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


Banking on Banks

Cancer's a thief. It's not a stealthy one, though. In most cases, it doesn't sneak in and out of a window while the owners of the house snore in their beds. It's more like a robber with an extreme taste for vandalism -- it robs you of loved ones and leaves wreckage behind. Still, many artists have put a brave face on this condition (I'm sure there's a more substantial post here somewhere ... for another time). I'm reminded of a beautiful beautiful beautiful poem (it's clear that I think it's beautiful, right?) by Stanley Plumly, "Cancer," that mythologizes it:

Mine, I know, started at a distance five hundred and twenty light-years away and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth, yesterday, at birth, or that time when I was ten lying on my back looking up at the cluster called the Beehive or by its other name in the constellation Cancer, the Crab...

The poem is found in "Orphan Hours: Poems," published by W.W. Norton & Company. At $25.95 it's a steal -- worth every penny.

Iain Banks in 2005 (credit: Szymon Sokol)

And, at the other end of that noble spectrum, there's Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who just announced a terminal diagnosis of gall bladder cancer on his website. The Guardian provides the full story.

Where Plumly is glorious and epic, Banks resorts to the type of black humor you find everywhere in his work, from his mysteries to his sci-fi Culture novels. What's the sentence in his unhappy announcement that knocked me over and then out? This one:

"I've withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry -- but we find ghoulish humour helps)".

I truly admire that voice. I'm sure there's fear and terror behind it, but it's still extraordinary to me that anyone receiving such serious news could muster the energy to make their readers smile a little in spite of it all. (I wish I could have carried such an attitude when my own loved ones suffered from it.)

The Guardian article does much more than announce this news, however. It also gives readers a taste of what Banks' work is all about (something else beautiful and strange? Banks' novel "The Wasp Factory") and an opportunity to read him while we still have the pleasure of including him in our company.