The Dream Animal, 1968
The Grave of the Right Hand, 1970
The Venice Notebook, 1971
Hard Freight, 1973
China Trace, 1977
The Southern Cross, 1981
Country Music: Selected Early Poems, 1982, 2d ed. 1991
The Other Side of the River, 1984
A Journal of the Year of the Ox, 1988
Zone Journals, 1988
The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems, 1980-1990, 1990
Black Zodiac, 1997
Negative Blue: Selected Later Poems, 2000
A Short History of the Shadow, 2002
The Storm and Other Poems, 1978 (of Eugene Montale)
Orphic Songs, 1984 (of Dino Campana)
Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews 1977-1987, 1988
Quarter Notes: Improvisations and Interviews, 1995
Charles Penzel Wright, Jr., one of the most inventive and consistently interesting American poets of the last half of the twentieth century, was born in the small town of Pickwick Dam in Hardin County, Tennessee, in 1935. He attended Davidson College, from which he received a B.A. in history in 1957. He later described his college experience as “wasted years”; he had no vocation to be a poet at the time and had not read much poetry in college. After graduating from Davidson, he spent three years in Army Intelligence, most of them in Italy. There he read Ezra Pound and began to think of becoming a poet. Pound was living during those years nearby in Rapallo, but Wright was too shy to introduce himself to the great but disgraced founder of modernism. Nevertheless, Pound’s work, particularly the imagery of his early poems remained a great influence on Wright’s poetry.
After leaving the Army, Wright enrolled at the University of Iowa’s distinguished Writers’ Workshop, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1963. At Iowa, he studied under Donald Justice and Paul Engle; he speaks with warmth of Justice as a superb poet and teacher. In 1966 he began teaching at the University of California at Irvine. For a time he lived in Laguna Beach, California, a seaside resort about which he has written some sardonic poems; he subsequently became a professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Academy of American Poets, and a Fulbright grant.
In one of his essays, Wright has cited two quite different figures as important influences: A. P. Carter, the head of the famous group of country musicians the Carter Family, and Emily Dickinson. His own poetry is a curious mixture of rural language, humor, and esoteric philosophical concerns. Wright has described his method as the “metaphysical quotidian” in which philosophical speculation is rooted in the particulars of a landscape. Wright’s first significant book of poems, The Grave of the Right Hand, includes a number of prose poems that are meditations on nature; many of these are set in Italy, a region to which he has continually returned in his work. (He has also translated volumes by the Italian poets Eugene Montale and Dino Campana, and he has acknowledged the influence of Montale’s “hermetic” method on his own work.) The poems in his next important book, Hard Freight, pay homage to a number of his poetic mentors, including Pound and Arthur Rimbaud. However, the volume’s last poem, “Clinchfield Station,” examines Wright’s Southern roots. His background is even more evident in Bloodlines, which contains a number of elegies, including one on his father entitled “Hardin County.” The book also contains a sequence of short poems called “Tattoos,” each of which is related to a specific event in Wright’s life.
China Trace is a very different sort of book; the poems are very short and are structured around central images. One poem, “Reply Chi’ Ki’ang,” makes the connection with Chinese poetry clear. The greatest influence, however, seems to be Pound’s free renderings of original Chinese poems. Throughout the volume, Wright focuses on imagery as structure in a manner quite unlike his usual meditations on landscape. The Southern Cross is interesting for its four “Self Portraits.” Wright does not always speak in his own voice, even though he uses an “I” as a poetic speaker, and these poems are as far removed from confessional poetry as possible; one critic has described the speaker as a “transcendental I.” There is also an extensive poem on the painter Paul Cézanne that suggests yet another structural influence on Wright’s poems. Country Music: Selected Early Poems, which received the American Book Award, demonstrates Wright’s range as well as a growth in style and structure. The volume enables readers to trace Wright’s development from the tentative early poems to those that display his assured voice and style. The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems, 1980-1990 is an impressive collection of a decade of Wright’s work; one critic has described the book as an extended metaphysical search. Yet one of Wright’s finest books is, perhaps, Chickamauga, in which his interest in the nature of reality finds full expression. Wright plays with the idea of presence and absence in many of the poems, although the philosophic discussion is rooted in specific imagery–which, as always, serves him as a starting place. His next collection, Black Zodiac, won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award.