These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.
Charles Wright (August 25, 1935) is an American poet and professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia. In 1983, his book Country Music: Selected Early Poems shared the National Book Award with Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems; in 1998, his book Black Zodiac won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2014, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.
Lately, I’ve been wondering about the materiality of language and what it means or is. After some research, I think I have an idea. The materiality of language suggests, in part, that language is a material substance that is part of the phenomenological experience of the world, and as a material, it is malleable – it can be changed, reshaped, and regulated. So language is two things: it’s part of the experience and it’s a tool to engage with an experience. Language becomes the landscape of vision, and we become language. Or as Wright says in “Tennessee Line”: “We are our final vocabulary, / and how we use it. / There is no secret contingency. / There’s only rearrangement, the redescription / Of little and mortal things” (17). Those last two lines act as an aesthetic principle for Wright, too. Poetry is old words in new orders exploring the same content. Poetry is style laid atop the content of experience. As Wright also says in “Chickamauga,” “The poem is a code with no message: / The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath, / Absolute, incommunicado, / unhoused and peregrine” (33).
Part of this linguistic experience is to give contour to the visible in order to experience the invisible, and by invisible I also mean abstract. Wright’s poems (at least in Negative Blue) move back and forth between abstraction (especially in statement form) and image. He creates juxtapositions of idea and experience. Usually the movement is on a small scale, such as in the middle of “Waiting for Tu Fu” (with Wright’s rare use of apostrophe):
O we were pure and holy in those days, The August sunlight candescing our short-sleeved shirt fronts, The music making us otherwise. O we were abstract and true. How could we know that grace would fall from us like shed skin, That reality, our piebald dog, would hunt us down. (57)
This stanza opens with the abstraction of “pure and holy,” and then shifts to images in the next two lines, then back to the abstract with “we were abstract and true,” but in the final two lines is where the movement is more sudden, as it goes from “grace” to “shed skin” in one line, and then in the last line, from the abstraction of “reality” to the concrete of “piebald dog,” and then the blending of abstract and concrete in “would hunt us down.” Wright concretizes the abstraction and makes it come alive in action as reality begins its hunt like a dog. Not all of Wright’s movements concretize abstractions as here, but the juxtapositions do give shape to the abstractions, or what cannot be seen.
A larger scale juxtaposition occurs in “Yard Work”:
I think that someone will remember us in another time, Sappho once said – more or less – Her words caught Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible. I hope so, myself now caught Between the edge of landscape and the absolute, Which is the same place, and the same sound, That she made. Meanwhile, let’s stick to business. Everything else does, the landscape, the absolute, the invisible. My job is yard work – I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there. (67)
The “more or less” in line 2 is acknowledgement that language is not exacting. It’s a means of communicating something close to what we mean, or as Wright says in “Sprung Narratives”: “The world is a language we never quite understand, / But we think we catch the drift of” (23). So even though language is part of the experience and a tool for experience, it’s not perfectly mimetic. It’s almost as if language is a gesture towards the truth. But what is truth in “Yard Work”? Is it that space between the visible and invisible? between the utterable and unutterable? – “Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible”? Or is it between the physical and metaphysical? – “Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute.” Or is it the sign? – the word Sappho “made” out of signifier (“the same place”) and the signified (“the same sound”). The word as mediation of experience. Or is truth just keeping busy? Is truth action? Consider his work in the last line: “I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.” here there is measurement (“inch”) and movement (“from here to there”) and distance (however far it is from “here to there”), and are all three of these things are what one needs to identify time. Without movement, there is no time. Wright enacts the passage of time not only by the movement of inchworm, but also with the juxtaposition of past (Sappho) and present. That juxtaposition coupled with the more intricate juxtapositions of language (stanza 1), thought (stanza 2), and action (stanza 3), enables one to record memories and the invisible and the passage of time. Or as he more aptly says in the opening of “Basic Dialogue”:
The transformation of objects in space, or objects in time, To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise . . . It’s always the same problem – Nothing’s more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. The job is to make it otherwise. (147)
Wright, Charles. Negative Blue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.