Walking to Martha’s Vineyard
2004 Pulitzer Prize winner
Even before graduating from Oberlin, Franz Wright
began publishing his spare, luminous, haunted lyrics in Field and
other journals. Numerous chapbooks and collections from university
presses followed, earning prizes and devoted fans over the next 20
years. But not until the late ’90s, when Oberlin College Press
published Ill Lit: Selected & New Poems and the New
featuring Wright’s poems on a regular basis, did his work become
known to a wider audience. This spring his latest book won the Pulitzer
Prize, thus assuring Wright’s reputation as one of the leading
poets of his generation.
All this is of course immensely good news.
At the same time, I can’t help
but feel slightly perturbed at some aspects of the attendant publicity, given
what they suggest about our culture’s prevailing attitudes about art.
Every feature article and interview I’ve seen has focused on two elements:
relationship to his father (the late poet James Wright, who himself won the
Pulitzer in 1972), and his decades-long struggles with addiction and mental
former concern is newsworthy, of course: the father-and-son Pulitzers do signal
a remarkable relationship, and a number of the poems in this volume explore
its obsessive, knotty dynamic. While I believe that Franz fully deserves to
out of his father’s shadow, I understand that the familial reference
is probably inescapable.
The interviewers’ emphasis on the autobiographical
element, though, is unfortunate, since it seems too easily to perpetuate
Romantic mythologies of
the self-regarding artist. It’s a tricky business, since the poems
do embody a narrative of often ruthless self-examination: when the poet says, “If
they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it would have been
an act of mercy,” he at least partly means it. Often the voice is so
intimate that the reader feels voyeuristic, plunged to the depths of interiority.
to read these poems as literal transcriptions of Wright’s own experience
is to miss the point. Rather, they depend on a precise, acutely disciplined
self-construction, a persona that draws on the poet’s experience but
is not confined by it.
Paradoxically, I would say that the central subject
of this deeply personal book is the urge to escape the limitations of the
self. In Wright’s earlier
work, that urge was expressed through attraction to the oblivion of alcohol
or drugs or even of death; now, having pulled back from the edge, he finds
through imagination or love or spirituality. The self becomes iconic, “the
mortal mind thinking / deathless things, / singing.” The mode here
is hermetic, mystical, often deadpan funny, with the clarity of Zen koans.
volume traces the emergence from purgatory into something that feels genuinely
like grace: “Set the mind / before the mirror of eternity // and everything
David Walker ’72 is a professor of English at
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