Franz Wright, celebrated and tormented poet and poet’s son, dies at 62
Franz Wright was 15 and living in California when he sent some of his first poems to a tough critic — his father.
“I’ll be damned,” the acclaimed poet James Wright wrote back. “You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”
The elder Wright’s words were knowing — and prophetic. His son would share his afflictions — decades darkened by mental illness and addiction — as well as a gift for transforming personal pain into Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
Franz Wright, who wrote with raw lyricism about inner demons, death, God and redemption, died of lung cancer Thursday at his home in Waltham, Mass., according to his publisher, Knopf. He was 62.
“Franz lived for poetry — at times it seemed it kept him alive — and he managed to write poems in which the choice to live feels continually renewed,” Deborah Garrison, his longtime editor, said in a statement.
He and his father are believed to be the only father and son to have each won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The elder Wright won his in 1972, and his son followed three decades later when he was honored for the 2003 collection “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.”
The senior Wright was a strong presence in the younger man’s poems. He was an absent father after he divorced Franz’s mother, and the son felt his abandonment keenly. “Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely,” he wrote in “Flight,” a poem from the prize-winning volume.
“The son’s poetry can sometimes seem to channel the father’s poignant self-accusations and ecstatic sympathies,” American Scholar poetry editor Langdon Hammer once wrote of the poetry world’s fascination with Wright’s relationship with his famous father.
Wright was born March 18, 1953 in Vienna, Austria, where his father was studying on a Fulbright fellowship. His father’s career brought frequent moves: After Vienna, the older Wright went to the University of Washington in Seattle for his doctorate, then worked at the University of Minnesota.
The younger Wright’s mother, Liberty Kovacs, said Friday that her son created his first poem when he was 3 and recited it to his father. “He said it because he couldn’t write it,” Kovacs said. “Jim was so thrilled to hear his son say a little poem that he told his teacher, Theodore Roethke. Roethke said, ‘Wow, I wish I had said that!’”
Wright grew up among famous poets. Besides Roethke, his father’s friends included John Berryman and Anne Sexton. “I thought they were all nuts,” Wright said in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2004. “They were all big drinkers. It took me a long time to realize that one could be an artist and lead a normal life.”
After his parents divorced when he was 8, he moved with his mother and younger brother, Marshall, to San Francisco, where she remarried. He later said his stepfather, like his father, was physically abusive.
My dad beat me with his belt
for my edification and further
improvement and later that other
stranger took over
somewhat more expertly
When he was 16 Wright fell into clinical depression but improved and went to Oberlin College. There he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, but he also published his first poem, in the magazine Field. In 1976, the year before he graduated, his first book of poetry was published, “Tapping the White Cane of Solitude.”
His second volume came out in 1980, the year his father died of tongue cancer at 52.
His reputation grew with prestigious fellowships, including from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim and the Whiting Foundation; he won the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry in 1996. But during the same period he was in and out of institutions for alcoholism and manic-depression. He lost a teaching job at Emerson College in Boston because of his drinking.
For more than a year in the late 1990s his depression was so paralyzing he could barely leave his bed. “I thought of nothing but suicide, even in sleep,” he recalled in the New York Times in 2004.
who can sleep. Who has time
to prepare for the big day
when he will be required
to say goodbye to everyone
Two events brought a break in his clouds.
The first was a chance encounter with a former student from Emerson, Elizabeth Oehlkers. They fell in love and, in 1999, were married.
That same year he converted to Catholicism, and his spiritual awakening opened a floodgate. “I would go to Mass and I would no sooner sit down than entire poems would appear full-blown,” Wright said in a 2006 interview in the journal Image. “I had not been able to write a word for three years before this.”
Over the next year he wrote more than 100 poems, about 50 of which formed “The Beforelife,” a Pulitzer finalist in 2002. His next collection was “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” which won the prestigious prize in 2004.
Some critics found his work too heavy with sentiment. “Wright’s religious angst, just the right stuff for our shallow, shopping-mall culture, makes his poems the Hallmark cards of the damned,” New Criterion critic William Logan wrote in 2004.
The same critic found virtue in other Wright poems, however, such as this one from a 2009 collection, “Wheeling Motel”:
A strange dog stops and stares quite specifically at me.
There’s a message, but no means of transmitting it.
Sooner or later, I’m telling you, even the pity will cut you down.
And you can only armor yourself in death wish for so long, the
blows are not muffled, it will save you from nothing;
and the idiot drive to go on, and actually be glad to go on,
keeps breaking through ruining everything, even
this last chance for some sort of peace.
Besides his mother, brother and wife, he is survived by a stepbrother, Andre Michael Kovacs.
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