OF ST. CHARLES: CONFESSION AS SPIRITUAL
OF CHARLES WRIGHT
Contained within the
confession itself is a practice
of scrutinizing one's
spiritual meaning and for the more
secular purpose of the
construction of some version
of the self. For
who wishes to write autobiography,
some form of confession
inevitable, or at the very
least desirable. In
work of Charles Wright, both senses
of confession are present
in his effort to construct
a spiritual autobiography.
* * *
As for one work which
influenced my own writing,
I would have to say Confessions,
by St. Augustine. Not only is
the book fascinating in
right, of course, but it somehow
gave me the 'permission'
to embark on my own project
of self-examination and
that took 27 years and three
trilogies to complete
Music, The World of the Ten
Thousand Things and Negative
Blue. Augustine only took
a handful of years, as we
But then he was a saint, no?
÷Charles Wright, "The Books That Changed My Life"
on the confessional literature acknowledges its relationship with
though there appears to be little agreement about the nature of this
E.V. Ramakrishnan, in a work entitled Crisis and Confession,
the moderate position on the issue, stating simply that, "in its
application, confession is closely identified with
Kathleen Ossip implies a more specific relationship between the two
of writing when she characterizes the work of the confessional poets of
the late 50's and 60's as sharing an emphasis on "autobiographical
tending toward the shameful and traumatic, including emotional
and institutionalization, divorce and separation from children,
hatred of parents, and suicide [italics mine]" (Ossip 45). Though
remarks do begin to suggest the nature of the relationship between
and confession ÷ confession contains "autobiographical content"
÷ she too
resists drawing fine distinctions. It is Rita Felski, in her
of women's autobiography, who finally attempts to limn the treacherous
boundaries of genre existing between the terms "confession" and
Referring specifically to the way confession operates in women's
Felski categorizes confession as "a distinctive subgenre of
clarifying these remarks with her assertion, "I use 'confession' simply
to specify a type of autobiographical writing which signals its
to foreground the most personal and intimate details of the author's
(Felski 83). Felski's statement implies that confession and
are two distinct genres, but that, as a "distinctive subgenre" of
a writer engaged in autobiography may have recourse to elements of the
confessional, as I propose is the case with the work of Charles
Understanding how or why this is the case demands that we delve into
buried strata of meaning contained in the term "confession."
observes, drawing a contrast with how the German language allows
to make distinctions among senses of the word "confession," or kinds of
autobiography, "The one English word 'confession' is ambiguous in that
it covers [a] shift in meaning and function which is expressed in
by three different words" (87). One of the main reasons for the
between autobiography and confession is that, though confession is now
seen as a type of autobiography, it is autobiography itself, as a form,
which "develops out of the genre of the religious confession,"
with Augustine (Felski 87). Augustine's Confessions reflects
blurring of generic boundaries that occurs as a result of the multiple
valences the word confession accretes. Felski makes a distinction
autobiography as a literary genre and a work like Augustine's that I
obscures the possibility of a text that keeps in play the notion of
confession and a self-conscious shaping of one's life for the
Rousseau's Confessions is usually held up as the first
of autobiography as a celebration of unique individualism, and
thus fundamentally different from earlier texts, such as the
of Saint Augustine or the life of Saint Teresa, in which self-analysis
is valued not for its own sake but as a means of exposing the
of humanity and affirming the ultimate authority of a divine
beyond the individual's grasp (87).
Though I think Felski is
right to see Augustine's text as deeply invested in an ethic of
for the purpose of ultimate spiritual revelation, its literary
÷ that is, the way in which it purposefully shapes the narrative
of a life
in the service of self-knowledge ÷ cannot be so easily set
I prefer a more dynamic understanding of Augustine's work that would
it as both confession for religious purposes and confession as
÷ a description which could accurately characterize the work of
poet Charles Wright. Ramakrishnan's view of Augustine's Confessions
reflects such an understanding:
It is as a psychological document that Augustine's book compels
our attention . . . It is not so much Saint Augustine's
metaphysics that interests the modern reader as his agonizing
for faith through successive mental crises . . . The various
Augustine describes indicate a new creative experience of the
through which he understands himself . . . Augustine addresses
to such basic questions as the cause of sin, the reality of evil and
nature of faith because his mind operates in an existential
underlying which is the dialectics of the self's evolution (2).
