Charles Wright is the author of nearly thirty collections of poetry, most recently Sestets, Bye-and-Bye, and Caribou (all from Farrar, Straus and Giroux), as well as two books of criticism and a collection of translations of the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. Born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright attended Davidson College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; he also served four years in the US Army. In 2014, he was named poet laureate of the United States. His many awards include the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, National Book Critics Circle and National Book Awards, the Bollingen and Griffin prizes, and a Ruth Lilly Award for lifetime achievement. He is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he taught for almost three decades. He was interviewed by Lisa Russ Spaar.
Image: I read that you’ve said you believe in belief, which I like. I wonder if you could name a couple of other things you believe in.
Charles Wright: I believe in the mystery of things, and I believe the poet’s job is to try to corral that mystery. You don’t have to get it in the barn, but you have to get it in the corral, so you try to look at it and listen to it and see if it will speak to you, which it usually will not.
I believe in music. I believe in love.
Image: “Love is all you need.”
CW: Love is all you need…. Oh, that’s from a Beatles song. I hate the Beatles.
Image: You do?
CW: Yeah, I like the Stones.
Image: That’s interesting. Can you say why? They seem to represent very different aesthetics that might have parallels in, say, poetry and even spirituality.
CW: I would say that the Beatles are more sentimental than the Stones, more pop. The Stones feel on the edge most of the time, which may owe something to the blues or gospel music. I always think of “Shine a Light”: “May the good Lord shine a light on you / Make every song (you sing) your favorite tune.” That’s what I always say, or want to believe, about poetry: make every poem you read (or write) your favorite poem. As for equivalents in religion, for one thing there are the big mega-churches, which strike me as mostly about feeling good, satisfied, and then there’s the down and dirty struggle that wrestling with God takes. “I can’t get no satisfaction.” In poetry, there’s what I call poetry lite. We all know what it is; it doesn’t ask much of us. And then there are the poets of difficulty, of struggle. Hopkins, for example. Dickinson. Donne. They don’t just give it away. Again, there’s an edge.
Image: I’ve heard you say that if your backyard is just your backyard, you might as well crack open another Budweiser. I like this idea of backyard poetics, and I know it takes a lot of forms for you—sometimes it’s Locust Avenue here in Charlottesville, and sometimes it’s out in Montana, where you spend summers on a ranch. What constitutes your backyard now, literally and figuratively?
CW: Well, nothing’s happening back there now. When I was in my natural prime, it was always alive with everything. There was magic everywhere back there, and I could look at stuff and start writing. I can look now and it’s just my backyard. It doesn’t seduce my imagination the way it used to. And I need that, because I don’t have much imagination on my own. I need something I am looking at to spur it into gear. My backyard always did it. It was partially the time of day I always sat out there, at about nine o’clock at night. There were different shapes, and when I was writing I thought about these things all the time, as one does. I was obsessed by what I was thinking about. It came up through my backyard. It didn’t work in my front yard, because there was a street out there.
Image: I think of your backyard poetics as something that Dickinson may have ushered in when she began to write about things like her garden and hummingbirds and drifts of snow. She made possible a kind of domestic lyric. Was it Robert Frost who said about Dickinson, “You don’t have to visit Niagara to know what rushing water means”? She was able to use the backyard, the quotidian, the observed thing, as a starting point for her metaphysical meditations.
CW: She also had an alien imagination. She was otherworldly. That’s what I’ve always tried to get to, some kind of otherworldliness. She is one of my great heroines, though I never was influenced by her stylistically, but I was influenced by her otherworldliness.
Image: I’ve heard you say that you want to be “Dickinson on the Whitman Road.” What do you mean by that?
CW: I still feel like that. I am a bit more expansive than she was, and a bit less good. Of course I was just trying to be cute when I said that, but it’s true. It’s about inclusiveness and exclusiveness. I wanted to write with Dickinson’s intensity, but I also wanted to get out of the house! In my long poems, I’m Walt; in my short ones, I’m Emily. In my long poems, which really are mostly a series of short poems, I am trying to be Dickinson on the Whitman Road. I try to write compressed poetry with a large embrace.
Image: I’ve heard you call yourself a God-fearing agnostic, but I think of you as one of our great religious poets, as I think of Dickinson.
CW: I think of her as a religious poet, too.
Image: I think there is a lot of God-hunger in your work. What do you say to my calling you a religious poet?
