Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mark Jarman on Charles Wright

Here is a debatable proposition from Mark Jarman:

More than any other American poet writing today, perhaps more than any poet since Whitman and Dickinson, Charles Wright has recorded in his poems a lifetime of spiritual seeking. That pursuit has had more of Emily Dickinson's skepticism than Walt Whitman's affirmation, more of her struggles with Puritanism, than what Galway Kinnell once called Whitman's "mystical all lovingness." And yet the urge toward Whitman's embrace of multitude and the discretion of Dickinson's straitened thought have combined to create through Wright's genius an instrument which is to the spiritual life in contemporary poetry what the sonnet was for John Donne and George Herbert. Charles Wright has, for over forty years of mastery, given us a mode and a means for that journal of the soul which American poetry has, since Whitman and Dickinson, always had at heart. He has almost singlehandedly invented an American form of the devotional poem.


I don’t have a problem with it, really. I’m not going to argue against it, per se, but it’s a pretty large claim to make, especially of a writer who has (to the best of my knowledge) always referred to himself as a version of agnostic.

Does one have to be religious to write spiritual poetry? I suppose that’s my question. And I suppose then that the answer is no, one doesn’t have to be conventionally religious in the sense of belonging to a denomination, being a member of a recognized faith community to be or to write spiritual poetry. But what about "Devotional" poetry then? So the whole thing has me kind of scratching my head. I’ve admired Charles Wright’s poetry a long time, though I haven’t turned as often to his recent work as I turned to his books from the mid-90s and before.

It reminds me of a talk I heard G.C. Waldrep give a week or so ago. He spoke about the silences, the absences in poetry, especially what one would call “difficult” poetry (where Charles Wright is often placed), as akin to the absence of the physical Jesus in the world. The poem is a place to exercise the imaginative connection one can have with this absent Jesus. Waldrep made a distinction between believers and non-believers, saying that for believers this imagination bridges the absence, makes it a presence, while the non-believer doesn’t bridge this absence, but instead dwells in it.

I’m getting this at least a little wrong, as I’m recreating it from memory. Anyway, it was a brilliant talk, and it got me to thinking of poets like Charles Wright. For Charles Wright (who was influenced by George Steiner’s book Real Presences, which I think is a cornerstone text for this way of thinking about art and the spirit), this is more of a “real absence.” “Devotional” then, for me, isn’t quite the right word for Wright’s idiom, though I suppose it's close.

Here’s Jarman, summing up:

It is in Littlefoot, halfway through, that Wright gives the clearest expression I know to what might be called his existential theology. It comes in section sixteen.

Born again by water into the life of the spirit,

                                                                      but not into the Life,
Rivers and lakes were my bread and wine,
Creeks were my transubstantiation.
                                                        And everything’s holy by now,
Vole crawl and raven flyby,
All of the little incidents that sprinkle across the earth.
Easy enough to say,
                                but hard to live by and palliate.
Camus said that life is the search for the way back
To the few great simple truths
We knew at the beginning.
Out of the water, out of the cold air, that seems about right.

Yes, easy enough for you to say, Mr. Wright! I've been trying to argue this about your poetry for over 5,000 words, and here it is perfectly expressed. Why am I not surprised? The dimensions of the soul, this poet's soul, include the earth and the past, those most apprehensible elements of Time and Space.


The essay is titled, “Soul Journals: The Daily Devotions of Charles Wright,” and it originally appeared in Northwest Review, Volume 49, Number 2.

It’s reprinted here, on the Poetry Daily website (for a short time):


At 11/10/2011 10:54 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Who has not found the Heaven—below—
Will fail of it above—
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove—

No, you shouldn't call Wright's poetry "devotional," like Donne's. I've seen little in it to suggest that he's vowed to dedicate his life to a particular faith. Wright is preoccupied with religion, and he feels religious emotions. The comparison to Dickinson, whom Wright considers the greatest American poet, is apt.

