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Charles Wright: United States Poet Laureate and My Teacher

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Charles Wright in 2006. | Photo: Holly Wright, Courtesy Library of Congress
Charles Wright in 2006. | Photo: Holly Wright, Courtesy Library of Congress

Librarian of Congress James Billington announced the other day that Charles Wright would be the next United States poet laureate, succeeding Natasha Trethewey as the Library's 20th -- to use the post's clumsy official title -- Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

Wright is 78 now and retired from teaching (lastly at the University of Virginia). He's the author of more than 20 collections of poetry and translations. He's won the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, Griffin International Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was my teacher in 1971 at UC Irvine.

His first widely read book,"The Grave of the Right Hand," had been published the year before. He was handsome and spoke in a mild Tennessee accent. It seemed to me that every American poet should have that accent, like the sound of a small orchestra playing in a distant room.

I really shouldn't claim that Charles Wright was my teacher since, officially, I was never his student, never an enrolled member of the Graduate Writing Workshop in poetry, which was hard to get into even in those early days of UCI. I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature and a very bad one.

Because I wasn't very good at being a graduate student, I hid out in the poetry workshop, a shadow there by the sufferance of Wright and the program's two other instructors. I don't know what any of them saw in me, although I attended their classes and submitted poems for the weekly inquisition of their workshops. I didn't get a grade. I didn't take their exams. My poems were, I think, unremarkable.

I don't know if anyone in either the English Department or the Comparative Literature Department ever discussed the oddity of this situation. Perhaps bad graduate students like me take this shortcut all the time. I don't know.

The legitimate students in the poetry program formed relationships with Wright. Intellectual genealogy is the way in which the craft of writing is passed on. I didn't make that connection, partly out of incapacity and mostly because I wasn't of Wright's brotherhood. His students had the calling to a poet's vocation. A good number of them carry on his genealogy today, in and out of college classrooms. My calling (if there was one) had been far more vague, more like something in my poor eyesight stumbled over.

Charles Wright will be a good poet laureate for us, although more reticent and inward than some have been. In "This World is Not My Home, I'm Only Passing Through," one of the six-line poems in "Sestets", he says "The more you say, the more mistakes you'll make, / so keep it simple. / No one arrives without leaving soon."

He'll be more steely, too, and unflinching. He always wanted the poems to be present; less so the poet. His critics (although liking his language) poke at his poems for not having much incident or drama.

Wright's poems are rooted in the everyday ... more than rooted, anchored against what's rising against the man. I know the feeling.

I don't know what small part of Charles Wright I carry around almost 45 years later. It's likely I didn't know enough then to know what I should have been remembering. Except, I remember the diminishing music of that Tennessee accent.

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