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


Merwin the mighty

MERWINOne of the great privileges of my life — aside from being a husband and a father, of course — was meeting W.S. Merwin. He was eager to get home to Hawaii, to his wife, to his gardens, but we talked for about an hour while he was visiting Claremont McKenna College a few years ago. I had my connections to the college, and my identity as a rep for a large newspaper, and that created the kind of opportunity that only seems possible in a dream. But I was also forewarned that he was leery of interviews and suspicious of reporters because they routinely mangled the currency of his craft and took his comments out of context. I was reminded of that warning after reading a comment included in a Huff Post article about a new film of the poet's life. Merwin sounds like a person whose life is characterized mainly by "I don't...":

"He said 'I'm not going to talk about Buddhism and I'm not going to talk about my writing process,' and on top of that, he's just a deeply private person," the filmmaker says in the article. Merwin  "put some creative parameters on what the film is."

Initially, I felt the same parameters. Especially when he eyed the digital recorder in my shirt breast-pocket. He told me not to use it. What could I do?  I tried so hard to keep up with the flow of his thoughts, but I couldn't scribble fast enough.

I knew his work pretty well, especially his Purgatorio translation and early poetry, and the lovely little book about his years in Provence. I asked him question after question. Maybe that made a difference.

I also started expressing my  frustrations over the fate of a manuscript, and he didn't hide his irritation at the whole marketing process, either. It was a revelation. The whole thing bothered him--Him!--too. When he talked about visiting Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's, it felt like a flash-bomb had gone off in my face -- Pound, for God's sake, he knew Pound!

He was as generous to me, and as passionate about his work, as the young Princeton student who once talked poetry with John Berryman:

I asked how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure you die without knowing whether anything you wrote was any good if you have to be sure don't write

And suddenly I heard those words that I'd never expected to hear. He pointed at my recorder and said,  "ok, you can let it run a little."