I'd like to see a transcript of Waldrep's talk. That sounds interesting.

word verification: debike

At 11/10/2011 11:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I would like to see that transcript as well. It was far and away the best I've ever heard anyone speak to this issue.

About the Wright-as-devotional, it still, coming back to it a few hours later, feels inappropriate in some way. I feel, in the end, his concerns are more secular than spiritual, and so to call his work devotional, makes too large a house for the devotional.

His work is obviously, yes, concerned with, obsessed with, God, and his work is in that way part of the spiritual, devotional, conversation, but to place his work as the pinnacle, the model, as Jarman does, helps to secularize the conversation. Some of us might well feel more comfortable with a more secularized conversation of spirituality, but that seems too narrow a slice. I want to hear now a case made for Fanny Howe, maybe, or Donald Revell. Maybe Jean Valentine, others.

“Everything’s holy by now” is an interesting and productive avenue to consider in art, but there are others as well.

At 11/10/2011 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The second paragraph makes the case, maybe?

"The spiritual dimension of Wright's poetry is not in dispute. For all of his clear and not so clear statements of apostasy about the Anglo-Catholic faith in which he grew up, for all his insistence on a metaphysics of this world, unhindered by Christian doctrine, the language he has employed, as he endows the natural world with numinosity, even in its ultimate meaninglessness, is often based on a Christian lexicon. I don't think I have to argue this or build a case, that Wright is a religious poet but a heterodox one. In this way he does resemble Whitman and Dickinson who while putting aside creeds and doctrines maintained a sense that the soul was real and though the dimensions of the soul could not be explained by any orthodox theology, sought to find some fit expression for the soul's reality—these United States for Whitman, her vast and liberating bedroom in Amherst for Dickinson. Charles Wright shares this sense and premise, but like them, he also offers a form for that expression. Like Whitman's leaves of parallel free verse lines, like Dickinson's common measure put through all of its changes, Wright's devotional form records a daily attitude of watchful meditation—sometimes like prayer—in which a series of lines recalling Whitman's but staggered like Ezra Pound's concentrate imagery recalling Dickinson but with a sound value out of Gerard Manley Hopkins."

At 11/10/2011 12:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I don’t dispute any of this. And I’m not making a case against Wright’s poetry in any way. I find much to value there. What I’m saying is that, though he does these things that Jarman tags, the fact that Wright’s poetry “records a daily attitude of watchful meditation—sometimes like prayer” isn’t quite a “devotional poem.” Or, if it is “American form of the devotional poem” as Jarman asserts, he’s asserting that the “American form of the devotional poem” is tilted to the secular with the vestiges of a passing (or past) faith.

To me, Charles Wright’s poetry, his vision, exists within the center of the absence of the divine presence. I have a difficult time thinking of that as the best candidate for devotional poetry. If it is, then one can also make a case for Ashbery as a devotional poet.

I guess I’m just wishing for a more subtle argument for Wright’s use of the language of faith than the one Jarman is making.

At 11/10/2011 12:45 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibility that they are founded on nothing.

At 11/10/2011 2:14 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.”
― John Ashbery

Indeed. And I think it’s that idea that also runs through Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness. It’s a strong conceptualization. But it’s not the only way that religions can be beautiful, and this beauty is not necessary for religions to be others things, like solace, for instance. And on the flipside, there are other things, doubt, apostasy, and the absence of faith, for instance, that can also be beautiful in the face of the possibility that they are founded on nothing where there is something.

It seems to me that this is a prerequisite for art, or at least art in our time, that these positions are all present. To single one out as “devotional” seems a bit willed. Again, I want to stress, that I’m not wanting to take anything away from Charles Wright’s poetry. He does dwell in these issues. I just think that Jarman is stretching a bit, and rewriting the poems, or laying a groundwork for their reception that isn’t quite up to the bar of the poems themselves.

“Do what the clouds do,” as Wright writes, fifteen or so years ago.

