Charles Wright named U.S. Poet Laureate

BY Mike Melia  June 12, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Poet Charles Wright. Photo by Dan Addison/University of Virginia

Poet Charles Wright now can add U.S. Poet Laureate to his long list of accolades, which include a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Photo by Dan Addison/University of Virginia

Charles Wright, a master of capturing landscape and meditation in verse, has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress. It is the latest in a long list of honors and awards for Wright, who is considered one of the greatest American poets of his generation.

At times self-effacing, Wright shies away from the public eye and was reluctant to take the post. “My wife kept nudging me to do it and also others have said, ‘You know, you should do it.’ And I hadn’t done it before when it was offered to me and I always felt sort of bad about that — that I snuck into the shadows where I am more comfortable,” Wright said to Jeffrey Brown in a phone conversation on Wednesday. “I’m going to try to pull up my socks here and see what happens.”


Listen to chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Charles Wright about his decision to accept the poet laureateship and his life of writing verse. You can read the transcript of their conversation at the bottom of this page.


Wright will succeed Natasha Trethewey as the Library’s 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. “For almost 50 years, his poems have reckoned with ‘language, landscape, and the idea of God,’” said Librarian of Congress, James Billington. “Wright’s body of work combines a Southern sensibility with an allusive expansiveness, for moments of singular musicality.”

“I’m a closet painter, but I can’t paint, and so I’m stuck with what I have, which is language.”
Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, Wright came to poetry at the age of 23 while serving in the Army in Verona, Italy. He had “an epiphanic moment” while reading Ezra Pound and began writing his own verse. “I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue,” Wright told the NewsHour in 2011. After leaving the Army, by his own account, Wright sort of snuck into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “My name was on the printout because I’d been accepted to the graduate school and they were sort of loosey-goosey with the program that nobody had bothered to see that I really wasn’t on their list. And the rest of course is history.”

He’s gone on to publish 24 books of poetry. “Probably more than I should have,” he said. There is an evolution in Wright’s work that comes with age. “As one gets older, one tries to do more with less. I was much more loquacious when I was younger,” he said.

The early influence of Pound’s poetry is evident in Wright’s first major collection, “The Grave of the Right Hand,” but his writing took on many transformations over the years, a journey in language as he explored the “inexhaustible power of words.”

Photo by Holly Wright

Charles Wright is the author of 24 books of poetry, including “Black Zodiac” which was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Photo by Holly Wright

“The subject matter will change, what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about and so on and so forth. But the content, which is language, landscape and the idea of God, particularly the last one, is unchanging, unvarying. And it’s behind all of my poems, even the ones that may not look like it,” Wright said.

Much of his earlier work contained long, dense poems, like the ones found in “Black Zodiac” (1997), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book begins in the spring and concludes in winter, but it was more than two years in the making.

He talked about “Black Zodiac” with Elizabeth Farnsworth on the NewsHour in 1998, saying, “I’m very attuned to what I look at, and landscape is something that’s quite ravishing to me and 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.” He went on to say, “I’m a closet painter, but I can’t paint, and so I’m stuck with what I have, which is language.”

While working on his second book, “Hard Freight” (1973), Wright began a meditative journey that culminated in three separate trilogies, each comprised of multiple books, combined to form “The Appalachian Book of the Dead.” “It kept me focused on what I was trying to and I don’t expect anybody to sit there and spend 25 years as I did writing, reading them and trying to figure it out because these are poems that stand by themselves individually,” he said. “That large, probably pretentious idea I had about doing a work that was important to me.”

Wright taught at the University of California-Irvine before joining the faculty at the University of Virginia. He still lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife. “When I was in California for 17 years, I wrote almost exclusively about Appalachia, the South, where I grew up,” he said. “When I moved back here in 1983, I never wrote about it again other than what I saw in my backyard, but none of the stuff from my childhood, from my memories.”

