Interview by David Skeel
Editor's Note: Charles Wright was recently named as the next poet laureate of the United States. Here is an interview with him that first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Books & Culture. Wright's first book of poems, The Grave of the Right Hand, was published in 1970; his most recent volume, Caribou, appeared in 2014. Wright won the National Book Award in 1983 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. David Skeel talked with him at his house in Charlottesville, Virginia, and followed up on one question via email.
The little commonplace notebook you published in Halflife (1988), a collection of your prose, includes a striking quote by your friend Mark Strand: "The point of truth comes when a poet goes from writing private poems in a public language to writing public poems in a private language." Was there a point in your work where you made that shift, when you began writing public poems in a private language?
I know that a shift occurred. Whether they are public poems or not, the poems seemed more personal, more accessible, than the sort of public poems without a voice that I had written before. And the shift came with a poem called "Dog Creek Mainline" [in Hard Freight (1973)]. Suddenly I realized that for once in his life Rilke was right. Every writer has a subject matter: his own life.
Your poetry is surely the most dog-haunted in the long history of verse. Was there a moment in your career when you thought, Eureka!, this is my image?
No, I just used it a lot. And I think at one point I thought it was cute because it's God spelled backwards, but that's not why I do it.
I don't know. I was raised with dogs, hunting dogs—my father was a hunter. My life has always had a dog. How they keep getting into my poems, I'm not sure. But I remember writing about how the dog eats on the run and keeps moving [in "Sentences," from China Trace (1977)]. And I liked that somehow at the time. And dogs just kept appearing. And doggone it, they just kept appearing.
You've said elsewhere that "Captain Dog," the title of one of your poems, was a name your students gave to you when you were in California. Were your students inspired by reading your poems?
No, no. I got out of the Army after four years, and on my discharge they promoted me to captain. I was just a lieutenant the whole time I was on active duty, but then when I went into the reserve, the inactive reserve, I went in as a captain. And I must have mentioned that once to my students. One of them said, "Oh, Captain Dog, huh?" I said, "Yes, Captain Dog"—I kind of liked it. They didn't call me that all the time, but they would refer to me by that epithet from time to time, and it was fine with me.
>China Trace and the books that make up The World of Ten Thousand Things seem to draw increasingly on the classical Chinese poets.
I had been looking at Chinese poems for many years, but somewhere along the line there was a soul moment when I felt very attached to the way they explained their lives and the landscape and what they were talking about, their philosophies, and their idea of an afterlife—it was not much of an afterlife, but there was one. Particularly I liked the ways they treated the landscape and how they injected their feelings into the landscape and then let it speak for them.
The philosopher Richard Rorty was a colleague of yours for many years, and a subject of your poem "Reading Rorty and Paul Celan One Morning in Early June" [in Chickamauga (1995)]. Rorty wrote a lot about the "language turn" in philosophy and argues, I think, that language constructs our world. Did you ever think, well, maybe he has a point?
There's a point where I think everybody's right about everything, particularly about language. But the idea that the world is made of language and not objects is something that's foreign to my sensibilities. Like all theory, like all philosophy, it's an interesting position and an interesting posit. Just like the theory of the language poets is interesting in theory, but in practice it's confetti, for me anyhow.
Did you ever talk about these issues with Rorty?
Dick was a man of few words out loud. But he could write like a dream, and he obviously was one of the great philosophers of our time. I think I only stood next to him two times. My favorite Rorty moment was early on when both of us had younger children—they must have been 13 and 14. We went to a Fourth of July function at Jack Levinson's house, and the kids were playing out in the yard. I can't remember whether I was sitting on the steps and Dick came up and sat down next to me, or whether Dick was on the steps. But I said, Hi, and he said, Hi. And that was it for a half hour. For half an hour. And about half way through—no, after about five minutes, I guess; you know, it's very uncomfortable not to speak—I suddenly understood that there are those of us who are happiest when we can sit next to somebody and not feel constrained to make small talk. Dick had very little small talk and a lot of large talk.