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The scholar M.H. Abrams once observed that many Romantic writers, having grown disillusioned with their revolutionary idealism after the French "Reign of Terror," retreated "from mass action to individual quietism, and from outer revolution to a revolutionary mode of imaginative perception which accomplishes nothing less than the 'creation' of a new world." (Natural Supernaturalism 338)   It could be argued that some poets who got caught up in the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s turned inward in the 1970s because of a similar disillusionment.  The debacles of the Vietnam War and Watergate inspired these poets to seek revolutions in consciousness rather than in countries.  In his poem "Dog Creek Mainline," Charles Wright could be thinking of this introspective turn when he records how "The eye turns in on itself."  What I plan to explore in my paper is the cultural abyss—the nothingness of the nihilist—that Wright, like other poets writing in the 1970s, confronted and sought to transcend on their inward voyages.  Wright has said on numerous occasions that "there are three things”I write about—language, landscape, and the idea of God."  I will argue that these three topics form a kind of trinity that he repeatedly contemplates in his quest for salvation.  Although he invariably portrays himself as a man on the margins looking in at others in the center, his meditations on language, the environment, and religion situate him at the center of cultural discussions that were prominent in the 1970s and continue to be prominent today.  How does the word relate to the world?  How should we treat the natural world?  How should we conceive of the creator or origin of the world?  These are the questions that inspire his poetry.  In my paper I will show how his passion for Western and Eastern mystics (from Pseudo-Dionysus and St. John of the Cross to Lao-Tsu) have propelled his Dantesque quest for salvation and transcendence.  (Wright has often claimed that he has dedicated his career to writing a new Divine Comedy).  I will also argue that for Wright, as for so many poets of the 1970s (and of other eras), ecstatic transcendence is always momentary.  It exists on a horizon that keeps retreating as soon as the questor thinks it has finally been reached.

Charles Wright: Language, Landscape, and the Idea of God

When I was thinking about how to discuss the poetry that Charles Wright wrote during the 1970s, I picked up a copy of Robert Von Hallberg's book, American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980.  As those of you who've read the book know, Von Hallberg models his study on the criticism of Mathew Arnold.  He subscribes to Arnold's view that writers should focus on cultural centers, that the most significant poets "occupy themselves with the center of ideas in their time" as well as "the feelings, experiences, and difficulties that are considered the irreducible center of public life."  Hallberg contends that, for better or worse, the United States became the center of global culture after World War II and that "centrist poets"—as he calls them—speak for and against that American center.

I'm not sure why Von Hallberg excluded Charles Wright from his study.  Perhaps it was because Wright's career was just beginning, although it should be pointed out that Wright had published four books of poems and won a National Book Award by the time Von Hallberg completed American Poetry and Culture.  It should also be pointed out that Wright has been preoccupied  with linguistic, environmental, and religious issues that have been at the center of cultural debates from the 1960s to the present.  "There are three things"I write about," he has repeatedly stated, "language, landscape, and the idea of God."  But if these issues have drawn Wright to the centers, they have also repelled him to the peripheries.  From his decentered perspective, he would undoubtedly feel uncomfortable wearing Von Hallberg's label of "centrist poet."
Gazing at centers from a distance has been Wright's stance from the beginning of his life. Reflecting on an epiphany he had shortly after World War II, when he was in fifth grade in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, he said: "I learned with something of an awesome I would fit into a group....  It has continued to this day pretty much unchanged from the fifth grade: always of the group, but never at its center; always at the edges observing and commenting, never inside making it do whatever it was that the group did."
If Wright composes poems about the central ideas and events of his culture, he does so as an exile on the periphery.  As he once told an interviewer: "All poetry is written from an exiled point of view."  He got his start as a poet, in fact, as an exile reading the poems of another exile, Ezra Pound.  It was during his stint in the army in Italy that he read Pound's Selected Poems, fell in love with the older poet's imagistic lyricism, and began writing poetry.  Wright's stylistic evolution followed Pound's: from short lyrics to long Canto-like sequences that mixed sensuous description and discursive rumination. With Pound as his guide, he incorporated the pictorial virtues of Chinese poetry and the epic scope of Dante's Divine Comedy.  Divided between an Eastern devotion to "the world of the ten thousand things" (a phrase Wright used as the title for his collected Poems 1980-1990) and a Western yearning for transcendental paradise, Wright consistently portrayed himself as an iconoclastic pilgrim shuttling between different cultures.  His centers, you might say, were eccentric.  They were not confined to the U.S.
For Wright and many other American poets of his generation, one of the central upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s occurred in another country—in Vietnam—although the repercussions were obviously global.  Having fulfilled his military service by 1961, Wright viewed the war as most Americans did—from the periphery, from the safety of his house on the other side of the world.  Nevertheless, the Vietnam War had a profound effect on his attitudes toward poetic style, language, and government.  If Pound and Italy inspired Wright to cultivate a keen-sighted, imagistic realism in his poems, the Vietnam War and its dissembling perpetrators inspired his gothic surrealism and his skepticism about what Stephen Colbert has called the "truthiness" of language.
Surrealism was imported to the U.S. from Europe and South America by many poets and translators during the 20th century, but Wright traces the appeal of surrealism to a specific event: the Vietnam War.  According to Wright, surrealism's juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary, the banal and bizarre, the homely and horrific, made the style a fitting one to express the way horrendous images of the Vietnam War entered American homes on the nightly news.  "Nothing out of [André] Breton," he told J.D. McClatchy in an interview, "was more surreal than watching tanks carrying dead and bleeding bodies, easing through the supper hour as millions swallowed the image along with their Hamburger Helper.  The young poets were mirrors of the times, not their precursors.  I think it's interesting that American Surrealism's high-water mark was about a ten-year period, say 1965 to 1975, whose other high-water mark" [was] the Vietnam War."
The American Surrealism that attracted Wright the most had a Zen inflection.  He said: "The two people in the generation above me I feel closest to are W.S. Merwin and Peter Matthieson....  They are both practicing Zen Buddhists, which I am not, but there's something about that particular quest that fascinates me."  The quest, as Wright articulated it, was a contemplative one that attempted to pass beyond the surreal banalities and horrors of everyday life, and to arrive at a kind of meta-surrealism, a vision of a transcendent center beyond all worldly centers.  Wright described the goal of this Zen-like quest as "the small, still center of everything."  Then, with a typical qualification, he conceded: "I don't know whether that exists.  Zen people say it really exists here; maybe it does.  I don't know".  But I do want to get to that still, small, pinpoint of light at the center of the universe where all things come together and all things intersect."  An astrophysicist would undoubtedly tell Wright that there is no one, luminous center of the universe; every point is a center.  The cosmic center that Wright yearns, it seems to me, is a product of imaginative desire rather than scientific observation.

