Charles Wright’s First Reading As U.S. Poet Laureate

9780374525361I saw him read at the Folger and was impressed by his warm, personable reading style. It was also the first time that I really gave his poetry a chance. At the time, I bought his collection of sestets, helpfully entitled Sestets: Poems.

A reading at the Library of Congress is a less intimate event than at the Folger but has the advantage of being free. I bought his early collection, Black Zodiac, because the first time I had ever heard of him was when he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997 for that particular collection (the awards ceremony was shown in C-SPAN2 and 1997 was probably the year when I watched the most ‘BookTV’ on CSPAN-2).

It’s a dark book. Actually, much of his poetry is dark. Even when playful, it’s got a sort of gallows humor to it. Black Zodiac, though, has less humor and more gallows. Really, it is a pretty grim collection. It’s also got this beautiful poem entitled POEM HALF IN THE MANNER OF LI HO that is partly, or at least superficially, about the T’ang poet and his fear of never being recognized for his work, which was really a fear of death (and he did die very young) and it’s also about implacable landscapes that have no interest in our desire for immortality or, rather, our desire not to be mortal. It’s too long to write out the entire poem and just writing out a few lines or a stanza wouldn’t do it justice, but if you see this book in a bookstore or library, even if you don’t buy or check it out, at least read this one poem and tell me it’s not heartrending. The reference to the ancient China is also another reflection of the deep influence of Ezra Pound on his writing, something Wright readily admits to.

The last poem, DISJECT MEMBRA has got this throw away reference to the ‘Rev. Doctor Syntax.’ I don’t know why it is in there, but several months ago, I splurged and spent $75 on a book containing all three, book length narrative poems detailing the comic adventures of Doctor Syntax. That’s all. Tickled me pink to know who the heck ‘Rev. Doctor Syntax’ was. Unless it is a reference to something else.

Also, check out the cover. Except for those tell tale stamps, you’d swear it was by Robert Motherwell or someone like that, but it is ‘Autobiographical Essay’ by Huai Su, a calligrapher from the T’ang era.

Just as an endnote, he got a standing ovation at the end and even walked back out for an encore.

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