Hard Freightby: Charles Wright
I HAVE HEARD Charles Wright say that it is a poet’s third book that signals the arrival of his or her voice and which merits the special attention of any reader interested in the promise and trajectory of a writer’s progress. This is perhaps not a surprising remark from a God-hungry pilgrim (Wright has called himself “a God-fearing agnostic”) obsessed with the triptych, the trilogy, the three-in-one. Yet Wright himself has also conceded that his poem “Dog Creek Mainline” (1972), which falls a little over halfway through his second full-length book, Hard Freight, marks the beginning of his distinctive style, a style characterized over a long and quietly dazzling career by poems of homage, questing, intertextuality, wit, metaphysical moxie, layering, landscape, spiritual and word hunger, and a “sidereal jones” for light and its Dickinsonian “Heavenly Hurt.” For this and a host of other reasons, revisiting this important early book by the eminent poet of his, or of any, generation is in itself an act of homage, pilgrimage, and epiphany.
In The Early Poetry of Charles Wright (McFarland & Co, Inc., 2009), Robert D. Denham writes: “[‘Dog Creek Mainline’ in Hard Freight] marks Wright’s movement away from primarily technical exercises toward what developed into his distinctive subject matter, style, and voice. Writing the poem during the fall of 1971, he came to realize that the story he had to tell came from his own experience”—his family, the landscapes of and yearnings originating in his own past. In response to a query from J. D. McClatchy about this signature “Wright” style in a Paris Review interview (“The Art of Poetry,” No. 41, 1989), Wright says:
It’s a concentration of the particular, I suppose, despite the gravity of the general. Transcendence inside its own skin. In other words, it tends to be not just how you write, but what you write as well, and why you write it. I feel about style the way Heidegger felt about being. It’s inside, not outside. All those things you mention, sound and look and—what was it, pacing?—and ambition, all have to come from an inner necessity, a ‘thereness,’ a haeccitas, that makes you write as you do. Jazz, for example, may be all style, but it’s all soul as well. Everything that we see comes from something that we don’t see. Duende or dharma or dasein, it all comes down to the same thing, you are what you are, and what you are in that secret place is what you write. Well, it’s complicated, isn’t it, and I haven’t expressed myself very well. Clarity. Faith, hope, and clarity. Some things are more difficult to clarify than others, aren’t they? Great clarity is great style, however hard it may be.
One great gift of Hard Freight is its clear lesson that even (or perhaps especially) great poets apprentice. As someone who has seriously considered asking a student to check my master’s thesis out of the library and burn it, I am consoled by the work in Hard Freight, particularly the pieces that precede “Dog Creek Mainline” that feel like student poems, the études of someone trying out a wide range of modes and approaches, and sampling a gospel of voices, many of them derived from poets, philosophers, and others (Kafka, Wild...read more