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Wright’s Comments on "Homage to Paul Cezanne"

Interview with Sherod Santos (1981)

Wright: … I was watching TV one night – I think I was watching the news – it was just getting dark and I looked out into the field through the window in the door, and there were three white pieces of paper just catching the last light. And I wrote down the line," In the fading light the dead wear our white shirts to stay warm." Then I said, well, that’s interesting. I put it down, I had supper, and then later on the moon came out, and I watched TV again, and by god those same three pieces of paper were so white that they were picking up the moonlight! And so I went back to the line and rewrote it, "At night, in the fishlight of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts to stay warm, and litter the fields." And then the next day I went out to see what they were, and they were sheets of white notebook paper from a kid’s notebook. That’s why they were so white. It wasn’t newspaper or anything. It was blank paper! And so I worked on that particular part of the CÚzanne poem for a while and got the first section. …

… I was doing a lot of looking at CÚzanne’s paintings, and I’d been thinking about CÚzanne a lot at that time. … I thought that certain painterly techniques – which is to say, using stanzas and lines the way painters sometimes use color and form – might be interesting. … So I worked on this poem not knowing how the poem was going to go. I thought it was going to be about ten sections. I knew it was going to be about CÚzanne by the time I’d finished the first one. Not about CÚzanne himself, but about the process of painting. I knew it was going to be nonlinear. I was going to write sections where each had to do with each other, but not consecutively or linearly. …

… What I was interested in doing was relaxing the line, using the line more as an overall unit in the poem rather than as a bridge from one part of the poem to the other – as one bridge to another bridge to another bridge. In other words, the lines in the stanza are applied, in a way, rather than narratively leading from one thing to the next.

From Charles Wright, "With Sherod Santos" in Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87 (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1988). 101-103.

Interview with Carol Ellis (1986)

Ellis: How would you say the "dead" operate in Southern Cross? Is it formal principle or subject matter or content? …

Wright: Well, in "Homage to Paul CÚzanne," it is the subject matter of the poem: it’s where I first thought I could juxtapose associational phrases and lines that when put back together, would give a reconstituted, realistic picture. In other words, I was trying to write a realistic poem by nonlinear, nonrealist means. The dead was chosen as a subject matter because that seemed the most tactile abstract thing I could think of, since everyone knows what they are physically, and if you read poems you know what they are metaphysically.

I also – used to in the past – write a lot about the dead. Again, it is a kind of informative background to my everyday life. It seemed to be something necessary for me to write out of, or to write against. As Dylan Thomas said, "You write for the great dead." You try to write for your betters. If you don’t write for your betters you’ll be writing for your lessers.

From Charles Wright, "With Carol Ellis," in Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87 (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1988). 155.

Interview with J. D. McClatchy (1989)

McClatchy [after noticing a footlocker in Wright’s study, and after asking Wright to describe the contents, which Wright listed as various family paraphernalia from the past]: You dedicated Southern Cross to the same mysterious H. W. Wilkinson whose name is stenciled on that tin locker. It’s meant then – that dedication – as a gesture to your past? This trunk is really a sort of voice-box, a memory and a throat for the past. The poems in The Southern Cross have that character too.

Wright: Mr. Wilkinson is as mysterious to me as he is to you. His name was on the box when I bought it, and that’s all I know about him. The Southern Cross was dedicated to the box, actually, as you surmise, and not to Mr. Wilkinson per se: he’s just a stand-in for a catch-all, if such a thing is possible. A voice-box is a nice way to put it, although it’s been more so in the past than it is now. … I guess I thought it was cute, as well, to dedicate a book ostensibly to someone I didn’t know. But, as you say, the real gesture was to my past, a way of letting those speak whose voices are too faint to hear. So it’s a voice-box in that sense, too; it amplifies the deep and desperate whispers of those who have disappeared into a kind of request for recognition. Sort of like La Pia in canto V of the Purgatorio, though in no way so poignant or affecting: "deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo / e riposato de la lunga via / … recorditi di me, che son La Pie …" [(Italian): Um, when you get back to the real world / and when you’re resting from your lengthy trip / … don’t forget me, I’m called La Pia.] "Remember me, remember me …" Well, I hope that some of the poems in which I use their leftovers do remember them. And the first poem in Southern Cross, "Homage to Paul CÚzanne," takes up that charge somewhat – though the dead are not named. I did have my own family, from the box, in mind. "A throat for the past." That’s a nice way of putting it.

McClatchy: … our literary culture has always had an appetite for long, sprawling poems. We spoke earlier about sequences, but what about the long, through-composed poem? … Has it ever been one of your own desires?

Wright: Well, sure, of course. What red-blooded American boy, et cetera. … [China Trace] was a series of short poems linked by an unspoken common narrative, a journey, even if it was more spiritual than the actual. And that book, that poem, is where the idea of the subnarrative, the submerged narrative, started taking shape for me.

Now here’s something that’s kind of interesting, at least to me. Disconnection and association, as you so cleverly pointed out in your question, seem to be linked with the short poem – with the obvious exception of The Cantos, of course – and one thinks of Dr. Williams and Company. It was interesting to me to try it in longer reaches – not interminably, like The Cantos – and I’ve made several attempts at that since I saw it emerge in China Trace. The first time was in "Homage to Paul CÚzanne," and it was fairly short and crude. Eight overlays, each different, hoping to form one consistent picture….

… {A]ll my long poems seem to me to be short poems in disguise. But I suppose any nonsurface narrative poem will seem that way. Still, it’s a way, isn’t it, of keeping the pithy elements of the shorter lyrics and holding onto the illusion of the long, effusive gesture. A kind of American sprawl of a poem with a succession of succinct checks and balances. Epiphanic and oceanic, at once. Intensive and extensive. The long and the short of it. Now that’s American.

From Charles Wright, "The Art of Poetry XLI: Paris Review Interview with J. D. McClatchy," in Charles Wright, Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1995), 92-93, 115-116.

Interview with David Young (1992)

Young: … why CÚzanne rather than say, Picasso, Braque, Monet, Matisse, some other great Modernist?

Wright: CÚzanne has a way of looking at a landscape that I find particularly innovative, revolutionary, and pleasing to my spirit. He breaks down and reassembles the landscape the way I like to think, when I’m working at my desk, I break down and reassemble what I’m looking at and put it back into a poem to recreate it, to reconstruct it. I like the idea that in fact he is very much of a realist although up close everything looks abstract. But once you get the right perspective, he is showing you just what’s out there. I like to think I’m showing you just what’s out there, but as I see it. I put these guys on my covers because I would like to get an inch closer to their genius, not because I put myself anywhere near their company. Also I like [Giorgio] Morandi because he’s very little known and Morandi’s aim, his program, was different from everybody else’s around him at the time. He sat there and he painted bottles and flowers and landscapes. When your subject matter in 1991 is language, landscape and the idea of God, your aims are different from everybody else’s.

from Charles Wright, "Language, Landscape and the Idea of God: A Conversation with David Young," rep. in Charles Wright, Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1995), 135.

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