On the Record with Charles Wright, famous American poet from Tennessee
Vox sat down with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Charles Wright, considered one of the greatest American poets of his time. Wright will be speaking at Georgetown on Tuesday, Mar. 26 at 8 p.m. in Copley Formal Lounge.
I’ve read a lot about that “magical day” in Italy when you first discovered [Ezra] Pound, as well as the influences you explored after this discovery. But I was wondering if you could speak more about what you were studying in your college years, and what you were trying to write about at the time.
Well, I went to a school called Davidson, which since I’ve left has become pretty good, and, since, they’ve let the girls in they’ve started offering the courses I would have wanted to take. When I was there it was all pre-law, pre-medicine, pre-business, and it was an all-boys school. I was a history major … mostly Southern history, I don’t know why I was interested in it at the time.
The only writing course they offered, every other year, was taught by the Shakespeare professor, and so basically there was no writing instruction at all. When I did try to write, I was writing what would have passed for fiction. It was just purple prose, ya know. I never wrote poetry at all, until I got in the army.
I loved that story, that you just sort of walked into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and they took you, right?
Well, yeah. Basically I was never officially admitted. I had a B average from Davidson when I applied, and I was accepted to the graduate school at the University of Iowa. I just assumed it was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It was really loose in those days—it’s grown since then. When I sent my manuscript—and it was in August, which shows how smart I was. School started in September, and neither of the two teachers was in town in August. So each thought that the other had read it and let me in, and when they checked the list in the English department, there was my name. So I just showed up.
The first words out of anyone’s mouth were, “I don’t think the iambic pentameter is working very well in this poem.” And I knew I was dead meat because I didn’t even know what iambic pentameter was. I didn’t know anything about writing, having been a history major. But I kept my mouth shut.
Can I ask you about your writing style? Your focus on the dropped lines and the odd number of syllables creates a very distinctive metric pattern, and you’ve referred to this as your trademark style. Do you think it’s important for every writer or poet to create their own distinctive system?
Well their own distinctive voice, I would say. It doesn’t need to be a system—I’m kind of obsessive compulsive so I like to have little systems, but you don’t have to have your own system. But you have to have your own voice, you have to be able to say what you want to say in your own way. Because everyone likes basically the same thing. There are certain variations, but you have to have your way of doing it that is your own.
I found mine after, what, 1971, 1969? About ten years. I wrote a poem that turned out to be the one that would establish the way that I looked at language, and the way that I thought about my past life. And from then on I kind of wrote in that way. Refining it and refining it, it took me about 25 years to get to that point where I could say: “Well you know, I guess you do have a style, and this is it.”
Have you seen any new developments in your style, or in the themes you’ve explored, since completing the trilogies of trilogies?
Not in my style, no. I, uh—gosh it was so long ago. When I made that scheme up, and it did work out, but as far as the writing is concerned, it’s basically the same kind of writing. The subject matter’s changed a little bit, as the books sort of faded and multiplied. I wouldn’t say that idea changed the way I wrote though.
In past interviews, it seems people have tried to ascribe to you the status of southern poet, and it seems like you’ve resisted identifying yourself within that tradition. Is that fair to say?
Well, I didn’t want to be a regional writer, you know, I wanted to be more inclusive than that. But I’m certainly a Southern writer, because I’m from the South. Most southern writers are fiction writers, though, and I’m not a story teller. I’m the only southern writer I know who cannot tell a story, which is why there’s very little narrative in my poems. I tried in Other Side of the River to write some narrative poems because I thought I should, but I look back at it now they don’t look so narrative!
But, I didn’t resist being called a southern writer, I just didn’t want to be called a regional writer, even though of course I am. I was brought up in Appalachia, I was brought up in Tennessee, and that’s played a big part in my writing. But uh, no, I don’t resist it.
Photo: Poetry Foundation