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Poet Laureate of the Twilight

Charles Wright Michelle Cuevas

Charles Wright wrote his newest book, Sestets, in the after-dinner hour as the light drained from the pine trees, the pond where the herons fish and the sky over Montana. He wrote his collection of six-line poems in longhand in his cabin over the summer months—the evenings growing shorter by September. “The poems tend to have a dark overtone to them, because it kept getting darker and darker the farther down I’d get on the page,” says Wright. Dusk and diminuendo figure prominently in Wright’s meditations on the landscape, on mortality and on the use of language to reproduce an irreproducible world.

Charles Wright has been extolled as one of the best poets of his generation, a quintessential Southerner and a philosopher-poet. He’s received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize, and has taught poetry at UVA since 1983.

The last lines of the poem “The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight” read:

If tree is tree in English, and albero in Italian,
That’s as close as we can come
To divinity, the language that circles the earth and which we’ll never speak.

Wright explores the problematic yet magical relationship between words and the corporal things to which they refer. “There’s a disconnect between us, the landscape and what’s behind it,” he says. “That will always be there. I don’t think the world is made of language; it is composed of things, which exude an aura of language like mist.” The poet’s occupation is to navigate that mist.

When pressed to talk about his work, Wright humbly demurs. “I used to talk about my poems a lot when I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Wright. “And now that I know that I will never know what I’m doing, I find it very difficult to talk about them, to make up stuff about them. They are what they are.”

A selection of poems from Sestets read by Charles Wright

Homage to What’s-His-Name

Time Is a Dark Clock, but It Still Strikes from Time to Time

The Ghost of Walter Benjamin Walks at Midnight

Recorded by Jesse Dukes. Courtesy of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Hear the entire recording of Charles Wright’s reading with Charles Simic at The Virginia Festival of the Book in 2008.