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About Charles Wright

Calvin Bedient

After T. S. Eliot, Charles Wright has been the modern poet in English most afflicted and gifted by a sense of his own insufficiency before the absolute--that "black moth the light burns up in," as he put it in "Death" in China Trace (1977). His sensibility itself has seemed like a gorgeous insect crippled on the windshield of the speeding galaxy. Through his startling figures and, if less so, his eloquent rhythms, he has intimated an unthinkable glory of which life is otherwise bereft.

From "Side-Wheeling Around the Curves" in The Southern Review (1991)

Edward Hirsch

Charles Wright is a poet of lyric impulses, of what Pound termed "gists and piths." His poems are structured associatively rather than narratively, and he has created a poetics of luminous moments, what Wordsworth called "spots of time," Joyce termed "epiphanies," Virginia Woolf labeled "moments of being." Such moments, fleeting and atemporal, rupture narrative and loosen bonds of continuity and consequence. They mark and isolate the self, transporting it to another realm, weakening its boundaries. They are inchoate and asocial--defying language, destroying time. Thus they have to be seized and contained, described and dramatized in words, reintegrated back into temporal experience. The epiphanic mode creates linguistic demands upon the poet, and Wright has responded to these demands conclusively. Over the years his work has become larger and more inclusive, with narrative overtones rather than undertones, though from the beginning he has written a poetry of flashes and jump-starts, of radiance glimpsed and noted down--transcribed, transfigured. There is a bright, ahistorical, diamondlike kernel of Neo-Platonism at the core of his writing.

[. . . .]

In the course of China Trace the poet comes to describe his poems as prayers and hymns, refiguring a Christian terminology into a secular epiphanic aesthetic. "I write poems to untie myself," he writes in "Reunion," "to do penance and disappear/ Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace." The concepts of penance, grace, and redemption occur often, though here--as elsewhere in Wright's work--the beads of the rosary are broken and the religious hymns have fallen. Faith is elusive, redemption thwarted. "I live in the one world, the moth and rust in my arms," he grieves in "'Where Moth and Rust Doth Corrupt.’" "I look up at the black bulge of the sky and its belt of stars," he declares in "Noon," "And know that what I have asked for cannot be granted." There is a pervasive sense that God, the supreme fiction, exists in the moment and the Moment is eternally unavailable. It cannot be grasped. Thus, "Heaven, that stray dog, eats on the run and keeps moving" ("Sentences"). God is not so much a figure or presence as "the sleight-of-hand in the fireweed, the lost/ Moment that stopped to grieve and moved on" ("Invisible Landscape").

From "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright." In Jay Parini, ed. The Columbia History of American Poetry (1994)

Stephen Cushman

[F]ree verse poets do not reach for conventional metrical patterns to organize their lines, stanzas, and poems. If you ask James Merrill why he breaks a line where he does, he can give you a fact and a reason: Five iambic feet have passed and, since my meter is iambic pentameter, it's time to break the line. But if you ask Charles Wright why he breaks a line where he does, and Wright is outspoken on the subject of his line breaks (Halflife 3-5), he would not give you the same kind of empirically verifiable fact or reason. He might say, as he has said, "Each line should be a station of the cross" (Halflife 5), a compelling figure (and, incidentally, an iambic pentameter line) which combines Wright's devotion to form with his characteristic ecclesiastical idiom, a figure which I take to mean that each line of the poem should be both separate from and connected to the other lines around it. Or, to put it differently, the wholeness of individual lines should not be compromised and violated by persistent, compulsive enjambment. Furthermore, each line should have about it not only an autonomy or integrity but also a gravity or weightiness--a weightiness implied elsewhere by Wright's claim that he works with "a long image-freighted line" (Halflife 4)--which both reflects and inspires profound contemplation.

From "The Capabilities of Charles Wright." The Iron Mountain Review (1992).

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