Ramakrishnan leaves open
of Augustine's brand of confession that would see it as both, as Felski
writes above, "self-analysis...as a means of exposing the fallibility
humanity and affirming the ultimate authority of a divine knowledge
the individual's grasp," and, as Francis Hart defines the confessional
literature, "personal history that seeks to communicate or express the
essential nature, the truth, of the self" (491). These two separate
of confession become even further implicated with one another through
Puritan practice of "self scrutiny and spiritual introspection,"
as in Felski's narrative of this chapter of the history of confession,
"often in the form of diaries...every detail of daily thoughts and
was recorded and examined for its moral and spiritual meaning" (87).
in the evolution of confession, there is what Felski sees as
a gradual shift from a form of self-analysis which seeks out sin
and transgression in the context of adherence to a religious
to an exploration of intimacy, emotion, self-understanding as
of a nascent bourgeois subjectivity (87).
Contained within the
history of confession
itself is a practice of scrutinizing one's life for spiritual meaning
for the more secular purpose of the artful construction of some version
of the self. For the poet who wishes to write autobiography, some
form of confession may be inevitable, or at the very least
In the work of Charles Wright, both senses of confession are present
in his effort to construct a spiritual autobiography.
of this problem of classification is reflected by the critical
on Wright's work as well by his own self-characterization in interviews
and elsewhere. Lee Upton has written of Wright, "what remains
significant in his prose writings and in oblique references within
is his preoccupation with creating an autobiography" (23). Upton's
of the phrase "oblique references" introduces one of the difficulties
determining the function of confession in Wright's work: even the
of autobiography in the work are not present in traditional or
ways. Friend, former student, and fellow postconfessional poet,
Santos, reveals a similar attitude toward autobiography in
Wright's work in an
Santos: I happen to know you [Wright] can identify the source
of almost any image in your poems ÷ you can recall the
and time and circumstances in which you discovered it. To that
degree your poems are, one might say, autobiographical. On the
other hand, it's very difficult to find any of what one normally
thinks of as autobiographical material in your poems, the events
that infuse the images with meaning..
Like Upton, Santos
difficulty with categorizing Wright's project as autobiographical.
the images do originate in the material of Wright's life, the mode of
in the work defies an easy classification based on generic conventions.
Santos's remarks prompted a response from Wright that is particularly
for a discussion of this problem of classification:
It's...interesting to me that you think my things [work] are
to categorize as "autobiographical." I have tried very hard to
kind of impersonal autobiography into my poems, so that the poems
come out of my life without having the tinge of "confessional
about them. I have said before that I think one's poems should
out of one's body ÷ and life ÷ the way webbing comes out
of a spider.
I also think they should be as personally impersonal as a spider's
Once the web is spun, the event that led up to it isn't
"I" persona that I often use in my poems is not, I hope, the
personal" "I" of so many poems that one sees. I hope it does go
a kind of sea change into the richness of the impersonal, where the
and touchable personal actually lives.
Wright's remarks weave a
web indeed, and one that testifies to the messy nature of the
I've been trying to make. Not surprisingly, Wright reveals a
uneasiness with the label "confessional" that reflects the term's
devaluation to a state in which it is used to describe work that, as
Good puts it in a representative sound-byte, "amounts to nothing more
an artless retelling of personal material capped off with a tidy
(Good). At the same time, his stated aims for his work
how deeply implicated the "confessional" element is an autobiographical
project like Wright's. Though he insists upon the impersonal
of his work, he still invokes the notion of an authentic self ("the
and touchable personal") to which he wishes to give expression, his
sounding very similar to Hart's definition of confession as "personal
that seeks to communicate or express the essential nature, the
of the self" (emphasis mine). Though he hopes the "I" persona is
not the "'merely personal I' of so many poems that one sees," he has
elsewhere in another interview, perhaps in a lighter mood, "I've
one book that I think is in a persona, and all the rest of the 'I's'
thinly disguised me" (Rubin and Heyen 35), a comment that would place
firmly in the tradition of confessional poetry as defined by Holman and
Harmon as poetry in which the poet "often seems to address the audience
directly, without the intervention of a persona." Good has
"our current formulation of the confessional lyric (or narrative) is
to a shaky conflation of motives ÷ the will to understand and
to purge"; although Wright can't exactly be said to have a will to
his comments participate in this conflation in that they reveal how
implicated is autobiography with the genre of confession.
title poem to his Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, Black Zodiac,
Wright articulates a commitment to the project of autobiography as it
with the confessional impulse to
communicate or express in
the truth of the self:
The unexamined life's no different from
the examined life÷
Unanswerable questions, small talk,
Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments÷
You've got to write it all down.