At 11/10/2011 4:01 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

"He spoke about the silences, the absences in poetry"

The silence trope drives me bonkers--it seems to me like the epitome of rarefied boring.

When did silence become a cliche poetics trope? Late 20th century? Like circa 1985?

"No, you shouldn't call Wright's poetry "devotional," like Donne's"

Donne--devotional? Hmm, not sure. Couldn't some of his ostensibly goddy pieces be deemed really lively sass-backs?! Herbert strikes me as more clearly devotional.

At 11/10/2011 5:17 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Quite right, “silence” is over-used and under-thought. In the post here, it’s my language, I think, not probably what Waldrep said. What I mean by it is quite literal. It simply means the things the poem doesn’t say, that it could conceivably say, but doesn’t. This can be either or both the not-said, through blank spaces in the poem, and/or the not-said in the way of that which is not disclosed or explained.

The places where the poem remains silent are those places where the reader has to speak back to the poem (or, if one prefers, where the reader has to infer). This is, or is much like, the mystery of faith, as I took it from the talk I was at.

At 11/10/2011 5:38 PM, Blogger David Grove said...


Donne’s poetry is devotional, though far from conventionally so. (Glad you mentioned Herbert, by the way; he’s fantastic.) It gets sassy, sure, and it might be interesting to write an essay comparing “Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God” to Cobain’s “Rape Me.” (Recently I thought of Donne while listening to Mary Karr read a poem about giving Jesus a blow job.) But the piety is unfeigned, and of course Donne was an Anglican priest. Wright, on the other hand, seems more like the unchurched Emily D. He’d worship God not by going to church but by staying at home, looking at his back yard, and describing what he saw in baroque language interspersed with echoes of hymns and quotations from Simone Weil and Bob Dylan. Who has not found the Heaven below will fail of it above, as Emily D. says. Does Wright have faith, or does he just long for the noumenal, the infinitude we’d perceive if the doors of perception were cleansed? A critic wrote of an early book, China Trace, “There seems to be a consistent spiritual quest throughout, but what the form or goal of it may be, I cannot say.” The deep-imageyness (sp.?)of some of Wright is associated with skepticism, and his open-ended journal poetry lacks the closures of, say, Herbert—closures appropriate for a watchmaker cosmology. So like John I’m reluctant to call Wright’s work devotional.

At 11/10/2011 7:11 PM, Blogger adams24 said...

Oh comparing the Cobaine to Batter My heart sounds interesting; I think the KC sonbg is utter BS but to constellate with Donne sounds goodgood: one does not mean rape if one is aking for it, as asking, or using the imperative rather, implies consent, so he means something else; as do peoplewho state that they want to be tied and raped in craigslist adds.

I like your devotion argument making room for his sass. I do tho still wonder a bit: just because one has an official church roleneedn't imply devotion; indeed couldn't it suggest rathermajor worldliness?

I am not at-all disputing your take on CW; I don'tknow his work well and what I've seen lacks adequate energy (for my "taste").

Yay for G Herbert; I love-love-love him/his poems!

At 11/13/2011 5:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


per your reply to adams'

"The silence trope drives me bonkers--it seems to me like the epitome of rarefied boring."

Instead of bragging of the significance of their silences & how much readers ought to infer from their silences, wouldn't silence at that time be best?


At 11/13/2011 6:10 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I simply use silence to mean:

. . . this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing

Though other times it’s more like:

A mighty fountain . . . .
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail

At 11/13/2011 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay, john, but those are loud "silences!"

is there not a difference between the sublime ineffable and silence....?

(even if we think, as alan watts said, 'eff the ineffable!')

the crater of the vast sleeping volcano is not 'nothing...'


At 11/13/2011 10:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm not saying it's not nothing. I'm also not bragging.

And yes, all things that are different are different. All poems say some things and not other things. The things they don't say they don't say. We infer something in that place. This is as true for Dickinson as for E.A. Robinson.

I really don't see why there's a disagreement about this. You can value this as you wish, but what it is is what it is.

