National Poetry Month: C. D. Wright

The poet C. D. Wright died unexpectedly on January 12, 2016 at the age of 67. She was a fiercely experimental writer, moving from lyric to prose-poetry to, in her most recent work, “prosimetrical essays” (essays that aren't generally lineated but that do employ many of poetry's other tools: rhythm, repetition, fragmentation, compression).

Wright was also fierce in her moral vision. One Big Self (2007), a visual/textual hybrid created with the photographer Deborah Luster, focused on Louisiana’s state prison system. (A sample bit of reported dialogue: “I’m never leaving here.—Grasshopper, in front of the woodshop, posing beside a coffin he built.") In 2011, she published One with Others, a meditation on the Civil Rights Movement as told through the life of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, Wright’s mentor, “an autodidact, deeply literary, an outraged citizen, a killingly funny, irresistible human.”

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some quotations from Wright’s most recent book, published a week before her death: The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, and Fire & All.

Yes, that’s the whole title, and it accurately represents the book’s omnivorous interests. Wright focuses on poetry, first and foremost, but also on the relation of photography to the written word; on her experiences researching and visiting Louisiana state prisons (“I remember an afternoon at the iron pile at Transylvania watching the men quietly plait each other’s hair between sets at the weight bench”); on her loving regard for the late poet Robert Creeley (“In his company I felt poetry’s sturdiness and purpose”); on the exhilarating experience of reading Under the Volcano while traveling in Mexico as a penniless undergraduate (“In those days I dreaded coming to the end of a mighty book. It was not so much the story; I just resisted being ejected from the experience.”)

As Ben Lerner has written, “Even categorizing [Wright] as uncategorizable is too easy: she was part of a line of mavericks and contrarians who struggled to keep the language particular in times of ever-encroaching standardization.” Wright’s intellectual and formal restlessness comes through on every page of The Poet. She will be missed—most, of course, by those who knew her (she taught for many years at Brown), but also by those who read her.

While finishing this post, I noticed that Zoey Cole just published a remembrance of Wright on Literary Hub. It's excellent and worth a read. In the meantime, here are some of Wright's words from The Poet ... .

Here she is on nouns:

I like nouns that go up: loft. And ones that sink: mud. I like the ones that peck: chicken. And canter: canter. Those that comfort: flannel and pelt. Cell is an excellent word, in that it sweetly fulfills its assigned sound in a small, thin container. Unlike hull, which is disappointing.

On poetry’s relationship to social and political circumstances:

Poets will have to summon a fierceness equal to the current environment. We will have to meet irrational force with savage insight. We will have to bring our own rudimentary technology, our own order, to the common weal. Inasmuch as poetry is the mind’s domain, it is the mind’s defense. But poets will have to shed some of our mental armor. We will have to channel our loathing toward our elected objections of negation, forgo gentle murmurings (as Adorno says, “There is nothing innocuous left.”) Poets will have to stop bemoaning poetry’s lost station, while continuing to press its perceptions. That which we cannot speak of we can no longer pass over in silence.

On the kind of receptivity needed to read and love poetry:

Poetry moves by indirection and in so doing avoids the crowd. This does not mean it would not draw others in. But one has to be responsive to its movements. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one’s best ear on its retrofitted lyre.

On William Carlos Williams:

The prose is a working-through, hot with argument, loud with opinion. The overall form is a grand improvisation.

On photography:

Photographs are a writing of the light. Photos graphein. Or in some instances photos graphon. I can hear them. Some say, (you) be careful. Be afraid. Love. Be true. Gnaw. Be brave. Clot. Be real. Scream. Hush. Listen. Womb. Sleep now. “Be still. The Hanging Gardens were a dream.”

On poetry’s relation to truth:

Poetry abhors the lie. The lies we are told, they pile up, they become truth by virtue of the heap. By their volume. By virtue of constant recapitulation … Poetry digs through. Its castings make some growth possible on contaminated ground. Though forced to make do with shrinking day-length, though forced to go the worm’s way, poetry ensures new shoots. It could be that an international vault will have to be established for poetry, to ensure the renewal of the greatest variety of voices, of lines capable of challenging the uniformity of thought. The vault must by definition of its mission reject the Walmart cheer. Spring clings to poetry. It brings forth possibility, “the greatest good.”

 

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Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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