P O E T I N T E R V I E W
There is Nothing but Magic
f r a n z w r i g h t o n p o e t r y a s m a g i c a l r e a l i s m
BY WYATT BONIKOWSKI
FRANZ WRIGHT is a poet of hope -- hope that the world contains magic and that language can perform miracles. But hope, Wright knows quite personally, can often only be won through despair. In almost Kierkegaardian fashion, Wright's poems descend to the depths of human experience, to states of speechlessness in the face of madness and all-consuming fear.READ twelve poems by Franz Wright
However, Wright commands us to understand that hope does not die, and speech can again be made possible after the experience of its impossibility. His latest collection, The Beforelife, exists to attest to that.
The poems in The Beforelife were written after a two-year-long struggle with mental illness during which Wright lost all ability to write poetry. These poems, then, do not merely describe recovery but stand as concrete evidence of its constant possibility.
Wright's work has always been concerned with themes of speechlessness, of extreme experience and the difficulties of representing such experience in language, which is always inadequate when faced with reality. Beginning with The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes (1982) and continuing in Entry in an Unknown Hand (1989), The Night World and the Word Night (1993), Rorschach Test (1995), and Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems (1998), among others, Wright's poetry has performed a vertiginous balancing act between the concrete and the abstract, everyday reality and dream states, the profane and the transcendent. In his work, often within a single poem, tenderness and compassion mingle with dark humor and unflinching self-examination.
In The Beforelife, these qualities reach a new level of intensity. The depths are darker, but the hope is also brighter. With this collection Wright proclaims his belief that poetry, that language, can speak to the magic of this world, to the transcendence that reveals itself not only at the extremes of experience but even in the most mundane of everyday details.
I recently asked Franz Wright a series of questions about his work. Many of the poems we discussed appear in our feature. I am grateful for his candid responses.-- WB, Margin
WB: What does "magical realism" mean for you, and have you ever thought of it in connection with your own work?
FW: I know that magical realism is a term that surfaced in the seventies when people were discovering (García) Márquez's very great first novel (and I will never forget -- something I cannot say about even many books I love and revere and have read a hundred times -- I will never forget seeing a copy of it on the front seat of my friend Bruce Weigl's car while we were bombing around Oberlin, and picking it up and saying, What's this?). I don't know if I was aware that the term was being used in a more encompassing way until another friend, Keith Hollaman, along with my teacher and friend David Young, began putting together their wonderful Magical Realism anthology, which I guess came out then or in the early '80s. I recall Keith asking me if I was interested in providing a new translation of one of Kafka's shorter pieces, perhaps "The Bucket Rider." I think I may even have done one, but by the time I did my friends had realized that Schocken still controlled the rights to his work. Anyway, the book they ended up putting together is fabulous. I'm sure you're aware of it.
[Editor's Note: Franz Wright is referring to the anthology, Magical Realist Fiction, edited by David Young and Keith Hollaman, Oberlin College Press, 1984.]Didn't (García) Márquez call Faulkner his master? And isn't poetry itself, by its very nature, a magical or higher realism, ultimately linked to the language of religion, in that it is an attempt to utter not what is but what should be? The world almost at all times seems to me so marvelously and frighteningly "magical" that I see no particular reason to exaggerate that aspect of things. I think of Walt Whitman's remark,
"Who speaks of miracles? I know of nothing but miracles . . ."The imagery and the poetry I admire, and would most like to emulate, is that which is completely concrete and at the same time completely inexplicable -- like reality itself! To me poetry results when a human being abruptly wakes up to the magicalness and miraculousness of precisely what is (this is very rare, mostly we live as sleepwalkers); and when a perfect balance is achieved between the symbolic and the literal (which are really, to me, words for exactly the same thing!), between the infinite and the infinitesimal (again, words for the same thing -- when we are awake!). There are many ways to go about achieving that balance, that state of awakeness -- there is Basho and there is Homer, but in the end none of that makes one bit of difference. The effect in the end is exactly the same. We don't need any more magic -- there is nothing but magic. What we need to do is wake up.
WB: You have translated the work of poets Rainer Maria Rilke, René Char, and Erica Pedretti. Critics have seen in your work the influence of Georg Trakl and Franz Kafka, and they have referred to European Modernist movements such as German Expressionism and Surrealism to describe aspects of your work. Were these writers and movements particularly influential for you? What other writers and movements have been influential?
