Should I be afraid of what I say about Franz Wright? After poet-critic William Logan napalmed the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wright’s latest works in The New Criterion, Wright responded by sending Logan a letter that read:

If there is ever the slightest possibility of our finding ourselves in the same room or general vicinity, I want to advise and plead with you to get away from that place, fast, because if I find out about it, I assure you it is distinctly possible that I will not be able to resist giving you the crippling beating you so clearly masochistically desire. I do not wish to kill you or hurt you, and so I beg you to get away from me, without delay, if you realize we are in the same room somewhere. 
Best, Franz. 

Logan loves to eviscirate what he considers mediocre talents (especially prize-winning mediocre talents) and if you can cut through the rage he usually has some pretty good insights. And while I haven’t spent a lot of time with Wright’s poetry, the stuff I’ve read in journals is kind of, well, old hat. Not exactly “the Hallmark cards of the damned,” as Logan so eloquently put it, but the confessional or post-confessional or post-post-confessional mode (or whatever you want to call it–poetry workshop therapy sessions) needs to go away. At least poems that fail to recognize the difference between a diary entry and a poem.

Franz Wright had, it seems, a rough childhood. His father was the acclaimed poet James Wright who apparently was more interested in his career than in fathering a couple of boys. Following the divorce to James, his mother moved to San Francisco from the Midwest and married an asshole. It’s kind of like Tobias Wolff’s story in “This Boy’s Life”–wealth and privledge temporarily derailed; fodder to be fed to your father’s publisher. 

When a poet freely adopts the confessional mode, sometimes it’s hard to separate the poet from the persona but it’s necessary to do so. Unless you’re Kenneth Goldsmith, who transcribed his every utterance for a week, there’s a line between poet and persona. And it appears Wright’s line is rather thin.

And this type of persona is used up, both literally and metaphorically. Haven’t we seen the bookish, boorish tough guy before? The drunken, druggy pugilist-poet seeking redemption? Hint: they’ve had movies made about them starring Mickey Rourke and Leonardio DiCaprio.

“Learning to Read,” the poem that appears in the January 19, 2009, issue of the New Yorker, is sprinkled with that tough guy persona and his precociousness and is so numbingly literal. Metaphor or allegory are excellent tools. These lines are unadorned, break at random, and are nothing more than personal history. It’s just boring: the persona doesn’t engage the reader, doesn’t make the reader (at this one) feel any emotion. If you’re going to ride the one-trick pony that is confessional verse, YOU MUST BE INTERESTING AND HAVE INSIGHT IN YOURSELF AND THE WORLD AROUND YOU. There. I feel better.

The most interesting phrase is in the second stanza, “and not into blossom,” when he’s speaking of speaking to his mother. But then it goes headlong into a mini-Wright family history straight into a litany of abstractions “lonlieness, boredom, and terror” into a gilding of his back-from-the-brink persona by noting that his motivation is “fiercely fuelled.” 

And then a little list of his literary influences gives way to the treacly, closing two lines that make little sense: “Life has taught me / to understand books.” The more I say it aloud the more ridiculous it sounds.  I suppose this is supposed to be a statement of implied negation, that by “understanding books” the poet understands little else, or doesn’t want to. 

Postscript bullets of observation:

  • Rilke has made a cameo appearance in a poem in back-to-back weeks.
  • Du Fu was a poet-historian of the Tang Dynasty who liked to write about military tactics in a highly constrictive form.
  • “Break into blossom” are the final words of James Wright’s poem “A Blessing.”*

*Not included in the original post.

Further Reading

A Random House essay on Franz Wright.

An NPR interview.

A Contemporary Poetry Review interview.

William Logan kneecaps The Beforelife…

… and God’s Silence…

…while the Times uses a gentler touch.