Landscape or waterscape, light-length on evergreen, dark sidebar
you've got to write it down.
Memory's handkerchief, death's dream and automobile,
you've still got to write it down,
Moon half-empty, moon half-full,
Night starless and egoless, night blood-black and prayer-black,
Spider at work between the hedges,
Last bird call,
toad in a damp place, tree frog in a dry...
The desire to live "the
life" ÷ the corollary of Socrates's dictum, "know thyself"
÷ reflects Wright's
investment in achieving self-knowledge, but his claim that "you've got
to write it all down" to have any hope of attaining the examined life
such a goal to the confessional enterprise through the tradition of the
interpretation of one's daily life for what it reveals about one's
state. This enterprise is made all the more difficult by the
of the unreliability of language as a place in which to fix a version
the self, a point which Upton makes specifically in reference to
After observing that Wright's primary goal seems to be the creation of
an autobiography, she writes:
Such a goal is, in some ways, humble; autobiography, after all,
professes to reveal primarily the limited life of its author,
well the author summons a cultural and historical situation.
given Wright's belief in the inherent instability of memory and
language, his project is ambitious: the one life revealed in the
medium of language may at least covertly reflect on the ways
in which language presents many lives, and his compass points
of meaning are no less than the great abstractions of language,
and God (24).
The section of the poem
many of the uncertainties about the representation of the self in
that Upton emphasizes: The suggestion that "the unexamined life's no
from / the examined life," unless written down, implies a recognition
the generic quality, or lack of singularity, of any one life, and an
of the complexity involved in wresting the story of one's life out of a
multiplicity of experience. That unremarkable life is itself
in terms of language ÷ "Unanswerable questions, small talk, /
theorems, long-abandoned arguments" ÷ and not just any language,
which has failed to accrete into a coherent narrative of the self: this
could be anyone's life, "many lives." Other sites in which one
locate the self, such as landscape or memory, represented through
like "light-length on evergreen" and "Memory's handkerchief"
prove equally unreliable indices of identity unless expressed in
"written down." The inevitability of the self's extinction
the unthinkable vehicle of death ("death's dream and automobile"), and
the lack of activity on the part of the divinity ("God's sleep"), the
for which, in the grand tradition of religious confession, gives the
purpose and identity, must all be written down as well, though to what
end it is not clear. Only the world around the self can be
so committed is the self to its own illusory sense of unity and
that takes up these issues more explicitly appears in Wright's 1998
collection to Black Zodiac, Appalachia. In the poem
"In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man Is King," Wright
takes up the claim of a unified self, pitting it against the futility
the means by which we try to represent it:
It's all so pitiful, really, the little photographs
Around the room of places I've been,
And me in them, the half-read books, the fetishes, this
Tiny arithmetic against the dark undazzle.
Who do we think we're kidding?
Certainly not our selves, those hardy perennials
We take such care of, and feed, who keep on keeping on
Each year, their knotty egos like bulbs
Safe in the damp and dreamy soil of their self-regard.
No way we bamboozle them with these
Shrines to the woebegone, ex votos and reliquary sites
One comes in on one's knees to,
The country of what was, the country of what we pretended
Cruxes and intersections of all we'd thought was fixed.
There is no guilt like the love of guilt (10).
As in the lines from
Wright expresses a dissatisfaction with the lack of singularity, the
of unity, in any one life ÷ examined or unexamined. The
that comprise the self ÷ that "tiny arithmetic" of "little
books only "half-read," and "fetishes" ÷ are charged with being
attempts at shoring up the self against dissolution, the "dark
Though Wright's purpose for his meditation on the nature of the self is
different from the Freudian confessional mode of John Berryman in
Song #45," both poets are struck by the horror of the kernel of the
extinction contained in the prefix "un." "In Dream Song #45,"
writes of the dissolution of Henry by "Ruin":
He did not know this one.
This one was a stranger, come to make amends
for all the impostors, and to make it stick.
Henry nodded, un÷.
