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'God-fearing nonbeliever' becomes U.S. poet laureate

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 9:50 a.m. MDT

This undated handout photo provided by the Library of Congress/Holly Wright shows Charles Wright. The Library of Congress has chosen Southern writer Charles Wright to serve as the nation's next poet laureate beginning this fall.

Holly Wright, Associated Press

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An award-winning poet who writes about God and nature is now America's poet laureate. The Library of Congress announced its choice of Charles Wright on Thursday.

In a 2011 interview with PBS NewsHour, Wright explained that his poetry focuses on a few major themes. "The subject matter will change, what I'm looking at and what I'm thinking about and so on and so forth. But the content, which is language, landscape and the idea of God, particularly that last one, is unchanging, unvarying," he said.

Wright draws inspiration from Chinese poetry and his education at Episcopal boarding schools, The New York Times reported. These eclectic influences shape his poetic descriptions of the divine, although he considers himself a nonbeliever.

"I was left with the glowing shards of things which have continued to dazzle me," Wright explained to the Times.

When he was profiled by the literary journal storySouth in 2005, Wright said that his poems represented a kind of "tangential Christianity." He called himself a "God-fearing nonbeliever."

In an interview with The Paris Review, Wright said, "My work is suffused with the stuff of religion. We take the vocabulary we are given — in my case, Christian — and use it to our own ends. We try to develop and expand what we are given."

"Wright … did not seem destined to a life of poetry," reported the Times. While an undergraduate at Davidson College in North Carolina, he attempted to write fiction, eventually deciding that he was "the rare Southerner who couldn't tell a story."

He began writing poetry while serving in Italy with the Army in the 1950s, reported The Washington Post. Once back in the U.S., Wright attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and then began a long teaching career.

Now 78, Wright is retired from the University of Virginia, where he taught English. He "has already won just about every other honor in the poetry world, including the Pulitzer Prize (and) the National Book Award," reported the Times. The Pulitzer was for "Black Zodiac" in 1998.

Wright also won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement in 1993. All told, he has published 24 poetry collections and two books of essays, Time magazine reported.

Wright's appreciation for poetry is evident in all his interviews. "(Poetry) has been a way of sustaining my questions about life and mortality and all those things that we don't like to talk about, but they're always there, you know, knocking on the window," Wright said to PBS NewsHour.

The Library of Congress describes the position of "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry" in vague terms. Poet laureates are given a $35,000 annual stipend and the charge to serve as "the nation's lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."

The description continues, "During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry."

Wright isn't sure yet how he'll spend his time in the position, but he told NPR that he won't be as active as his predecessors. "I'll do what they ask me, and I'll try to come up with some ideas about things, but I'm not going to actively go out and stir up the honey bucket, you know."

For the summer, Wright and his wife are headed to a remote cabin in Montana, The New York Times reported, where he will spend his time "pondering his new public role" and "gobbling up fiction" before his new job begins with a public reading in late September.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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