Monday, November 17, 2014

Franz Wright Reading Wednesday November 19th

Franz Wright Reading Wednesday November 19th

by Michael Todd Steffen, co-organizer of the Hastings Room Reading Series

This Wednesday, the 19th of November, at 7:00 pm Franz Wright will be reading in the Hastings Room at First Church Congregationalist, 11 Garden Street near the Harvard Square Sheraton Commander Hotel. Franz will be joined by Mary Buchinger-Bodwell and George Kalogeris. I believe this will be the first reading Wright has given in public for a some time. It’s going to be a special occasion, and gives me the space here to make some observations on his poetry.

One of the powerful virtues of Franz Wright’s poetry is its raw intelligence. Through his translations, references in his own poems and in interviews, he has impressed us with a wide-ranging and eclectic literary culture, while often expressing scorn for scholarship and convention, maybe partly for the sake of a mythos he has built about himself as a 21st century Romantic confronting the demons of child abuse, abandonment and addiction, leading his meditations anagogically to the themes of self-destruction and death, yet also to the therapy of speaking about these, recovery, and to a faith in and ultimate reliance on God and a life to come. These make for an interesting, distinctly American combination of derision for tradition and sophistication with a surrendering and humble faith in a redeeming God.

Wright has championed a bold, edgy, tell-all vernacular that warrants disregard for the second part of Emily Dickinson’s advice to tell all the truth (But tell it slant). His poems are edited (most notably in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard) less for content than for effects of counterpoint and silence.

In his 2013 collection F (Knopf), on the Christmas page, page 25, the poet comes to a statement of culmination echoing the subject of his meditation, mortality, an acknowledgment of an end itself:

    But I’ve said all that
    I had to say.
    In writing.
    I signed my name.
    It’s death’s move now.

It is a semantic notation in the music of acceptance of the inevitable: not that any of us are convinced that Franz Wright has exhausted his meaning or his means with poetry. Except to say that it’s okay with him in case.

The strophe is the second of four in a poem titled CRUMPLED-UP NOTE BLOWING AWAY, the title itself making an acronymic suggestion (C B A) of an order in reverse to its zero being, where the order starts back again.

The title also makes a poignant correlative image perhaps for how any of us can be made to feel on not so good a day: like a waded up piece of paper in the wind. Yet in our time of superabundant “pages” available and sent to us in every sort of binding, envelope or electronic mail, perhaps the note on the crumpled piece of paper we just happen to pick up and unfold, thanks to the unique path it has taken to get to us, becomes the most intimate, deliberate and meaningful scrap of reading we’ve had in a long time.

In a different way we notice the strophe’s last line, “It’s death’s move,” appealing less to our personal anticipation than to our curiosity about this game of chess the poet has been playing against Death. It is interesting and disinteresting at the same time, because it is a game neither Franz nor any one of us can finally win, though we have played it our whole lives with every hope and earnestness. This explains the next line and the ecstatic vision, wholly American in character, concluding the poem:

    It can have mine, too.
    It’s a perfect June morning,
    and I just turned eighteen;
    I can’t even believe
    what I feel like today.

    Here am I, Lord,
    sitting on a suitcase,
    waiting for my train.
    The sun is shining.
    I’m never coming back.

How explain the transformation that takes place between feeling as useless and random as a neglected piece of paper and as thrilled and hopeful as a teenager running away from home?

Centuries ago, the English poet John Donne made a similar pronouncement on his disinterest with the board game of mortality: Death be not proud… Donne is pertinent, perhaps questionable in this context, referring to the opening stanza of Wright’s poem. This is a variation on the old speculative question, If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does the tree make a sound? By applying the line of thought to the sun and its light and our vision, Wright significantly exaggerates the futility of the question, still with the purpose of evoking a subjective annihilation. In a much lighter complaint from a lover, Donne chided the sun:

        Busy old fool, unruly sun,
        Why dost thou thus
    Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
    Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
        Saucy pedantic wretch… (“The Sun Rising”)

Wright will echo one word from this passage perhaps for reference, while making his dismissive reply bespeaking the obvious solution to the dark, irresolute question he has been asking himself building up to writing the poem:

    Were no one
    here to witness it,
    could the sun be
    said to shine? Clearly,
    you pedantic fool.

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