Charles Wright: Essential American Poets

May 13, 2009

This is The Poetry Foundation’s Essential American Poets Podcast. Essential American Poets is an online audio-poetry collection. The poets included in the collection were selected in 2006 by Donald Hall when he was Poet Laureate. Donald Hall has said that the entryway to a poem is the beauty of it’s sound, and there’s nothing like hearing the poet’s voice. Recordings of the poets he selected reading their work are available online at and In this edition of the podcast, we’ll hear poems by Charles Wright. Charles Wright was born in 1935 in Tennessee and educated at Davidson College and the Iowa Writers Workshop. Wright began writing poetry while serving in Italy with the US Army. While there, he looked to Ezra Pounds Italian Cantos in part as a reference book, and in part as a kind of copy book. Pound’s influence on Wright’s early work is evident, with one critic seeing him as reconstruction Pound’s failing program along new and successful lines. The images that appear in Wright’s first major collection, The Grave of the Right Hand, introduce some of his recurring themes: mortality, memory and the past, and the links between nature and spirituality. His southern roots are expressed in the power of his storytelling and his use of ornate language. Wright has said, “at the heart of every poem is the journey of discovery. Something is being found out”. He’s known for questioning everything, and for his tireless ability to see everyday things with new eyes. Wright’s reputation as one of the best poets of his generation has increased steadily with each published collection. He won a Nation Book Award in 1983 for Country Music, a selection of his early poems. A decade later he received the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize for his lifetime achievement. He teaches at the University of Virginia. The following poems were recorded in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2008.



Charles Wright: Spider Crystal Ascension


The spider, juiced crystal and Milky Way, drifts on his web through the night sky

And looks down, waiting for us to ascend ...


At dawn he is still there, invisible, short of breath, mending his net.


All morning we look for the white face to rise from the lake like a tiny star.

And when it does, we lie back in our watery hair and rock.


Charles Wright: Stone Canyon Nocturne


Ancient of Days, old friend, no one believes you’ll come back.   

No one believes in his own life anymore.


The moon, like a dead heart, cold and unstartable, hangs by a thread

At the earth’s edge,

Unfaithful at last, splotching the ferns and the pink shrubs.


In the other world, children undo the knots in their tally strings.   

They sing songs, and their fingers blear.


And here, where the swan hums in his socket, where bloodroot   

And belladonna insist on our comforting,

Where the fox in the canyon wall empties our hands, ecstatic for more,


Like a bead of clear oil the Healer revolves through the night wind,

Part eye, part tear, unwilling to recognize us.


Charles Wright: Clear Night


Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky.

Moon-fingers lay down their same routine

On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys.

Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.


I want to be bruised by God.

I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.

I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.   

I want to be entered and picked clean.


And the wind says “What?” to me.

And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say “What?” to me.

And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.   

And the gears notch and the engines wheel.


Charles Wright: A Short History of the Shadow


Thanksgiving, dark of the moon.

Nothing down here in the underworld but vague shapes and black holes,   

Heaven resplendent but virtual

Above me,

                    trees stripped and triple-wired like Irish harps.   

Lights on Pantops and Free Bridge mirror the eastern sky.   

Under the bridge is the river,

                                                     the red Rivanna.

Under the river’s redemption, it says in the book,   

It says in the book,

Through water and fire the whole place becomes purified,   

The visible by the visible, the hidden by what is hidden.




Each word, as someone once wrote, contains the universe.   

The visible carries all the invisible on its back.

Tonight, in the unconditional, what moves in the long-limbed grasses,   

                                                                                                       what touches me   

As though I didn’t exist?

What is it that keeps on moving,

                                                            a tiny pillar of smoke   

Erect on its hind legs,

                                         loose in the hollow grasses?

A word I don’t know yet, a little word, containing infinity,   

Noiseless and unrepentant, in sift through the dry grass.   

Under the tongue is the utterance.

Under the utterance is the fire, and then the only end of fire.




Only Dante, in Purgatory, casts a shadow,

L’ombra della carne, the shadow of flesh—

                                                                                everyone else is one.

The darkness that flows from the world’s body, gloomy spot,   

Pre-dogs our footsteps, and follows us,

                                                                       diaphanous bodies

Watching the nouns circle, and watching the verbs circle,   

Till one of them enters the left ear and becomes a shadow   

Itself, sweet word in the unwaxed ear.

This is a short history of the shadow, one part of us that’s real.   

This is the way the world looks

In late November,

                        no leaves on the trees, no ledge to foil the lightfall.




No ledge in early December either, and no ice,   

La Niña unhosing the heat pump

                                                             up from the Gulf,

Orange Crush sunset over the Blue Ridge,

No shadow from anything as evening gathers its objects   

And eases into earshot.

Under the influx the outtake,

                                                      Leon Battista Alberti says,   

Some lights are from stars, some from the sun

And moon, and other lights are from fires.

The light from the stars makes the shadow equal to the body.   

Light from fire makes it greater,

                        there, under the tongue, there, under the utterance.


Charles Wright: Bedtime Story


The generator hums like a distant ding an sich.   

It's early evening, and time, like the dog it is,   

                                                                                 is hungry for food,   

And will be fed, don't doubt it, will be fed, my small one.   

The forest begins to gather its silences in.   

The meadow regroups and hunkers down   

                                                                            for its cleft feet.   


Something is wringing the rag of sunlight   

                                                                  inexorably out and hanging.   

Something is making the reeds bend and cover their heads.   

Something is licking the shadows up,   

And stringing the blank spaces along, filling them in.   

Something is inching its way into our hearts,   

                              scratching its blue nails against the wall there.   


Should we let it in?   

                                       Should we greet it as it deserves,   

Hands on our ears, mouths open?   

Or should we bring it a chair to sit on, and offer it meat?   

Should we turn on the radio,   

                                                     should we clap our hands and dance   

The Something Dance, the welcoming Something Dance?   

                               I think we should, love, I think we should.


That was Charles Wright recorded in Charlottesville Virginia in 2008, and used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Wesleyan University Press. You’ve been listening to the Essential American Poets Podcast, produced by The Poetry Foundation in collaboration with To learn more about Charles Wright and other essential American poets, and to hear more poetry, go to

Recordings of poet Charles Wright, with an introduction to his life and work. Recorded in 2008, in studio, Charlottesville, Virginia.

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