Announcing The New Poet Laureate of the United States


The Library of Congress has announced the next U.S. poet laureate will be Charles Wright, the author of nearly two dozen collections of verse that fuse the legacy of European modernism with mystical evocations of the landscape of the American South. Wright, 78, a retired professor at the University of Virginia, has won nearly every other honor in the poetry world, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tenn., and succeeds another Southerner, Natasha Trethewey. But Wright’s work — meditations on “language, landscape and the idea of God,” could not be more different from Trethewey’s evocations of the forgotten African-American lives, or from the Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit by the previous laureate, Philip Levine.

Dana Gioia, a poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, commented “This is a poet who has spent a lifetime refining language to create poetry of tremendous evocative power.” Explaining his choice, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, said that as he read through the work of a dozen or so finalists, he kept coming back to Wright’s haunting poems, many of them gathered in a Dante-esque cycle of three trilogies known informally as “The Appalachian Book of the Dead.” His “combination of literary elegance and genuine humility — it’s just the rare alchemy of a great poet,” Billington said.

Wright did not seem destined to a life of poetry. In high school, he devoured all the books of William Faulkner —  his mother had once dated one of Faulkner’s brothers. As a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, he tried to write fiction, only to discover that he was, as he later put it, the rare Southerner who couldn’t tell a story. As a young G.I. stationed in Italy in the late 1950s, he picked up the New Directions edition of Ezra Pound’s “Selected Poems.” From then on, he recalled, “I was enveloped by the fog of poetry.” A degree at the Iowa Writers Workshop followed, along with a Fulbright fellowship in Italy. His first few books received respectful notices, but it wasn’t until the poem “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” included in his fifth collection, “Southern Cross” (1981), that he found his footing.

That poem, inspired by discarded paper glimpsed in a field one night, depicts a landscape layered with mystical images that language can’t quite capture:

At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth.
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.

If he’s the rare Southerner who can’t tell a story, he can tell a poetic joke, sometimes at the his own expense, as in “Ancient of Days,” from his latest collection, “Caribou.”

This is an old man’s poetry, written by someone who’s spent his life
Looking  for one truth.
Sorry, pal, there isn’t one.


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