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,
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):