V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Contained within the history of confession itself is a practice 
of scrutinizing one's life for spiritual meaning and 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 desirable.  In the work of Charles Wright, both senses 
of confession are present simultaneously in his effort to construct 
a spiritual autobiography.

* * * 

As for one work which in particular influenced my own writing, 
I would have to say Confessions, by St. Augustine. Not only is 
the book fascinating in its own right, of course, but it somehow 
gave me the 'permission' I needed to embark on my own project 
of self-examination and self-disclosure that took 27 years and three 
trilogies to complete ÷ Country Music, The World of the Ten 
Thousand Things and Negative Blue. Augustine only took 
a handful of years, as we know. But then he was a saint, no?

                               ÷Charles Wright, "The Books That Changed My Life"

Nearly all writing on the confessional literature acknowledges its relationship with autobiography, though there appears to be little agreement about the nature of this relationship. E.V. Ramakrishnan, in a work entitled Crisis and Confession, articulates the moderate position on the issue, stating simply that, "in its literary application, confession is closely identified with autobiography"(1).  Kathleen Ossip implies a more specific relationship between the two kinds 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 content, tending toward the shameful and traumatic, including emotional breakdown and institutionalization, divorce and separation from children, infidelity, hatred of parents, and suicide [italics mine]" (Ossip 45). Though Ossip's remarks do begin to suggest the nature of the relationship between autobiography and confession ÷ confession contains "autobiographical content" ÷ she too resists drawing fine distinctions. It is Rita Felski, in her examination of women's autobiography, who finally attempts to limn the treacherous boundaries of genre existing between the terms "confession" and "autobiography."  Referring specifically to the way confession operates in women's autobiography, Felski categorizes confession as "a distinctive subgenre of autobiography," clarifying these remarks with her assertion, "I use 'confession' simply to specify a type of autobiographical writing which signals its intention to foreground the most personal and intimate details of the author's life" (Felski 83).  Felski's statement implies that confession and autobiography are two distinct genres, but that, as a "distinctive subgenre" of autobiography, a writer engaged in autobiography may have recourse to elements of the confessional, as I propose is the case with the work of Charles Wright.  Understanding how or why this is the case demands that we delve into the buried strata of meaning contained in the term "confession."
     As Felski observes, drawing a contrast with how the German language allows writers 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 German by three different words" (87).  One of the main reasons for the confusion 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," beginning with Augustine (Felski 87). Augustine's Confessions reflects this blurring of generic boundaries that occurs as a result of the multiple valences the word confession accretes. Felski makes a distinction between autobiography as a literary genre and a work like Augustine's that I think obscures the possibility of a text that keeps in play the notion of religious confession and a self-conscious shaping of one's life for the purpose of self-knowledge:

          Rousseau's Confessions is usually held up as the first example 
          of autobiography as a celebration of unique individualism, and 
          thus fundamentally different from earlier texts, such as the confessions 
          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 fallibility 
          of humanity and affirming the ultimate authority of a divine knowledge 
          beyond the individual's grasp (87).

Though I think Felski is partially right to see Augustine's text as deeply invested in an ethic of self-scrutiny for the purpose of ultimate spiritual revelation, its literary qualities ÷ 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 aside.  I prefer a more dynamic understanding of Augustine's work that would see it as both confession for religious purposes and confession as autobiography ÷ a description which could accurately characterize the work of post-confessional 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 Christian 
          metaphysics that interests the modern reader as his agonizing search 
          for faith through successive mental crises . . .  The various scenes that 
          Augustine describes indicate a new creative experience of the author, 
          through which he understands himself . . .  Augustine addresses himself 
          to such basic questions as the cause of sin, the reality of evil and the 
          nature of faith because his mind operates in an existential frame-work 
          underlying which is the dialectics of the self's evolution (2).

Ramakrishnan leaves open an interpretation 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 of humanity and affirming the ultimate authority of a divine knowledge beyond 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 senses of confession become even further implicated with one another through the Puritan practice of "self scrutiny and spiritual introspection," whereby, 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 actions was recorded and examined for its moral and spiritual meaning" (87). Thus, 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 orthodoxy 
          to an exploration of intimacy, emotion, self-understanding as aspects 
          of a nascent bourgeois subjectivity (87).

