- “A Coin for a Closed Eye”: Pound’s Influence on Wright’s “Appalachian Book of the Dead”
Despite being one of the most decorated southern writers of his generation—having received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Pen Translation Prize, and the Griffin Poetry Award—and having written extensively about the South—particularly eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—Charles Wright has repeatedly commented that while he identifies with the South, he also hopes to be more than “merely a Southern poet” (Halflife 159). Part of the conflict Wright experiences with the label “southern poet” might be seen to stem from the non-southern influences that punctuate his work. By now the origins of Wright’s writing career are familiar to his readers. While he was serving in the U.S. Army in March 1959, stationed in Italy, a friend suggested that he read Ezra Pound’s “ ‘Blandula, Tenulla, Vagula’ ” and visit the location the poem commemorates: the purported site of Catullus’s villa in Sirmione, on Lake Garda. Wright claims his “life was changed forever” through this experience (60), and he refers to the event frequently in his work.
Sirmione appears, for example, as the setting for the prose poem “Nocturne” from Wright’s first book, The Grave of the Right Hand. The speaker intones, “a strayed traveller, or some misguided pilgrim might, of a summer evening, if he stands quite still and says nothing, imagine he hears [End Page 56] the slight off-rhythm of some hexameter line deep in the olive grove, as the slither of night birds moves toward the darker trees. But that is all” (Country Music 6). The figure of the “pilgrim” appears several times over the course of Wright’s long poem “Appalachian Book of the Dead,” a “trilogy of trilogies” he worked on for thirty years that ties an intimate sense of place with a longing for spiritual clarity.1 The “hexameter line” that the pilgrim hears off in the distance refers to the source of Western poetry, Homer, and with this allusion the importance of the setting is reinforced. In this way Wright signals the large, epic ambitions that underlie his work—ambitions that are at least partially inspired by Pound and thus transcend the “merely southern” emphasis in Wright’s work.
Having spent some time thinking about the concept of origins in a book on the long poem and in a related article, I am dubious that starting points can be as definitive as the Wright story suggests.2 In the present essay, I want to examine the relationship between Wright and Pound. It has become common for critics to define or dismiss Wright in relation to Pound. Accordingly, Wright has at times sought to distance himself from the earlier poet. And yet references to Pound persist throughout his nearly four-decade publishing career. Despite the fact that critics have been quick to compare Wright to Pound, there have been no extended studies of the relationship between the two poets.3 Here I would like to provide a chronological overview of references to Pound in Wright’s work so that a sense of the evolution of Pound in Wright’s thinking is made apparent. I contend that early on, Pound serves as a symbolic mentor for Wright, symbolic because Wright did not entertain a personal relationship with Pound. Nevertheless, Wright could look to the elder poet for a way to conduct oneself as a poet, as well as a way not to.
I borrow the concept of the symbolic mentor from Anthony W. Lee, in his essay “Johnson’s Symbolic Mentors: Addison, Dryden, and Rambler 86.” Lee offers a description of symbolic mentorship in action among Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison, and John Dryden. Although Wright’s relationship to Pound is not as overtly antagonistic as some of the relationships Lee describes, Lee’s commentary about the power of the mentoring situation is relevant in Wright’s case:
Those who are in the shadow, or under the influence, of a powerful mentor, of a successful and eminent predecessor, must devise strategies for escaping from the shadow, for distinguishing themselves from...