Lauded as among the greatest poets of his generation, Charles Wright ’57 crafts poems that glint like cut glass and weigh heavy like weathered stone. Chosen for his “combination of literary elegance and genuine humility,” according to Librarian of Congress James Billington, Wright has spent the better part of a year as U.S. Poet Laureate.
Despite flight delays caused by a rare but disruptive North Carolina snow storm, the soft-spoken poet presented the annual Joel Conarroe Lecture to a rapt audience in February in the Duke Family Performance Hall. The truncated visit included many additional obligations—including this conversation with the Davidson Journal—all of which the travel-weary Wright met with characteristic grace and good humor.
Where does failure fit into the learning and creative process?
There’s no success like failure, as Bob Dylan said. If you’re attempting something that’s very hard and important, you’re bound to fail. If you’re a writer, all you do is fail all your life, because you never come up to what you envision. So the writing life is filled with failures. Even the ones who succeed. You just know you are going to fail—from the very first poem you write, and then the first 100 that you write…there’s no silver bullet, you just have to keep on doing it. And you either get better or you don’t. You either get better or you give it up. And it’s okay, you don’t have to be a writer to be a good person. Actually I will say that one of the very early really good reviews I ever got [for Southern Cross]was from Joel when he was at the University of Pennsylvania. It was wonderful. I was very grateful, because my first book was reviewed in one place, and the review said, ‘this book should not have been published’—and they, of course, were correct! It was great for me because it was a real shot in the arm, as they say. Southern Cross is still one of my better attempts… it’s a failure, too.
Every once in a while you turn a phrase, or you get an insight that you think is okay, that sort of thing. Every book is a success until two weeks later, then you realize it’s not. I don’t know, success, well it’s better than failure, I guess.
Is there a role for criticism? What is that role?
Depends who the critic is. The really good critics are smart people, like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, and then there are critics who are so academically contorted that it’s not much help. But the good critics talk about the poems and not theories of criticism, at least in my eyes—not in theirs, I’m sure. But of course there’s a place for critics. Dante [Alighieri] had a place for them.
How have you developed your command of language?
I don’t know about that because I don’t know that I have a command of language. I’m not silver-tongued, I’m not very good at public speaking, that sort of thing. But I have read some things, and there are ideas and notions that I pursue, and they lead to a kind of sub-language that becomes poetry if handled well; because poetry is the same words, but it’s a different language. I don’t know how, I think it’s just doing it, and doing it, and imitating the right people as you start out, and not imitating the wrong people…because that’s how you learn, through imitation. I wouldn’t say that I have a great success in language, but I’ve come to realize that it’s what I do and it’s okay, and I wish I were more fluent, but I’m not. But what I do work on, I work on very hard. See, I’m tongue-tied in answering this. It’s hard to ask somebody ‘what do you think constitutes your mastery of language? Where does the spirituality come from in your poems?’ The poem comes out of you, or it should, and not out of a formal approach.
In your work, you use imagery of the natural world to get at larger truths.
It’s something I feel. All of my poems start with something I’m looking at or seeing—I know that, and sometimes I wish it were otherwise, but that seems to be the way it works for me, and that’s okay because I am drawn to the natural world. I’ve always lived out in the country, and it’s always been around me…not that I know how to do anything out in the country, except look at it. And it’s the way that it stands in for other things…what I suspect is behind what I see, and what I try to unsuccessfully explain. But I do have an affinity for the natural world as opposed say to cities, to dialogue, to people—there are no people in my poems. It’s like the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek once said…he was asked, ‘Why are there no people in your photographs? There’s nothing but trees and flowers,’ (he’d lost an arm in World War I), and he said, ‘well, as I set up everything, there are always people in there, and after I finally get set up, they’ve all gone, so I just have to take the picture anyhow.’ It’s the same way with me—they’re always gone, but their resonance, I think, still stays in some of the poems.
Italy, Montana, Appalachia—are there commonalities among these landscapes?
I guess there’s a commonality—I don’t do much about Italy anymore, it’s more Montana and the mountains of Appalachia that I write about, if I write about anything anymore. This is a really lame answer to a decent question. The landscape is always inside me somehow. Ezekiel said you must eat the scrolls, you have to eat the words, you have to get it inside you, and I have the landscape inside me somehow. Maybe superficially.
How do you turn people on to poetry?
Well you don’t. They’re either receptive or they’re not. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had terrific students at the University of Virginia, and I had good students out at the University of California-Irvine. And I’ve been lucky in that I’ve taught graduate students. They’ve already made a decision to try to be writers, and so there’s no problem—you just try to encourage the good ones, and I’ve had some really fabulous ones. A former undergraduate won the National Book Award last year. I always knew she was fabulous. You can tell who’s good—they don’t always pursue it, but you can tell. My last really good graduate student was a guy who turned out to be from Kingsport, Tenn., my hometown, whose work I could not understand a word of, but I knew he was brilliant, and he was. He’s published three books now and went to New York immediately. I could understand what he was getting at, but I just couldn’t understand how he got there.
Have you figured out what you are supposed to do as Poet Laureate?
It hasn’t entailed much so far. In a couple of weeks I have to do something else in Washington, D.C., and at the end of April I have to do something. I did one thing there—an inaugural reading back in September. I don’t live in D.C., and I don’t go up there very often, but I call once a week to the guy who’s in charge of all of that stuff and we talk. I’m not saying it’s a silly office—it means a lot inside the Library of Congress. The people there all like it, but all you have to do is cross the street and people say, ‘what, who, why, what are you talking about?,’ and that’s the way it should be, in my view. It’s been okay.
How do you remember Davidson?
I enjoyed it, because in high school we had nine kids in our class, and at Davidson there were 144. And at Davidson, you didn’t have to turn your light out at night—I thought, ‘this is a terrific place.’ I had basically a good time, I think. You know, I had a chance to transfer because most of my friends in my fraternity went to Chapel Hill. The only two from our group who didn’t go were me and Ted Baker [’57], so I stayed here. I don’t know what to say about my experiences here. They were generally pretty good. I didn’t get thrown in jail, and I didn’t get caught with liquor, which was an amazing thing.
As a student, were you familiar with Joel Conarroe ’56?
Everybody knew everybody at the time. Joel was on a higher literary plain than I was. I mostly played golf and road-tripped, that sort of thing—went to all the girls’ schools in Virginia. So Joel has many more literary remembrances than I do, although there were a couple of teachers… Dr. Cunningham, who I liked a lot, William Patterson “W.P.” Cumming [’21].
You discovered you were no good at writing fiction at Davidson?
I guess I did discover it here, although I kept trying to do it because I didn’t know what else to do. There were no writing classes…there was one writing class a year taught by the Shakespeare professor. There just wasn’t much writing around. I remember I helped edit the Scripps and Pranks (student literary magazine). My year, all we did was mostly steal stuff from the Yale Record because they had a couple of really good writers up there—one was C.D.B. Bryan, who was the stepson of the novelist John O’Hara, and he went on to write a couple of novels. Anyhow, we didn’t know much. All you did was study for your classes, or go away or play golf. I don’t want to make light of my time here because I basically enjoyed it, but most of my education came in the four years after I left Davidson, when I was in the Army. Everything sort of opened up to me and I, of course, was more ready to appreciate it and do stuff—look at art, read, all that sort of business, which I didn’t do here. My fault, probably. I guess I was in the wrong crowd. I had a B average, which was good in those days.