CW: Well, that’s okay. I wouldn’t call myself one, but I sort of feel it.
But I don’t even call myself a poet, so that’s a problem, particularly after being poet laureate of the United States. I don’t believe in calling oneself a poet. I think it was Frost who said that’s what other people call you. I have always taken that to heart.
I have religious inclinations, spiritual inclinations or leanings. But I don’t know that I am a religious poet, although I have been included in religious poetry anthologies. I hope that it will help me at the end of the road.
Image: You write, “We are all going into a world of dark. And that’s okay, / given the wing-wrung alternative. / It’s okay. That’s where the secrets are, / The big ones, the ones too tall to tell.” We all know that religion can become the enemy of mystery, of the big secrets. But it can also become their guardian. Where in the literary and cultural traditions that guard mystery do you find kindred spirits?
CW: I guess I find it most in the language of the Bible, specifically in the poetry—the cadences and phrasings of the King James Bible. There’s kinship there. I was raised a Christian, and I still think it’s a marvelous fable, but as I’ve gotten older, Buddhism appeals to me more and more. It just makes sense to me, to move beyond the anguish and rack of much of Christianity. Of course anguish and rack can be the stuff of good poetry. I just reread Seamus Heaney’s translation of book 6 of the Aeneid. Wow. Speaking of anguish and rack. It’s pre-Christian, but you can see where Dante gets everything! No wonder he picks Virgil as his guide through hell. So that’s another kinship, a kind of family tree. And I wouldn’t want to give up all the things of this world. I wouldn’t want to give up the King James Bible. Or the Book of Common Prayer. When I die, that’s what I want read: Rite One for the Burial of the Dead.
Image: I am always catching hints of psalms and other biblical and liturgical language in your poems. I wonder if you have a favorite book of the Bible, something you return to.
CW: I don’t return to anything so far. I do like the Book of Revelation, and the Book of Job, but it is Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer that echoes in my head. From when I was six to sixteen, I was in the grasp of all that business big time. When I turned sixteen, I entered an episcopal school, Christ School. The Anglican thing became overbearing for me then. What I took away and still keep are the moves, the language, of my Christian, my Episcopal, upbringing. And the gospel music of the South. The rest I gave to my son, who is a real believer, a theologian. I don’t think I’ll be having a deathbed reconversion. But you never know.
Image: If you had a chance to take a different career path, what might it have been?
CW: I probably would have been a journalist. I liked working on the newspaper when I was young, and after serving in the army I was admitted to the Columbia School of Journalism, which I got into on a fluke because my faculty advisor at Davidson College was the former roommate of the director. He must have put in a call for me, because I had no credentials, absolutely none. As I said, I’d been in the army. And that’s when I got interested in poetry, reading Pound while I was in Italy. I somehow got into the University of Iowa to study poetry in the PhD program. When I got my letter of acceptance from Iowa’s graduate school, I thought it was for the poetry workshop. Oh boy, was I set back when I found out! But when I got there, I just started attending the poetry workshops, not the PhD classes. And so I got into the workshop by the back door, without actually being accepted. I had a lot to learn. I didn’t even know what iambic pentameter was!
I really would like to have been a painter, because what I see is what I get. Also, you always have something to do if you are a painter.
CW: I don’t know. I was a little outré at that time, when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, so it probably would have been whatever was hot at the moment—although that’s not what happens in my poetry, decidedly not so. I like painters. I like paintings. I have been influenced by paintings. I love all the obvious choices, and have written about many of them. Cezanne. I have a series of poetic self-portraits, in The Southern Cross, that owe a lot to Francis Bacon’s self-portraits. Piero della Francesca—I love the temporal beatitude of his figures. Turner. Cy Twombly, who was also a southerner, from Lexington, Virginia. Working outside the urban establishment can be a kind of gift for an artist. Or a poet. A southern avant-garde. Exiled in paradise.
Image: Have you ever painted?
CW: No, I can’t draw a line.
Image: You don’t write love poems per se, though your love of beauty and the natural world, the “sexual energy of the evergreens,” for example, and the subjects of desire and God-yearning suffuse your work. I wonder if you could name two or three of your favorite love poems—by anyone.
