by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
There are “some people” who wonder why I do this weekly series on poetry. The readership isn’t large, although I am often surprised by who shows up, and from where they are visiting. I’m passionate about the written word in all its forms, but poetry has that certain something more for me.
So I was delighted to find this quote by today’s featured poet, C.D. Wright (1949-2016):
“Nobody reads poetry, we are told at every inopportune moment. I read poetry. I am somebody. I am the people, too. It can be allowed that an industrious quantity of contemporary American poetry is consciously written for a hermetic constituency; the bulk is written for the bourgeoisie, leaving a lean cut for labor. Only the hermetically aimed has a snowball’s chance in hell of reaching its intended ears. One proceeds from this realization. A staggering figure of vibrant, intelligent people can and do live without poetry, especially without the poetry of their time. This figure includes the unemployed, the rank and file, the union brass, banker, scientist, lawyer, doctor, architect, pilot, and priest. It also includes most academics, most of the faculty of the humanities, most allegedly literary editors and most allegedly literary critics. They do so—go forward in their lives, toward their great reward, in an engulfing absence of poetry—without being perceived or perceiving themselves as hobbled or deficient in any significant way. It is nearly true, though I am often reminded of a Tranströmer * broadside I saw in a crummy office building in San Francisco:
We got dressed and showed the house
You live well the visitor said
The slum must be inside you.
If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance, and if I thought such an understanding were the basis for a lifelong inquiry, I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words. . .”
― C.D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil
* Tomas Tranströmer, the wonderful Swedish poet
Of course, I have long contended that almost everybody loves poetry, they just don’t realize that song lyrics are poetry. Granted, a lot of lyrics aren’t very good poetry when you separate them from the powerful magic of music, but Bob Dylan didn’t win the Nobel Prize for his music, he won it for his words.
In a Word, a World
I love them all.
I love that a handful, a mouthful, gets you by, a satchelful can land you a job, a well-chosen clutch of them could get you laid, and that a solitary word can initiate a stampede, and therefore can be formally outlawed—even by a liberal court bent on defending a constitution guaranteeing unimpeded utterance. I love that the Argentine gaucho has over two hundred words for the coloration of horses and the Sami language of Scandinavia has over a thousand words for reindeer based on age, sex, appearance—e.g., a busat has big balls or only one big ball. More than the pristine, I love the filthy ones for their descriptive talent as well as transgressive nature. I love the dirty ones more than the minced, in that I respect extravagant expression more than reserved. I admire reserve, especially when taken to an ascetic nth. I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclatures within nomenclatures. I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific; it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.
Wait a minute, I hear you thinking, that doesn’t look like poetry. Well, it isn’t. “In a Word, a World” is from one of C.D. Wright’s last books, a collection of what are tagged “prosimetric essays.”
When in doubt if something is poetry, read it aloud. Does it have rhythm, does it dance on your tongue with some unexpected syncopation? Do the words make pictures or smells or music in your head? Then whatever you’re reading is at least poetic, if not outright poetry. Remember, poetry is subversive, it sneaks into prose all the time.
And though there are a large number of poets who have great senses of humor, and many who write “simple poems,” poetry often gets rejected unfairly as being such heavy-duty, serious stuff that “nobody can understand it.”
She was changing on the inside
it was true what had been written
The new syntax of love
both sucked and burned
The secret clung around them
She took in the smell
Walking down a road to nowhere
every sound was relevant
The sun fell behind them now
he seemed strangely moved
She would take her clothes off
for the camera
she said in plain english
but she wasn’t holding that snake
OK, that one was pretty easy. This next poem does require you to pay more attention, and do some thinking about what’s real, and how people are connected. Oh, and also about summer vacations.
Lake Echo, Dear
Is the woman in the pool of light
really reading or just staring
at what is written
Is the man walking in the soft rain
naked or is it the rain
that makes his shirt transparent
The boy in the iron cot
is he asleep or still
fingering the springs underneath
Did you honestly believe
three lives could be complete
The bottle of green liquid
on the sill is it real
The bottle on the peeling sill
is it filled with green
Or is the liquid an illusion
How summer’s children turn
into fish and rain softens men
How the elements of summer
nights bid us to get down with each other
on the unplaned floor
And this feels painfully beautiful
whether or not
it will change the world one drop
C.D. Wright has been called an “elliptical poet,” a “documentary poet” and an “experimental poet,” and her body of work deemed “eclectic.” But I think poet and critic Joel Brouwer got it right: she “belongs to a school of exactly one.”
Carolyn Doris Wright was born two days before I was, on January 6, 1949, in Mountain Home, Arkansas. It’s about 1300 miles between Phoenix, my hometown, and hers, an Ozark Mountains landscape with Twin Lakes, entirely different from my Valley of the Sun, cactus country where small mountains abruptly push up out of the flat land, and the only water in sight is in swimming pools. I never met her, except through her written words, but I count her among my bookcase of friends. I am very sad that she is gone, and there will be no more new words from her.
She didn’t come to writing as a profession straight off. At Memphis State University, she earned a BA in French in 1971, and briefly attended law school – perhaps a nod to her parents, he a chancery judge and she a court reporter. But by 1976, her course was set – a poetry thesis called Alla Breve Loving, and an MFA from the University of Arkansas.
