by Jack Russell
Thursday, October 16, Guerry Auditorium fills with balding heads and tweed. Polite conversations are enjoyed; thick books with titles like Ecopoetry Anthology are proudly displayed on laps. An archipelago of blonde and brown check phones amid a sea of frosty grey. Charles Wright, Poet Laureate of these United States, has been lured onto campus by an honorary degree, and while here will read from his several decades of work. Posters plastered around campus and the hand-bills given at Guerry’s door describe Wright’s central themes with the same vague quote: “language, landscape and the idea of God.”
Professor Wyatt Prunty climbs the stairs and approaches the podium. A ridiculous display of plastic ferns rings the stand, backed by a Sewanee step-and-repeat backdrop, the kind seen be-hind NFL press conferences or red-carpet photo-shoots. The crowd goes from polite to silent as Prunty fondly re-calls a series of “back in 1986 my wife Barb and I went…” stories and anecdotes, a few of which involved the poet laureate. After a quotation-stuffed lecture presented with all the excitement and brevity of an introductory essay, Prunty welcomed Wright to the stage.
Charles Wright looks just like he does in the posters: rustic blue oxford tucked into slacks, his face curious and expressive and just a little bit confused. Wright launches into a poem almost immediately, at which point the microphone begins to fight back. It cracks, it pops, it fades in and out as Wright struggles on. “Why does this thing keep spitting at me,” Wright asks, spitting into the microphone. A voice from the back of the auditorium shouts muddled instructions to another someone, who turns up the lighting. “Now I can’t see the book,” says Wright. The poet fights the light and sound systems on and off for the next fifteen minutes, much to the amusement of the crowd.
By the time Wright begins reading his poem “Bedtime Stories,” the microphone has been replaced with a louder sonic menace: the bells. Shapard Tower’s weekly rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” begins to play, as do hurriedly hushed ringtones in the audience. Wright powers through it all. He quotes Che Guevara and Laurie Anderson, and explains “I steal a lot, but I always give credit.” Wright filled the space between his last poems with commentary and advice. “Live your life like you’re already dead.” “When your titles get more interesting than your poems, you’re in deep stuff.” “And then I got happy and started writing short poems.” As the reading concluded, and the audience stood, Wright descended and blended into the crowd of formal grey, leaving everyone with thoughts of (why not say it here too?) “language, landscape, and the idea of God.”