‘I was pretty well-read by the time I was fourteen, but it never occurred to me to write. I was interested in being a musician or a scientist. Then something happened when I was about fifteen.. ..In the summer my mother and step-father and I used to go to Clear Lake, California, up above Napa Valley. I woke up early one morning and had a strange feeling. I took a walk around dawn out into a walnut orchard, and I sat down. This ecstasy came over me, and I started to write. I ended up writing a seven-line poem. I sent it off to my dad, and we started corresponding about it. It was clear to me that I had to have this sensation again. I had never felt anything like this. I felt that this was what I was supposed to do.
‘From that day I never stopped being obsessed with this sense that I had a calling to do this. There was something mystical about it, like a religious calling. Everything else would have to go. It was a kind of dread I felt. I thought I could see my whole future. I would probably have to give up any idea of having a normal life. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because later the real reason that I didn’t have a life was that I was a drunk, and I was crazy. But I think I felt, as a kid, long before I ever got into trouble with drugs and mental illness, that poetry was what I was supposed to do. It made me happy in a way that nothing else did. There was no other comparable experience in my life. I have always lived for that sensation, what I felt when I wrote that first poem.’ (Franz Wright, 2006)
Even in that life-changing moment of inspiration there was a foreboding of difficulty to come. When Franz Wright sent those first lines to his father, James Wright, who would shortly be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his own poetry, the response was, ‘I’ll be damned, you’re a poet! Welcome to hell.’
The shadow of depression and substance abuse and questions of sanity and suicide are constantly present in Franz Wright’s poetry. Asked about his community work with those confronting difficulties in life he said, ‘I make absolutely no secret of my lifelong struggles with mental illness, manic depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, child abuse,’ – his step-father was particularly violent towards him and his younger brother – ‘all kinds of stuff. Because when you suffer from these illnesses, one of the symptoms of them is that you believe that you are all alone’ (FW, 2004). Exactly the same could be said of his writing.
The son would also be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2004 – making James and Franz Wright the only parent and child to have been honoured with the prestigious award. It was Franz’s collection Walking to Martha’s Vineyard that won the jury’s acclaim, the title a reference to the impossible task of reaching on foot the island sat in the Atlantic just south of Cape Cod. Impossible by human standards, at least.
The volume was written at a time when Franz found a deep connection with religious faith and in particular the Catholic Church. ‘The ritual of the mass seemed to be literally real but also a focusing of all the energy in the universe into this place. It was an experience of participation in the human family, like being at a meal with your family. I felt love from these complete strangers around me. I was able to carry that with me out into the world. It was clear that for my entire life I had felt absolutely terrified of other people and did everything possible to isolate myself. I didn’t work. I didn’t teach, except for a few jobs off and on. I lived in sinister places and surroundings, sometimes doing illegal things to survive, sometimes being homeless. I lived in great terror of the world and of other people. This new sense of unqualified acceptance and love was the most moving experience of my life. It made me want to write again.’
‘Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.. A lot of those poems were written either walking to, during, or walking home from mass. I would get home and just type them out, and often I wouldn’t revise them.’ (FW, 2006)
Wright uses words sparingly; rendering each line down to its essence and drawing the reader close in to the startling imagery and twists of perspective and sense. The opening piece – ‘Year One’ – is typical, with a wondrous description of the skies apparently dreamed up by Franz and his brother years before whilst high on LSD, and resolving in an affirmation of the Creator – albeit expressed in an adeptly presented double negative:
‘I was still standing
on a northern corner.
Moonlit winter clouds the colour of the desperation of wolves.
of Your existence? There is nothing
If this is devotional verse then it is certainly not ethereal. The pages are scarred with grit and strife. ‘Baptism’ marks the 47-year old poet’s personal acceptance of a faith he had always known through his mother’s Greek Orthodox beliefs:
‘That insane asshole is dead
I drowned him
and he’s not coming back.’
In ‘One Heart’ we are confronted with the reality of how, during a walk in his neighbourhood, ‘a young woman described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby in your arms.’ Yet there is assurance of divine presence and love in the breeze, in faltering sunlight and simply in being alive.
