems in “Black Zodiac.” But I’ll read a section of a longer poem. The poem is called “Disjecta Membra,” which means “Scattered Parts,” and it’s the last poem in the book, which is balanced by the first poem in the book, “Apologia Pro Vita Sula,” that’s the Explanation of Life. And these books–the whole collection–this is one small section of Part One of a three-part poem:

Death’s still the secret of life, the garden reminds us, or vice versa. It’s complicated. Unlike the weed surge and blossom surge of early fall, unlike the insect husks and the spider’s tracery, crickets and rogue crows gearing up for afternoon sing-a-long, the cottontail hides out in the open, hunts under the apple tree between the guillotine of sunlight and guillotine of shade beyond my neighbor’s hedge. The blades rise, and the blades fall, but rabbit sits tight, smart one. Sit tight and hold on. Sit tight. Hold on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love that. “Death’s still the secret of life, the garden reminds us, or vice versa,” I was intrigued by that. What would vice versa be?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, that life is still the secret of death, I suppose.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the bunny in the face of these implacable forces, you say, “Hold on.” It’s sort of what you do yourself, right?

CHARLES WRIGHT: That’s what we all do, of course. What we try to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A review in the Richmond Times Dispatch last year called you a “steadfastly Southern poet.” Are you?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, I was born in the South. I’m not quite sure what they mean. I might–I don’t know that the Indianapolis paper would say the same thing. But I feel myself Southern, yes. I’m not sure I’m in the Southern literary tradition, which is much more of a narrative tradition than my poems show. My poems tend to be more accretional and juxtapositional, as opposed to telling, telling stories. The story line runs underneath the surface of the poem most of the time in my work, as opposed to overtly say.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When did you first start writing poetry?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Actually I started writing quite late. I was 23, and I was in the army in Verona, Italy, and I went out to a place called Lake Garda and to the Sirmione Peninsula and read a poem there that was about sitting at the Sirmione Peninsula and looking out over Lake Garda, and I said, well, this is pretty nice, maybe I could do this.

There’s not really a story here. It’s just a description of a landscape. Of course, it was much more than that, and I thought it sounded pretty good. I didn’t know at the time that it sounded good because it was written in iambic pentameter verse. But ever since I read that poem, I’ve been trying to write them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some say you write as a painter paints, that you see this landscape and you suffuse it with light, or you remove light from it. Do you see it that way?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, as I say, I’m very acted upon by what I see, and I think my poems are visual, and they are oral, and their sound patterns are important to me, and the visuality of them is very important to me. And I tend to try to layer the poems together to do accretional lines the way a good painter would do layers of paint. That’s true. I guess I’m a closet painter, but I can’t paint, and so I’m stuck with what I have, which is language.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Wright, what do you find in your teaching and in your travels when you’re reading poetry? What do you find about the state of poetry and its audience?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, the audience seems to be getting bigger all the time. I’m not sure if that’s a result of the–of it being taught more often and more intensely and in colleges, I think, probably it is, but I also think that it’s a kind of refuge from the hullabaloo of everything that’s going on. And there’s a certain side of everyone that he likes to expose himself to from time to time, some of us more often than others. But everybody has it, and everybody does it, and poetry is our last refuge often.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You got the Pulitzer. What does it mean to you? Poetry can be rather lonely and even with its new popularity most poetry books don’t sell in great numbers. Does the Pulitzer help that loneliness?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Oh, nothing helps loneliness. I mean–you either feed off of it, or it feeds off you. And one tries to feed off of it. I don’t–you don’t write poetry to sell books. 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.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you, Mr. Wright, and congratulations again.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, thank you, Elizabeth. Very nice to have been here.