Poetry
5:51 pm
Thu June 12, 2014

New Poet Laureate: 'The Meaning Has Always Stayed The Same'

Originally published on Thu June 12, 2014 7:43 pm

The Library of Congress announced Thursday that the nation's next poet laureate will be Charles Wright, a retired professor at the University of Virginia.

"I'm very honored and flattered to be picked, but also somewhat confused," the poet told The New York Times. "I really don't know what I'm supposed to do. But as soon as I find out, I'll do it."

And when NPR's Melissa Block asks him what he'll do as laureate, he says, "Well, I'll probably stay here at home and think about things."

"Thinking about things" has been fruitful for Wright, who's won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his poems, which often center on faith and nature.

He will pick up the position from current poet laureate Natasha Trethewey in the fall. In the meantime, he tells Block about the bad fiction he wrote in his youth and how spirituality has consistently informed his poems.


Interview Highlights

On what led him to write poetry

Well, an inability to do anything else, among other things. I first started reading it seriously when I was in the Army, in Verona, Italy, and I was 23 years old, which is very late for a poet — most poets start about the age of 3, I've come to find out. And they have a whole stack of poems that they wrote before kindergarten. But that was not my case.

I did try to write stories in college, because I was interested in writing, and I was interested in the sound of language, but I was just no good at narrative and at fiction. When I discovered the lyric poem, that advanced not by narrative steps but by blocks and layers of imagery, I said, "Gee, I probably could do that. So let me try that."

And that's sort of what I've been doing, oh, for the last 50 years or so. And I feel very happy to have found it, because it's obviously changed my life — and gave me something to do.

On whether his sources of inspiration have changed over the decades

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.

On what he wants his role as the poet laureate to be

I will not be an activist laureate, I don't think, the way Natasha [Tretheway] was ... and certainly not the way Billy Collins was, or Bob Hass, or Rita Dove, or Robert Pinsky, you know, they had programs. I have no program. I have been deprogrammed, as it were ...

I'll do what they ask me, and I'll try to come up with some ideas about things, but I'm not going to actively go out and stir up the honey bucket, you know.


Poems

Outscape

There's no way to describe how the light splays
                                                    after the storm, under the clouds
Still piled like Armageddon
Back to the west, the northwest,
                                                 intent on incursion.

There's no way to picture it,
                                          though others have often tried to.
Here in the mountains it's like a ricochet from a sea surge,
Meadow grass moving like sea stalks
                                             in the depths of its brilliance.

"Outscape" by Charles Wright, from SESTETS. Copyright 2009 by Charles Wright. Reprinted/Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com

This World is Not My Home, I'm Only Passing Through

The more you say, the more mistakes you'll make,
                                                  so keep it simple.
No one arrives without leaving soon.
This blue-eyed, green footed world—
                                               hello, Goldie, goodbye.

We won't meet again. So what?
The rust will remain in the trees,
                                            and pine needles stretch their necks,
Their tiny necks, and sunlight will snore in the limp grass.

"This World is Not My Home, I'm Only Passing Through" by Charles Wright, from BYE-AND-BYE: SELECTED LATE POEMS by Charles Wright. Copyright 2011 by Charles Wright. Reprinted/Used by permissions of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And finally this hour, a conversation with the newly named Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Wright. He's 78, a Southerner raised in rural Tennessee. He lives now in Charlottesville, Virginia. Wright was picked by the librarian of Congress, who calls him a master of the meditative, image-driven lyric, a poet who creates moments of singular musicality. When I spoke with Charles Wright earlier today, I asked him what led him to poetry in the first place.

CHARLES WRIGHT: Well, an inability to do anything else, among other things.

BLOCK: (Laughing).

WRIGHT: I first started reading it seriously when I was in the Army in Verona, Italy. And I was 23 years old, which is very late for a poet. Most poets starts about the age of 3, as I've come to find out.

BLOCK: (Laughing).

WRIGHT: But that was not my case. I did try to write stories in college because I was interested in writing, and I was interested in the sound of language. But I was just no good at narrative and fiction. And when I discovered the lyric poem that advanced not by narrative steps, but by blocks and layers and imagery, I said, gee, I probably could do that. So let me try that. And that's sort of what I've been doing, oh, for the last 50 years or so. (Laughing) And I feel very happy to have found it because it obviously change my life and gave me something to do.

BLOCK: Do you think that the things that inspire you in your poems - have they changed months over the decades?

WRIGHT: 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 that spiritual mystery that we doggedly follow, some of us, all of our days, in 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. 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.

BLOCK: Well, have you thought about what you want your role as the poet laureate to be because there are a bunch of different models for this, right? I mean, Billy Collins tried to bring poems into high school classrooms. Ted Kooser wrote a weekly column for newspapers. What do you think you might do?

WRIGHT: Well, I'll probably stay here at home and think about things. I will not be an activist laureate, I don't think.

BLOCK: An activist poet laureate, huh?

WRIGHT: Yes, the way Natasha was.

BLOCK: Natasha Trethewey...

WRIGHT: Natasha Trethewey.

BLOCK: ...The current poet laureate.

WRIGHT: Yeah, and certainly not the way Billy Collins was or Bob Hass or Rita Dove or Robert Pinsky. You know, they had programs I have no program. I have been deprogrammed, as it were. (Laughing) And I'll just do what they ask me, and I'll try to come up with some ideas about things. But I am not going to actively go out and stir up the honey bucket, you know.

BLOCK: Well, it still is a great honor, and congratulations on being named the next poet laureate of the United States, Charles Wright.

WRIGHT: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: And I wonder if you'd mind - we asked you to bring in some of your poems with you today. Would you mind reading one to take us out?

WRIGHT: Well, I'll read this one. (Reading) this world is not my home. The more you say, the more mistakes you'll make. So keep it simple. No one arrives without leaving soon, this blue-eyed, green-footed world. Hello, Goldie. Goodbye. We won't meet again. So what? The rust will remain in the trees, and pine needles stretch their necks, their tiny necks. And sunlight will snore in the limp grass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.