CW: Actually all my poems are love poems, and they are all prayers, and they are all this and all that, as we like to say in the trade. There is a beautiful passage in the Cantos where Pound talks about Olga Rudge, the violinist, who he lived with. It’s toward the end of the drafts and fragments:
__________But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.
George Herbert’s love poem to God, “Love III,” I like that a lot. You know: “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back / Guilty of dust and sin….”
Emily Dickinson’s love poems are just—I don’t know who they are to. But they’re all love poems, and they’re all prayers. That’s true of all three of these poems and of all my poems. At least I hope so.
Image: I’ve heard you say that each of us has a few stories to tell, one or two, three or four maybe, and that finding different ways to mix those up and say what you have to say is the poet’s job. What would you say are your three or four stories?
CW: Probably landscape. The idea of God. Beauty, because it’s so elusive, hard to corral. Language. Whatever one writes, one wants to come out with something that tastes good. Drunk with magic.
Image: Speaking of which, I know that you appreciate good food and wine and the occasional slug of clear grain liquids. What would your perfect meal be?
CW: There would have to be fish and quail in there. I don’t know about the veggies. Asparagus, I guess. Dover sole, a couple of quail as the next course, and then I don’t really like desserts very much. I’ll jump right to the grappa.
Image: Jesus or the Buddha?
CW: The Buddha. One aspires to the condition of enlightenment. As the Buddha said, “Remember me as one who woke up.” That’s it. That’s all he said he wanted to be remembered as. I am drawn to that state of emptiness which I can never get to, in which you are open to real things and not the junk of this world. Jesus is okay, but I am drawn to Buddha.
Image: Another way to think about that is the via negativa, which sounds a lot like apotheosis, emptying out in order to be filled or ready to receive….
CW: …to receive something that you don’t know but you hope will explain it all to you. As I’ve said, I’ve found different paths into the mystery through Christianity, early on, and then through some aspects of Buddhism, which I came to later. Maybe there’s something about nirvana and the via negativa that keeps me coming back as a poet, trying to fill up the well as it empties.
Image: What is something you wished you had asked your mother and didn’t get around to?
CW: Why did you die so young? She was fifty-three.
I wrote a poem about her coming back. It’s called “Sitting at Night on the Front Porch” from a book called China Trace. In it, the speaker is looking into the dark, sizing it up, imagining a reunion with his dead mother. He says he’s “saving my mother’s seat.”
I want to know how she hacked it, living the itinerant life of the wife of an engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, going from town to town every two years when she was a small-town girl from Mississippi and had always longed for life in the big city. We were in places like Hiwassee, North Carolina, which we all loved, actually, and Pickwick Dam, where I was from, and then Knoxville and Corinth, Mississippi, all these places that had to do with Daddy’s TVA work, and when we finally settled down for three years it was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Second World War, so that wasn’t much good either. Then we came to Kingsport and she lived the rest of her life there.
She wouldn’t tell me, that’s the thing. She was very loyal, but I was always curious how that affected her.
Image: What about your dad? Is there something you would ask him now?
CW: I want to know how he became such a good father, which I am not. I look back at him as this rock who always knew what to do, never got on my case really, never insisted I do this or that. I hope it wasn’t out of apathy, and I don’t think it was, but you’re always curious after you live through the same experiences that your parents did. I always called him sir.
Image: Maybe your father just got lucky with his son.
CW: I did the best I could with Luke. I was not as calm as my father was. That calm is something that I admire greatly now.
Image: It is funny, the appreciation one has for one’s parents after attempting parenthood oneself. I think always of the things I have done wrong with my kids, the mistakes I’ve made, but they may see us more as you see your father, while we see ourselves as the flawed, bumbling fools that we feel ourselves sometimes to be.
CW: Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Image: Rilke called dreams and childhood the two inexhaustible sources of poetry. I wonder about your dream life. Do you dream a lot?
CW: No, they are never really detailed dreams. My wife has these fabulous dreams and nightmares, and she can remember everything, but mine are always classic dreams: that I can’t get to someplace, that I can’t find my car, that I’m able to fly. I used to be able to jump down the stairs and go a long way in my dreams, and I thought after I woke up, “That was pretty easy!”
Image: I remember a story of yours about a sleepwalking incident from your childhood. Would you mind talking about that?
