The Night Watchman

By  |  March 26, 2015
Bernheim Arboretem, KY (2003) by Lynn Geesaman. Courtesy of the artist and Jackson Fine Art Bernheim Arboretem, KY (2003) by Lynn Geesaman. Courtesy of the artist and Jackson Fine Art

The most obvious thing I have in common with Charles Wright is myopia. When we were children nearsightedness was rare enough to inspire playground humor—the kids who wore glasses were “Four Eyes” or “Mr. Magoo.” I wore them for fifty-seven years, from the third grade until cataract surgery when I was sixty-five. Wright, seventy-nine, still wears them and is invariably photographed behind them—his eyes, unlike his poetry, giving nothing away. A poem in his collection A Short History of the Shadow wears the title “If My Glasses Were Better, I Could See Where I’m Headed For.”

The first time I met Wright, in Tennessee at least twenty-five years ago, he was having problems with his eyes, and I recommended my ophthalmologist in New York, a specialist who had steered me through a bad thing called an ocular migraine. I’m not sure that Wright ever consulted my doctor. I never thought to ask him. If he had, I might claim a small share of credit for preserving the finest pair of eyes in American literature. Not the sharpest eyes–not like the X-ray 20/10 vision of a Ted Williams, who was alleged to be able to read the commissioner’s signature on a spinning baseball coming at 95 miles per hour–but arguably the finest, the eyes to rely upon when yours or others seem to fail you.

“Looking Around III,” another poem from A Short History of the Shadow, contains the lines that signify when you’re reading Wright:

To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it,
Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace.

If any poet has looked harder and seen  more of this world—seen it literally, tree by tree, bird by bird, moonrise by moonrise—and responded to it in verse more distinctive and indelible than Wright’s, I’m waiting to see the poetry that proves it. His homage to the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who devoted a lifetime of canvases to the shapes and colors of a few bottles, bowls, and boxes in his studio (“You looked as hard as anyone ever looked, / then left it out”) may give the impression that Wright’s art is minimalist. That would be misleading. What to save and what to leave out is the strategic heart of all serious poetry, of all serious writing. Charles Wright practices a kind of reiterative layering, not unlike the layering effects of oil painting, that leads a reader through and past the familiar to a place where the road forks, the paths branch off, and you need the guide, the poet, to find your way. Your way to grace, ideally. He takes no offense if a critic charges that “nothing happens in a Charles Wright poem.” The readers he covets are not the ones who reach the end of the poem still believing that nothing has happened.

His dedicated readers experienced vindication last summer when the Library of Congress named Wright the nation’s twentieth poet laureate, succeeding another Southerner, Natasha Trethewey. Though the position’s largely honorary, with ill-defined responsibilities, virtually every important American poet of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the seven Roberts (Penn Warren, Lowell, Frost, Hayden, Fitzgerald, Hass, Pinsky) to Maxine Kumin and Rita Dove, has worn the laureate’s laurels (the roster includes the laureates’ official predecessors, consultants in poetry to the Library of Congress). Wright was no long shot, no dark-horse candidate for this prize. He admits that it was offered once before: “I could have been the fifteenth, but now I’m the twentieth.” The expression that accompanies this confession is, typically, one part pride to nine parts self-mockery. Wright is “very honored and flattered,” but comes to the office with no master plan for restoring poetry to its once-dominant place in the cultural ecosphere.

“They were all young and vibrant,” he explained to a USA Today reporter, referring to a series of activist predecessors like Dove and Billy Collins. “I’m old and vibrant. So I’m just going to sit here and vibrate and not do a thing.”

He sidestepped her stock question, “Why does poetry matter?” (if you have to ask. . .), other than to confirm that it matters tremendously to him. Healing a culture that appears to be in extremis is not the business of writers and artists, as an old fox like Charles Wright is well aware. But the media attention available to a poet laureate—and almost no other poet—will certainly draw more readers to Wright’s own poetry. From there, who knows, some of them may even be seized with curiosity and branch out. Marketing and the muse of poetry are always strange bedfellows. The news of Wright’s latest honor—he’s previously won every prize available to a poet—offered me a prized excuse to take him to lunch, though he insisted on paying. Even when there was nothing to celebrate, I’ve never been able to pass up a bottle of wine and a couple of hours with this poet, whom I admire but labor not to flatter.

Two old white men from the mid-South who are not members of the Tea Party, a small bistro in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, on the coldest November day I can remember, and the subject is poetry. Though a decade younger than Wright, I’m a notorious pessimist and hypochondriac, so that we stand on fairly even terms with death, a familiar presence in his new collection, Caribou. Many of the new poems are autumnal in tone and in season, with October and November landscapes, and the light is frequently crepuscular (a light and a word I love), dusk giving over to darkness. (“This is the stepchild hour, / belonging to neither the light nor dark, / The hour of disappearing things.”) Would this be a trend related to turning eighty next year, I wondered, or has an affinity for autumn and twilight always been present?