Contained within the history of confession itself is a practice of scrutinizing one's life for spiritual meaning and 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 desirable.  In the work of Charles Wright, both senses of confession are present simultaneously in his effort to construct a spiritual autobiography.
     The complexity of this problem of classification is reflected by the critical commentary on Wright's work as well by his own self-characterization in interviews and elsewhere.  Lee Upton has written of Wright, "what remains most significant in his prose writings and in oblique references within poems is his preoccupation with creating an autobiography" (23). Upton's choice of the phrase "oblique references" introduces one of the difficulties of determining the function of confession in Wright's work: even the elements of autobiography in the work are not present in traditional or clear-cut ways.  Friend, former student, and fellow postconfessional poet, Sherod Santos, reveals a similar attitude toward autobiography in 
Wright's work in an interview with the poet:

          Santos: I happen to know you [Wright] can identify the source 
          of almost any image in your poems ÷ you can recall the place 
          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..

                                                   [Santos, 177]

Like Upton, Santos recognizes the difficulty with categorizing Wright's project as autobiographical. Though the images do originate in the material of Wright's life, the mode of treatment in the work defies an easy classification based on generic conventions. Santos's remarks prompted a response from Wright that is particularly revealing for a discussion of this problem of classification:

          It's...interesting to me that you think my things [work] are difficult 
          to categorize as "autobiographical."  I have tried very hard to get a 
          kind of impersonal autobiography into my poems, so that the poems 
          come out of my life without having the tinge of  "confessional poetry" 
          about them. I have said before that I think one's poems should come 
          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 web. 
          Once the web is spun, the event that led up to it isn't necessary.  The 
          "I" persona that I often use in my poems is not, I hope, the "merely 
          personal" "I" of so many poems that one sees.  I hope it does go through 
          a kind of sea change into the richness of the impersonal, where the true 
          and touchable personal actually lives. 

                                                [Santos, 178]

Wright's remarks weave a tangled web indeed, and one that testifies to the messy nature of the distinctions I've been trying to make.  Not surprisingly, Wright reveals a fashionable uneasiness with the label "confessional" that reflects the term's current devaluation to a state in which it is used to describe work that, as Regan Good puts it in a representative sound-byte, "amounts to nothing more than an artless retelling of personal material capped off with a tidy epiphany" (Good).  At the same time, his stated aims for his work demonstrate how deeply implicated the "confessional" element is an autobiographical project like Wright's.  Though he insists upon the impersonal nature of his work, he still invokes the notion of an authentic self ("the true and touchable personal") to which he wishes to give expression, his language sounding very similar to Hart's definition of confession as "personal history that seeks to communicate or express the essential nature, the truth, 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 stated elsewhere in another interview, perhaps in a lighter mood, "I've written one book that I think is in a persona, and all the rest of the 'I's' are thinly disguised me" (Rubin and Heyen 35), a comment that would place him 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 observed, "our current formulation of the confessional lyric (or narrative) is host to a shaky conflation of motives ÷ the will to understand and the will to purge"; although Wright can't exactly be said to have a will to purge, his comments participate in this conflation in that they reveal how deeply implicated is autobiography with the genre of confession.
     In the title poem to his Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, Black Zodiac, Wright articulates a commitment to the project of autobiography as it intersects with the confessional impulse to
communicate or express in language 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 
          Of evening, 
                            you've got to write it down. 
          Memory's handkerchief, death's dream and automobile, 
          God's sleep, 
                            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 examined 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 connects 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 spiritual state.  This enterprise is made all the more difficult by the problem of the unreliability of language as a place in which to fix a version of the self, a point which Upton makes specifically in reference to Wright. 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, however 
          well the author summons a cultural and historical situation.  Yet 
          given Wright's belief in the inherent instability of memory and 
          language, his project is ambitious: the one life revealed in the mutable 
          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, nature 
          and God (24).

The section of the poem cited exhibits many of the uncertainties about the representation of the self in language that Upton emphasizes: The suggestion that "the unexamined life's no different from / the examined life," unless written down, implies a recognition of the generic quality, or lack of singularity, of any one life, and an awareness of the complexity involved in wresting the story of one's life out of a multiplicity of experience.  That unremarkable life is itself represented in terms of language ÷ "Unanswerable questions, small talk, / Unprovable theorems, long-abandoned arguments" ÷ and not just any language, but 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 might locate the self, such as landscape or memory, represented through images like "light-length on evergreen" and "Memory's handkerchief" respectively, prove equally unreliable indices of identity unless expressed in language, "written down."  The inevitability of the self's extinction through 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 search for which, in the grand tradition of religious confession, gives the self 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 "egoless," so committed is the self to its own illusory sense of unity and wholeness. 
     A poem that takes up these issues more explicitly appears in Wright's 1998 follow-up collection to Black Zodiac, Appalachia.  In the poem entitled, "In the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-Eyed Man Is King," Wright directly takes up the claim of a unified self, pitting it against the futility of 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 to be,
          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 "Black Zodiac," Wright expresses a dissatisfaction with the lack of singularity, the lack of unity, in any one life ÷ examined or unexamined.  The materials that comprise the self ÷ that "tiny arithmetic" of "little photographs," books only "half-read," and "fetishes" ÷ are charged with being only "pitiful" attempts at shoring up the self against dissolution, the "dark undazzle."  Though Wright's purpose for his meditation on the nature of the self is different from the Freudian confessional mode of John Berryman in "Dream Song #45," both poets are struck by the horror of the kernel of the self's extinction contained in the prefix "un."  "In Dream Song #45," Berryman 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 fragile nature of the self, and the ineffectualness of the means by which we gain knowledge of it, facts which Wright satirizes through the representation 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.  Ramakrishnan speaks of "the burden of guilt" (2) in Augustine's Confessions, the knowledge that the self often persisted in folly despite an awareness 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 mind 
          operates in an existential frame-work underlying which is the 
          dialectics of the self's evolution (2).