CW: I used to sleepwalk. I would wake up on the other side of the room when I ran into my brother’s bed. At eleven or twelve, I was camping in North Carolina. I got out of my sleeping bag and started walking away from the tent on a path, and it turned out I was walking toward a drop-off, a kind of cliff, at the edge of the woods, but I didn’t know it. Then I ran into the side of a bear. I was convinced—I still am—that the bear kept me from going off the ledge. I just turned around and walked back to my sleeping bag. I don’t think I ever told anyone about it at the time.
Image: Do you have a spirit animal?
CW: Well, the bear. I used to wear a belt buckle that had a bear’s claw, but it broke after about thirty years. The bear was my totem animal, for sure, from the age of eleven on.
Image: Any memories earlier than that?
CW: I remember a lot from when we lived in Knoxville. I remember a street off the Kingston Pike, and I had a friend out there named John Pelton who lived next door, and we used to play all the time. I remember going to the magic store, making my mother take me down on Gay Street in the middle of town to get some doodad, some magic trick.
Image: Rilke called childhood an inexhaustible source for poems—maybe because it is such a mythic time that we don’t understand, and only later can something sort of click.
CW: It is funny. I came across Rilke’s quote years ago when I was writing my second book. I had been writing standardized poems that didn’t have any connection with me. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good either.
Image: Apprentice pieces?
CW: I once said to Don Justice, my teacher, “Well, that’s my apprentice book,” and he said, “All my books are apprentice books.” I wish I had said that. Then I remembered the Rilke thing, about childhood, my childhood, and I thought about Hiawassee Dam, and I wrote a poem called “Dog Creek Mainline” which was the first poem that became really mine, that wasn’t just a poem. After that, the rest is history.
Image: You once said to me that it’s really in the third book that a poet hits her stride. That may be true, but I felt that that book, Hard Freight, and that poem, “Dog Creek Mainline,” signaled who Charles Wright would become.
CW: It was the way I started to write then. There are exceptions. Jim Tate’s first book was a major blow, and Wallace Stevens’s first book was pretty good, too, but for most of us, I do think it is the third book where you get into your rhythm. At least that happened to me, so of course I think that. It may not have anything to do with anybody else.
Image: Well, a third anything is a signal that whatever you started with isn’t just a one-hit wonder, nor have you had just a lucky second chance. Three makes a series, and I know that you think serially. Is there something about triads and trinities that is important to you? Is there a poetic equivalent to the holy Trinity?
CW: Oh, yeah. Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Everything important comes in threes. In poetry: the writer, the reader, and the poem. Or: the poet, his subject, and inspiration or the muse. My wife and I were at supper with a friend who was ordering a second martini. The waitress said something like, “Martinis are like breasts. One is not enough. Three’s too many.” But of course that “too many” is what keeps things unsettled, keeps things interesting, keeps you coming back to figure things out.
Image: Is there anything you have recently learned that excites you? It doesn’t have to be literary.
CW: Well, I don’t know if it excites me, but when I turned eighty I learned that I couldn’t go on the way I always had. It was last year, 2015. I wish I could say I learned something, but everything I’ve learned I’ve forgotten, so it must not have been a very good thing to have learned in the first place.
Image: I was thinking about the losses in this past couple of years to the poetry world: Philip Levine, Mark Strand, James Tate, Brett Foster, Claudia Emerson, C.K. Williams, to name just a few. What have we lost in losing those people?
CW: Personally I have lost a lot because those first three were all dear friends of mine. But with them I don’t know how much we’ve lost from the point of view of literature. They had done their major work. Strand had stopped writing. We had talked about it because I had stopped writing too. Jim Tate didn’t stop writing, but he was just like William Stafford: he lowered his expectations. Phil’s late work didn’t have the fire his earlier poems did—though he was still very good. I have lost some friends, and I think their work will live on.
Image: What are you working on now? I think your most recent book, Caribou, is one of your best.
CW: Well, yes. That’s why I’m quitting.
Image: I’ve heard you say that about twenty times.
CW: I’m not going to repeat myself again. That came out in 2014. I finished it in 2013, about two and a half years ago, and then the next summer I did ten or eleven poems, and then this last summer I was scribbling but they were all so bad that I didn’t even type them up.
I have a few poems that haven’t been published but I don’t send them out. If someone asks me for something I’ll say, “I’ve got this, but I’m not going to write any more, so if you want it, you better take it.”
Who knows, I may. Maybe it really does come down to faith and mystery. There may be a great melting of the dam, but I don’t think so.