“I think you’ll find the same shadows in my poems when I was thirty,” Wright said, considering. “And certainly when I was forty, or sixty.” A brief survey of previous collections bears this out. No one could justly call him a morbid poet, but it’s fair to say that gathering silence, dying light, and even the near presence of the dead are thematic elements, often revisited. “In Praise of Thomas Hardy,” from A Short History, sets the mood, and the table: “No wonder deep shade is what the soul longs for / And not, as we always thought, the light.” One of Wright’s best-known poems, “Homage to Paul Cezanne,” begins: “At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts / To stay warm, and litter the fields.” Just so you know, right off the bat, that this bus is not stopping at Disney World.

We choose favorite poets for their language, for lines we memorize and repeat, but there’s no question that similar habits of mind, similar cultural markers, bring poets and readers together. In Wright’s poems we encounter Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Hardy, and Edvard Munch, geniuses who were not afraid of the dark, who were perhaps more comfortable there. The Hunter Gracchus on his death ship, the spectral traveler from Kafka’s most surreal story, has sailed more than once through the poems and the imagination of Charles Wright. Writers and readers of a certain temperament belong to this modestly sepulchral fraternity, whose initiates recognize each other without passwords or secret handshakes. A new poem, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” asks and answers the question:

Do we gather the darkness around us,
                                       or do we let it slide by?
Better to let us have it.
                                      Better to let us be what we should be.

“Better to be the last chronicler of twilight, and its aftermath,” from “My Old Clinch Mountain Home,” has an ominous, valedictory ring. When I read it I envision Wright as a kind of night watchman, eyes wide open in the failing light, watching and listening while the rest of us sleep. But nightfall isn’t necessarily symbolic in these poems, he’s quick to explain. In the summer, in Montana, dusk is the hour when he walks to his writing cabin and sits looking out his window at the mountains. Shadows, literally and figuratively, are what he sees.

If Charles Wright lives to be one hundred, he’ll never reach that bright-shining haven of sweet denial that claims so many senior citizens. The shadows own a piece of him. But his was never one of those poetic establishments that encouraged wailing and gnashing of teeth, where the tortured proprietor invites a reader to share his anguish. No matter how dark it gets in Wright’s house, that point of light in the hall is Irony, taking a cigarette break. The voice of a good poet may fall anywhere on a wide spectrum between laconic and distraught; Wright’s is near the quiet end of the range. He’s a Tennessee gentleman of a certain generation, a stoic generation. His voice, unfailingly self-effacing, never threatens, importunes, boasts or exhorts. It combines humility with authority, an unassertive, hard-earned authority that reminds me of the autumnal confidence of the septuagenarian bluesman, Mississippi John Hurt: “Yeah, I know it,” Hurt once said, memorably, when asked if he knew how good he was. “And I been knowin’ it.”

“I’ve been doing some hard thinking here,” the voice in Wright’s poems says politely, “if you’d care to listen for a moment.”

 

Humility, it seems, is not just natural inclination but an article of faith. Interviewed by J. D. McClatchy for the Paris Review twenty-five years ago, Wright offered a stern warning to poets distracted by laurels: “The problem with all of us as we get older is that we begin writing as though we were somebody. One should always write as if one were nobody, for that’s what we are. In the giant shadow of Dante’s wing, for instance, we are nobody and should never forget it. . . . There is no success in poetry, there is only the next inch, the next handhold out of the pit.”

As poet laureate, he makes an excellent role model, in person and on the page. As poetry’s champion, he’s ecumenical, disinclined to support a noted poet who dismissed the rest of literature as “mostly information cobbled together.” “No, beautiful prose is almost as good as beautiful poetry,” Wright will allow, “and often much better than bad poetry. It isn’t as deep—we’re talking about the good stuff here—but an uncobbled, continuous and smooth surface is fine goods. One of my favorites, among the moderns, would be Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’”

It’s as an ambassador, an evangelist for the gospel of poetry, that Wright acknowledges his limitations. Asking the poet laureate if poetry has a future is like asking a bishop if the Catholic Church has a future. Except that the bishop would feel obliged to lie. “The future of poetry is Oblivion, which of course is the future of everything,” Wright said. “But as always, poetry, being the most beautiful with its yellow wings, comes—or goes—first.”

The degradation of language, the putrefaction of popular culture and the commercial failure of creative seriousness are topics that arise, at least in passing, in any conversation between educated people over sixty. Wright has long since left social comment behind, almost entirely in his later poems. As the shadows lengthen, he’s after much bigger game. But that eagle eye has not failed to register alarming decline, in our lifetime. “Everything is slipping,” he observed, “even next year’s models as we speak. I take the advice Auden gave to the Harvard students in his Phi Beta Kappa poem there in 1946, with one major exception—I read the New Yorker and take short views.”