Both poets recognize the
nature of the self, and the ineffectualness of the means by which we
knowledge of it, facts which Wright satirizes through the
of the self ÷ the ego ÷ as a flower bulb, "safe in the
damp and dreamy
soil of their self-regard," in their self-delusion of unity, even while
they seem to have some knowledge that it is a delusion.
speaks of "the burden of guilt" (2) in Augustine's Confessions,
the knowledge that the self often persisted in folly despite an
of the right path. As Ramakrishnan writes:
Augustine addresses himself to such basic questions as the cause
of sin, the reality of evil and the nature of faith because his
operates in an existential frame-work underlying which is the
dialectics of the self's evolution (2).
is confessional, it is so in this Augustinian sense of the evolution of
a self. Though Wright questions the very notion of a unified self
that could undergo such an evolution (e.g., the plurality implied by
phrase "our selves") and eschews the possibility of fixing that
self in time or language ("cruxes and intersections of all we'd
was fixed"), he must nevertheless perform a ritualistic gesture,
artificial, of supplication to those objects whose function is to shore
up a notion of an authentic self. This is a process of repetition
and self-replication that is re-doubled in the mirroring of the final
"There is no guilt like the love of guilt." To continue to go
the motions, to "take such care of, and feed" a notion of a unified
is in some way to embrace an untruth, a process which breeds guilt.
has struggled throughout his career with the dangers and problems that
attend a search after self-knowledge ÷ the realization of the
of insisting on an authentic self able to be fully expressed in
even while one can point to actual events in one's life that would make
such an enterprise seem possible. In a poem, or section of a
which reads like a study for the one just discussed, Wright gives us a
picture of his method of reconciling the facts of the historical self
the reality of a multiplicity of selves:
What does one do with one's life? A shelf-and-a-half
Of magazines, pictures on all the walls
Of the way I was, and everyone standing next to me?
This one, for instance for instance for instance...
Nothing's like anything else in the long run.
Nothing you write down is ever as true as you think it was.
But so what? Churchill and I and Bill Ring
Will still be chasing that same dead pintail duck
down the same rapids in 1951
Of the Holston River. And Ted Glynn
Will be running too.
And 1951 will always be 1951.
Here again is the sense
or repetition, that attends a search for the self, as seen by the
that one could point to any instance of the self's existence without
actually being certain of having captured the authentic self ("for
for instance for instance"). The unreliability of memory
like anything else in the long run"), and the mutability of the medium
of language ("Nothing you write down is ever as true as you think it
would seem to make true self-knowledge impossible, but the poem takes a
surprising turn with Wright's assertion of the actuality ÷ the
÷ of historical experience. His response to the problems of
here is simply to say "so what," and then to insist on the reality of
from his historical past. The events described by the "I" of the
poem are events from the life of the historical personage, Charles
This poem, like the previous poem discussed, ends with a mirroring, but
this time a positive one: instead of "There is no guilt like the love
guilt," we have, "And 1951 will always be 1951," a line which wants to
permanently inscribe or fix at least some part of the self.
on the reality of actual historical events, we have not necessarily
into the realm of the "purely confessional," insofar as that term is
as a direct revelation of highly personal material. As Upton put
it, Wright's preoccupation with autobiography is apparent in "oblique
within poems, and this obliquity undermines one sense of the
in Wright's work even while it enables the other sense we've been
In his essay, "'Things That Lock Our Wrists to the Past':
and Autobiography in Charles Wright's Poetry," James McCorkle, makes an
important distinction about the confessional mode in Wright's work that
articulates something about the way the poet handles autobiographical
of a highly personal nature:
Autobiography, here [in Wright's work], is not meant as a purely
confessional mode: instead of dictating personal experiences
edited) into lyrics or narratives, Wright translates and transfers
experiences into meditations on mutability, memory, and generation
Wright is dealing with "personal experiences" in his work, relating
from his own historical past, his mode of treatment problematizes their
presentation in a way that is more reminiscent of the challenges of
in religious confession, than the intricacies of self-representation in
confessional poetry of the 50's and 60's. Wright is too aware of
the instability of language and the unreliability of memory to "dictate
personal experiences" with the authority and confidence of a Lowell or
Berryman, those "restless, desperate voices...[that] have no intention
of stopping for absolution from a reader or the priest behind the black
of Wright's uneasiness with a direct dictation of personal experiences,
and the oblique manner of treating such experiences he has developed in
response to that unease, can be found by tracing the progression of an
image pattern developed in a poem from a sequence entitled
The poem "Tattoos" is a long poem in twenty sections, each of which is
given a date, which then links it up with a note "identifying the place
and the core autobiographical event alluded to" (McCorkle, 126), events
in the life of the actual historical personage, Charles Wright.
