Born in 1953, Franz Wright’s collections of poetry include The Beforelife (2001), God’s Silence (2006), and Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. He has received a Whiting Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts for his poetry. Wright has translated poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke and Rene Char; in 2008 he and his wife, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, co-translated a collection by the Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, Factory of Tears.
In his precisely crafted, lyrical poems, Wright addresses the subjects of isolation, illness, spirituality, and gratitude. Of his work, he has commented, “I think ideally, I would like, in a poem, to operate by way of suggestion.” Langdon Hammer, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote of God’s Silence: “In his best poems, Wright grasps at the ‘radiantly obvious thing’ in short-lined short lyrics that turn and twist down the page. The urgency and calculated unsteadiness of the utterances, with their abrupt shifts of direction, jump-cuts and quips, mime the wounded openness of a speaker struggling to find faith.”
Novelist Denis Johnson has said Wright's poems "are like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers—miraculous gifts.”
Poet Jordan Davis suggested that Wright .. was so accomplished (his work) would have to be kept "out of the reach of impulse kleptomaniacs.” He added, "deader than deadpan, any particular Wright poem may not seem like much, until, that is, you read a few of them. Once the context kicks in, you may find yourself trying to track down every word he’s written.”
And finally, on the subject of Kindertotenwald, poet and critic, Grace Cavalieri has written: Experts say the title translates to children + the dead + woods/forest; perhaps, “Forest of Dead Children.” This haunting title presages a haunting reading experience. Wright is a philosopher poet. Perhaps all poets who present new thoughts about our humanity are philosophers. Certainly, the way Wright studies the human condition and its illusions qualifies.
This book is a departure from the best known poems of Wright. I love to see established poets try forms that go beyond their previous work. I like those who meddle with success. These prose poems are intriguing thought patterns that show poetry as mental process. This is original material, and if a great poet cannot continue to be original, then he is really not all that great. “Prose poetry” is not what we expected. Wright is known for his elegant verticality, the terse phrase and a zinger ending. However, prose, to be poetry, must also have a springiness within the long line or it’s just margin to margin. Some call this springiness “music” or “lyricism.” It depends on tension and release, both which must be done as carefully as with any line of poetry. Paul Valery and Arthur Rimbaud told us that.
The utility of the horizontal poem is that it allows a stream of connectedness to lead us by the hand through the poet’s thought process. The danger is that it goes into auto drift. The trick, it seems, is to manage and control with the aid of momentum and tone. Much of this probably cannot be done consciously as it depends on the intrinsic language humming inside the poet. Tone comes as a result of diction that comes from word choice. Put all together and we have beautiful glue so that the center will hold and we don’t get bored. With Franz Wright this all works to the good.
A secret I know about readers is that a terrific job makes everyone feel “I want to do this.” Instead of “How did he do this?” It inspires. Bad art depletes and makes the reader think “I could not possibly say this, or tell that.” In this text there is a joyfulness that energizes and makes us feel the writing as a purposeful surge. It is a life force. This is a good indicator of literary art. And if the poet chooses a form close to stream of consciousness at times, the consciousness better be a very rich one. No one could accuse of Wright of less. Poetry is an illusion of an imagined life, biography filtered through intuition.
There are many wonderful poems assuming autobiography in Kindertotenwald. Memory and the past, mortality, longing, childhood, time, space, geography and loneliness are all the poet’s playthings. In these conversations with himself, Franz Wright shows how the mind works with his feelings and his brain’s agility in its struggle with the heart. Sometimes the poems are very funny…. Sometimes the poems are very sad.
What I applaud most is the courage that is evident. His poetry is written as if there is nothing to lose. And so it wins everything. These careful cadences are one man’s bitter love. They are also what Joseph Brodsky calls “the highest locution.”
Franz Wright’s father was the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Wright. He has taught at Emerson College and other universities, has worked in mental health clinics, and has volunteered at a center for grieving children.
Selected works include:
Wheeling Motel 2009
Earlier Poems 2009
God’s Silence 2006
Walking to Martha’s Vineyard 2003
The Beforelife 2001