W. H. Auden’s famous poem, embracing creative anarchy and warning against collective, bureaucratically managed culture, concludes: “Read the New Yorker, trust in God; And take short views.” So where has God gone? I mentioned two women, authors of celebrated books that were not intended to encourage religious zealots, who ended up with unwanted regiments of “spiritual” Americans ready to follow them anywhere. The poet laureate, one of the very few cultural luminaries who isn’t commercially determined, is a kind of high priest of culture whether he likes it or not. Wright has published twenty-two books of poetry, many with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Has all this visibility established him as a guru, does he encounter that same party of religious seekers who need someone to connect them to God? I asked half-seriously and he answered seriously.

“I think of all poetry as a kind of prayer,” said Wright. “Which doesn’t actually connect it to religion, but to the Great Will to Connect. As a God-fearing agnostic, Connection is my Correspondence and Circumference.”

Then, laughing at the image of himself in a sage’s robe with pilgrims tugging at his sleeve, he answered the rest of the question less seriously:

“My sleeve so far is pristine and untouched. If a ‘needy pilgrim’ were, however, to approach it, I suppose I would say, if your need is not sufficient to overcome my need, please let go of my sleeve.”

But this is no everyday nonbeliever, this poet who writes without apology, “I have a thirst for the divine.” “I believe in belief,” Wright told McClatchy. “It is the greatest myth going, isn’t it? If one considers, as I do, the true purpose of poetry to be a contemplation of the divine–however you find it, or don’t find it–then it isn’t so strange that my work is so suffused with the stuff of religion. We take the vocabulary we are given–in my case, Christian–and use it to our own ends.”

Which poet stakes a more confident claim to “the true purpose of poetry”? The God-fearing agnostic, born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, escaped Christ School and the Presbyterians at Davidson, and by his mid-twenties, after serving in the Army in Italy, had endeavored to put the “Christ-haunted landscape” of the South behind him. Unlike his contemporary Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s distinguished farmer-poet, Wright is no unreconstructed agrarian, rooted in a home place, who conceived his passion for the land from the back of a horse or the seat of a tractor. The poems bespeak deep roots in the natural world, but they aren’t the same roots that brought him back to the South after many years teaching in California. He’s a full-fledged cosmopolitan, now partially rusticated at the age of white hair and arthritis, who left part of his heart in Italy and admits that it was a French painter who lured him back to landscape.

“I was mesmerized by Cezanne’s ability to make a picture appear ‘abstract’ from a certain distance, and be actually realistic up close,” Wright recalled. “That became a starting point for how I tried to write my lines. He and Morandi were huge influences on me, more so than poets, stylistically. The landscapes Cezanne painted threw me half hog into landscape myself.” (“Caribou” is a mountain in Montana, visible from Wright’s window, that resembles Cezanne’s beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire.)

This poet laureate is by no stretch a second- or third-generation Nashville Fugitive, with one eye on his meter and the other on his mule. His list of the poets who influenced him most is notably free of Southerners. Americans Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, and John Berryman are there, and on the British side Gerard Manley Hopkins—coincidentally a Jesuit priest.

“As for poets I particularly admired, I’d have to say W. H. Auden and Philip Larkin. I find myself reading Yeats and Auden and the old Chinese poets, not much current stuff except when I have to.”

Wright, who never hunted with the pack, disavows any closer “tribal identities” with the loose tribes of American poets, now that he’s been appointed chief. The laureateship would be a pure pleasure, he agreed, if he had no concerns about unforeseen demands on his time. Time is the enemy, the stalker, when you’re seventy-nine. Wright published these lines, in a poem titled “Portrait of the Artist with Hart Crane,” when he was only forty-five:

The subject of all poems is the clock,
I think, those tiny, untouchable hands that fold across our chests
Each night and unfold each morning, finger by finger,
Under the new weight of the sun.
One day more is one day less.

More than twelve thousand days have passed since he wrote that, and this is a poet who has faithfully recorded and checked off every one. It doesn’t take an analyst—or a deconstructionist—to read Caribou and note that the shadows Wright sees from his window are growing deeper, that one in particular seems taller, closer. From “Lullaby,” for instance: “Time to go, / Time to meet those you’ve never met, / time to say goodnight.” And from “Plain Song”: “The halo around the quarter-moon / Means no good. / Is this the hour of our undoing? / If so, we are perfected.”

Somber notes, reliably relieved by an ironic voice in “Ancient of Days”:

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

Lean language, long shadows. But Wright has long thrived, at least poetically, in those shadows that crushed so many of his peers. “I worry sometimes that I’m losing my curiosity,” he told me as we said good-bye, on that bright freezing afternoon in Charlottesville. “No, not really,” he said, and hesitated. “I hope not.”

I told him I’d seen no sign of that. When most of us are nodding off, he’s still at the window, eyes wide open, corrective lenses reflecting the last of the light in the West. A night watchman has to be able to see in the dark.


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Hal Crowther is the author of four collections of essays, including Unarmed But Dangerous, Cathedrals of Kudzu, and Gather at the River, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s prize for criticism. He just published a book on H. L. Mencken.