At 11/13/2011 10:43 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

That reply definitely wasn't not unmeaningless, John.

At 11/13/2011 12:01 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Donald Rumsfeld ghost-wrote it for me. Shhh. Don't tell anyone.

At 11/14/2011 2:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The response 'everything is different' trumps 'the silence' trope in terms of gagging wisdom.

I really suspect the anti-sublime has such an appeal in our day because of shoddy thinking. We accept everything because we can't get beyond the iron logic of 'everything is different' and 'between all you do are gaps (silences) just as important.' It's the indifference to philosophy that would get beyond this easy wisdom, more than the age we live in, or whether we are modern or post-modern, that's our fate. Devotional thought climbs to upper regions and gets into divisions and hierarchies, but if we want to see, we need those intricate differences in all places, sure. I can see 'everything is different' is your god. But a common god it is. So common, I don't know that we see it. I want to see it, but I forget the song.


At 11/14/2011 4:20 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


These are all things you're saying, not me.

I didn’t say “everything is different”.

I didn’t say anything against “the sublime.”

I didn’t say I accept everything.

I didn’t say there are silences and/or gaps that are “just as important.”

I didn’t say I was indifferent to philosophy.

I didn’t say “everything is different” is my god.

All I said, and it’s a VERY basic aspect of poetry, is that there ARE places in EACH poem where the poem doesn’t say EVERYTHING that it possibly could, as in skipping in time or narrative or jumping from image to image. In those places the reader has to infer something, to do some work. Dude, this is Poetry 101. You do it all the time and you know you do. It’s as present in Keats as Yeats as Dickinson as Stevens. I was calling those places “silences.” It was a passing moment, one I thought we all agree upon.

All the rest of this is you trying to create an argument where there is no argument. Go back and look at your urn again, your disingenuousness is showing.

At 11/14/2011 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


When I first wrote:

"Instead of bragging of the significance of their silences & how much readers ought to infer from their silences, wouldn't silence at that time be best?"

--I wasn't saying you were bragging. John, you are solid and smart and very civil and very politic. You know that, I know that. I was referring to those (and adams24 knows what I mean) who ride that 'silences' horse and have made it a cliche. That's all.

You replied by playfully quoting Kubla Kahn, saying 'by silence I mean...'

Here, I confess, I was a bit confused. If those Coleridge quotes stand for 'silence...?'

Now it's clearer what you mean, because you said, "all things that are different are different. All poems say some things and not other things. The things they don't say they don't say. We infer something in that place."

I'm not denying that what you say here isn't universally true, but here's the rub. I think 'Kubla Khan' has a real and coherent existence, and 'what that poem does not say' doesn't alter the real existence of that poem as we know it. The question is: How much importance do we place on what we can, or cannot, infer about a poem, and how far do we take this idea? There's obviously a sliding scale here: the really obscure, of which all sorts of things can be inferred, and the more definitive, in which far less can be inferred. Now, Kubla Khan, is highly mystical and highly suggestive, but NOT because one can 'infer' a lot about this poem; the suggestive element has been put there by Coleridge's skill as a poet, quite intentionally. If we confuse this 'suggestiveness' with what what you call 'that which the poem does not say but can be inferred' then you and I are not seeing eye to eye and here we need to clarify things a little.

You seem to be putting more stock in what 'can be inferred by the reader' than I do.

That's all I'm saying, really.


At 11/14/2011 8:36 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm cool with that. I agree that it is a sliding scale, of sorts, and my tastes lead me to go further out on that scale than yours do (I'm pretty sure). But I also do not go as far as others go. There is a lot of poetry out there that I find unreadable, what I mean is that I can't read it. i can't make anything of it or with it. Sometimes this is due to real empty space (poems scattered around the page) and sometimes to leaps between images or sentences that leave no tension there for me to work with.

So yes, we don't agree on this, but we're also not polar opposites.

At 11/14/2011 9:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


(whoops, wrong thread, sorry)


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