the title of the sequence suggests, the events in question left a
impression on the poet, though his mode of treatment is much different
from the often shockingly direct way in which confessional poetry of
50's and 60's dealt with traumatic material. Wright comments on
method, and on his purpose in emphasizing the connection between events
in the poems and actual events in his life, in an interview conducted
David Young at Oberlin College in 1977. Young asked Wright
he thought of the notes to "Tattoos" "as if they were another section
the poem," and Wright's response reflects his complex understanding of
just what it means to draw explicit connections between one's work and
No. I would have given anything not to have used the notes, but
I also wanted it to be very clear that each one of these was an
situation, that it had not been made up but had actually happened,
that it became a psychic tattoo in my life that would always be
me. I knew that later I would write something that would be
that I was going to play off the conceptual and theoretical poem
"Tattoos," and I wanted the actual thing to be as specific as
That's why they have dates on them and that's why they have notes.
The reason I put them at the end of the poem instead of at the
or under the title of each one was that I also wanted the reader to go
the way through and try to figure out what was going on and then
he came to the notes say, "Yeah, they really are real things. Let me go
and read it with that in mind" (67).
statement clearly reflects his discomfort with the use of notes which
the events in the poems with events in his life, even while he insists
upon making it clear to the reader that what happens in the poem
happened." The fact that he describes the events as "psychic
makes him sound very close to the language of Good's claim about
poetry that "the best confessional poetry uses detail from life to
the poem's speaker in psychic moments from which truths ÷
desperate, terrifying, fraudulent ÷ are spoken." Yet it
from what Wright says about why he suspends the personal notes to the
of the poem, that what's important is not that the reader experiences
poem as a revelation of an extreme psychic moment unfolding, but simply
that these moments do occupy a significant place in the life of a poet
whose project is an ongoing spiritual autobiography in the great
of Augustine. This point becomes clear when we examine the
between one of the notes and the imagistic treatment of the event in
of the "Tattoos."
psychic moment described in "Tattoo #15" is no less than the poet's
funeral, from which he was absent because he was studying in Rome on a
Fulbright. The date attached to the poem ÷ and to the
is 1964, and the note reads: "The day of my mother's funeral, in
Rome, Italy" (76). The difference between Wright's brand of
and the confessional poetry of the 50's and 60's becomes immediately
when reading the poem:
And the saw keeps cutting,
Its flashy teeth shredding the mattress, the bedclothes,
The pillow and pillow case.
Plugged in to a socket in your bones,
It coughs, and keeps on cutting.
It eats the lamp and the bedpost.
It licks the clock with its oiled tongue,
And keeps on cutting.
It leaves the bedroom, and keeps on cutting.
It leaves the house, and keeps on cutting...
÷Dogwood, old feathery petals,
Your black notches burn in my blood;
You flutter like bandages across my childhood.
Your sound is a sound of good-bye.
Your poem is a poem of pain.
At no point in the poem
mention his mother's death, so that the average reader would have no
the poem was dealing with such a difficult subject. A sense of
does still come across, but it is so completely subsumed into an
treatment that one would be hard-pressed ÷ even with the note
÷ to pin-point
the exact nature of the trauma. Though I'm suggesting that such a
poem, with its note, is an example of Wright's confessional mode, one
only consider a poem like Robert Lowell's "Sailing Home From Rapallo"
see how different is Wright's confessionalism from his immediate
in the 50's and 60's. It is interesting to note the superficial
of the back-stories behind the two poems ÷ Lowell was unable to
for his mother's death because he couldn't make it to Italy in time;
was unable to be present for his mother's death because he couldn't
it back from Italy. The mode of treatment, however, couldn't be
different. Lowell's poem begins with direct statement, "Your
could only speak Italian, / but after twenty minutes I could imagine
final week, / and tears ran down my cheeks," and by the fourth line he
has "embarked from Italy with [his] Mother's body." Wright's poem
sublimates the destructive power of death into the image of the saw,
the tenderness and deep sadness he feels for his mother seems to get
up in the "old feathery petals" of the dogwood that is motherly, in the
care-taking sense contained in the image of "bandages across my
and, like the mother, is transient ÷ "a sound of goodbye," "a
poem of pain."
