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Afield with a Man and a Gun.

I've been trying to think of an amusing tale about Charles Wright, a poet I have admired for almost as long as I have known there were living poets. The truth is I don't have a good anecdote because I don't know Charles very well. His poems will tell anyone why--he is an extremely private person who relishes solitude and meditation. I almost went to study with him in 1972, getting out of the Air Force, having applied to the UC Irvine MFA Program (and would have gone had it not been for some bad judgments). Still, I have known Mr. Wright, in my fashion, since the mid 1970s, and it seems petulant to claim non-knowledge of someone with whom you have more or less passed forty years of acquaintance.

There was, I suppose, the time we went quail hunting on Bob Burrus's farm in Orange County, Virginia. I know people who have read Mr. Wright's poems as illustrating the sort of rigid intellectual who would only contemplate the navel of saints, God forbid his own. They have not witnessed the man on all fours as he peered hard--Mr. Wright can do that!--into a six foot-tall mass of rose briars where several fleeing quail had taken up defiant positions of non-existence, a matter this poet assigns usually to God. I do not recall if he actually shot any quail that day, but I can say without equivocation that he did not pray them free of his weapon's focus, a gentleman whose conduct gave every appearance of one who knew how to handle the shotgun.

There is a kind of poet who imagines the world is a peaceable kingdom, a pastoral hardly as yet filled with its due of sweet song that admires, and this sort is a gentle watcher-poet, as I think often, the poet content to observe and declare. Life in those vignettes frets little, much one expects to happen does not, the coloration of all one experiences tends toward sorrows muted gray. There is another kind--I think Flannery O'Connor was of this tribe--who wants fuller participation in life's causations and intersections, coveting the dark with the light, who considers the only truth to lie in the commingled, the braided, the sublime that is dangerous. Charles Wright's poems have acquired a reputation for strict, continuous, and frame-by-frame registration. To some readers they evoke a nod. But you can go walking with a shotgun and a decent bird dog in the company of that second sort of poet, as I did that Fall in Virginia.

Besides, anybody who knows anything about bird hunting knows it is mostly walking and talking punctuated by missed shots. This past fall, for example, a friend of mine and I hunted grouse in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. We saw fifty-one of those wily creatures. I shot one. The only one either of us shot in three days. The kind of walking and talking bird hunters do is, in some ways, not so very different from the kind of poem Mr. Wright composes, his laconic and meandering movement characterized by grace so athletic and pronounced it can appear to have neither point nor pattern. Few poets have ever so invested themselves in intricate, idiosyncratic form (I am not talking the obviousness of verse here), and its maneuvers invite sudden shifts of direction, interesting subjects, abrupt divagations, patience coupled with a readiness for surprise, all necessary to the adept of the field. Meanwhile, the birds you have raised and missed are curling in behind you, or settling over the hill, or hoping you will just forget they are huddled down in the hedgerow you must pass. The best bird hunters are in no hurry and the good ones know how opaque the environment can be, which means looping, circling, standing still, listening for volume and direction of faint calls. Such hunters know the end comes, and significantly, to much more.

I am certainly aware that at approximately this point in my metaphor bird hunters are apt to claim it is never about killing. As the PETA people might say, baloney, boys. One may always take a walk with neither Browning nor Purdy nor even Winchester as companion. The blunt reality we live with is that death does exist and we do not salve the circumstance by pretending otherwise, by isolating ourselves from either that fact or from our inevitable part of the dichotomy. Killing a bird may be thought of as the difficult completion of an action in which a man's search requires training, help, luck, a sense of history, even the faded relationship each of us once had with sustenance feeding. I have wandered, I am afraid, into reductive argument which grows tedious, yet it remains to say a poem is a kill; writing a poem is a hunt. Geoffrey Hill, the English poet renowned for "difficulty," said in a well-known essay that he thinks of a poem as an atonement. Actually he said "at-one-ment," to describe the coming together in the rightest way of the sound and the matter that makes of any real poem something final, something imbued with grace and sacred energy, something understood and rare as the full engagement in life's acts is always rare.