If Wright's autobiographical project 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 the phrase "our selves") and eschews the possibility of fixing that self in time or language ("cruxes and intersections of all we'd thought was fixed"), he must nevertheless perform a ritualistic gesture, however 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 line: "There is no guilt like the love of guilt."  To continue to go through the motions, to "take such care of, and feed" a notion of a unified self, is in some way to embrace an untruth, a process which breeds guilt.
     Wright has struggled throughout his career with the dangers and problems that attend a search after self-knowledge ÷ the realization of the futility of insisting on an authentic self able to be fully expressed in language, 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 poem, 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 with 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. 

                                                   [WTT, 62]

Here again is the sense of replication, or repetition, that attends a search for the self, as seen by the recognition that one could point to any instance of the self's existence without ever actually being certain of having captured the authentic self ("for instance for instance for instance").  The unreliability of memory ("Nothing's 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 was") would seem to make true self-knowledge impossible, but the poem takes a surprising turn with Wright's assertion of the actuality ÷ the validity ÷ of historical experience. His response to the problems of self-representation here is simply to say "so what," and then to insist on the reality of events from his historical past.  The events described by the "I" of the poem are events from the life of the historical personage, Charles Wright.  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 of 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.
     In insisting on the reality of actual historical events, we have not necessarily moved into the realm of the "purely confessional," insofar as that term is construed as a direct revelation of highly personal material.  As Upton put it, Wright's preoccupation with autobiography is apparent in "oblique references" within poems, and this obliquity undermines one sense of the confessional in Wright's work even while it enables the other sense we've been discussing.  In his essay, "'Things That Lock Our Wrists to the Past': Self-Portraiture 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 content of a highly personal nature: 

          Autobiography, here [in Wright's work], is not meant as a purely 
          confessional mode: instead of dictating personal experiences (however 
          edited) into lyrics or narratives, Wright translates and transfers those 
          experiences into meditations on mutability, memory, and generation (111). 

     Even when Wright is dealing with "personal experiences" in his work, relating events from his own historical past, his mode of treatment problematizes their presentation in a way that is more reminiscent of the challenges of autobiography 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 grate."
     An example 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 "Tattoos."  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.  As the title of the sequence suggests, the events in question left a lasting impression on the poet, though his mode of treatment is much different from the often shockingly direct way in which confessional poetry of the 50's and 60's dealt with traumatic material.  Wright comments on this method, and on his purpose in emphasizing the connection between events in the poems and actual events in his life, in an interview conducted by David Young at Oberlin College in 1977.  Young asked Wright whether he thought of the notes to "Tattoos" "as if they were another section of the poem," and Wright's response reflects his complex understanding of just what it means to draw explicit connections between one's work and one's life: 

          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 actual 
          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 with 
          me.  I knew that later I would write something that would be conceptual, 
          that I was going to play off the conceptual and theoretical poem against 
          "Tattoos," and I wanted the actual thing to be as specific as possible. 
          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 bottom 
          or under the title of each one was that I also wanted the reader to go all 
          the way through and try to figure out what was going on and then when 
          he came to the notes say, "Yeah, they really are real things. Let me go back 
          and read it with that in mind" (67).

     Wright's statement clearly reflects his discomfort with the use of notes which link 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 "actually happened."  The fact that he describes the events as "psychic tattoos" makes him sound very close to the language of Good's claim about confessional poetry that "the best confessional poetry uses detail from life to position the poem's speaker in psychic moments from which truths ÷ hilarious, grave, desperate, terrifying, fraudulent ÷ are spoken."  Yet it would seem, from what Wright says about why he suspends the personal notes to the end of the poem, that what's important is not that the reader experiences each 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 tradition of Augustine.  This point becomes clear when we examine the relationship between one of the notes and the imagistic treatment of the event in one of the "Tattoos."
     The extreme psychic moment described in "Tattoo #15" is no less than the poet's mother'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 occasion ÷ is 1964, and the note reads: "The day of my mother's funeral, in Tennessee; Rome, Italy" (76).  The difference between Wright's brand of confession and the confessional poetry of the 50's and 60's becomes immediately apparent 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.