As is evident from Wright's oblique method here, and from his response
to the question of why he included notes to "Tattoos," what interests
in a project like "Tattoos" is not that the reader understand exactly
is being described and how it affected the poet, but rather that Wright
himself understand the significance of the event for his own life and
it's important that the reader know that the event "actually happened,"
not that the reader understand the pathos of the event for the poet, or
see "the tears run down his cheeks."
appreciation of how this oblique confessional method functions in
work, we must look at what becomes of the image of the dogwood petals
a later poem. In the first section of a long, autobiographical
from Black Zodiac titled appropriately "Apologia Pro Vita Sua,"
the image of the dogwood makes a reappearance, not surprisingly
to the figure of the mother:
How soon we come to road's end÷
Failure, our two-dimensional side-kick, flat dream-light,
Won't jump-start or burn us in,
Dogwood insidious in its constellations of part-charred cross
Spring's via Dolorosa
flashed out in a dread profusion,
Nowhere to go but up, nowhere to turn, dead world-weight,
They've gone and done it again,
Spring's sap-crippled, arthritic, winter-weathered, myth limb,
Whose roots are my mother's hair.
That the "roots" of the
the dogwood as associated with the mother extend back almost a
to its first figuration in "Tattoo #15" suggests something about the
in which we are to read the confessional elements in Wright's work:
are to be seen as a constellation of images in an ongoing spiritual
and, as such, make different demands on the reader than do the kinds of
direct statement we find in confessional poetry of the 50's and
himself has commented about his poetic project, "I've been doing a kind
of spiritual autobiography over the years, trying to make sense of
life" (Byrne, www.valpo.edu). Such a statement explicitly links
project with texts like Augustine's Confessions and invokes a
of associations and expectations. In The Forms of
William Spengemann discusses the central position Augustine occupies in
the tradition of autobiography:
St. Augustine set the problem for all subsequent autobiography:
How can the self know itself? By surveying in the memory its
completed past actions from an unmoving point above or beyond
them? By moving inquisitively through its own memories and
to some conclusion about them? Or by performing a sequence
symbolic actions through which the ineffable self can be realized?
For these three methods of self-knowledge, Augustine devised three
autobiographical forms ÷ historical self-recollection,
self-exploration, and poetic self-expression ÷ from which
subsequent autobiographer would select the one most appropriate
to his own situation (32).
If Wright's project is
in the Augustinian sense, we might expect to find the form of his work
adopting the same tri-partite structure implied by the divisions
makes here. Not surprisingly, his body of work to date can be
into three trilogies, all of which perform roughly the same movement of
autobiographical narrative implied by Spengemann's questions. In
an interview with a former student, Ted Genoways, at the University of
Virginia, Wright spoke of the structure of his work. The
nicely lays out the division of Wright's books into their respective
so it's worth reprinting here:
TG: The statement at the beginning of Appalachia bills it as
completion of a "trilogy of trilogies." Hard Freight, Bloodline,
and China Trace, together with a prologue from The Grave of
Right Hand, became Country Music; then The Southern
The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, together
epilogue Xionia, became The World of the Ten Thousand
and now Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia
the last trilogy. What do you see each of those sequences
and how do they work as a whole? You describe it as a sequence.
CW: It's an odd sequence. All three trilogies do the same thing,
they have essentially the same structure. Past, present,
yesterday, today, tomorrow. That's just the guiding ÷
a thought ÷ the guiding sound bite behind the first trilogy,
actually went that way, I think. Then I wanted to technically
the way I was writing the line in the next group, and I went on
explorations. For instance, I tried to do more narrative in The
Side of the River; I did longer poems in Zone Journals. And
to bring in other kinds of business, like raising the diary form to a
level of artifice. I don't know exactly how to say that, but I
make it a more serious form, and I wanted to see what one could do
with it in poetry and still have it be entries. So all that was
the next group of books, but they're still structured the same
There's the past, the present, and the future, but larger. And so
the last one. I still don't know the name of the last trilogy,
on top of the second trilogy, so you get an inverted pyramid. It's
same pyramid but larger each time.
