Arts and Humanities
7:00 am
Sun June 15, 2014

What You Need to Know About Charles Wright, the New U.S. Poet Laureate

Charles Wright, the newly-appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, reading at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, Georgetown University, 2013.
Credit S L O W K I N G. / Wikimedia Commons

The Library of Congress announced Thursday that the next U.S. Poet Laureate would be 78-year-old Charles Wright. Wright, who is retired from the University of Virginia, is the author of more than 20 collections of poems. His work has won nearly every major award, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ruth Lilly Prize. 

Wright is a Tennessee native, and succeeds Natasha Trethewey, an Atlanta-based poet with roots in Kentucky. His appointment is for one year, though the Library of Congress may extend it for two. The duties of the position are left largely to the individual laureates to define. Wright, for his part, tells NPR that he'll "probably stay here at home and think about things."

Want to brush up on your Wright but don't know where to start?

A short poem: "Cowboy Up," Virginia Quarterly Review

A longer piece: "The Appalachian Book of the Dead," Poetry

My favorite: "Words and the Diminution of All Things," from Buffalo Yoga (Farrar Straus & Giroux)

A few books: Caribou (his newest from FSG), Black Zodiac (1997, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award), The Other Side of the River (1984, finalist, Pulitzer Prize)

Three essays on Charles Wright and the American South from Asheville Poetry Review

What The Poets Are Saying

We reached out to several Kentucky writers with ties to Wright to hear what they had to say about his appointment and his work. 

Kiki Petrosino, author of "Hymn for the Black Terrific"

I was honored to take an undergraduate poetry workshop with Charles Wright at the University of Virginia, so this is a thrilling announcement. We shared a mutual admiration for Italian language and literature (I had just returned from my own study abroad in Florence when I took his class). He even quizzed me a few times on certain Italian words ("pomegranate seed" was one, poetically enough), just to see if I really knew my stuff. I loved it.

My favorite Charles Wright poem is "A Short History of the Shadow," which contains beautiful references to Dante and to Pantops, a mountain in Charlottesville.  

Kiki Petrosino is a professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville. She is the author of two poetry collections, "Fort Red Border" and "Hymn for the Black Terrific." 

Lisa Williams, author of "Gazelle in the House"

I'm so happy to hear that Charles has been selected as Poet Laureate. He's a tremendous talent, an influential teacher, and a kind human being. Over the last 40 or so years, he's created some of the most formally inventive, stylistically distinctive, and thoughtful poetry out there.

For example, the dropped lines that he's become known for (developed from some of Pound and from Wright's own thinking about the paintings of Cezanne) changed the landscape of poetry and allowed all of us poets more freedom to roam the page.  

Maybe what I admire most about his work, other than his absolutely unerring "ear," is his ability to bring together, in one believable, beautiful nexus of a poem, a range of diction and language: phrases and sentences that are colloquial, Southern idiomatic, philosophical, ecstatic/religious, literary and poetic, and so much more -- language that is influenced, for example, by the great Italian and Chinese poetry that he loves, and by the rhythm and spark of common talk.

He does this all in a way that really reflects the way people talk and think, wrapping into his words this great inheritance of lyric poetry and the richness of language as a whole. It's something Shakespeare also accomplished, in his day, and something that makes Wright's poems both remarkably resonant for other poets and beautifully clear, as human words, human thinking, to anyone reading them. 

Lisa Williams is the author of three collections of poems, most recently "Gazelle in the House," and she teaches at Centre College in Danville. Williams studied with Wright as a graduate student at the University of Virginia. 

Sarah Gorham, editor-in-chief of Sarabande Books and author of "Bad Daughter"

Jeffrey Skinner and I invited Charles Wright first to publish “The Wrong End of the Rainbow” in our Quarternote Chapbook Series, then “Outtakes,” a collaborative art book with (Cincinnati-based artist)  Eric Appleby. We did so because Wright is a central figure in contemporary poetry, one of maybe five or six poets whose writing is to us a kind of iconic model of what poetry should be. His poems are his own, sound new, but also have lasting power, which hasn't faded over dozens of collections. Those early books are still surprising and as delightful as the recent ones. We think he's a great choice for Poet Laureate.

Sarah Gorham is editor-in-chief of Sarabande Books, which she co-founded in Louisville with husband Jeffrey Skinner in 1994. Sarabande recently won the inaugural AWP Small Press of the Year award. Gorham is the author of four poetry collections, and the most recent is"Bad Daughter" from Four Way Books. Gorham is the  recipient of a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing. 

Kyle Coma-Thompson, author of "The Lucky Body"

I think Charles' appointment is a surprising but natural choice. Surprising because he is a genuinely unassuming, humble, good-humored person; even the boldness of his weirdest poems are made more so by the humility and calm with which they're delivered. Much has been made about his writing representing some kind of back-room confluence of European modernism and Southern literature  –  dissimilar from earlier instances of this in, say, Faulkner or the Agrarians – but since he first took to writing with real focus in the ‘60s, I'd say Charles' poetry is just as likely to represent an unlikely combination of classical Chinese verse, pastoral description of Southern landscapes, and psychedelic experience rendered via wordplay and luxuriously warped imagery.

Charles' poems are dogwood trees stippled with the morning dew of lysergic acid. 

Plus, there's the most important element in his work: self-deprecating humor. No mystic is worth his or her aphorisms without it. 

Charles is at his best, for me at least, with the trilogy of books he wrote in the ‘80s: “The World of Ten Thousand Things.” This is where he begins to tell stories, where his poems begin to unravel and wander, fall apart and gather their parts back together in novel, genuinely moving ways. There are epiphanic moments in almost every other line, but what's always interesting is how Charles can never let them rest unchallenged. So he undercuts them now and then with jokes or grotesque little gestures  – decadent, quasi-necrotic doodles taken straight from nature. 

Charles was a teacher of mine fourteen years ago. He deserves the accolades given to him. In the classroom he is quiet and lets students do the talking  –  and anything he has to say, he'll mumble as an aside. A friend once made a point of sitting next to him during class, to write all these little comments down. "The Apocryphal Jokes of Charles Wright" he called them. One comment harped on someone's mispronunciation of Charles Bronson's legal birth name. 

What he'll bring to the post? Class. An almost involuntary grown-ass-man wisdom. Not that other laureates haven't done so as well, and not to diminish them, but: none of the previous laureates have been able to bring a sensibility to the post that's so idiosyncratic it could be deemed aberrational to the values of what we consider now Genuinely American. Noise, speed, self-interest, self, self, self. Charles challenges these things by not being them. Libraries are supposed to be quiet, so: what could be a more natural choice for the Library of Congress.

Poems of his I'd suggest reading? "Virginia Reel" or "Arkansas Traveller". But really, any poem from those early three books from the ‘80s. In those, blind men are born kings. They don't need to be coronated.

Kyle Coma-Thompson is the author of the story collection "The Lucky Body" and a former Axton Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Louisville. He also studied under Wright at the University of Virginia. Thompson lives in Louisville.