Last Thursday, distinguished poet and Professor in the Humanities at Princeton Susan Stewart hosted the second annual C.D. Wright Lecture, an event that honors the memory of poet C.D. Wright, a professor of literary arts who passed away unexpectedly in 2016. The lecture, titled “Snow Nobody Has Walked On: C.D. Wright and the Paradigm of Birth,” examined the interrelations of maternity, knowledge production and imprisonment — all themes pervading Wright’s work. Stewart also honed in on the significance of Wright’s rural Arkansas upbringing and how her poems allowed her readers to be “insiders” in “a mythic world of tractors and cars sunk in reservoirs, where people continue to believe in the transforming power of words.”
Stewart, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, was first introduced to Wright’s poetry when she was gifted a copy of Wright’s “Room Rented by a Single Woman” by a colleague in the 1980s. She was instantly transfixed by Wright’s capacity to accurately describe the “existential lives of women and men within a vast network of social forces,” Stewart said. “Her work was the pure fiction of everyday life.”
Among numerous other distinctions, Wright was a MacArthur Fellow in 2004, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former State Poet of Rhode Island. She published over a dozen books of poetry in her lifetime, including the notable “One Big Self: An Investigation,” a collaborative project with photographer Deborah Luster inspired by testimonies of people incarcerated in Louisiana prisons. She became a member of Brown’s Literary Arts faculty in 1983 and was “widely beloved,” according to her husband, Professor Emeritus of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature Forrest Gander, who spoke before the lecture.
“It’s strange not to see her out there” in the crowd, he added.
In her talk, Stewart focused on Wright’s preoccupation with childbirth, a subject that she believes was “rarely ever accounted for” in poetry before Wright began to wrestle with it. According to Stewart, Wright’s work prompted readers to consider themselves “not only as mortals, but as natals” capable of “creating a second birth for (themselves) and giving birth to new knowledge with thought and speech,” Stewart said.
Noelle Cook ’21 found this part of the lecture exceptionally powerful. “She talked about a lot of different ideas that connected in ways I hadn’t thought of before. Physical birth and the birth of knowledge is this perpetual, ongoing cycle,” Cook said.
Though Wright ran in the lofty inner circles of the upper-crust literary world, she remained intensely loyal to her native Ozark Mountains. She referred to herself as “the poet / of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch / phone books, of failed / roadside zoos / … Of satellite dishes” in her poem “Our Dust,” which appeared in The Paris Review in 1988.
After her death, the Los Angeles Times ran a tribute to Wright, calling her “one of the great ones” and praising “her insistence that poetry, and society, should become, not a hierarchy or a star system or a way to exalt a singular self, but a way to be generous … to let everybody come in.”
Stewart admired Wright’s fierce generosity and her democratic spirit that was a function of growing up in “a precarious, peripheral place.”
“In a poetry culture that for better or worse is often funded and shaped by legacies of wealth and parental connections, she was — like me — a countrywoman,” Stewart said. “She never turned away from the dictions and cadences of her native place, or the obligations of such testimony.”