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Poet Charles Wright's "Black Zodiac" is a Pulitzer Prize-winning tour de force.

By David Penn

MAY 11, 1998: 

THERE IS NOTHING smaller than being a successful poet. And every successful poet knows it. By whatever criteria "success" is measured, a successful poet hardly moves the scale. Yet it's a pleasure, within that smallness--an extreme pleasure--to hear a poem from Charles Wright, 1998 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, read as a sort of coda to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" broadcast of the Pulitzer Awards.

Steadily writing and teaching for years in Southern California and Virginia, Wright has never sought nor drawn the sort of glassy-eyed following that's graced/plagued many of his contemporaries. And in spite of the impact his precise lyricism and evocative line-by-line poetics have had on contemporary poetry, Wright has few imitators. In part, this is due to the thoroughness of what he and poets like him brought to contemporary poetry in the 1970s: a sense of a poem that's as much sculpture or painting as story; and a sense of poem-making that's as exquisite as a blueprint by Taniguchi or a castle made of sand.

Wright remains the supreme architect of the line in contemporary poetry--a signature that is, in its own way, every bit as distinctive as a C.K. Williams or an Allen Ginsberg line. Whether structuring his poetics along the simple chords of country music or against the brushstrokes of Chinese Buddhism, Wright has used both his poems and his essays ("improvisations" he calls them), to insist that "in poetry, all considerations are considerations of form." That Wright's poetry so highly regards "form" while simultaneously maintaining suppleness and flexibility, has been key to a style that's both thoroughly lyric and thoroughly cohesive. In fact, Wright's the example many teachers of contemporary poetry use to instruct eager, would-be poets in how to begin thinking "in poetry," or thinking in line.

Wright's poems became popular in the 1970s--along with the work of Larry Levis, David St. John and others--when the dark, brooding lyricism of the 1960s started to give way to a more "eloquent," almost lush poetic style.

This trend split into two paths in the 1980s: The new narrative poets following Levis' lead, and the more language-driven poets which eventually turned out the likes of Robert Hass and Jorie Graham. Wright's work continued to focus on rendering an ever more exacting line. As if searching the beams of a structure to determine relative pressures and tensions, Wright's poems encompass events without being stories about events. And though they contain what has come to be referred to as a poetic "voice," his poems are only occasionally telling us something--in the way a parent or a bank teller might "inform." What strikes truest in Wright's body of work, from The Grave of the Right Hand to The Southern Cross to Zone Journals and now in Black Zodiac, is that the lines are the events, the telling, and are in fact the very scaffolding of experience itself. As he calls it, "the transubstantiation of content," spirit made flesh.

If these sound like particularly "religious" concerns, know that the Black Zodiac collection approaches the end of the poet's entanglement with the double helix of spiritual versus material existence: from grace through old and new Judeo-Christian testaments and Zen Buddhism, on to the sort of user-friendly spirituality that astrology offers. He refers to "what lasts": the casual relationship between the overwhelmingly quotidian; the petite morts of hope, dream and desire. While notions of permanence and impermanence are hardly new to the arts, it's been the movement of his poems through so many different apprehensions, seasons and an almost molecular sense of change that keeps the poetry of Charles Wright fresh, evocative and essential.


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