If you want to sample the work of Charles Wright, the nation’s new poet laureate, the best place to start may be Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, a collection whose marvels culminate in selections from Wright’s fine book Sestets (2009). Wright is sometimes thought of as a writer of wisdom literature, a backyard philosopher potting around in a material world he suspects might not even exist. If for their own sakes you are drawn to questions of “belief,” “materialism,” “the ineffable,” and so on, Wright’s “ascetic discipline” might be an “instruction” (I am sampling phrases from the blurbs on the back of this book). But I regard Wright’s focus on these questions to be, in fact, a fixation on them, an essential oddity of temperament that is more interesting, at least to me, than its symptoms. Temperament is Wright’s great, open variable: he is always solving for it by fixing the other terms. His poetry is therefore attuned not merely to its fluctuations in the moment, but to its own long arc, the history of its ups and downs.
Wright’s body of work conducts a longitudinal study of the moods as they shift and change in time. And yet, to carry out such a project obligates a poet to passivity, to routine, even to monotony, obligations that Wright, though resigned to them, sometimes seems to resent. Often his tenacious mellowness seems to fray. When it does, we hear the half-comic, half-rhapsodic tone of Wright’s poetry at its finest:
If I were a T’ang poet, someone
would bid farewell
At this point, or pluck a lute
on a hermit’s door.
I’m not, and there’s no one here.
The iconostasis of evergreens
across the two creeks
Stands dark, unkissed and
Tonight, it’s true, the River of
Heaven will cast its net of
But that’s just the usual stuff.
As I say, there’s
no one here.
In fact, there’s almost never
another soul around.
There are no secret lives up here,
out, everything goes
Its own way, its only way,
Out in the open, unexamined,
The great blue heron unfolds like
Over the upper pond,
roust a magpie,
Snipe snipe, the swallows wheel,
and nobody gives a damn.
The orneriness we feel when we behold the grandeur of nature stems from our comparative inability, or so it seems to us, to do anything so beautiful as fly, blossom, or roust. What does Wright have to match the heron’s flight, the stand of evergreens? When compared to these spectacles, language, even the language of poetry, seems the least natural thing on earth.…
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