FW: Certainly the writers and movements you mention were of intense interest to me, especially in my teens and twenties, during the sixties and seventies -- and I suppose at that time many writers were exploring the possibilities of the image, and the works of Trakl and Rilke in particular, but also many others such as the great Spanish surrealists represented profound advancements in that area. Lorca himself spoke of the way poets have to be able to use the image to fuse details of the infinitesimally small with astronomic intuitions.
However, the image is neither more nor less than one in a constellation of qualities that make a poem as a whole enduringly mysterious, enduringly possessed of information people are always going to need or hunger for.
Heidegger wrote an incredible thing in his great essay on Trakl:
"Every great poet creates his poetry out of one single poetic statement only. . . . The poet's sole statement always remains in the realm of the unspoken, and neither his individual poems nor their totality, says it all. Nevertheless, every poem speaks from the whole of the one single statement, and in each instance says that statement."
The poets who interest me now are the ones who most successfully elude easy categorization -- when I was a kid people used the term built-in obsolescence, and while it was said to be a quality of new American cars, maybe it is equally attributable to the names of literary movements -- poets who continue to explore language itself in a way that's compassionate and radiantly human. To me the greatest of those are Beckett and Charles Simic, who is of course still going strong. There are many others -- there are so many serious and beautiful poets in this country.
WB: You often write about experiences and states of mind -- such as, addiction, madness, and death -- that are difficult to come to grips with personally and, even more so, to communicate to others. How do you find ways to translate these difficult subjects into poetry? What sorts of poetic techniques do you have to employ? Where does the impulse come from to write about that which eludes representation?
FW: I think I can say now that for many years I was more or less consciously driven to explore techniques which would enable me to write something that spoke for some other person not equipped or anymore able to describe them himself. It may sound grandiose, but the older poems sometimes came out of a desire to speak for those who had not undergone some recognizable form of affliction like war, say, but an invisible suffering, a suffering for which they could receive no credit or sympathy from others, on the contrary, one which has the effect of making them loathsome to others. To speak for someone silenced -- that interested me very much, and gave me hope.
WB: In many of your poems you use metaphor in a way that takes the figure beyond its normal scope, as the metaphor's role expands to dominate and in some ways become the poem. I'm thinking specifically of "Morning Arrives" and "The Shore" with their opening metaphors of the chairman of sleeplessness who arrives by limousine with morning, and the ocean that sounds like a woman tearing her sheets into strips. Could you describe the process in which a metaphor comes to take over a poem? Are these poems illustrations of the way metaphor, as you say in your poem "Metaphor," can be either
"language . . . strangling itself"
"intelligent / and silent being who guided you / in a dark world"?
FW: This question opens in a way that is fascinating to me because it reminds me of what I believe is called the Homeric simile in classical studies, something that interested me as a teenager -- I was able to take some course in this area, in particular from Bundy, the great Pindar scholar, at U.C. Berkeley in the late '60s -- and I was recently talking about this again with my Brandeis friend Joel Christensen. Homer -- now there's a magical realist for you!
Handled correctly metaphor is a powerful source of illumination into that higher reality we have intimations of, dream about and remember. There is a whole spectrum of rhetorical strategies in which it can be employed, of course, from the magical non sequiturs of Char or Hart Crane to the very minimal and transparent words of the New Testament or the Tang Dynasty poets, in which overt metaphor seems to play almost no role -- Cavafy is a wonderful master in this way, I have just been reading the gorgeous Theoharis translations.
WB: While some of your poems, like "Morning Arrives" and "The Shore," elaborate on vivid imagery, others use blank spaces, ambiguities, and silence to tackle their subjects. "First Light" is haunting in its simplicity and the way it subtly evokes the difficulty or even the impossibility of communication. "Say My Name" describes the religious quality of erotic love in the silence of the unspoken name of God, the silent
"Word that means you are loved."
Both poems also link language and death in their opening lines. In "Say My Name":
"I'd be entombed / inside a period"
and in "First Light":
"It's raining / in a dead language."Are these poems attempts to confront death by means of language? Do you see them as being different from your more image-centered poems? Or are these two types of poems different ways of approaching a similar problem?
FW: This question makes me think of something I recently came across, something I wrote quite a long time ago about the poet Frank Stanford, who meant a lot to me in my twenties. From what I can gather, I was trying to talk about the way his insistence on death, on its absolute apartness, seems everywhere to automatically suggest just the opposite: the miracle of our conscious presence. That made a big impression on me. Stanford had a fantastic gift for the simile. One we used to love was,
"The wind blows through the treesOr,
Like a woman on a raft."
