Our New Poet Laureate

On Thursday, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, announced the appointment of Charles Wright as the new Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry:

Charles Wright is a master of the meditative, image-driven lyric. For almost 50 years his poems have reckoned with what he calls ‘language, landscape, and the idea of God.’ Wright’s body of work combines a Southern sensibility with an allusive expansiveness, for moments of singular musicality.

Paul Elie applauds the choice:

Truly, is there anybody better?  No — though some equals among his peers come to mind. His body of work takes in Dante, the Civil War, Eastern philosophy, manhood, poetry and poets, and the superaliveness of a certain American mind in the second half of the twentieth century and the first half of the twenty-first.

Lilly Rothman runs down Wright’s biography:

Wright was born in 1935 in Tennessee and served with the U.S. Army, first exploring poetry while stationed in Italy, and was later a professor at the University of Virginia. His influences range from the work of Ezra Pound to that of ancient Chinese poets. In 2011, he told PBS that the content of all of his poems, no matter their precise subject matter, is “language, landscape and the idea of God.” He also noted that his poems have gotten less “loquacious” as he’s gotten older. “I once said if a guy can’t say what he has to say in three lines, he better change his job,” he joked. “I haven’t gotten that far yet, but I’m down to six lines.”

His poetic bona fides are many: 24 poetry collections and two books of essays. A Pulitzer Prize. A National Book Critics Circle Award. A National Book Award. The International Griffin Poetry Prize. A Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. A National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. A term as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. The Library of Congress’ own award for lifetime achievement in the form. (And lots more.)

In an NPR interview about this appointment, Wright describes his sources of inspiration:

It’s always been the idea of landscape that’s around me, that I look at; the idea of the music of language; and then the idea of God, or of that spiritual mystery that we doggedly follow, some of us, all of our days, and which we won’t find the answer to until it’s too late — or maybe it’s not too late. Maybe it’s just the start, I don’t know.

In any case, that’s what I’ve always written about, and those three things are the meanings of my poems. The content changes — you know, what it’s about, this, that and the other — but the meaning has always been the same, the same thing I’ve been after. Ever since I was a tongue-tied altar boy in the Episcopal Church.

Wright hopes to bring a fresh perspective to the job:

As the new poet laureate, Wright will have few required duties. The library provides an office and allows each poet to define the job however he or she would like. (The salary is $35,000, plus $5,000 for travel — meager, even for a poet.) Some laureates stay in Washington and use the office, some don’t. “The most important thing that they do,” Billington says, “is to provide an inspirational example of how powerful poetry can be.”

Billy Collins (2001-2003) began a program to bring a poem a day into high school classrooms across the country. Ted Kooser (2004-2006) wrote a weekly newspaper column. And the most recent poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014), toured the country for a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour called “Where Poetry Lives.”

Wright has something quieter in mind. “I’m not going to be an activist laureate the way Natasha was,” he says. “She was great at it, but I’ve been around the block more than twice — I’m 79. I guess I’ll bring wisdom and good luck. It’s all a new experience for me. Basically, one has to pull up one’s socks and say, ‘I’ll do it.’ My wife wanted me to. She wouldn’t say so, but she wanted me to. I think she thought we’d be coming up to D.C. and going to museums.”

In his 1989 Paris Review interview, Wright had this to say about what he looks for in poetry:

Music and substance, I guess, as most anyone would. One man’s music, naturally, is another man’s Muzak. One’s ear is one’s Virgil, however, leading you on. … One looks for a reach, an ambition. One looks for language, an exuberance. Well, one looks for Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson, for Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman. There seem to me to be certain absolutes in whatever field of endeavor one is in. In business and banking they may be availability and convertibility, security and safekeeping, minimal loss and steady, incremental accession. I don’t think it’s that way in poetry, though such values will get you to temporary high places. Brilliance is what you reach for, language that has a life of its own, seriousness of subject matter beyond the momentary gasp and glitter, a willingness to take on what’s difficult and beautiful, a willingness to be different and abstract, a willingness to put on the hair shirt and go into the desert and sit still, and listen hard, and write it down, and tell no one … Is that asking too much? Probably. Is there going to be someone to come along who fits this description? Probably. Will we recognize him when he comes? Probably not.