The Poetry of Franz Wright and Fanny Howe

In the last six years I got very very interested in being around people in different forms of affliction… I use the term affliction in the sense of genuinely broken people who may not make it back. I like to be around people who are struggling with addiction and struggling with mental illness. I volunteered for a number of years in a place called the Center for Grieving Children… I’m happy among them, I like being around people who are struggling with crushing, difficult things. I’m much happier, it makes me feel more normal. That’s much more interesting, really, than writing.

Franz Wright

Franz Wright’s poems read like one man’s chronicle of spirit — as told by the spirit more than the man. He has said they they often seem nearly to write themselves, in a sort of rapture. Both prayerful and witty, they tell stories of recovery to the point of something like ecstasy.

The uninterruptible voice, the

silence I now call

my only friend

Who says

right about now you might want to stop playing

mad chemist with your brain: return to Me

and I will return

from “The Next Home” in God’s Silence, Knopf, 2006

The humiliation I go through

when I think of my past

can only be described as grace.

We are created by being destroyed.

from “Letter, January 1998” in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,

Knopf, 2003

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 something to perceive.

from “The Only Animal” in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,

Knopf, 2003

franz_wrightFranz Wright [Courtesy of Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright / Random House]

Franz Wright (born 1953) and his father James Wright (1927 – 1980) both won Pulitzer Prizes for poetry — the lyrical experimentalist James in 1972, Franz in 2004. The only father-son Pulitzer pair in the same field, they could be imagined as the big-league poetry version of

baseball’s Ken Griffeys (Jr. and Sr.), though with dark twists. Franz has recalled that as a teenager when he sent his first efforts to his estranged dad, his famous father wrote him a letter that began: “I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

In fact Franz Wright’s sustained surge of poems in the last decade have mapped his own route out of hell — out of the severe depression and alcoholism that afflicted his father before him. Along the way he found his way into Catholicism, Alcoholics Anonymous and a sustaining marriage. His poems make many references to daily mass, and regular recovery meetings. Often he addresses God directly as: You.

It is late afternoon and I have just returned from

the longer version of my walk nobody knows

about. For the first time in nearly a month, and

everything changed. It is the end of March, once

more I have lived. This morning a young woman

described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby

in your arms. The astonishing windy and altering light

and clouds and water were, at certain moments,

You.

… Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the

sane; thank You for letting me know what this is

like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening

blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without

terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly

lost

with this love

from “One Heart” in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, Knopf,

2003

Fanny Howe will join this conversation — another light-in-the-darkness poet of searching religious mysticism that seems so powerfully out-of-step with what we think of as our dominant secular culture. An eminence in her own right, Fanny Howe is a special favorite of Franz Wright, who copied out her poem, “Conclusively,” in an email — “one of Fanny Howe’s poems in which I stand in hopeless awe.”

CONCLUSIVELY

The night was almost too long to bear

Then there was evidence of mercy–a passing car–

milky air–and I could see

dry walls & gravel on the way to a highway

Atlantic for its grays

Loss the the fulfillment of the Law

Space collected on a long line

I was eliminated as a locus of mothering–

a she–physical but imaginary as a restless daughter

Why this body and not another

The one who came to destroy the works of women–their

offspring–

knew how many people were resisting incarnation

He counted on them by accommodating them

Guilt relieving guilt

is the get of killers whose mouths shine

I can’t say enough about this–red because sore

& polished because wet

One died to become the spirit-guide

Before that time

there were second persons in everything

Then saints, then no one

to guide anyone to heaven

Cosmic expansion has gone in its prefered direction

I can hear the hour, this never

happened to me before

One day I will shake the blue sky from my hair

and slip back to consciousness–

the thing that is always aware

with or without a living creature to share its pleasures

Tonight I request the precious gift of final perseverance

shored up in my sheets

not far from a predawn holocaust

of traveling children

from Fanny Howe: Selected Poems, UC Press,

2000

Franz Wright

Poet, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Walking to Martha’s Vineyard

Fanny Howe

Poet, novelist and short story writer

Alice Quinn

Poetry Editor, The New Yorker

Extra Credit Reading
Joseph Torra, Fanny Howe, joeblog, March 21, 2006.

Jonathan Mayhew, 2.27.2003, Bemsha Swing, February 27, 2003.

Ericson, Drawings by Trees, Undesigner / Visioneer, June 4, 2006.

Kelly LeVan, Thinking makes it so, lamonitor.com, July 19, 2006.

Alice Quinn, In the Beforelife: Franz Wright, The New Yorker, July 9, 2001.

Ilya Kaminsky, A Symposium on the Works of Franz Wright, Web Del Sol Review of Books.

Justin Marks, In My Father’s House There Are Many Rooms, Web Del Sol Review of Books.

Leonard Schwartz, Fanny Howe: Meditations on Word and Life, Jacket Magazine, May 2004.

Fanny Howe, On the Ground, Graywolf Press, July 2004.

Franz Wright, God’s Silence, Random House, March 2006.

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  • katemcshane

    I heard Franz Wright read from WALKING TO MARTHA’S VINEYARD before it won the Pulitzer. His voice was one the truest voices I’d ever heard. It took courage to write the poems and I was heartened to see work like this coming out of a major publishing house.

    I don’t have anything profound to say. I’m a poet, just beginning to be published (at a late age – I’m 58). I believe my work is good. Franz Wright is one of a handful of living poets in the country who matters to me. (Li-Young Lee is someone else to be aware of, and he’s beginning to say in interviews that he’s coming out of the closet with a belief that writing poetry is a spiritual experience, that it’s connected to God.)

