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Being Charles Wright.

In 1999, I returned to the US from Germany, where I'd moved after living for a time in Mexico, because I'd gotten serious about writing poems and wanted the chance to study with my favorite living poet. I'd just been admitted to the MFA program at the University of Virginia and I was over the moon. I was traveling a lot then, but Charles Wright's volumes Country Music and The World of Ten Thousand Things were items as essential to me as my passport and toothbrush, and in some ways more necessary. Even before I was a student enrolled in his classes, I felt that Charles was showing how me to write; the way in which he can deliver the observed world, in all its sensual immediacy, and transition seamlessly into heady abstractions fascinated and absorbed me, as it still does. Charles can start very small--with a line from something he's read, with a shift of fight or of shadow--and then go very large. His poems struck me as exacting, bold, and serious. I was surprised that this work spoke to me as much as it did because most of his points of reference weren't mine in the least. "Landscape is the lever of transcendence" he'd written, and that at least was something I understood. Without being able to articulate it, I'd felt something similar about the places that I knew best and that had shaped me, the landscapes of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Coast. His landscapes (the American South, Italy, and Montana) were mostly alien, as were so many of his allusions (i.e., to Italian and Chinese poets I still hadn't read), but the precise landscapes--external or internal--finally mattered less than his eye, his ear, his sensitivity to descriptive and aural nuances, and perhaps most of all the absolutely clear fact that those poems were written because he felt them so profoundly. I felt and feel that to read Charles is to be in the presence of a singular imaginative and linguistic power.

He has written and spoken about his early relationship to Ezra Pound--and in terms that probably resonate with many of us for whom Charles occupies a central place in our artistic lives. He describes how reading Pound showed him that there was a way to write how he wanted to, and how that began with Pound's way of looking at, perceiving, being in the world. While in Italy, he never spoke to Pound, but he once stood next to him under the porticoes of San Marco in Venice and wondered what there was to say--if anything--to such a man. "I like your poems?" Instead, Charles determined that "Some words are better left unmuttered."

If Charles had had the experience of Pound critiquing his poems during office hours, I imagine that he'd have felt as I did it sitting there in the little chair across from him on the fourth floor of Bryan Hall at the University of Virginia. I was always impressed by how he saw and sympathized immediately with what I was trying to do. The way he'd articulate it struck me at first as a little cryptic, a little ethereal--he'd often look at the page in silence, much longer than was needed to read the thing, and then turn to his shelves to pull down a book and show me a poem that he thought I needed to see. I'm sure that this happened in order to give me--obliquely at first--the criticism that I needed to hear. Truthfully, those first poems I was putting in front of him just weren't very good. But it was also because he was always engaged with--immersed in--the accomplishments of other poets, his own masters, and what mattered was measuring up. Prouder moments came later, when I finally felt like I was hitting my stride and when it seemed that Charles was truly seeing my work as much as the work it reminded him of. To me, the importance of those sessions was enormous, and I'd always go away from them with the resolve--at the very least--to try and engage as seriously and constantly with poetry as he did. In January of 2007, on the day my first book was taken for publication, the call I made after the one I made to my parents was to Charles Wright. His happiness gratified me, and his parting advice--which was typical Charles, wry and cryptic--was that what I needed to do right then was to get drunk but not too comfortable.

There's a story floating around--and perhaps fictional in the way things that cut so near the truth often are (though I've heard it from enough sources that it can't be completely discounted)--that a creative writing student once broke into Bryan Hall late at night and explained to campus security when she (yes, she) was detained that she was Charles Wright. Those of us who were his students laugh at this, but not wholly out of mockery, because we understand only too well the level of admiration bordering on obsession that Charles inspires. Being Charles Wright? If you're a poet--if perhaps you had an especially good day at the writing desk--what could be better?

Charles has now retired from teaching. To have studied with him personally was a tremendous privilege, but the good news is that anyone who wants to can still learn a lifetime of lessons from him through his poems. In 2009, my last year in Charlottesville, months after the deaths of four members of my family, I was going through a divorce, beginning work on my second book, and commuting over an hour each day to my teaching job in Lynchburg. I'd occasionally see him socially, but his poems were always there, always teaching me. I lived on a dead-end road a few blocks from his house on Locust Avenue, and at the end of a day's long drive, I'd often see Charles taking a walk or dragging his garbage cans and recycling bins to the curb, and it was very good during those times to think of him as a neighbor, one who, like the rest of us, goes about the mundane. I'd sit in the backyard under the trees and wonder how Charles was seeing it tonight, knowing that no one saw it better. I now live halfway across the country, but wherever I live, Charles is still always across town and doing it as well as it can be done. What can you say to such a man? "Some words are better left unmuttered."
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Author:Baker, Aaron
Publication:Northwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1191
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