When the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, announced last week that retired University of Virginia professor Charles Wright would succeed Natasha Trethewey as the U.S. Poet Laureate, he called attention to Wright’s “combination of literary elegance and genuine humility.” But the quiet, spiritually minded, explicitly apolitical Wright is also a sharp choice to serve as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans,” perhaps as exemplified by his declaration of purpose as laureate: “I’ll probably stay here at home and think about things.”
Born in 1935 in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, Wright began his literary career as a soldier stationed in Italy. He read Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, looked out at Veneto, and began scrawling away, later to find himself at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize. In between he published over two dozen collections of poems that embrace both a European obsession with words and an American reverence for land, writing in “Chickamauga”: “Structure becomes an element of belief, syntax / And grammar a catechist, / Their words what the beads say, / words thumbed to our discontent.”
That straightforward but contemplative attitude shows up time and time again in Wright’s poetry. His newest collection, Caribou, features a poem called “Ancient of Days” in which he writes: “This is an old man’s poetry, written by someone who’s spent his life / Looking for one truth. / Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.” He revisits Christian metaphors constantly over the course of his work, and yet he himself has long been a nonbeliever. He calls his poetry “the metaphysics of the quotidian,” encompassing both sides of the spiritual divide: a deep conviction that the “stuff” of religion is relevant, but a timeless doubt about its veracity. (He writes in “The Appalachian Book of the Dead”: “Time to begin the long division.) Wright considers “the true purpose of poetry to be a contemplation of the divine—however you find it, or don’t find it.” The latter happens to ring more true for Wright, but he does not allow that to distance himself from his surroundings. His poetry is in that sense an accurate expression of an increasingly nonreligious, but not necessarily less Christian, America.
Wright’s fondness for a Christian poetic vocabulary is also rooted in his Southern heritage, which he has long struggled to live out in a way that feels honest to him. “I can’t tell a story,” as he told the Paris Review in 1989. “Only Southerner I know who can’t.” Yet in that same interview, he casually references the Southern Gothic and invokes a profoundly Southern relationship with sacredness and land. He does not see himself as any less Southern a poet for his stunted narrative, but rather he finds different ways of interpreting his history. Rather than narrative poems, he publishes collections, or “journals,” with repeated metaphors and poems placed in conversation with one another. He describes this way of writing as “an American sprawl of a poem with a succession of succinct checks and balances. Epiphanic and oceanic at once. Intensive and extensive. The long and the short of it. Now that’s American.”
America may just have found the most unlikely of kindred spirits in this contemporary contemplative.