Like Denis Johnson, Franz Wright is one of those literary figures who should have been found dead from a drug overdose in some motel room in California years ago. Wright’s father, the poet James Wright, left the family when Wright was eight. His mother remarried, and by Wright’s own account, her second husband was an abusive man, both towards Wright and his brother Marshall and their mother. Wright decided early on that he wanted to be a poet. He studied at Oberlin College, where he began taking drugs, and published his first book of poems at 21. After college, he made ends meet with odd jobs and his writing and translations, while continuing to struggle with drugs and, like his father, alcohol. Wright married briefly, continued to write, drink and take drugs. He suffered a number of mental breakdowns over the years and was hospitalized on five different occasions, his last at McClean Hospital in Belmont. In 1998, however, he met Elizabeth Oehlkers, married, and converted to Catholicism.
In an interview for Christianity and Literature, Wright speaks of his conversion like this:
You know, there was a time when I thought of Catholic churches as excellent places to drink. I liked to go in and sit, they’d be empty. That was when the doors were open. They keep them locked now. […] What happened was wherever I lived, wherever I happened to be; and I lived all over the place. Everywhere I’ve ever lived, I’ve found myself wandering into Catholic churches and sitting in the back and feeling really safe and happy for a while. You know, not always drinking. And I couldn’t participate. One of the things that is so poignant about the Eucharist celebration is that it represents human beings sitting down at a table and eating together and being a family. It’s not something that I experienced a lot of. I think that might have drawn me to it. It felt like a place of unqualified love and I hadn’t had that.
It’s this sense of unqualified love that Wright attempts to express in his work following his conversion. In “One Heart,” for example, which first appeared in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (2004), Wright’s strongest work to date, he writes:
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
with this love
A central characteristic of the poet’s early work is the tension between confession and construction. The clear narrative flow of his poems is often coupled with a constrained word choice, enjambment and large spaces between lines or stanzas, sudden shifts in diction, and absurd or pathetic imagery. Earlier in his career, and similar to other “confessional” poets, Wright viewed the poet as a “surgeon” who must cut up his life to save it, even if this self-salvation is at best uncertain.
This potential but temporal or partial salvation for Wright consists of restoring the invigoration we feel in the presence of something beautiful and of healing our alienation from the world and others with the communal act of art. Drawing from René Char’s practice of “enlèvement-embellissement” [“removing-beautifying”] and Rilke’s notion of the poet as a sort of Christ-figure, Wright would remove words, add spaces, shift diction, surprise with absurd or pathetic images or metaphors to build something beautiful out of his suffering—creating poems that have, as he puts it, a “mysterious commonplace.”
Yet, while many of these early poems are indeed beautiful, what is interesting is that during this period the poet continually remarks on his failure to accomplish what is needed. In “Initial,” for example, the poet longs for a concrete and vibrant existence:
To be able to say it: rose, oak, the stars.
And not to be blind!
Just to be here
for one day, only
to breathe and know when you lie down
you will keep on breathing;
to cast a reflection–,
oh, to have hands
even if they are a little damaged,
even if the fingers
leave no prints.
Yet, language is unable to provide him with this being. As he confesses in “Heaven,” “they are only words.” And while the poet is “tempted” by the language of the Lord’s Prayer and the beauty of churches, he decides that “no symbol is going to help us” because “There are no symbols / with the efficacy we require”—a view he later revises.
In his later poems, Wright discovers that the power of poetry’s redemptive potential is in its reflection of Christ’s redemption, not the poet’s self, as it was for Rilke. In “Thanks Prayer at the Cove,” for example, Wright writes:
A year ago today
I was unable to speak
one syntactically coherent
thought let alone write it down: today
in this dear and absurdly allegorical place
by your grace
I am here
In fact, for Wright, both beauty and metaphor are a testament of God’s existence. Poetry is no longer a means of salvation in Wright’s work but a testament of, and an apology for, our salvation in Christ. In “Year One,” he writes:
I was still standing
on a northern corner
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of
of Your existence? There is nothing
After Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, Wright returned to the idea of silence in his work. In his earlier poems silence is death and a reminder of the meaninglessness of life. In God’s Silence (2006), however, it is a metaphor for peace and for God’s inscrutable nature. The recurrent phrase, “I have heard the silence of God,” from which the book gets its title, expresses the act of meditating on those element of God we cannot represent in language.
Yet, there is also a certain mysticism in Wright’s treatment of the topic of silence that unfortunately tends to dilute the power of the specific revealed nature of God and Christ in the Old and New Testaments. Because of this, God’s Silence lacks the power of Walking To Martha’s Vineyard.
Books of poetry by Franz Wright:
“Language as a Sacrament in the New Testament,” Image Journal 57 (2008)
With Ernest Hilbert, Contemporary Poetry Review (2006)
“A Writer Carries on His Father’s Legacy of Poetry and Pain,” New York Times (2004)
“Supper with the Infinite,” Books & Culture (2007)
“The Wright Stuff,” America Magazine (2010)