A Celebration of Franz Wright, Day 4
In early 1998, along with Tom Lux, Jonathan Galassi, and Bill Wadsworth, I served on a panel that was distributing money to independent poetry presses on behalf of the Academy of American Poets. One of the applications we reviewed was from Oberlin College Press, for a subvention to defray part of the cost of publishing Ill Lit, Franz’s first volume of selected poems. David Young, the press’s editor (and of course far more than that), who cared for Franz well and deeply and with patience for over forty years, said in the application that the money would be that much more useful because Franz had been going through a terrible patch of mental anguish and suffering, which had made putting the volume together tortuous and resource-draining. The subvention was granted without much discussion. It was, as I remember, considered a no-brainer. After Ill Lit came out, at the end of that year, I wrote a review for The New Yorker, where I was working then. The magazine didn’t, ultimately, publish the review, but Franz got wind of it through Tom Lux and called me asking for a copy, which I mailed him. He was happy with it, and he sent me the manuscript of the book he had recently finished, The Beforelife, which I read and in turn sent, along with my unpublished review, to Deborah Garrison, who had just left The New Yorker to become the poetry editor at Knopf. She recognized the book’s distinction, bought it, and launched Franz on his journey of celebrity and notoriety.
I tell this story because it is the only one of any significance I have to tell about Franz, which is strange. It’s strange because there were forceful reasons for its being otherwise: we were practicing poets of almost the same age who had been in college, at Oberlin, together (where he was a highly visible, and I was a secret, writer of poetry); our circles in the literary world had overlapped for years; I had pretty much the same opinion of his work as he himself had; and most important I had done him a serious favor, of the kind that should naturally have led to closeness. In one of the e-mails in which Kaveh Akbar encouraged me to contribute to this memorial, he said that he knew Franz and I were good friends. Through no fault of Kaveh’s, the phrase “good friends” has been agitating me since I read it, and it has been agitating me in exactly the way Franz did was when he was alive. (It’s surprising to be agitated all over again a full year after his death. “The [insert profanity of choice here] won’t stay in his grave,” as he might put it.)
Was I his good friend? No, I wasn’t. Why wasn’t I his good friend when I should have been? The answer is complicated. My early communications with him made it pretty clear to me that Franz had a talent for paranoia and rage. But I also understood in those early exchanges, extending over a year, that (a) he wasn’t going to burn me the way he burned others, at least not to my face (gratitude—however inconsistently applied—was also a part of his makeup); and that (b) he had commensurate to his talent for rage a childlike enthusiasm for other people (and creatures) and a talent for love (the evidence, like the evidence he claims for God, is everywhere, but crucially for a reader in the underlying cheerfulness of his seemingly dark poems), which tended to make me think kindly of him. I was put off by his antics over the years—who wasn’t?—and all too aware of how easily (and unjustly) he would go to the scorched-earth (the nuclear, even) option in dealing with the world when he felt that the world was disrespecting him, but, again, I understood. I’ve known and made friends with more than a few mentally ill people (I use the general term “mentally ill” because I’m confused about specific diagnoses and categories of affliction). I’ve read up on the chemical storms that pound their brains, and have listened when they’ve told me about how it feels. I learned long ago both how to appreciate and how to deal with them. So why the reluctance in his case?
He once wrote me an e-mail complaining about this exact thing. (Rereading it made me change the subject of this piece from his work, which I set out to write about, to our interaction.) The e-mail’s tone is grave and muted (Franz was such a master of dynamics when he chose to be); its appeal is familial; its complaint is that I don’t give (information; confession), that I’m perfunctory and withholding on the rare occasions I get in touch, that I don’t engage with him about his work (and, by the way, do you happen to know that I’m dying of cancer?). From the evidence of my sent-message folder, it looks like I didn’t reply to this e-mail. If I replied now, I would probably tell him that his greatest rhetorical gift was for irony, the most profound and dangerous of the master tropes, and that while I had an astonished admiration for the subtlety with which he handled it, I couldn’t imagine myself hanging out with someone as addicted to it as he was. How could a shared discourse of friendship with such a person be anything but unstable? This might be called a rhetorical response, but then again Franz for me was his rhetoric, which is as powerful as it is because of its double-, triple-, quadruple-ness, its dissimulation and subversion, its bending and slanting and refracting of the post-metrical, plain-style, sincere Midwestern idiom that was his patrimony. Those are the kind of things, though, that you want to keep on the page.
I’m sure Franz wouldn’t be happy with that response, not happy at all. Maybe he would be happy with this: Sometimes—and the times recur regularly—when I’m reading him I think, This guy is as good as Rimbaud. I can’t consistently hold on to that judgment—and it’s probably impossible to fix a contemporary in the pantheon in that way, anyway—but I think that I could defend it pretty well in a debate.
This was supposed to be a piece about his work; instead it became about him and me. I wonder now if I’ll ever write that other piece. I know, though, that I’ll always read him. Sometimes I think of him like Rimbaud, definitely. Mostly, though (and this is not a critical stance but a reader-response tactic that maximizes the pleasure I get from his work), I read him as our confessional era’s version of the pure pastoral lyricist, sort of like Campion or, better, like A. E. Housman, his Shropshire precincts being the sunroom of the mental hospital; the halfway house near the mall; the basement of the church, where a group-therapy session is being held; the detached and semi-detached houses of American suburbia, where the melancholy television sets have just been turned on for the nightly news; the vacant lot at the edge of town where there is an upright piano filled with rainwater.
A folktale from the vast corpus of Indian stories and fables tells of two brothers who grow up on a farm. One of them is content to live the immemorial life of the Indian kisan, to stay on their small family holding, tilling the torrid land. The other brother is restless. He can’t contain his restlessness; he imagines incredible, impossible things far removed from what he sees as the bondage and inertia of a life surrendered to nature. He runs away from the farm and travels as a stranger over the world. He has adventures, indulges in exquisite pleasures, submits to vices and punishments, survives a thousand dangers. He is imaginative, intelligent, and touched by the spirit, so he acquires powers and esoteric knowledge and deep insight into reality. But near the end of his fabulous life, he surprises a need in himself to see to his brother one more time, so he journeys back to his home. After traveling a long time, he comes to the river that irrigates the land of his family. On the other side of the river, his brother is sowing the field. The river, though, is high and swift. He can’t wade it, so he picks up some soil and throws it across the water, and by means of the magical powers he has gathered in his lifetime, he causes the soil to form a bridge halfway across the river. His brother, who has spent his whole life plowing, sowing, watering, and harvesting that same field, observes this miracle, and he picks up a handful of soil and throws it over the river, and it forms the other half of the bridge. The story is only intermittently applicable to Franz and me, and may not be applicable at all. Also, the story doesn’t say which of the brothers started across the bridge first.