A Note on Franz Wright's Work
by Ilya Kaminsky

Let me clarify my purposes for this discussion: I am not a literary critic or scholar; I am a practicing poet. Here, I am not interested in making any critical or analytical assumptions and inquiries. Instead, I would like to give the readers a mini-survey of poems and issues in Franz Wright’s work that move or inspire me personally.

In every generation there arises a poetic voice which speaks in a very clear, almost realist language. This voice says things that may sound mysterious or arrogant, romantic or visionary, funny or gravely serious, or (often) all of the above. This voice often speaks for one’s self but its originality and utter (or, sometimes, only seeming) sincerity gives it a universal appeal. I have not slightest doubt that Franz Wright is such a voice for his generation.

Wright’s lyrical “I” is often more than just one voice or one speaker. Instead, it can be a double voice: a voice arguing with itself, or arguing with the world, but addressing itself in more than one way, in more than one direction. Thus, in an poem aptly entitled “Voice” in his earlier collection (Rorsachach Test), Wright speaks about (among other things) the writing process: “No doubt you will show it to / somebody, at some point: they will talk to you, offer advice, // admit admiration for this phrase, // dislike for that. But they don’t understand. You don’t // care now—how can you. Now, I don’t care what they say, / what they do to me now. I used to. Terribly. And then you didn’t. // And then I didn’t.” The “I” here is the author. Or, possibly, the imagined reader. The “you” is the author also. Or, possibly, the also the reader. And who is asking the questions? Author’s alter ego? God? This dualism of voice reminds one of Louise Gluck’s Wild Iris (except that it was written before the poems in Wild Iris).

As we will see bellow, the sincerity and honesty in tonal qualities of this self-inspection have remained throughout Wright’s career. But first, here is a more recent poem:


Harder to breathe
near the summit, and harder

to remember
where you came from,

why you came

harder, and harder to say
the word "I"
with a straight face,
and sleep--

who can sleep. Who has time

to prepare for the big day
when he will be required
to say goodbye to everyone, including
the aforementioned pronoun, relinquish
all earthly attachment
completely, and witness
the end of the world--

harder in other words
not to love it

not to love it so much

As this, and many other poems show, the word “I” is obviously important to Wright, and yet Wright is not very interested in his own ego (at least as it appears on the page). He is often willing to make a joke at his own expense, to allow the humorous note at the moment when he may be a bit too serious: “What an evil potato goes through /we can never know, but / I'm beginning to resemble one,” he says, calling himself “General Franz P. Wright, Supreme Commander / of paranoid recluses, gray-haired / children.”

Focusing so intensively on the self (or, at least, the “I”), and yet making intentionally mocking, self-depreciating comments is one of several readily available contradictions in Wright’s work. There are many others. For instance, while much is said about dying in Wright’s books (the word “death” appears often, sometimes on almost every other page), his attitude towards dying is hardly morbid. What begins as a rhetorical address on the subject of human departure in one of his earlier poems (“And not to feel bad about dying. / Not to take it so personally-- // it is only / the force we exert all our lives // to exclude death from our thoughts / that confronts us…”) can easily be concluded as a mysterious, almost pastoral vision (“something like that, the Canadian wind // coming off Lake Erie / rattling the windows, horizontal snow // appearing out of nowhere/ across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees”). Such contradictions are vital for any poet: they show the poet’s range of human interest.

What surprises (and, frankly, gladdens) me about Wright’s work is his ability to be very humble and very arrogant at the same time—often in the same poem or line. The power of arrogance is misunderstood in American poetry. Poets (mostly employed as college professors) are supposed to be nice, supposed to say things which are sophisticated or sometimes heart-breaking—but not more than that. I am not implying here that one should not do those things (why not, after all be nice and sophisticated?) but any limitation can be dangerous if used continually. Franz Wright has no such limitations. He manages to be arrogant on the page and get away with it with a touch of graceful brilliance.

Let me dwell a bit on the question of arrogance. It is difficult to be arrogant in poetry; only few masters could afford the arrogant tone without compromising their art: Catallus, Villon, Maykovsky. Their arrogance highlighted their vitality, made their poetry alive on the page. But such tone can only be attained when the author reaches a certain point of clarity and directness, a certain point of (seeming, perhaps) ease where practically everything the poet utters retains arresting intensity. In my opinion, Franz Wright can attain this tonality better than anyone in our time. In “The Beforelife” he could be literary and arrogant (“I have been spared / the fate of those who love words / more than what they mean! / My poem is not / for example / a blank check in pussyland”), but also loving and humble at the same time: “Please love me/and I will play for you/ this poem/ upon the guitar / I myself made / out of cardboard and black threads / when I was ten years old. / Love me or else.” Moreover, he does not try to be nice or polite. When he tells us what we would rather not hear (“My name is Franz, and I’m a recovering asshole. / I’m a ghost / that everyone can see; one of the rats / who act / like they own the place.”) the directness of his voice is arresting.

