Posts Tagged ‘concrete


Quick Notes on Charles Wright

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 WrightCharles 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.

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.

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.


Works Cited

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.



in pursuit of the juiciest wine: day 101 (Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2009)

It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these tastings, but that’s what happens when you have a full-time plus teaching Introduction to Creative Writing at the state college, which takes another 15-20 hours of prep work for a three-hour class.  Work, school, students, girlfriend, dog, food, sleep. Ug. It’s overwhelming.

Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Click the image to make it bigger so you can read it.

Ok. enough whining. On to the wine.

Actually, I’m going to do an experiment. The next Introduction to Creative Class will be on poetry. It will be the first poetry class. In this class I plan to focus on abstractions and images. Why do young writers have such a hard time distinguishing between the two? I know I did. Why do young writers try to write poetically instead of just writing? I know I did. Anyway. This review will be like two reviews. One review will try to describe the wine with abstractions. And the other will try to describe the wine with some images and concrete stuff.

Tonight’s wine is Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from Napa Valley. I got it for two reasons. The first was the label. The second was that someone or someplace gave it 89 points. Had I not seen that rating, I would have backed away. But here we are. Hop on board.

But first to get us in the proper mood – Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” from Blues and the Abstract Truth:

Abstract noseNow for the descriptions.

New rules. I’ll describe the wine with abstractions, and the girlfriend will describe with images.

Abstract Color: It’s the color of a newborn’s thought when seeing fall for the first time. Hmm. There are two images in there. It’s the color of an interpretation.

Concrete Color: A dark plumy color with some red.

Abstract Nose: The nose smells like the middle of the solar system. Near the asteroid belt. Hmm. No. That’s too many images. It smells like the berries of time. Ah. There we go. No. There’s still berries. It smells like the dark times before the eruption of change. It smells like a sad smile before a birthday. Ha ha!

Concrete Nose: It’s a little cranberry-like with some spices and perhaps some nutmeg. She says it smells like Christmas spices. And that it smells dry.

Abstract Taste: It tastes like prehistoric earth just after the lava cooled. It tastes like the steam rising from the lava. No. Those are images, too. It tastes dry. It tastes like red. It tastes like the edge of death but in a good way. It tastes like the last words of a famous painter. It tastes like a Paris tavern in the 1920s with Hemingway at a table writing and staring at a woman he wants to put into a story. Damn. All images. Arg. It tastes like the edge or certainty and the corner of joy.

Concrete Taste: It tastes alcoholic. It’s juicy. It’s like biting in currant berry that explodes in your mouth. It started interesting but became boring and unnoteworthy. (Ha. There’s the abstractions!)

I agree. It start off with some gusto. It has some talent. It’s like a boxing match. Talent, fine clothes, and experience vs. youth, impetuousness, and rags. It’s trying to be a real good wine, but behind it, perhaps the abundance of alcohol, there’s a thin layer of cheapness.

I’d say 88 points.

But you know, as the boxing match goes on, the young, cheap fighter is starting to falter. He’s fallen to the mat a couple of times. Talent and experience are winning out. The first rounds it came out strong, stumble a bit in the middle rounds, but is finishing the match strong. I give 89 points.

Most important. This wine taught me that it’s best to describe a wine with both concrete and abstract terms. A good poem does that, too, but the abstractions aren’t the dominant. They just appear every now and then like Miles Davis trumpet in songs from his later years.//

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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