Dispatches | September 20, 2007

Last week’s Poem of the Week, Charles Wright’s “Self Portrait,” was culled from the very first issue of TMR (way back in ’78) and it strikes me as particularly significant – not just because it’s a great poem (and it undeniably is) – but because it marks the inception of Wright’s larger project of spiritual autobiography, a project that has exerted a massive influence on contemporary poetry.  In this early poem, we see the speaker offering a number of provisional versions of the self:  “Charles on the Trevisan,” followed by “Charles on the San Trovaso,” who dissolves into “broken chords / in tiny striations above the air.”  The apparently solid self – that dweller on bridges and reader of earmarked pages – is revealed to be something essentially transient, such that even “The wind will edit him.”  This implies that any attempt to narrate the self, to pin down such a Protean thing in fixed text, is always doomed to inaccuracy. 

But Wright doesn’t stop here; in fact, this is the beginning of a project that spans nearly thirty years and three trilogies:  Country Music, The World of the Ten Thousand Things and Negative Blue.  At the broadest level, one could look at all three works as attempts to articulate the elusive and ever-changing self which seems always to be sliding away, requiring an endless string of visions and revisions.  There is “No slatch in the undertow” which pulls the self through time.  But Wright refuses to accept the impossibility of his desire, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he avoids the temptation to wallow in fragmentation.  His guiding light here is St. Augustine, whose Confessions, as Wright himself admits, “somehow gave me the ‘permission’ I needed to embark on my own project of self-examination and self-disclosure.”[1]  As one who wove even his darkest confessions into an artful whole, Augustine looms large in this poem.  He is the figure who dwells “Inside, in the crosslight,” at the deepest level of the self, where he, like the poet, spends his time “striking the words out.”  Here, Wright puns on “striking” so that the word signifies both “typing” and “omitting” – the dual process of the continuous autobiography that will define most of his career.

I find it striking (pun intended) that TMR published this particular poem in its first issue because it stands at the beginning of something so much larger.  Along with Wright, TMR was then embarking on a journey of self-definition and self-discovery which is ongoing, always opening out into new regions of knowledge and riskAs Wright has composed endless sketches of his changing face, TMR has traced the shifting face of contemporary literature for nearly thirty years.  It seems fitting, then, that the two projects share a common root, which renders the subsequent changes all the more meaningful.  As another great contemporary poet (and a teacher of mine) puts it:


I am slowly learning one thing;

of one thing I am slowly becoming

aware:  whether or not I would

have it so, whether I sleep

or no, I will be changed.

I am changing as I speak.[2]


Poetry is what we have made – continue to make – of the changes.  And why not?

[1] Charles Wright.  “The Books That Changed My Life.”   

[2] Scott Cairns.  The Translation of Raimundo Luz