I might have argued in radically other terms for the kind of man and poet Charles Wright is, but not without recourse to the thorny struggle of life and death without much consolation that gives such pitch to his writing. He is a death-haunted, a Christ-haunted thinker, one for whom the potential of transcendence to a new life can neither be wholly debunked nor fully grappled with. It is almost everything. I am not the first person to recognize that Mr. Wright, like Whitman, has spent his entire career writing one poem, given its fits and starts, its intricate lacunae, its mysterious fields, its catechistic reverberations, its ultimately artificial segmenting into books. I don't always understand his poems, but I embrace them, and I always feel embraced by them, moved as I am by soaring Mozart or Beethoven.

To my mind Mr. Wright's self-scrutinizing, self-reliant books make texts of moral and ethical speculation, functioning, as memory teaches, in the form of judicial hearing, sometimes as scholarly exegesis, sometimes as extrapolations in what is too simplistically referred to as the "music." What matters, I think it cannot be overstated, is the nudging forward increment by increment, whether syllable or phrase or line suspension, leading to the realized portrait of ground and air and occupant and sound. It isn't difficult to perceive this was the way of the ancient Chinese poets, the way of the monk and the priest, wrong and right, a poetry of celebration that begins in inquiry and therefore requires the tough spirit, the love that will not permit sophistry that is self-blind but instead cultivates engagement in competition.

But a great poet, as Whitman said, contains multitudes. There are many selves in him or her. In the nearly fifty years Mr. Wright has written poems (almost no prose) he has written with memorable joy ("California Dreaming"), exquisite description ("Homage to Paul Cezanne"), narrative power ("The Other Side of the River"), historical accuracy and evocation ("Virginia Reel"), in poems long and short, wide and tall, with all of the jazz of the savvy modern. He may be the most impressively epigrammatic and quotable poet of his age, a talent that reveals his often subtly scouting humor, and yet among his peers I suspect he is the least quoted, the least public, the least known of all on the Wurlitzer (do they still exist?). I had the pleasure, as head judge of the Pulitzer Prize Committee for 1997, of arguing for Wright's Black Zodiac, and, as I think, enlightening the resistance of another judge in making the award to what I yet regard as an almost perfect collection, seamless and individual, sinewy and abundant, a book whose every move seems fitted to the environment of the contemporary intellect. It is as natural as a bird in flight. Or a man attuning himself to that flight. Or a mind calibrating the music of the two in that field.

I set out, in this little piece, to demonstrate why Mr. Wright is a Southern poet, a regionalist, and to say what power his local habitation and name has collected for him. A native of the Appalachian Tennessee mountains, a resident of Charlottesville, Virginia, and its Blue Ridge Mountains for more than nearly three decades, he has written repeatedly, and beautifully, of place as the source and ground of whatever imagination offers that is eccentric and individual. Yet Mr. Wright's poems have an equal foot in Italy, in Montana, in California, and perhaps it is most appropriate to argue his hunt occurs in whatever field he occupies. That would be consistent for the writer of one endless, fluent, living poem. It seems to me such range and such focus are two qualities to be coveted in a poet whose work we trust. Yet surely the main value, and hardly to be articulated, of the poets who shall remain when all else is gone is character, what a student of mine has defined as "who you are when no one else is looking." For a poet that is what we mean by the "music" and it is why Ezra Pound's highest praise was to say a poet was "uncounterfeitable." I think Charles Wright has long been such a poet and these remarks mean to do no more than point to what this poet calls his "deep measure." When you go afield with a man and a gun, you want that.
 doves on the wire and first bulb blades
 Edging up through the mulch mat,
 Inside-out of the winter gum trees,
 A cold harbor, cold stop and two-step, and here it comes,
 Deep measure,
 deep measure that runnels beneath the bone,
 That sways our attitude and sets our lives to music;
 Deep measure, down under and death-drawn:
 Pilgrim, homeboy of false time,
 Listen and set your foot down,
 listen and step lightly.
 (from "Deep Measure" in
 Black Zodiac) 
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Author:Smith, Dave (American poet)
Publication:Northwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1795
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