C.D. Wright, who passed away this week at the age of 67, was always willing to confront the most savage and tender parts of American life—from the brutality of racism to the banality of death to the dangerous bravura of the erotic. Because she was a true original—a poet who sounded like no one else, framed her poems like no one else, called forth the psyche’s archetypes and addressed the most difficult civic issues like no one else—she is being mourned by those who reject the repetitiousness, and self-righteousness, of poetic fad. But because she chafed at the limitations of the late-twentieth-century American lyric poem of anecdote—a form she mastered and toyed with in her early books—she is also being mourned by those who strive to retool its most traditional elements: emotional urgency, narrative memory, and the sanctification of the singular poetic utterance. If you write poems in the United States today, your poems owe something to C.D. Wright’s vision. And yet she was one of those poets—like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich—it’s dangerous to imitate.
Wright published more than a dozen books, most of them collections of poetry. But she also wrote essays and collaborated on works, such as the 2003 One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, that are not so easy to classify. An inspiration, she said, was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans, a book grounded in documentary photography and reporting that was transformed by Agee’s passion into a searching and intimate prose poem about human struggle and social injustice. Like Agee, a fellow Southerner, Wright’s poetry and prose were firmly grounded in language and poetics but also incorporated reportage, sociological field work, and Wright’s seemingly endless capacity for empathy. “I draw on a mash of other disciplines to make it authentic,” she told the BAM in 2011.Craig Morgan Teicher:
She was a believer in Emily Dickinson's mandate to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Though by "slant," both Dickinson and Wright meant something other than the kind of bias that word summons now. They advocate looking at the world from viewpoints and angles most people don't choose: Dickinson gets her eyes right into the grass to see her "narrow fellow," and Wright, too, walks right up to her subjects — such as the men and women in Louisiana prisons whose voices she channels in her masterful One Big Self (a collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster) as well as civil rights activists in One With Others — and asks them to speak clearly into her poems.
A fellow poet-friend of mine who told me the news of Wright's death directed me to an essay Wright had written about odes, entitled, "The New American Ode." It's so smart and instructive, indicative of her own form of praise. Her ability to select the most memorable thing someone said is represented here, as is her ability to create many of her own memorable phrases. Until reading this piece, I had no idea that she was the creator of the definition for an ode poem that I've been using for several years. She writes: "The ode celebrates an occasion or individual or more frequently an individual on an occasion." Ultimately, Wright was committed to the spirit of the ode—a praise poem "in full dress." In that spirit, on this occasion, let's praise her.
Academics and reviewers and prize committees and various admirers have tried to pin C. D. down, typically with praise: a Southern poet “of place” (she probably hated that) or an erotic poet or a vanguard innovator or an elliptical or documentarian poet, etc. Such descriptions are both briefly true and ultimately insufficient, because she was one of the most formally restless and ambitious writers in the language. Even categorizing her as uncategorizable is too easy: she was part of a line of mavericks and contrarians who struggled to keep the language particular in times of ever-encroaching standardization. I think of the messy genius of James Agee and Mary Austin as two possible antecedents for her genre-bending, lyrically charged, often outraged and outrageous American English.
"It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so." --C.D. Wright— Jen Benka (@jenbenka) January 13, 2016
Read her poem "Our Dust."
Read her poem "Morning Star"