                              [CM, 70]

At no point in the poem does Wright mention his mother's death, so that the average reader would have no idea the poem was dealing with such a difficult subject.  A sense of trauma does still come across, but it is so completely subsumed into an imagistic 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 need only consider a poem like Robert Lowell's "Sailing Home From Rapallo" to see how different is Wright's confessionalism from his immediate predecessors in the 50's and 60's.  It is interesting to note the superficial similarities of the back-stories behind the two poems ÷ Lowell was unable to be present for his mother's death because he couldn't make it to Italy in time; Wright was unable to be present for his mother's death because he couldn't make it back from Italy.  The mode of treatment, however, couldn't be more different.  Lowell's poem begins with direct statement, "Your nurse could only speak Italian, / but after twenty minutes I could imagine your 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, and the tenderness and deep sadness he feels for his mother seems to get picked 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 childhood," 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 Wright in a project like "Tattoos" is not that the reader understand exactly what 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 autobiography: 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."
     For a full appreciation of how this oblique confessional method functions in Wright's work, we must look at what becomes of the image of the dogwood petals in a later poem.  In the first section of a long, autobiographical poem from Black Zodiac titled appropriately "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," the image of the dogwood makes a reappearance, not surprisingly attached 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 image of the dogwood as associated with the mother extend back almost a quarter-century to its first figuration in "Tattoo #15" suggests something about the way in which we are to read the confessional elements in Wright's work: They are to be seen as a constellation of images in an ongoing spiritual autobiography, 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 60's. 
     Wright himself has commented about his poetic project, "I've been doing a kind of spiritual autobiography over the years, trying to make sense of one's life" (Byrne, www.valpo.edu).  Such a statement explicitly links Wright's project with texts like Augustine's Confessions and invokes a host of associations and expectations.  In The Forms of Autobiography, 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 ideas 
          to some conclusion about them?  Or by performing a sequence of 
          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, philosophical 
          self-exploration, and poetic self-expression ÷ from which every 
          subsequent autobiographer would select the one most appropriate 
          to his own situation (32).

If Wright's project is confessional in the Augustinian sense, we might expect to find the form of his work adopting the same tri-partite structure implied by the divisions Spengemann makes here.  Not surprisingly, his body of work to date can be divided 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 interviewer nicely lays out the division of Wright's books into their respective trilogies, so it's worth reprinting here: 

          TG: The statement at the beginning of Appalachia bills it as the 
          completion of a "trilogy of trilogies." Hard Freight, Bloodline,
          and China Trace, together with a prologue from The Grave of the 
          Right Hand, became Country Music; then The Southern Cross, 
          The Other Side of the River, and Zone Journals, together with the 
          epilogue Xionia, became The World of the Ten Thousand Things;
          and now Chickamauga, Black Zodiac, and Appalachia complete 
          the last trilogy.   What do you see each of those sequences as doing, 
          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, and 
          they have essentially the same structure.  Past, present, future: 
          yesterday, today, tomorrow.  That's just the guiding ÷ well, it's not 
          a thought ÷ the guiding sound bite behind the first trilogy, which 
          actually went that way, I think.  Then I wanted to technically alter 
          the way I was writing the line in the next group, and I went on other 
          explorations.  For instance, I tried to do more narrative in The Other 
          Side of the River; I did longer poems in Zone Journals. And I wanted 
          to bring in other kinds of business, like raising the diary form to a higher 
          level of artifice.  I don't know exactly how to say that, but I wanted to 
          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 behind 
          the next group of books, but they're still structured the same way. 
          There's the past, the present, and the future, but larger.  And so is 
          the last one.  I still don't know the name of the last trilogy, but that's 
          on top of the second trilogy, so you get an inverted pyramid. It's the 
          same pyramid but larger each time.