"The moon was swollen upBut he used them very sparingly.
Like a mosquito's belly."
Anyway, the impossibility of communication, religious and erotic love, language itself, death -- these are big subjects, and I'm not at all sure I want to admit to meditated consciousness of them as subject material. And in any event, they don't strike me as particularly unusual or original obsessions. Perilous ones, maybe. I am interested in the silent solitary and awe-fraught instants occurring ("with no possibility of articulation" as my friend Tom Lux once wrote) in people's different journeys in this life, ones I would hope anyone could identify with -- even though some fairly arcane experiences of my own are also depicted or suggested in some of my poems. I am interested in what happens to one's thoughts in states of extreme solitude and isolation, and that experience can take many forms -- also in states of extreme communion.
WB: Let's talk about your new collection, The Beforelife. Your dedication page mentions that you wrote these poems over the course of a year for your wife. How was the writing of these poems different from that of your previous collections?
FW: I can only tell you that in my previous life, my entire adult life, if I wrote ten poems in a year I considered that a successful year. But during 1999 -- the year I got married to my beloved Elizabeth, emerged from a two-year-long psychosis from which, according to many Boston psychiatrists, I was never going to get well, and the year I stopped drinking completely (I have now been sober for twenty months) and entered the Church -- by supernatural assistance I wrote during that one year over one hundred poems, several each week on average, most of them in a matter of ten minutes to a half-hour -- "Thanks Prayer at the Cove" was written in about an hour. From these poems I was able to shape The Beforelife. And after Knopf accepted it, I wrote another hundred or so poems, and from those poems I am shaping a new collection.
WB: What made you, while writing these poems, want to translate Paul Celan's haunting "Thinking of France"?
FW: I'm not really sure why I decided to include the Celan version in The Beforelife. During the year I was working on the book, I happened to leaf through an old notebook, one that went back some 25 years to when I was a sophomore or junior at Oberlin College, and in it I came across an unfinished draft of the Celan piece. It seemed to fit the mood of other poems I was working on, and so I finished and included it. I'm afraid I work very slowly.
WB: In the poem "The Beforelife" you mention Purgatory Cove. In this poem, it is unclear whether the cove is real or allegorical. On the next page your poem "Thanks Prayer at the Cove" begins, one of the most personal poems in the collection, and while Purgatory Cove isn't specifically mentioned, because the poems face each other, the association is made and the silent word "purgatory" hangs over the entire poem. Where is Purgatory Cove? And what significance does it have for you and for this collection?
FW: Purgatory Cove is a real place, located on the Charles River about 15 miles west of Boston, in the town of Waltham which is where my wife Elizabeth and I moved (we had been living in a one-room apartment in the South End of Boston before that) in August of 1999. I don't know if it would seem that special to anyone else -- but in the fall of that year, when I found myself wandering around there every day, and just as I was beginning to realize I had a new book forming in my mind -- not incidentally, this was around the time I formally entered initiation and began to prepare for baptism in the Catholic Church -- and just as I was finally beginning to emerge from a two-year long period of psychotic depression, I stumbled on this place -- I looked it up on a map, and there it was: Purgatory Cove (which was, I suppose, where I also felt myself to be, inwardly). There is a large cemetery across the water, clearly visible when the leaves go away in November, and the place is haunted by birds of every variety. A beloved place to me, the place where I wrote many of the poems in that book . . .
WB: I love the phrase "the beforelife." It suggests a retrospective look from the point of view of an implied afterlife. What's the afterlife of The Beforelife? Do you feel a change in your poetry from what came before? What are you working on now?
FW: I am finishing a new collection, which is rather too long right now and needs concentrating and cutting back. My editor at Knopf, Deborah Garrison, was fantastically helpful in shaping The Beforelife, and I am hoping she will have time and patience to help me put these new poems in order as well. I believe the book is scheduled to come out early in 2003. I think the new collection is more confidently and openly a religious work -- and if anyone is interested in reading some of the poems now, three of them appeared in the July 9 2001 issue of The New Yorker; 20 of them appear in a chapbook called God While Creating the Birds Sees Adam in His Thoughts (Half Moon Bay Press, Michigan); and 24 more of them will appear in another small limited edition book this September called Hell & Other Poems (Stride Books, England).
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