He starts his poems with a pencil on paper and then uses a typewriter on his desk, by a window, on the top floor of his house. The view from up there has been the inspiration for a number of poems like “Looking out the West-Facing Window”:

How is it one comes to terms with life?
One never does,
I suppose, everything getting narrower, the children drunk
and abusive, the sky breaking up, but the clouds not moving.
Our lives are such common stories,
fallen leaves on a long path.
We wait it out, I guess, counting our sins and our have-not-dones.
Immortality’s for others, always for others.

“Most of my poems start with me looking out the window or sitting in the backyard as dusk comes down, and what that sort of translates into — into my thinking at the moment,” Wright said. “We have more to say when we’re younger. We have better things to say when we’re older, not necessarily more.”

His latest collection, “Caribou” was published this year. Wright will officially begin his role as Poet Laureate with a reading of his work at the Library of Congress on September 25.


Read the transcript of Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Charles Wright.

Photo by Dan Addison

Photo by Dan Addison

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat, I’m Jeffrey Brown. The new Poet Laureate of the United States is Charles Wright, long regarded as one of the finest and most important poets of our time.

Born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935, he is the author of many volumes of poetry, including, just this year, “Caribou.” He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and many other major awards and was long-time professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he lives and where he joins us by phone from his home. Welcome to you sir and congratulations.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, thank you very much, Jeffrey. I’m honored to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess one wants to know, why take this one? Why take on the public role of poet laureate.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, mostly because my wife kept nudging me to do it and also others have said, “you know, you should do it.” And I hadn’t done it before when it was offered to me and I always felt sort of bad about that, that I snuck into the shadows, where I am more comfortable, I have to say. But, I thought, if I’m ever going to do it, this is the time to do it, and since they promised me I wouldn’t have to do anything, which of course is a lie, I said well, what the heck. I’ll try.

(laughing)

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t believe them when they say…

CHARLES WRIGHT: I don’t believe them, but its not too bad.

“Well I would actually prefer all my work to be anonymous and to be discovered in a monastery about 500 years from now.”
JEFFREY BROWN: But you were resistant in the past — is the resistance to taking on a public role?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Partially yes. And travel is a resistance for me, although I know it isn’t for you because you like to go everywhere, which I envy to the maximum. I used to be that way, but I sort of got out of it. … It’s the spotlight I’m not really comfortable with. I’m comfortable being on the edge of the spotlight, but that’s not where you can be if you’re the guy himself. Anyhow, I’m going to try to pull up my socks here and see what happens.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you like being — you like — you’re poetry gets out into the world, right, and you have a lot of readers, but you like being an anonymous writer?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well I would actually prefer all my work to be anonymous…

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

CHARLES WRIGHT: … And to be discovered in a monastery about 500 years from now.

(laughing)

CHARLES WRIGHT: But that’s not going to happen. Anyway, my name is rather anonymous to start with. How generic is Charles Wright? I always wanted to be somebody like Balthazar Hofenstofen or something like that, but it’s Charles Wright. So is my father, so what are you going to do?

(laughing)

JEFFREY BROWN: And you want to be discovered in a monastery in 500 years?

(laughing)

…Sorry…

(laughing)

Well, you know, I was reading the latest volume “Caribou” on a plane last night and as with so much of your work, its so grounded, the words I was writing down “clouds” the twilight” “light itself,” and you at one point even write “light is never a metaphor.” Tell me about the grounding in the world.

Charles Wright read a selection of his poems for the NewsHour in 2011.

