The Wright choice for poet laureate

The Library of Congress exercised superb judgment earlier this month by selecting Charles Wright to succeed Natasha Trethewey as  U.S. poet laureate. Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 11.05.21 AMThere are few modern giants still standing in the world of poetry -- there's W.S. Merwin, of course, but I have a hard time identifying too many others (I welcome any and all of your suggestions, my friends).

Let's see ... Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy ... ?

Wright is undeniably a part of this group. He's not only prolific; he also practices his craft well within that shimmering notion of a "tradition" that T.S. Eliot described in his famous, foundational essay.

Which made me a little surprised with some of the announcements of Wright's naming, especially in the Washington Post, because they emphasize (and over-repeat) that Wright is a "Southern poet" who was born in Tennessee.

They refer to his Southern background so many times that it seems like they're surprised by it, or else it's some kind of novelty. I can't help visualizing him in some stereotypical way -- as having a drawl or listening to Carrie Underwood (I don't know, maybe he does).

It's not that: It's just that the geographic insistence gives the impression to unfamiliar audiences that Wright is some kind of regional talent, not the bearer of literary tradition in a grander, older context (which he is).

The Wright I know is the admirer (disciple?) of Dante who describes his experience of reading Inferno during a summer in Laguna Beach, Calif., in an essay included in the volume The Poet's Dante (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Or else, for me, Wright is the speaker  who has an intriguing encounter in the poem "A Journal of the Year of the Ox":

Who is it here in the night garden, Gown a transparent rose Down to his ankles, great sleeves Spreading the darkness around him wherever he steps, Laurel corona encircling his red transparent head cap, Pointing toward the Madonna?

This mysterious figure has some advice for the poem's speaker about his craft, about life in general:

Brother, remember the way it was In my time: nothing has changed: Penitents terrace the mountainside, the stars hang in their                      bright courses And darkness is still the dark:                      concentrate, listen hard, Look to the nature of all things....

There are many works in which poets describe imagined meetings with other poets. Dante meets Arnaut Daniel in Purgatorio ... Eliot encounters a poet (Yeats?) in Little Gidding ... Heaney meets Joyce in Station Island .... and Wright speaks to Dante in the above passage. There now, do you see it? Tradition.

A full circle.

There's a linkage to the distant literary past that's vitally alive in Wright's poetry, as this passage might suggest, and I'm excited by the Library of Congress' decision for a simple reason: It may give an immensely important poet a chance to become even more widely known.


Paris Review: J.D. McClatchy in conversation with Charles Wright


You're being watched: new in bookstores

demonologist coverWhen a copy of Andrew Pyper's novel "The Demonologist" (Simon & Schuster) arrived in the mail last week, I took a quick glance and inhaled sharply at the plot description--a menacing demonic mystery, a scholar of John Milton, and a lost girl--and then I muttered two simple words: I'm in.

Pyper's publisher has a fantastic novel on its hands to promote this month and during the spring. But, just in case the plot elements aren't enough to grab readers, the publisher has prepared a two-piece cover design that's just as arresting as the plot.

It's a riff on that creepiest of old horror tropes--the eye at the keyhole.

When you strip the jacket off the book, you discover who this spy is:  On the front cover, a young girl's face looks out from between two dark, molten-red images of the fallen rebel angels entering the infernal palace of Pandemonium.

interior-Demonologist-coverI won't blow the connection between the story's narrator and this young girl. Instead, I'll just point out that English majors aren't the only fans of Milton's "Paradise Lost" -- some of the diabolic creatures described by the poet also happen to be fans who "share a passion for words" with the story's narrator, Miltonic scholar David Ullman.

Ullman knows Milton's work well--so well, in fact, that he's hired by an enigmatic woman for a job (he doesn't know what kind, only that his expertise is perfect) that requires traveling to Venice, which is fine with him. He needs an escape. His marriage is crumbling. His life is a mess. And he forgets all about it after a terrifying encounter that begins with an insane Venetian gentleman--or is he demonically possessed? Why else would he be strapped to a chair?

It's only the beginning.

Soon, Professor Ullman is on a desperate search that's also painfully personal, and he confronts an entity known only as the Unnamed that mocks him with Milton's poetry--"live while ye may, yet happy pair," it says in one chilling scene--even though it also needs his help as a messenger.

That's enough. You'll have to read the book for more.

Horror and gothic suspense are categories that publishers can count on, and that's why there's a steady stream of both each season.  But there's so much of it that some books, like Pyper's (or another devilish favorite of mine from a few year's ago, "The Testament of Gideon Mack" by James Robertson), may not get as much attention as they deserve.

Which is why I applaud the cover design--and Pyper's story. He gives readers an engaging thriller that invites us into the depths of arcane subjects with an ease and authority that few writers possess. Pyper, happily, is one of these.