Towards a Plural Poetics: on C. D. Wright’s “The Poet, The Lion”

The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All
C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon, 2016

Published a week before her death in January, C. D. Wright’s The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All is itself a demonstration of the poetics it proposes to discuss.

Consider its sprawling title. “Poetics,” my dictionary informs me, is a plural noun that’s to be “construed as singular,” which suggests that any given understanding of poetic practice must be somehow cohesive and unified. Wright’s title tells me that my dictionary is wrong: for Wright, a poetic practice worthy of the name will not be reduced to a principle or precept, but is necessarily expansive, plural, and protean. “Less and less am I persuaded by the medium’s essence,” Wright informs us early on, “and more and more I am pulled by its mutability.”

The book consists of brief prose sections—many less than a page—that variously take up the book’s many themes, most of which are indicated by the title. The “lion,” for instance, refers to the eight sections called “Hold Still, Lion” devoted to Robert Creeley’s writing, life, and death. The heading comes from a few lines from his poem “Drawn & Quartered,” cited by Wright: “Hold still, lion! / I am trying / to paint you / while there’s time to.”

Other poets figure prominently in the book: Jean Valentine, Brenda Hillman (she’s the “Fire” in the book’s title, drawn from Hillman’s recent book, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire), and John Taggart (her introduction to his collection Is Music is included in its entirety). Another longish section discusses the studied artlessness of Michael Ondaatje’s poem, “Driving with Dominic.” William Carlos Williams and his circle are explored in the six sections called “Spring & All.”  Sculptor Anne Truitt and painter Agnes Martin are mentioned throughout the book, and, with Valentine, form a kind of personal artistic trinity for Wright:

Anne, Agnes, Jean: theirs is not a system of theories, not a representation of portents, but a commitment to the labor. ‘Writing a word / / changing it.’

Reflections on favorite words and language in general are found under sections headed “In a Word, a World.”  There are several headings that only appear once—”My American Scrawl” or “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal the World’s Biggest Retailer”—but even those sections touch on many of the more visible leitmotivs of the book.

The result is an intricate weave of ideas stated, revisited, extended, explored. Each iteration does not build linearly towards a conclusion, but keeps the subject open and allows it to resonate with other themes. “Poetry moves by indirection,” Wright explains, “Indirection…changes the route, and often the destination.” For the reader, the repetition of terms and themes provides a kind of non-sequential, open-ended coherence.  I’m reminded of a passage Wright cites from Taggart, vis-à-vis his hallmark repetition: “Augustine on repetition: a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his, way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all form arises.”

The Poet, The Lion, then, is not an argument, nor is it an apology, or statement, much less a manifesto. The book would be best described as an anti-manifesto: what is bestowed upon the reader is not a set of sureties and precepts to believe/live by/write by, but a shift towards an open, expansive relationship with language and the world. In this way, the book aspires to engender in its readers a kind of poetic thinking, a contemporary version of Keats’s negative capability. In a central passage, Wright explains:

The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.

Yet this listening is not passive.

On a wall in Whitechapel [Gallery] I saw it written:
I propose to keep looking. I propose
we all keep looking. I propose
it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.

It is responsive, fluid: “One has to be responsive to [poetry’s] movement. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one’s best ear on its retrofitted lyre.” Poetry as dialogue, interaction. The poet is one with others. Speaking of One Big Self, her collaborative book with photographer Deborah Luster, Wright observes, “Collaboration offers an opportunity to break out of the isolation of one’s own overly familiar braincase, an opportunity to have an experience that can’t be got on one’s own.”

It’s not surprising that a book that encourages, through its own example, a plural poetics of listening, mutability, and openness, comes to a close by directly engaging the reader with “Questionnaire in January,” a series of end-stopped questions and writing prompt-like statements. I conclude with a few examples:

Collette said writing leads only to writing. Where does it lead you. And what led you here.

Into what forms do you see poetry poring, morphing, shuddering.

Emily Dickinson said poetry was her letter to the world. Write me.

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