    I didn’t come through an academic program, which probably makes me fortunate. I think the fact that Franz went through hellilsh experiences brought him to a place where he can be centered and be in communication with his soul. As long as he maintains this connection, he speaks in the truest voice. I’ve been through some pretty rough times and I began to have some of these experiences that might be called ecstasy last year when I was out of work (and eventually homeless). I have an impression that more and more people are having these experiences. Maybe that sounds strange to you. I’m not a kook. I’m intelligent and well educated and I’ve been teaching myself to write poetry for 30 years. Franz Wright’s work gives me hope, that there is a way to speak in your most inner voice and write wonderful poetry. It was a surprise to me, to find this voice, to have these experiences, after decades of the idea of God being connected with the Religious Right, which in my view, has nothing to do with God or anyone’s soul.

    Also, I really like your show. I liked the series on race/class and the shows on election fraud, in particular. I loved the show about the guy who roasted Bush, when Chris talked to the press (who in my opinion couldn’t handle it at all) and he kept trying to break through all the posturing). I loved the show with the teacher who experimented with kids and racism. I love the intelligence of the show. I love the way Chris articulates ideas. I love his enthusiasm. I’ve listened for only the last several months. Once I found a place to live, I decided not to have a TV and listen to jazz on the radio in the evening. I found your show by accident and now I listen as soon as I get home from work.

    Anyway, thanks. I can’t wait to hear this show tonight.

    Kate

  • scottg

    I’m happy to see a show featuring Mr. Wright. In his work, Franz Wright has perfected the art of emotional silence with the kind of staccato line breaks that one might expect from a voice mired alternately in crisis and awe. The reader walks through an excrutiatingly intimate threshold in a Franz Wright poem, where ones most private whispers, whether in suffering or bewilderment, come through in pristine waves. His poems are like brief bursts of starlight, sometimes feeling so rushed out into the world that there is no time for capitalization or grammatical rigor. Mr. Wright need not take on dramatic personas or mythical identities as a Sylvia Plath, for his own life has carried enough fire and ice and large sweeping solitudes to form its own mythical structure. It is a structure in which the narrative voice strives for redemption, salvation from a higher power while he seeks it in the Keatsian beauty of earthly presence, realities, concerns. Wright’s poetry proves Robert Creeley’s idea that “form is never more than an extension of content” with ferocity and humility. Early in his career, just as with his father’s, it appears as if his poems were more groomed, formal, less subject to the winds that might force a phrase into the netherworld of the right margin. Once he began to allow in raw emotional gusts, poignant irregularities of the “diamond-starved” life, and work with silence (in my opinion, like no other poet has worked with it) as carefully as one works with utterance, he reached a profound new realm. And maybe mirrored in living too. His newest book is aptly named, for Mr. Wright has recognized silence’s power to draw the reader into a timeless suspension between life and death: the life of speech via the poem’s words vs. the death of its ending and its margins, the entirety of the silence that surrounds it. Wright recreates that “one insular Tahiti” in man that Melville spoke of and fills it with a rush of piety, gratitude, and sometimes, suspicion and mistrust– for it does seem that we are carried more by the uncontrollable river than we feel. Wright’s poems are best when the reader feels that tension between restraint and confession, awe and misery, where silence plunges us into the incertitude of pain-pleasure dichotomy, darkness and light– the man can turn on a dime better than anyone out there. And in this respect Walking to Martha’s Vineyard is a triumph of method meeting suffering as its perfect complement, ally, and ultimately expurgating force.

    I’ll be listening tonight to the show with great interest. It would be interesting to hear about how Mr. Wright’s relationship with his father has affected his work, along with mental illness, and any changes in style over the years as a result. Can poetry be ones salvation? Perhaps not by itself. But I’m willing to bet Mr. Wright has felt this beast of poetry, this lyrical transfusion of self-sung nightmares and reveries, as all he had at times to get himself through to the other side.

  • lsampson@110.net

    Well, a question really. I recently heard Franz Wright speak informally about poets and poetry that informed his work and his love of the art. Could he say more about that on this show?

  • I’d never been aware of Mr. Wright’s work.

    I’m listening now, and 15 minutes in I’m already completely touched and so greatful to have been introduced to his work.

    Thank you.

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  • I was on vacation last week and missed the show. But I’ve downloaded the podcast and will listen to it on my commute to work. Thanks for keeping poetry relevant.

  • I’ve listened to dozens of these shows…and I consider myself an “old time” fan of Lydon’s from The Connection days in boston.

    I’m finally moved to write in today because of the extraordinary power of Wright’s words. I’m a big fan of Herbert and Hopkins (and i highly recommend Buechner’s treatmetn of the latter in Speak what we mean, not what we ought to say). Wright’s an inheritor of that tradition. He takes us further than the conflicted, symbolist Hart Crane, further even than the privileged/tortured Lowell.

    “The only animal” poem resonates so well with Szymborska’s “In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself”, available at

    https://notes.utk.edu/Bio/greenberg.nsf/94dc73267f34ed8285256b410034bcc8/55be6d41dd7a95f285256b43002ff1b3?OpenDocument

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  • katemcshane

    Franz Wright will be reading his poetry at Boston University, MUG Richards-Roosevelt Room, 1st floor, 771 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston on Tuesday, 9/26/06, at 5:30 p.m. It’s free.