In his poems, Wright acknowledges the illusory and imaginary nature of cosmic centers by repeatedly dramatizing the way his religious desires for such centers go unfulfilled.  A mystic manqué, he travels a contemplative via negativa, negating the linguistic and cognitive processes of his mind in a "dark night of the soul," but he never attains the mystic's ultimate wish—to unify with a divine, transcendent center.  As Helen Vendler once remarked, Wright "aims at either [self-]obliteration or transcendence, blanks or mysticism, [but]"he remains bound to the materiality and the temporal rhythm of language, whereas both Eastern nothingness and Western transcendence, at their utmost point, renounce as meaningless both materiality and time."  Wright's flights toward transcendent centers inevitably end with falls back to the material, temporal world.

This sense of vicious circularity—of journeys ending where they began—is one source of the melancholy tone that throbs through many of Wright's poems.  He feels nostalgia for his childhood religious imagination, which was cultivated in North Carolina Episcopal camps and schools between the ages of 12 and15, and he feels nostalgia for the mystical imagination that flourished in past ages.  In his poem "Lost Bodies," he bluntly states: "If I had it all to do over again / I'd be a Medievalist."  His poems are littered with references to ancient contemplative writers in the East and West such as Lao Tsu (the founder of Taoism), Pseudo Dinoysius, St. Augustine, Dante, Saint John of the Cross, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Teresa of Avila.  Following Dante, who in the Paradiso ascended toward a union with a transcendent being after multiple communions with saints and mystics, Wright addresses numerous shades of past contemplative masters who can lead him to a that "light at the center of the universe," but bemoans the fact that the center always eludes him.

Wright's poems are elegiac in the way they mourn the loss of religious belief in a unity between world, word, and God.  In his reflections on the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wright pines for the sort of faith that allowed Hopkins to envision "God's fingerprint and face on everything" and to proclaim that the "inscape" of a landscape or natural object "is knowable and tactile through language."  For Hopkins, Wright says, "the heart of the mystery, the pulse at the very unspeakable center of being, is apprehensible through writing about it."  For Wright, such linguistic idealism is dead.  A shadow has fallen between the central mystery and the words that try to represent it.  But "How marvelous," he says, "to see how the world once seemed [to Hopkins], how Adamic it all was before the word and world became separate.  And the Word [the Word with a capital W] and the world became separate."

As a fallen, postmodern Adam, Wright elegizes Edenic unities between signifier and signified, creator and creation, communicant and God.  One of the reasons he is attracted to the poetic sequences of Pound and other Modernists—to their technique of assembling ruins and fragments into collages—is because of his conviction that the old religious narratives are in fragments; their wish-fulfillment plots of happy beginnings and apocalyptic ends have been shattered.  Like his Modernist forbears, he plots his poems according to the seemingly random associations of his skeptical, meditating mind, not according to traditional, linear patterns of beginnings, middles, and ends.  "My plots do not run narratively or linearly," he points out, "but synaptically, from one nerve spark to another, from one imagistic spark to another."
Although Wright does not compose his poems in a straightforward, linear way, using "wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot"—to borrow a phrase from James Joyce—he has envisioned the publication of his books in a linear way—as a Dantesque progression from Inferno to Purgatorio and Paradiso.  I don't really agree with Wright's idea that his books conform to a Dantesque pattern—a "trilogy of trilogies" as he's said—but if the idea of the pattern helped him write his books, the way Yeats's vision of historical gyres and lunar cycles helped him write his books, that's OK by me.  

