From Feeling to Form: Image as Translation in the Poetry of Charles Wright

By Garrison, David | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

From Feeling to Form: Image as Translation in the Poetry of Charles Wright


Garrison, David, The Midwest Quarterly


PERHAPS FIRST AMONG the handful of projects available to the lyric poet is the effort to uncover and bring to light that which usually remains dark or unformed in our passing experience, to bring into language the feel of life. This project becomes, in George Steiner's words, an attempt to "[relate] the raw material, the anarchic prodigalities of consciousness and subconsciousness to the latencies ... of articulation. This translation out of the inarticulate and private into the general matter of human recognition requires the utmost crystallization and investment of introspection and control" (12). Or, as Hart Crane put it in his 1930 essay on "Modem Poetry," "[t]he poet's concern must be, as always, self-discipline toward a formal integration of experience. For poetry is an architectural art, based ... on the articulation of the contemporary human consciousness sub specie aeternitatis ..." (260). That "experience," that "consciousness," may be understood as the recurrent but always local and historical theme present in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart: that is, how to translate visceral and emotional knowledge, felt thought, into language, and how to make the unseen, that ordinarily invisible backdrop of eternity, seen.

The work of contemporary American poet Charles Wright struggles explicitly with this attempt at translation and imagination. His poems are examples of an artistic representation of human feeling, especially human feeling about death and about feeling itself, what Mary Kinzie refers to as "the real content of the inner life" (63). His work articulates the idea that human feeling is available to knowledge both as an impression made upon the poet's sensibility and as an impression made by the poet, through the "architectural" construction of texts, upon the world. The study of Wright's work reveals the role of the image in this translation of emotion into language, and the conceit that image, shaped by the architecture of lyric, may come to function as declarative statement in the exploration of the metaphysical, especially what Wright terms "the metaphysics of the commonplace, the metaphysics of the quotidian" (Halflife, 22). Wright's imagery illustrates one technique by which the poet may articulate "the anarchic prodigalities of consciousness and subconsciousness." Poems selected from among his early work help unpack the construction and significance of Wright's attempt to translate feeling into form by way of the image.

Wright began publishing in literary magazines in the 1960s, and his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand, appeared in 1970. Since then he has published an additional nine books, including the recent Chickamauga (1995) and two collections: Country Music (1982) and The World of the Ten Thousand Things (1991), which together include almost every poem published in book form during the previous twenty years. In 1993 he was awarded the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, and was hailed at the time by Poetry editor Joseph Parisi as "one of the most distinctive voices in American poetry" and as a "master image maker" (qtd. in "News Notes," 246). Helen Vendler, one of the first critics to take note of Wright's work, has said of his image-packed poems that they "cluster, aggregate, radiate, add layers like pearls" (1). This creation of images is at the heart of Wright's poetic practice, of his style. This image-making power--imagination--is, according to Wright, "closely allied to intelligence and logic/reasoning" (Quarter Notes, 34). The image is the figure upon which he structures and builds.

Many of Wright's early poems read like the tentative but determined exploration of mental and emotional scars, like knowledge gained with one's fingertips. They display traces of what one might learn from the scrutiny of the non-verbal life, traces of how experience informs our emotional and cognitive knowing. In "Dog Creek Mainline," for instance, a poem from the early seventies that marks a new diction and tone for Wright as well as the emergence of a more forceful syntax, we find this metaphor: "[t]he heart is a hieroglyph" (Country Music, 37). …

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