Friday, June 13, 2014

A poet laureate with rural roots

Charles Wright was named poet laureate yesterday, and I noted that both NPR and the New York Times picked up on aspects of his rural upbringing in coverage of the announcement.

The New York Times wrote:
Mr. Wright, who was born in Pickwick Dam, Tenn., not far from the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh, succeeds another Southerner, Natasha Trethewey. But Mr. Wright’s work — oblique meditations on “language, landscape and the idea of God,” as he once summed up his themes — could not be more different from Ms. Trethewey’s evocations of the forgotten African-American lives, or from the Whitmanesque poems about working-class Detroit by the previous laureate, Philip Levine.
Pickwick Dam is not even a Census Designated Place.  It is in southwest Tennessee, on the Tennessee River and the Mississippi state line, and is part of Hardin County, population 26,026.  

Jennifer Schuessler's report for the NYT continues:  
Explaining his choice, James Billington, the librarian of Congress, said that as he read through the work of a dozen or so finalists, he kept coming back to Mr. Wright’s haunting poems, many of them gathered in a Dante-esque cycle of three trilogies known informally as “The Appalachian Book of the Dead.” 
His “combination of literary elegance and genuine humility — it’s just the rare alchemy of a great poet,” Dr. Billington said. Mr. Wright’s work, he added, offers “an infinite array of beautiful words reflected with constant freshness.”
Melissa Block intereviewed Wright for NPR.  When asked about whether his sources of inspiration have changes over the decades, he said:
Not really. 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.

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