This Old Poem #22:
Charles Wright’s After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/7/02
argued with a deluded Brit over the worth of Chucky-Bob Wright’s poetry.
Astonishingly enough, the daft UKer preferred the farina verse of CW over that
of his home-grown Glyn Maxwell & Jeremy Reed. Needless to say I could not
dissuade the wacky Saxon from the error of his ways.
I call CW’s poetry farina verse because it’s not much of anything & provokes little; it’s not doggerel- per se- nor is it ever good or inspired. His prose poems are verbose & weak while his actual poetry is dime-a-dozen professorial admixed with often poseur insights. This is what I gathered from his book Country Music: Selected Early Poems. Of course, others differ. Hack-o’the-week Tom Andrews (ex-student?) declared, in the preface to The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright:
Charles Wright's Country Music: Selected Early Poems won the National
Book Award in 1983, the award merely confirmed what his readers had known
for some time: that Wright, to quote Choice, was 'to be counted among
those in the absolute top flight of contemporary American poets.' The list
of Wright's other awards--among them the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the PEN
Translation Prize, the Brandeis Creative Arts Citation for Poetry--grows
exponentially as new work appears, as evidenced by his winning the 1993 $75,000
Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The latter prize recognized Wright's achievement in The
World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990, which established him as the
premier poet of his generation.
"The visionary reach of Charles Wright's poems, their structural ingenuity, their exquisite and incantatory music, their startling beauty, have provoked awe and amazement and gratitude from his readers for three decades now. He has also had an exemplary and wide-ranging influence on other poets. If Walter Benjamin was right when he said that 'an author who teaches writers nothing, teaches no one,' then Charles Wright has been one of our few master teachers, instructing poets especially in the way they think about language, landscape and structure. Moreover, Wright's work has elicited criticism of an unusually high caliber. The purpose of The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright is to bring together in one volume the best of that criticism. Since many of the essays are written by fellow poets, the book also serves to document Wright's influence among them."
Anyone who has read CW’s snooze-inducing poetry is probably guffawing
over the plethora of critical clichés in those 2 paragraphs. Yes, I usually
wait for the poems themselves to expose the clichés, but- in this case- it will
suffice to preface the poem with this thought: bear in mind the underlined
critical clichés & see how 1) they are generic clichés that are used over
& again on all poets, & 2) how they have absolutely no bearing on CW’s
chosen poem, nor his whole oeuvre, should you choose to enter Slumberland via
To me, the worst of the clichés is the ‘visionary’ business. I can tell you- in this era there are NO PUBLISHED VISIONARY POETS. My poetry is visionary, & there are a few others I could make arguments for, but no published poets. Ashbery has a style- but no vision. There is no published poet today that can be given a worldview as an -ic, –ian, or even an –esque. There are no Frostian, Eliotic, Cranean, Plathian, nor Hughesesque POVs. To be Visionary 1 must present something beyond the Functionary & even the Creationary. CW breaks prose into lines.
He is as rote a Functionary Academic as any writing today:
Charles Wright was born in Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, in 1935 and was educated at Davidson College and the University of Iowa. Chickamauga, his eleventh collection of poems, won the 1996 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. His other books include Negative Blue (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000); Appalachia (1998); Black Zodiac (1997), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; The World of the Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990; Zone Journals (1988); Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1983), which won the National Book Award; Hard Freight (1973), which was nominated for the National Book Award; and two volumes of criticism: Halflife (1988) and Quarter Notes (1995). His translation of Eugenio Montale's The Storm and Other Poems (1978) was awarded the PEN Translation Prize. His many honors include the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. In 1999 he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. He is Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
A few years
ago (1998) when his book Black Zodiac won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book
Critics' Circle Award, & the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, CW delivered this
startling response to his laurels: ‘I’m kind of surprised that it’s
received as much attention as it has because it does seem to be a much more
personal book than the one before it, a book called Chickamauga. It starts off
with a poem called ‘Explanation of his Life’ and ends up with one called
‘Scattered Parts’, again about my life, or the life of the character in this
book. I thought it was a little close to the bone, and I thought people might
not care for it. But I was disabused of that notion, too. I guess because people
seemed to have liked it, or some people have.’ Or how about this reply to
a query on his view of poetry today, & how to become a good writer (really
DEEP queries, BTW!): ‘Read. Read everything you can. That's advice
everybody gives, but it's the one true advice. Theodore Roethke said you
want to write poems, there's the library, go in and go to work. You gotta know
what's going on and what's happened before you can figure out what you want to
do. I think it's a good line of work really. It's sort of a dying art.
It's certainly not a hot one. All of those things appeal to me about it. If
you love language, you gotta love poetry. Poetry is language that sounds
better and means more. What's better than that?’ Boy, really
insightful, eh? A true visionary. Oy!
On to the poem:
After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard
of me, west of me, full summer.
How deeper than elsewhere the dusk is in your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth across the lawn
looking for home
As night drifts up like a little boat.
Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.
The sky dogs are whimpering.
Fireflies are dragging the hush of evening
up from the damp grass.
Into the world's tumult, into the chaos of every day,
Go quietly, quietly.
Much reeks about this poem, starting with the title- is CW about the 10,000 DWM poet to reference Tu Fu in an attempt to have someone spuriously connect his crap with the far superior poet’s work? It even echoes of a better Wright’s poetic titles: James’s. There is no real music in this poem. Granted, it’s not clunky, but it’s not good. The images of the sky & evening are stale, he could drop the ‘like’ in line 5 very easily, but the last stanza is an utter disaster- clogged with clichés.
Let’s rework this rather easily.
Outside to the Dwarf Orchard
west of me, full
The dusk is your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth.
Looking for home
Night drifts up, a little boat.
I become of less use to myself.
I flit to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Go quietly, quietly.
Now the title’s lacks pretension & the 1st word adds ‘tension’ to the title- where was the speaker before, & what brought him/her to this moment, which needs elaboration? Line 1 now has a staccato rhythm, which plays off the title’s tension. Line 2 is truly poetic & mysterious- sans the ‘deeper’. Look at how each line both takes off from its preceder, yet takes the poem in to newer waters, so to speak. The poem’s question is strong enough to stand alone, even as it still echoes James Wright’s famous retort, in 1 of his poems- you know which 1, ‘I have ______ my life.’ I am torn between leaving ‘Go quietly, quietly.’ as the last line, or ending with the query. Neither is 100% satisfactory- & both are fairly trite & weak, in wording & narrative trope, so I will leave it to CW to pick the new ending. He’ll probably have to add something that really resonates off of either. But, even if he does not, either line is better for the trimming of what precedes it in the stanza & poem. This poem now has real potential. Before, it had- well, nothing. There was nothing that distinguished it as a ‘Wrightian’ piece- hence, what vision? But many a dullard critic call him Surreal- after all, how many poets are visionary enough to notice ‘the hush of evening’ or ‘the damp grass’- especially in the same poem? WOW!
Final Score: (1-100):
Charles Wright’s After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to
the Dwarf Orchard: 57
TOP’s Outside to the Dwarf Orchard: 73
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