The first segment of Wright's trilogy was published in the 1970s.  It comprised four books: The Grave of my Right Hand (1970), Hard Freight (1973), Bloodlines (1975), and China Trace (1977).  Country Music: Selected Early Poems, which included many poems from these books, appeared in 1982.  In these early books, Wright wrote about his religious childhood in the American South, his artistic discoveries in Italy, his stymied via negativa toward enlightenment, his communion with ancestral ghosts and artist-gods, and his failed communions with actual Gods and holy ghosts.
The most experimental poems in Wright's early phase appeared in the book-length sequence China Trace.  Each poem in the book, he said, was a snap-shot of a fragmentary pilgrimage.  The title China Trace refers to the pilgrim's road ("trace" can mean "road" or "path") as well as the trace of Chinese poems, specifically those from the T'ang Dynasty translated by Pound and Arthur Waley, that Wright deliberately imitated.  The guiding spirit of China Trace, however, was the avant-garde composer John Cage, whose emphasis on chance and spontaneity was influenced by Chinese (especially Zen Buddhist) sources.  In 1971, after going to a John Cage concert with Donald Justice in Irvine, California, Wright decided to follow Cage's example by giving himself arbitrary and often whimsical instructions for the composition of a sequence of poems. Wright listed these instructions to an interviewer:
Number one was [to describe] a watercolor, two was [to describe] the blues.  Three was to write a seasonal poem and four was to write a childhood poem unlike any I had done before.  Five was to write a poem that was basically commentary.  Six was to write an abstract of a poem that wasn't there.  Seven was to write a poem from a photograph.

Wright also instructed himself to write a poem without verbs, a poem with a verb in every line, a poem borrowing images from Dante, a poem completed at a single sitting, several poems that were portraits of people he'd never met, a poem with an aphoristic statement and a commentary, a poem with no point of reference, a poem that spelled out a poetic manifesto, a poem based on a photograph with friends substituted for the people in the photograph, and a poem written during a three-day MLA conference.  Wright decided to limit each poem to twelve lines and to record what he called "one man's relationship to the endlessness, the ongoingness, the everlastingness of what's around the natural world."  In that way he felt he would pay homage to ancient Chinese poetry, Buddhist philosophy, and the avant-garde techniques of Cage.
Wright said he deliberately shifted his focus away from the otherworldly transcendentalism of Christianity and toward the quotidian celebrated by Buddhism (at one point he considered calling the book Quotidiana).  Despite this alleged shift from West to East, China Trace reveals vacillation and tension between the two cultural centers rather than a clear-cut move from one to the other.  Wright continues to write poems that long for Christian salvation in a transcendental realm and that lament his inability to achieve it. In the book's first poem "Childhood," he offers the first of many valedictions to his youthful Christian faith when he represents his former beliefs as "beads from a broken rosary."  Wandering through remembered landscapes in Italy, his native South, and California, he yearns for the Christian mystic's sacred wound that will open him to divine grace, only to question and renounce that yearning as pathological.
Perhaps the best example of the tensions between Wright's Western and Eastern compulsions is the poem "Clear Night," which appears near the end of China Trace.  It begins as many of his poems do—with a nocturnal meditation on the flora and fauna outside his house.  In the quiet, moonlit landscape, Wright utters a cry for divine intervention that is startling in its intensity.  It's as passionate and masochistic in its desire for purgatorial transformation as Donne's similar cry in his 14th Holy Sonnet.  As you may remember, Donne began his sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Wright echoes Donne when he declares:
I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.
As soon as Wright expresses his desire for a crucifying purification that will deliver him to a transcendental realm of "strong light," he hears a skeptical voice in the wind—perhaps a Buddhist voice—that returns his gaze to the circular "ongoingingness" of the world around him.
And the wind says "What?" to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say "What?" to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.

Wright seems shocked by the self-destructive fury of his Christian impulses.  Castor beans can be deadly because they contain the poison ricin.  Wright implies that his Christian wish for purification can be similarly deadly.  His return from the heights of mystical passion to the ordinary movements of the stars and cars represents a return to reality, and perhaps to sanity.
If Wright quests for the Zen Buddhist's "pinpoint of light at the center of the universe" or the Christian mystic's "heart of the mystery, the pulse at the very unspeakable center of being," his quest collapses in questions and doubts.  The last word of the poem is "wheel," a common Buddhist symbol for the ongoing cycle of the temporal world.  Once again Wright is on the periphery—bound to the wheel of cycling time and bodies, and listening to car wheels accelerate toward centers (presumably urban centers) beyond his house.  From his position on the edge, he examines his central issues—landscape, language, and God—and feels their gravitational tug.  But the modern skeptic in him has the last word.  If landscape, language, and God promise to transport him to some "unspeakable center of being," he denies the desirability and possibility of that kind of transport at the end.
Henry Hart, English Dept., College of William and Mary