Charles Wright once said, “I want to be the anonymous author.”
But for 44 years this modest Southerner has been publishing poetry, and the accolades have kept arriving: a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Bollingen Prize.
Sorry, Charlie — more bad news: The Librarian of Congress just named Wright the next poet laureate of the United States.
Wright, a former professor at the University of Virginia and the author of 24 collections of poetry, will begin his one-year appointment with a public reading of his work at the Library of Congress in late September.
“I guess I’ll have to wear my suit,” he says by phone from his home in Charlottesville. “I’ve only worn it for weddings and funerals.”
Wright’s humility doesn’t rhyme with his prominence in the poetry world. His celebrated work, inflected with influences from ancient China, Ezra Pound and his native Tennessee, has continued to evolve and fascinate critics for decades.
In an advance copy of Thursday’s announcement, Librarian of Congress James Billington said, “Charles Wright is a master of the meditative, image-driven lyric. Wright’s body of work combines a Southern sensibility with an allusive expansiveness, for moments of singular musicality.”
Billington made his selection in consultation with about 50 people, including 10 previous poets laureate. Speaking by phone this week, he said, “As I was reading through the finalists, I always kept returning to this man who wrote so beautifully and movingly about important things without self-importance but with extraordinary skill and beauty.”
He was ultimately motivated to choose Wright by “the depth and power that lay behind a beautiful linguist and his sustained command of images, laced with humor and even a manner of self-deprecation.”
Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, said, “In his decades-long career, Charles Wright has created a Dante-esque project of spiritual reckoning, one beautiful poem at a time. Though he is a master of the art, he speaks of poetry’s mysterious power in a way I think most Americans can relate to — and you can see that mystery in his work.”
Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tenn., in 1935 and didn’t begin writing poetry until he began serving in the U.S. Army in Italy. On his return home, he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a classmate of future U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand (1990-1991).
As the new poet laureate, Wright will have few required duties. The library provides an office and allows each poet to define the job however he or she would like. (The salary is $35,000, plus $5,000 for travel — meager, even for a poet.) Some laureates stay in Washington and use the office, some don’t.
“The most important thing that they do,” Billington says, “is to provide an inspirational example of how powerful poetry can be.”
Billy Collins (2001-2003) began a program to bring a poem a day into high school classrooms across the country. Ted Kooser (2004-2006) wrote a weekly newspaper column. And the most recent poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014), toured the country for a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour called “Where Poetry Lives.”
Wright has something quieter in mind. “I’m not going to be an activist laureate the way Natasha was,” he says. “She was great at it, but I’ve been around the block more than twice — I’m 79. I guess I’ll bring wisdom and good luck. It’s all a new experience for me. Basically, one has to pull up one’s socks and say, ‘I’ll do it.’ My wife wanted me to. She wouldn’t say so, but she wanted me to. I think she thought we’d be coming up to D.C. and going to museums.”
Between claims about poetry’s renaissance and rumors of its death, Wright takes a measured view.
“Poetry’s not on a respirator,” he says. “It’s breathing fine. I have a feeling, though, that there isn’t enough ambition. Oh, there’s ambition for certain grants and prizes, but I mean ambition in the way of Wallace Stevens and Yeats or William Carlos Williams — people who were trying to change the way poetry is looked at. There are people trying to do that today, but I think in the wrong way.”
For those unacquainted with his work, Wright recommends starting with “The Other Side of the River,” published in 1984. “That’s the most narrative. Anything after ‘The Southern Cross.’ Before that, they’re a little twisted and tentative.” His most recent collection, “Caribou,” was published in March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
His long career has honed his perspective on life. “Age has its drawbacks. You start doing the things you are inclined to do out of habit rather than necessity. On the good side, it gives you plenty of time to figure out what you want to do.” Obviously, he figured that out. He received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement back in 1993. “A lifetime ago,” he quips.
Still, he turns attention away from himself, toward his poetry. “If you write your work, public attention to it is best. Who cares who wrote the Old English classic ‘The Seafarer’? Nobody. It’s a great poem. I’m of a mind that poetry is basically a private thing, and that’s probably not a good thing for the laureate to think. But I’ll do the best I can.”
For now, our next poet laureate is off to Montana for three months. His house there doesn’t have a phone, but there’s an answering machine in a shed about 10 miles away. He checks it twice a week.