Last week’s announcement that Charles Wright will be the next poet laureate brought back many memories. Shortly before my last semester of law school at the University of Virginia in the late 1980s, I sent Mr. Wright (as we knew our professors back then) a note begging him to give me a slot in his poetry writing workshop. The note was shameless—saying that I’d tried unsuccessfully to enroll for the workshop before, that this semester was my last chance, etc. Happily, he let me in anyway. Once a week I drove from the law school to our classroom on the main campus, and slipped into another world (for which I got law school credit!). Wright was already a legend on campus, even though he had not yet won the slew of poetry awards he has received since.
A few years ago, I interviewed Wright at his house in Charlottesville for Books & Culture (here). A part of the interview that didn’t make it in to print seems to me to nicely capture Wright’s humility and dry humor. We’re talking about his famously musical line, which varies in length, but always has an odd number of syllables.
Interviewer: One of the things everyone talks about when they talk about your poetry is the music in the poetry and the beauty of the language. You have said many times over the years that you don’t have an ear for music. I think you’ve said that you can’t carry a tune, I don’t know whether you’re exaggerating or not…
Wright: No, I’m not.
Interviewer: Where does the music come from?
Wright: It comes from the words. I don’t know, it sounds good to my ear, you know, since I can’t make music – can’t play music, I make my music in my poems. And just the way the lines sound to me – and there is a certain melodiousness, I think, to the way, at times, I can get the lines moving. And then sometimes there’s not, on purpose. But I never set out to be a singer – and in my lines it just sort of transpired – it just sort of happened. And then once it sounded good, I said – well, that’s the way I want to try to write it. …
Here’s an example of the music, taken from a description of the narrator’s visit to Emily Dickinson’s house in “Zone Journals” (1988)
… But I liked it there. I liked
The way sunlight lay like a shirtwaist over the window seat.
I liked the view down to the garden.
I liked the boxwood and evergreens
And the wren-like, sherry-eyed figure
I kept thinking I saw there
As the skies started to blossom
And a noiseless noise began to come from the orchard–