Perspective comes in six lines

''Sestets'' is Charles Wright's 19th collection of poetry. ''Sestets'' is Charles Wright's 19th collection of poetry. (Holly Wright)
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / April 18, 2009
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Poet Charles Wright has garnered nearly every big-deal literary award - the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, and the Griffin Poetry Prize among them. A teacher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he is routinely mentioned in the same breath as "greatest." As in, "greatest poet of his generation."

So America is in love with accolades. What else is new? And yet when it comes to the business of poetry, it hardly matters. No poet ever made a grand living or found widespread renown writing verse. As Wright said in a 1998 interview, "You don't write poetry to sell books. You write poetry because you either have to, or it's been given to you to do so. Every time I sell a book I'm always happy and surprised."

Born in 1935, Wright has seen a good swath of years come and go, as well as their poetic fashions. In his new volume, "Sestets," his 19th collection, 69 spare, aphoristic, and almost lackadaisical six-line poems, sort of like juiced-up haikus, reflect his all-shall-pass attitude. "No one's remembered much longer than a rock is remembered beside the road," he writes in "It's Sweet to Be Remembered." In the face of life, death, and our puny selves hunched against the landscape, just accept it. Or be miserable.

"Everything that we've known, and come to count on, has fled the world," he laments in one poem. "Where are the deeds we're taught to cling to?" Other moments are just as straight-shootingly-grim. "Tell me again, Lord, how easy it all is," he wryly smiles in "The Gospel According to Yours Truly." In "Hasta la Vista Buckaroo," "The entrance to hell is just a tiny hole in the ground,/ The size of an old pecan, soul-sized." Wright has a gift for the cowboy-like one-liner, and the apt title, too.

And he's down with dissing the poetic act itself. "Water remains immortal -/ Poems can't defile it," is one way to look at a river. In other words, poets, don't even try to capture this planet Earth with your dirty verbiage. If you do, your verse is a kind of death curse.

These poems are shorter than most in the Wright oeuvre, as if at this stage in his career he's given up the all-embracing, exhaustive study. Brevity implies a necessary precision and compression. Yet for every 10 zinger lines, there's a clunker phrase like "feel the pain of others," or the lazy "depths of its brilliance." But given Wright's prodigious output, we can forgive the old guy.

Wright's subjects are nothing new under the sun. There is nature and mortality. His poems are strewn with images of horses and the rapture, prodigal sons and signs of the zodiac (again). He constantly addresses God: "What's up, grand architect . . . ?" And again he returns to that sinking feeling of finality: "Seventy years, and what's left?"

Our self-styled master of the "metaphysics of the quotidian," Wright is honest, but never depressing. He remains, as he once said, examining "how the exterior landscape reflects the interior and vice versa." He wishes the creek's voice was his own, and that the past was not so dark.

Which is to say, as he writes in "On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine," "the older I become, the more the landscape resembles me."

Ethan Gilsdorf's book "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms" comes out in September.


By Charles Wright

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 75 pp., $23