The structure implicit in
division of the movement of each work into "past, present, and future"
reproduces the structure Spengemann suggests is present in the three
of autobiography Augustine creates for his Confessions.
of interest for the present discussion is Wright's claim of wanting to
"raise the diary form to a higher level of artifice," beginning with
Wright calls the "verse journals" of Zone Journals. Such
which are diaristic in nature, Wright describes as "being more
and by being more quotidian, they will be more metaphysical at the same
time (Halflife, 55), a statement that implicitly links the
with the Puritan practice of journaling. Felski identifies the
form as one of two main forms of feminist confession, though her
of its purpose and function is in direct opposition to Wright's desire
to make the form more self-consciously artistic; for, as Felski writes,
"The confessional diary...often shores up its claims to authenticity
truthfulness by consciously distinguishing itself from the category of
literature" (86). For Felski, the function of the confessional
demands that aesthetic criteria be rejected as irrelevant, claiming
"a conscious artistic structure is in fact suspect insofar as it
distance and control rather than an unmediated baring of the soul"
It is a testament to how different Wright's confessional project is
what Felski describes that he strives for the "conscious artistic
that would mediate any "baring of the soul," and it is just this
that elevates his project to the realm of spiritual autobiography, that
makes his diary the diary of a lost Puritan rather than that of a
paradoxical perhaps that a poet so closely aligned with the Augustinian
tradition of religious confession should, in fact, be a
What's important in the genre of religious confession out of which
autobiographical poetry emerges, however, is the practice of
"every detail of daily thoughts and actions...for its moral content and
spiritual meaning" (Felski, 87), not whether one ultimately experiences
conversion: it's the form, the gesture, that's important for Wright,
the end result. In Upton's discussion of the religious feeling in
Wright's work, she suggests that such a governing formal principle may
Since his early career Wright has displayed a readiness for
and a near-religious commitment to aesthetic discipline. His
are suffused with spiritual reference not only derived from his
upbringing in the Episcopal Church ("from which I fled and out of
which I remain") but from a temperamental yearning for
What we encounter in his poems are the principles and images of
religious supplication and transubstantiation put in the service
language... In a sense, Wright's is a faith against faith, a
to his early indoctrination in the Episcopal Church but not a
renunciation of religious strategies for seeking transcendent
Upton's claim that
resists a return to the unquestioning acceptance of his early religious
training, even while it does not abandon the questing impulse that
engendered, seems to me another way of saying that
project fits into the long tradition of religious confession.
has said that, "Protestantism's emphasis on the importance of the
struggle for salvation prepared the way for the self-consciousness
for autobiography proper," and it would seem that Wright's Episcopalian
upbringing performed precisely that function. Indeed, Wright
has commented in a collection of aphorisms entitled "Halflife: A
Notebook, "All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself
about the unlikelihood of salvation..." (Halflife, 37).
sense of struggle compels readers to identify with the persona of the
as a kind of spiritual guru, an interesting phenomenon that implicitly
links Wright's work, in its function, with other forms of confession,
the confessional diary Felski discusses.
argues persuasively about the "social function" of feminist confession,
claiming that it encourages "a particular form of interaction between
and audience" (86). Though there are
characteristics Felski attributes to feminist confession and the brand
of confession found in Wright's work, her observations about the
of confession are illuminating for the present discussion:
The formal features of feminist confession...typically include
an unrelativized first-personal narrative perspective, a thematic
concentration upon feelings and personal relationship, and
reliance upon an informal and literary style which establishes a
relationship of intimacy between author and reader, and a tendency
to deemphasize the aesthetic and fictive dimension of the text in
order to give the appearance of authentic self-expression (87).
Though Wright's work is
different in almost every respect from what Felski describes ÷
as we saw,
he is on record as saying he wanted to re-emphasize the aesthetic
of personal narrative ÷ curiously, it manages to achieve and
intimacy Felski describes, that feeling of "persuading readers that
are reading an intimate communication addressed to them personally by
author" (Felski, 86). Thus, it is not surprising to come across
like the following, by Upton, in critical discussions of the reception
of Wright's work:
Inevitably, Wright's themes and vocabularies ÷ his focus on
salvation and transubstantion, and his anticipation of impending
divine presence ÷ force his readers into a consideration of
But it is the autobiographically coded poems of an agonized
a St. Sebastian punctured by the arrows of doubt, that allows for
the near hagiography of some critical accounts about Wright. That
while Wright salts his poem with allusions to otherworldly
it is finally his own persona, "Charles," who seems to many of his
readers to be the most afflicted and ultimately spiritualized amid
his pantheon (26).