The structure implicit in Wright's division of the movement of each work into "past, present, and future" reproduces the structure Spengemann suggests is present in the three forms of autobiography Augustine creates for his Confessions.  Also 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 what Wright calls the "verse journals" of Zone Journals.  Such poems, which are diaristic in nature, Wright describes as "being more quotidian, and by being more quotidian, they will be more metaphysical at the same time (Halflife, 55), a statement that implicitly links the poems with the Puritan practice of journaling.  Felski identifies the journal form as one of two main forms of feminist confession, though her description 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 and truthfulness by consciously distinguishing itself from the category of literature" (86).  For Felski, the function of the confessional diary demands that aesthetic criteria be rejected as irrelevant, claiming that "a conscious artistic structure is in fact suspect insofar as it implies distance and control rather than an unmediated baring of the soul" (86).  It is a testament to how different Wright's confessional project is from what Felski describes that he strives for the "conscious artistic structure" that would mediate any "baring of the soul," and it is just this difference 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 provocateur. 
     It's somewhat paradoxical perhaps that a poet so closely aligned with the Augustinian tradition of religious confession should, in fact, be a non-believer.  What's important in the genre of religious confession out of which Wright's autobiographical poetry emerges, however, is the practice of scrutinizing "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, not the end result.  In Upton's discussion of the religious feeling in Wright's work, she suggests that such a governing formal principle may be present:

          Since his early career Wright has displayed a readiness for revelation 
          and a near-religious commitment to aesthetic discipline.  His poems 
          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 transcendence. 
          What we encounter in his poems are the principles and images of 
          religious supplication and transubstantiation put in the service of 
          language...  In a sense, Wright's is a faith against faith, a resistance 
          to his early indoctrination in the Episcopal Church but not a 
          renunciation of religious strategies for seeking transcendent meaning 

                                           [Upton, 24-25]

Upton's claim that Wright's work resists a return to the unquestioning acceptance of his early religious training, even while it does not abandon the questing impulse that training engendered, seems to me another way of saying that Wright­Äôs project fits into the long tradition of religious confession.  Felski has said that, "Protestantism's emphasis on the importance of the individual struggle for salvation prepared the way for the self-consciousness necessary for autobiography proper," and it would seem that Wright's Episcopalian upbringing performed precisely that function.  Indeed, Wright himself has commented in a collection of aphorisms entitled "Halflife: A Commonplace Notebook, "All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself about the unlikelihood of salvation..." (Halflife, 37).  This sense of struggle compels readers to identify with the persona of the poems as a kind of spiritual guru, an interesting phenomenon that implicitly links Wright's work, in its function, with other forms of confession, like the confessional diary Felski discusses.
     Felski argues persuasively about the "social function" of feminist confession, claiming that it encourages "a particular form of interaction between text and audience" (86).  Though there are 
important differences between the characteristics Felski attributes to feminist confession and the brand of confession found in Wright's work, her observations about the function 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 frequent 
          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 superficially 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 dimension of personal narrative ÷ curiously, it manages to achieve and inspire the intimacy Felski describes, that feeling of "persuading readers that they are reading an intimate communication addressed to them personally by the author" (Felski, 86).  Thus, it is not surprising to come across comments 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 spirituality. 
          But it is the autobiographically coded poems of an agonized speaker, 
          a St. Sebastian punctured by the arrows of doubt, that allows for 
          the near hagiography of some critical accounts about Wright.  That is, 
          while Wright salts his poem with allusions to otherworldly presences, 
          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 implicated Wright's project is in the whole of the confessional tradition, since its inception with Augustine, that his work is able to invoke the religious context and "force his readers into a consideration of spirituality," and ÷ 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 appearance:

          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 the characteristics we've been discussing throughout: the interrogation of self; an emphasis 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 consideration of spirituality," as Upton put it, compelling us to look for the origins of the self in the mysterious ground of being of divinity, "where the deep 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 writes 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! all, 
          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.

                                        [DS, 59]

Though formally the poems bear a 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 persona, Henry, whom the poem tells us has been "abandoned by all."  This difference in effect serves, once again, to point up distinctions between the two strains of confessional poetry. 
     It seems appropriate to close with a poem by Wright that features both his confessional persona, "Charles," and his precursor in the confessional tradition, St. Augustine.  The poem features the poet positioned in psychically significant places in his historical experience, and is entitled, fittingly, "Self-Portrait":

          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.

                                                  [TWOTTT, 13]

The poem features the persona of the poet inextricably linked with the materials, from landscape and memory, that comprise the self. So bound up is the self with what is said to have 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 wind 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 to go on without the poet like those "herds of reindeer" traveling over "miles and miles of golden moss" in Auden's "The Fall of Rome."  Most importantly here, however, is the editing that takes place at the hand of that great confessee ÷ and perhaps Wright's confessor ÷ St. Augustine, who presides not only over this poem, but, indeed, over Wright's whole project of spiritual autobiography, as he carries the Augustinian brand of confessional poetry into the future.


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© by Andrew Mulvania


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