Having said the above, I must add, however, that such arrogance alone is not enough. To make this reader completely gratified, the poet needs allow the gracious note. Here is an example of how Franz Wright does it:


Someone once told me about a Buddhist
monk who on awakening

each morning said, “Master!”
Then he would answer

“Yes, master?” And then
in a loud voice demand

“Become sober!”
Listen to what I am saying,

but listen especially
to what I am not saying—

Of all the powers of love,
this: it is possible

to die; which means
it is possible to live.

Now it is possible to die
without being mad or afraid.

In this, and many other poems, Wright gives us a clear human voice that speaks to itself, yes, but also to a larger audience: “We love one another” he tells us, “We don’t really know / anyone well, but / we love one / another.” What may be the arrogant drug addict’s letter asking for forgiveness, becomes something more, something universal: “The humiliation I go through / when I think of my past / can only be described as grace.” he writes, and then adds: “We are created by being destroyed.”

Sometimes, reading Wright’s most recent collection, “Walking To Martha’s Vineyard,” I found myself thinking of another tortured soul, Paul Celan, whose spiritual (and, at times, musical and tonal) intensity Wright’s best poems seem to embody. Rilke’s “Book of Hours” also came to mind. But Franz Wright is no man’s apprentice; the form of prayer his poems take is undoubtedly his own. As he tells us (or tells the world? God?): “There is hope in the past. / I’m writing to you / all the time, I am writing / with both hands, / day and night.” In such intense lines, Wright attains both clarity and mysterious vision:


-- for Gail Whitney

When you get tired of reading
all the beautiful words
by lousy human beings, and come to

the end of your patience with the voluminous
indeed inexaustible
mediocrities of goodness,

what to do? I suggest--
I don't know.
Let him think.

And if there are no words

to this place give him back
the illiterate sleep: no need
the haldol needle night-night;

let him go quietly, not
in horror,
not in glory.

Yes, “not / in horror, / not in glory” but gloriously so. This poet’s achievement, I think, is his ability to speak of one human’s most bewildering and mystifying experiences in a very clear language, with much emotional force. Perhaps the single most transformative (for me) line appears towards the end of Walking To Martha’s Vineyard: “there is power that wants me to live, I don’t know why.” He says that he does not know “why,” but we see how from one book to next Wright continually attempts to discover just that. In “The Beforelife” this attempt was evident in a spiritual longer poem, "Thanks Prayer at the Cove.” A final poem in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard furthers this inquiry. The comparison of these two pieces could be the subject of another long discussion. I won’t do it here. Instead, let me simply conclude this personal survey with a final poem from Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. In some way, this piece combines many of the issues discussed above: there is a duality of voice (who is the “I” of the last line, human or divine?), the loneliness of spirit, a certain degree of arrogance in calling a human being “the only animal that commits suicide”, the clarity of daily errands (brushing teeth, taking off one’s clothes) intensified by the emotional address, culminating in one’s prayer, or perhaps (and this is a powerful, mysterious assumption) in the answer to one’s prayer:


The only animal that commits suicide
went for a walk in the park,
basked on a hard bench
in the first star,
traveled to the edge of space
in an armchair
while company quietly
talked, and abruptly
the room empty

The only animal that cries,
that takes off its clothes
and reports to the mirror, the one
and only animal
that brushes its own teeth?

the only animal that smokes a cigarette,
that lies down and flies backward in time,
that rises and walks to a book
and looks up a word
heard the telephone ringing
in the darkness downstairs and decided
to answer no more.

And I understand,
too well: how many times
have I made the decision to dwell
from now on
in the hour of my death
(the space I took up here
scarlessly closing like water)
and said I'm never coming back,
and yet

this morning
I stood once again
in this world,
the garden
ark and vacant
tomb of what
I can't imagine,
between twin eternities,
some sort of wings,
more or less equidistantly
exiled from both,
hovering in the dreaming called
being awake, where
You gave me
in secret one thing
to perceive, the
tall blue starry
strangeness of being
here at all.

You gave us each in secret one thing to perceive.

Furless now, upright, My banished
and experimental

You said, though your own heart condemn you

I do not condemn you.