It is a testament to how
Wright's project is in the whole of the confessional tradition, since
inception with Augustine, that his work is able to invoke the religious
context and "force his readers into a consideration of spirituality,"
÷ at the same time ÷ to compel readers in the intimate
and forceful way
of the more scandalous confessional poetry of the late 50's and 60's. A
representative example of a poem which performs this dual aspect of the
confessional can be found in Wright's "New Year's Eve, 1979," a poem in
which the "afflicted and spiritualized" persona, "Charles," makes an
After the picture show, the explanation is usually found in
The moralistic overtones of our lives:
We are what we've always been,
Everybody uses somebody,
In the slow rise to the self, we're drawn up by many hands.
And so it is here.
Will Charles look on happiness in this life?
Will the past be the present ever again?
Will the dead abandon their burdens and walk to the riverbank?
In this place, at year's end, under a fitful moon, tide pools
Spindle the light.
Across the floors, like spiders,
Hermit crabs quarter and spin.
Their sky is a glaze and a day...
What matters to them is what comes up from below, and from out
In the deep water,
and where the deep water comes from.
This poem exhibits all
we've been discussing throughout: the interrogation of self; an
on memory and its cousin, landscape; and, of course, the element Upton
discusses, the appearance, from out of the "deep water" of the self, of
the persona Charles. The final line leads the reader toward "a
of spirituality," as Upton put it, compelling us to look for the
of the self in the mysterious ground of being of divinity, "where the
water comes from." It's illuminating to compare the effect of the
self-dramatization of this confessional poem, which leads the reader to
contemplate thoughts of spirituality, with a similar moment in another
kind of confessional poem, Berryman's "Dream
Song #52," in which the poet
of his persona post-hospitalization:
Bright-eyed & bushy tailed woke not Henry up.
Bright though upon his workshop shone a vise
central, moved in
while he was doing time down hospital
and growing wise.
He gave it the worst look he had left.
Alone. They all abandoned Henry÷wonder!
when most he÷under the sun.
That was all right.
He can't work well with it here, or think.
A bilocation, yellow like catastrophe.
The name of this was freedom.
Will Henry again ever be on the lookout for women & milk,
honour & love again,
have a buck or three?
He felt like shrieking but he shuddered as
(spring mist, warm, rain) an handful with quietness
vanisht & the thing took hold.
Though formally the poems
remarkable similarity, the effect here is quite different and serves to
draw the reader's thoughts not toward a consideration of spirituality,
but rather toward a consideration of the fate of Berryman's agonized
Henry, whom the poem tells us has been "abandoned by all." This
in effect serves, once again, to point up distinctions between the two
strains of confessional poetry.
appropriate to close with a poem by Wright that features both his
persona, "Charles," and his precursor in the confessional tradition,
Augustine. The poem features the poet positioned in psychically
places in his historical experience, and is entitled, fittingly,
Charles on the Trevisan, night bridge
To the crystal, infinite alphabet of his past.
Charles on the San Trovaso, earmarked,
Holding the pages of a thrown-away book, dinghy the color of honey
Under the pine boughs, the water east flowing.
The wind will edit him soon enough,
And squander his broken chords
in tiny striations above the air,
No slatch in the undertow.
The sunlight will bear him out,
Giving him breathing room, and a place to lie.
And why not? The reindeer still file through the bronchial trees,
Holding their heads high.
The mosses still turn, the broomstraws flash on and off.
Inside, in the crosslight, and St. Jerome
And his creatures...St. Augustine, striking the words out.
The poem features the
the poet inextricably linked with the materials, from landscape and
that comprise the self. So bound up is the self with what is said to
shaped it that the landscape itself seems to participate in the poet's
attempt to fix some version of the self in this "Self Portrait": "The
will edit him soon enough"; "The sunlight will bear him out." The
world revises any attempt to fix a version of the self, as it appears
go on without the poet like those "herds of reindeer" traveling over
and miles of golden moss" in Auden's "The Fall of Rome." Most
here, however, is the editing that takes place at the hand of that
confessee ÷ and perhaps Wright's confessor ÷ St.
Augustine, who presides
not only over this poem, but, indeed, over Wright's whole project of
autobiography, as he carries the Augustinian brand of confessional
into the future.
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© by Andrew Mulvania