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On Restraint

An excerpt from “On Restraint,” published in Poetry, Vol. CLXVIII, No. 1, April, 1996, pp. 33-47.

I am not concerned here with artistic timidity, moral constraint, or polite decorum—that is, restraint as puritanic virtue—but rather with tactics of restraint which allow us to gauge a poem’s opposite pole, its power and passion. Even Walt Whitman is at his most persuasive where his enthusiasms are informed by subdued counter-pressures. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” those ominous, looming “dark patches,” which accompany his confessions of secular guilt, temper his later transcendental encouragements to “flow on . . . with the flood-tide.” The poem’s polar forces—obliteration and regeneration, liability and acceptance—hold themselves in a kind of checks- and-balance. The result is precarious and powerful. Other poets use different methods of restraint: Dickinson with her severe, compact technique (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”); Bishop in her very stance, what Jeredith Merrin calls an “enabling humility.” Restraint can ironize, enable, even sustain, a poet’s great passions and wildness.

Charles Wright uses large, summary abstractions the way most poets use images. His images alone sustain the oblique storylines of his poems. These tactics are the reverse of most other poets. Chickamagua is an essential collection of poetry from one of our most original poets, a lyric master who continues to adjust and refine his complex poetic. Like most of the other poets here consider, Wright is a Romantic, but he is more expansive than Simic, more speculative than Kinnell, and more lavish than Kelly. Readers of Wright’s work will here rediscover his wide range of influences and allusions: Southern idiom and landscape, Italian art and culture, Continental surrealism, Oriental detail and clarity, as well as jaunts into Vorticism, Imagism, and Futurism (as he quips in one poem addressed to Charles Simic, those “who don’t remember the Futurists are condemned to repeat them”).

Almost nothing ever happens in a Charles Wright poem. This is his central act of restraint, a spiritualist’s abstinence, where meditation is not absence but an alternative to action and to linear, dramatic finality:

Unlike a disease, whatever I’ve learned
is not communicable.
                                      A singular organism,
It does its work in the dark.

Anything that we think we’ve learned,
                                                            we’ve learned in the dark.
If there is one secret to this life, it is this life.

As here in “Mid-winter Snowfall in the Piazza Dante,” Wright’s speaker is nearly always physically static and rhetorically circular. He sits in his backyard “rubbing this tiny snail shell,” he watches “the hills empurple and sky [go] nectarine,” he eats “gnocchi and roast veal” at a caffè in Florence, and he ponders. We might understand something more of Wright’s aesthetic by noticing that “sitting and “reading” are the primary titular participles in the first sections of this book, while “waiting,” “watching,” and “looking” come at the end. In the middle (and all the way through) he is talking and talking. The eye becomes a voice. Even given his bounty of allusions and references, I think Wright’s truest forebear is Emerson, whom he never mentions. In “Circles,” perhaps his most difficult and lovely essay, Emerson could be prescribing Wright’s revolving imagery and rhetorical stance: “Conversation is a game of circles. In conversation we pluck up the termini which bound the common of silence on every side.” Wright’s voice throughout Chickamauga is conversational—never lax, never dull, but also never spoken in the larger oratorical tone of Kinnell. If Wright seems continually to muse to an intimate friend, he also knows that the winding destination of language is also its extinction, that the real meanings—personal as well as historical—are ultimately “not communicable.” Emerson in “Circles” concurs: “And yet here again see the swift circumscription! Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it.”

There are precious few contemporary poets in whose work I find as much sheer wisdom as in Wright’s. He is fearless in his use of grand generalities, as comfortable with “O we were abstract and true. / How could we know that grace would fall from us like shed skin, / That reality, our piebald dog, would hunt us down?” as with “Snip, snip goes wind through the autumn trees” (“Waiting for Tu Fu”). “Blaise Pascal Lip-syncs the Void” begins with the kind of summary realization at which most other poets’ work strains to arrive: “It’s not good to be complete. / It’s not good to be concupiscent, / caught as we are / Between a the and a the, / Neither of which we know and neither of which knows us.” Like Wallace Stevens, echoed in these lines, Wright treats the general (an “a”) as a type of distinct particularity (a “the”). The abstract is as tangible and stimulating as any concrete detail. Emerson once more in “Circles”: “Generalization is always a new influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it.” Still, however thrilling, the operations of language ultimately persist in baffling Wright’s desire for transcendence, as he says in “Looking Outside the Cabin Window, I Remember a Line by Li Po”: “We who would see beyond seeing / see only language, that burning field.”

Wright’s affinity with Emerson is also apparent in his rhetoric. Emerson is invariably effective at the level of the sentence, but his paragraphs are often monuments to circular structure or to impressionistic meandering. That can be pretty damning for any essayist attempting philosophical stratagems, less troublesome for a poet of Wright’s skill and orientation. Wright is indeed a master of the sentence, and his own circular movement in both the stanza and the section seems well-tuned to his thematic faith that “I remember the word and forget the world / although the word / Hovers in flame around me.” Both Emerson, and also Franklin, in pronouncements like these: “Ambition is such a small thing.” “Prosodies rise and fall.” “Words are wrong. / Structures are wrong.” “This text is a shadow text.” His diverse syntactic arrangements reinforce Wright’s doubled persona, both ambitious and humble, and his very long lines are suited to contain his sentence variety. If Wright’s language can seem to opulent or his line too thickened on occasion, veering toward the over-lavish, this quality is more frequent in Zone Journals than in the current volume. Far more often, the rich, flexible syntax is an apt partner for Wright’s questing imagination.

I can, in fact, think of no other recent poet who can successfully deploy very long lines in such utterly non-narrative poems. In “Sprung Narratives,” the book’s longest poem at nine pages, Wright again refers to one of his masters as he alternately reveals and conceals his own strategy for the story. Sprung rhythm, that endlessly weird and accurate self-description of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s metric idiosyncrasies, of course provides the trope for Wright ‘s more extended application. Where Hopkins says that “the stresses come together, “ making a dense, nearly overlapping rhythmic pressure, Wright also suggests that memory is much less a narrative line than a series of bumping, elliptical shards, merging into and abandoning each other. The poem moves through many possible plots and settings—Wright’s childhood, Italy in the 1960s, his seventeen years in Launa Beach, his return “home” in Virginia—and yet, all along, Wright extinguishes story in favor of image, image in favor of abstraction: “Who knows what the story line / became. . . . The world is language we never quite understand, / But think we catch the drift of.” He urges himself toward a continued temperance, his deepest act of restraint: “Returned to the dwarf orchard, / Pilgrim, / Sit still and lengthen your lines, / Shorten your poems and listen to what the darkness says / With its mouthful of cold air.” Wright’s ascetic discipline is an instruction and an aesthetic. The whole world seems to orbit in a kind of meditative, slow circle around Wright’s grave influence. That’s the brilliant paradox throughout this big, powerful book. In a poetry where nothing ever happens, everything is possible.

David Baker is the author or editor of many books of poetry and criticism. His latest collection of poems, Whale Fall, was published by W. W. Norton in July 2022. Baker taught at Kenyon 1983–84 and began a long association with The Kenyon Review then, including service for more than twenty-five years as poetry editor. He continues to curate the magazine’s annual environmental feature, “Nature’s Nature.” Baker is emeritus professor of English at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, where he offers two classes each spring semester.