The National Catholic Review
Gale Swiontkowski
In 2004, Franz Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. In 2006, Wright followed this success with God’s Silence, about which James S. Torrens, S.J., poetry editor of America, has written in these pages (4/9), and which I consider brilliant—many of its poems works of genius. But do not read God’s Silence first. That volume is a culmination of Wright’s work to date, his spiritual work, as well as his poetic work. If you are new to Wright’s poetry, turn first to Earlier Poems. These confessional poems present honestly and sometimes brutally the experience of spiritual suffering, the fruits of which appear in God’s Silence.

But when I cut myself

I have to say:

this is my blood shed

for no one in particular.

—“Blood”

Don’t misunderstand me; these early poems are good—much more than good—but they are the utterances of a man struggling sometimes just to be, and then to be good, and of a poet seeking his voice and his subject, only just becoming aware he has already found them. Consider these lines from “Heaven”:

There is a heaven.

These sunflowers—those dark, wind-

threshed oaks...

Heaven’s all around you,

though getting there is hard:

it is death,

heaven.

Earlier Poems collects verse from four volumes—The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes (1982), Entry in an Unknown Hand (1989), The Night World & the Word Night (1993) and Rorschach Test (1995), all previously collected in Ill Lit. The epigraph of that earlier volume, from Søren Kierkegaard, reads in part: “One must never desire suffering.... If a man desire suffering, then it is as though he were able by himself to solve this terror—that suffering is the characteristic of God’s love....” Many of the poems in Earlier Poems show what suffering is for, what confessionalism can bring about, if the poet works at it and is lucky. And sometimes, in the realm of spiritual experience, being lucky may be a question of having some bad luck.

Whatever it is

I was seeking, with my tactless despair:

it has already happened.

...How happy I am!

There’s no hope for me.

—“At the End of the Untraveled Road”

In an interview in the fall 2006 issue of the journal Image, Franz Wright recounts some of his struggles. His father, the poet James Wright, left the family when Franz was in early adolescence, and his stepfather was physically abusive. “By the time I was eighteen, I felt like a broken person. I was terrified of the world.”

Wright subsequently struggled with alcohol and drugs, and he credits poetry in part with enabling his recovery: “I can say that writing gave me a reason to try to be well as much as possible.... I had the good fortune to have this second infinity, this second universe, inside of me, which I carried around with me...writing poetry [is] an attempt to be part of that company of people who made this reality possible in the world.”

The answering cold, like a stepfather

to a silent child

And the light

if that’s what it is

The steplight

No

the light that’s always leaving

—“Untitled”

Just as Wright sought to join the community of poets, he yearned to enter “the early Christian communities...people who believe something is possible, who refuse not to believe it,” and eventually he joined the Catholic Church. Wright speaks of one parallel between creative inspiration and spirituality: “...to get to them you must go through long, arid, terrible, painful periods.” Out of the acceptance of suffering comes joy; Mass becomes “an experience of participation in the human family.... This new sense of unqualified acceptance and love was the most moving experience of my life. It made me want to write again.”

For Wright, putting suffering on a page is not only a metaphorical act but also a spiritual one: “We are all words made flesh.... It is the greatest accomplishment of human beings to see this possibility, to recognize the figure of Christ. No human endeavor can go beyond the achievement of seeing the possibility of the infinite participating in our pain and terror and failure.”

I see the one walking this road

I see the one whose coat is thin whose

shoes need mending

who is cold it’s a very cold day

for stopping beside this dead cornfield

and basking one’s face in those gray

Rorschach clouds

I see the one whose lips say nothing

I see through his eyes I see the buried

radiance in things

the one who isn’t there

—“The Road”

For this reason, Franz Wright despairs somewhat of his post-Pulitzer success: “You can never get your private, anonymous love back.... If fame comes, there’s an element of self-consciousness that can never be eluded after that.... But nothing is going to stop this feeling of failure and pain at not writing what I think of as a real poem today.... And that pain is all I have.”

Wright seems to believe that our humanity is dependent upon our consciousness of our own suffering and mortality, our participation in the Crucifixion, and that poetry should preserve and enhance this awareness. And I am very glad he does.

Gale Swiontkowski is a professor of English at Fordham University, New York City.