Charles Wright read a selection of his poems for the NewsHour in 2011.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well if you’re not grounded in the world, you’re not grounded anywhere. The world is basically, as we all know, what there is. We all think that, not we all, some of us think or hope that there might be something behind the landscape, and I’ve spent my life writing about that. As I said to somebody the other day, the dark side of the moon, we know what it is — we can’t see it, but we know it’s there — and it’s actually more interesting than the side we can see. To me, it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you say behind the landscape — you’re describing a landscape in part for us. These things that you’re describing for us, you’re actually seeing them, but you’re trying to look past it or behind it.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Yes. I’m trying to think past it, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Think past it.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Yea, you can’t really look past it. All the — everything I write comes from what I look at, what I see. I don’t start out with ideas for poems, which is fine for other people, but it doesn’t seem to work that way very well with me. And so one tries to describe the landscape in terms of what’s not there by describing what’s there. I know that sounds kind of hokey, but I’ve been trying to pursue that for all these years. Of course, I haven’t succeeded, but then if you really succeed at something, then you haven’t taken on something hard enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you say it sounds hokey – you think it sounds hokey to others’ ears? Does it sound hokey to you to say that? Cause that’s what you’re doing, right?

“I get anxious about getting on the stage and being a public person. But I’m dynamite once I get up there.”
CHARLES WRIGHT: Not to me, but I know it sounds hokey to other people. It’s like reading a poem on television. I’ve always thought, gee-whiz, that poor guy or girl. It sounds so awful. I know it’s a good poem, but it always looks pretension when you do it on TV. I’ve done it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh now be careful — I know you’ve done it — and be careful with me because we’re asking poets to do it. I don’t want that getting out.

CHARLES WRIGHT: I know that, I’m just giving you a heads up.

(laughing)

CHARLES WRIGHT: I have done it, of course. We all have.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was reading the biography on the Poetry Foundation website and it says, is it true you began reading and writing poetry in Italy while stationed there in the army?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Yes it’s true. I had a book that I bought in New York, knowing absolutely nothing about it, but I knew the name, Ezra Pound. It was the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound … I read it and I was totally taken by it. And I read it and I was totally taken by it. I always tried to write, but I was writing fiction and I can’t do a narrative. I can’t tell a story, really. I said, geez, this is something that’s interesting to me. Maybe I could do it. It was a lyric poem of, course. Turns out, it was written in iambic pentameter which is why it sounded so good. And it was romantic to the max, Edwardian to the max, which appealed to me at that time. I don’t know that it would now. But it started me thinking about it and trying to imitate whatever I could find. After that, I didn’t do any Pound for 50 years. I still haven’t read him in 40 years, but he was the first poet I ever read. Anyone is taken with the first poet that leads you into poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, coming back to Caribou, you can’t help but notice that you have a line about the poetry of an older man, right? This is a later in life volume, I guess? Although the themes you’ve pursued for a long time.

CHARLES WRIGHT: The themes are usually the same as I’ve always been after. Yeah, I’m almost 79 and you begin to feel that you already said that. And I see how I can twist it around for one last time. And you realize that you’re kinda an old guy and you … It’s hard to be ecstatic after 75, it just is. I think maybe it’s my last book because you don’t want to write out of habit, you want to write out of necessity. Maybe I’ve got a few more necessities in me. I don’t know if I’ll find it somewhere in Montana which is where I do most of my writing now.

strong>JEFFREY BROWN: But you think it might be your last book.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, if it is, I’m happy with it. But I got a few poems with the projected title is “After The After.” Caribou being the ‘after’ which is after ‘By And By,’ which is a collection of five books that I wrote between the age of 65 and 75.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you’re prepared.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, I don’t know if I’m prepared. I got a title of a book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, so, I guess coming back to where we started. Are you prepared to be a more public presence in any way as the laureate?

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, I have to say, yes of course. I have a little disappearance button on my belt that I can always press and then woosh, I’m gone. No, I am prepared, I am prepared for what they want me to do. I wouldn’t have taken it on otherwise. And once I get on the stage, I’m okay. It’s just that I get anxious about getting on the stage and being a public person. But I’m dynamite once I get up there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, we’re looking forward to that. Charles Wright is the new Poet Laureate of the United States. Pleasure to talk to you. Congratulations and thanks so much for talking to us.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Thank you, Jeffrey, I appreciate it very much. It’s nice to hear your voice over the telephone instead of the television set.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, thank you for watching, then. I’m Jeffrey Brown and thank you for listening to us on Art Beat.