In 1977, Lost Roads Publishers issued her first poetry collection, Room Rented by A Single Woman. The following year, Frank Stanford, founder-editor of Lost Roads, died. Wright took over the press, continuing its mission of publishing new poets, and adding publishing translations. She moved to San Francisco in 1979, where she met and fell in love with poet Forrest Gander. They moved to Mexico together in 1981, then were married in 1983 and moved to Providence RI for teaching positions, had a son they named Brecht, and worked as Lost Roads co-editors until 2005.
Wright won a lot of awards and honors — many of them are listed, after her “Selected Works,” below.
On January 12, 2016, at the age of 67, C.D.Wright died. Her brother Warren Wright said she “died peacefully in her sleep of thrombosis, a clot, after an overly long flight from Chile.”
These poems are from ShallCross, already to set to be her next book in the spring of 2016, which became instead a posthumous tribute. In hindsight, they seem almost prophetic.
Day-Old Widow Poem
he smiles as if but is not breathing
a moment ago he was in his chair
reading she was lighting the fire
she thought she heard a book
drop to the floor he didn’t answer
in an instant she sensed it
a tangible space across an opening
she could neither enter nor fill
as if his eye hit upon a passage
elegant and cruel and true
Poem Waiting for Sleep
on a night like this
all certainties desert her
the fire is dying
the fire is dead
deep down, deep inside
she sees nothing
A peaceful easy death is what most people hope for, but those deaths are not easy for the ones left behind, not when they come suddenly and unexpectedly. When a writer dies, their readers mourn their passing, but also selfishly mourn the books that will never be written for them to read.
- ShallCross (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
- One With Others (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
- 40 Watts (Octopus Books, 2009)
- Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
- Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)
- One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, with Deborah Luster, (Copper Canyon Press, 2003)
- Steal Away: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2002)
- Deepstep Come Shining (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)
- Tremble (Ecco Press, 1996)
- Just Whistle: A Valentine (Kelsey St. Press, 1993)
- String Light (University of Georgia Press, 1991)
- Further Adventures with You (Carnegie Mellon, 1986)
- Translation of the Gospel Back into Tongues (State University of New York Press, 1981)
- Terrorism (Lost Roads Press, 1979)
- Room Rented By A Single Woman (Lost Roads Press, 1977)
- The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
- The Lost Roads Project: A Walk-In Book of Arkansas (University of Arkansas, 2009)
Awards and Honors
- 1987 Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1989 Whiting Award
- 1994 Poet Laureate of the state of Rhode Island
- 1999 Foundation for Contemporary Arts, grant
- 2004 MacArthur Fellowship
- 2009 Rising, Falling, Hovering winner Griffin Poetry Prize
- 2010 One With Others, nominee National Book Award (Poetry)
- 2010 One With Others, winner National Book Critics Circle Award (Poetry)
- 2013, elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets
- Bright Chestnut horse
- Gopher snake – photo by Jeff Ahrens
- Old beachhouse
- C.D. Wright – from Blue Flower Press
- Woman by fireplace – still from Masterpiece Theatre
- Nighttime bedroom
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud
“Stunned” was my reaction to hearing Morgan Freeman reciting Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem:
He did read it beautifully. It was one of the first poems I memorized as a child.
Morgan Freeman is a gift to the human race.
Most people read poems in sing-song rhythm, just as they learned it in elementary school. Poems are messages from a different place. Actor Sean Bean reads the great WW1 poet Wilfred Owen as Owen himself must have experienced war. My first encounter with Owen’s poetry was my first year in college. His war poems brought me up short with their realistic imagery and dialogue. Sean Bean does Owen’s work justice. Owen himself was killed in combat the last week of the war. A stunning waste of life.
There is a small ledge
Where the hearing/being of poetry rests
(not quite the location of I-feel —
Nobody rests there, in fact: they fly through.
Denizens fling their dance steps into word,
Even, at times, into song).
But outside that (is it still in view?), a thin, fragile ledge.
Poetry rests there: Do Not Disturb.
Thanks Malisha – I love this
Please do continue with your poetry series. I so enjoyed this post.
Thank you for the encouragement!
I love poetry. John Keats is my favourite. Poetry creates different worlds, or i could say, a poet is living in a world which is more beautiful.
Hi pramegha –
John Keats is a favorite of mine too, but I’ve never been able to pick just one poet as my all-time favorite – I love different poets for different reasons.
I suppose if I could only take the work of one poet to that hypothetical desert island, it would be William Shakespeare. Not only because his poetry is so superb and always relevant in every age, but because it was very much a part of our courtship, and my husband and I each chose and read a Shakespeare sonnet to each other instead of the usual wedding vows.
That is wonderful.
Shakespeare is definitely a genius in literature. I haven’t read many sonnets, but i am reading Hamlet right now (just started it).
If you run into trouble with “Hamlet” which is a tough read, try the 1994 Danny DeVito movie “Renaissance Man” – much of the movie is a funny but enlightening class about the play.
Thanks for the advice☺