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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 Yorker began 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: Franz’s 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 illness. The 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 step 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. But 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 transcendence 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. This extraordinary volume traces the emergence from purgatory into something that feels genuinely like grace: “Set the mind / before the mirror of eternity // and everything will work.”

David Walker ’72 is a professor of English at Oberlin.

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