Franz’s relationship with his father was a complex one. His parents’ marriage fell apart when he was a young boy and he felt James’ absence acutely. From ‘Flight’:
‘Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely
star-far from the person right next to me, but
closer to me than my bones
you are there’
That his father took him seriously as a poet was a source of encouragement, but the memories were mixed. ‘I love my father very much.. ..and I am sure I think of him and speak to him every day of my life. I was in my mid-twenties when he died. He could be the funniest person, the best company in the world, and he could be something that approached the saintly at certain moments—and at others, I have to say I have never known a cruder or more cruel and violent person.’ (FW, 2011)
In 2011 Franz Wright published a volume of prose poems, Kindertotenwald, the title acknowledging his love of German poets, musicians and indeed of the German language itself. Its literal meaning is ‘forest of dead children’, a thought illustrating the loss of childhood as we move from the innocence of our earliest years to the complexity of existence in the adult world. As he was making edits before publication, Wright received a diagnosis of lung cancer. Within the devastation of a health crisis he felt elation at the work he had created in a new and freeing idiom.
It is said the poet’s art is to express something in words that we know to be real but could never have given voice to ourselves. It was the prose poems that caught David Sylvian’s attention. ‘In September 2011, at the time of its publication, I read Franz Wright’s Kindertotenwald. I was familiar with Franz’s earlier work but something about the subject matter of this collection resonated with me as if my psyche had momentarily found an echo in tune with, but more eloquent than, its own internal voice.’ (DS, 2014)
The writings would also presage experiences in the months to come. ‘I found I’d made a very personal connection with a uniquely intimate collection of prose poems. At the time of reading I’d no idea of the twists and turns my life was to take in the year to come, the ramifications of which chimed so profoundly with Franz’s work (having already written and recorded the title track for Died in the Wool and my interpretations of the poetry of Emily Dickinson), nor had I any notion that approximately one year later I’d be sitting in a studio in his home town in Massachusetts, recording his readings from that same volume.’
The connection pretty much compelled Sylvian to make contact. ‘In the early months of 2013 I’d written to Franz in the hope of piquing his interest in a possible project, which I could only describe in the most nebulous of terms. As fortune would have it, he was familiar enough with my work to embrace the idea from the outset’ (DS, 2013). As the idea developed, it became the basis for live performances of The Kilowatt Hour, a trio of Sylvian with Christian Fennesz and Stephan Mathieu. Then, in 2014, the album there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight emerged as the final recording on Sylvian’s samadhisound label, being an evolved setting of the piece that had been explored live.
Running at over an hour long, there’s a light.. contains readings by Franz Wright of nine of the pieces from Kindertotenwald. When I can find the opportunity it’s wonderful to immerse myself in the entire piece. On release though, I became frustrated at not being able to carve out enough time to take in the whole thing. So, for the purposes of my playlist I divided the piece into a number of segments, each running for 15-20 minutes. I’m sure this may upset the purists, but there are some natural transitions in the music and it’s easy to do with simple audio editing software. I also found this helped me to build an appreciation for each reading and its musical accompaniment.
The first track runs to 15mins 46secs in the piece and includes readings of ‘Wintersleep’ and ‘The Wall’. These pieces appear in a sequence of seven poems at the beginning of Kindertotenwald which, Wright has said, take as their theme ‘some of the very greatest poets.’
‘Wintersleep’ could be a reference to his own father, certainly the location is where he was teaching at the University of Minnesota and the year is significant being the time of his parents’ separation that Franz found so difficult. The shifting perspective is so startling. ‘I knew it would have to turn on its light’.. ..who or what is the ‘it’? The syntax gives the impression that it’s the blizzard, the weirdness of which pulls us up short. Is it his father’s poetic muse? Or Franz’s own inspiration to write? It’s both intriguing and perplexing. What a conceit to open a collection of poetry with a piece most likely inspired by another writer, but describing the act of not writing – but rather to ‘stay put, turn over, and keep me to itself.’ The final lines ask, ‘How are you supposed to describe something like me? And when you think about it, why should you try, why should you even care?’ The pages that follow respond eloquently to that question.
In the case of ‘The Wall’ there is no doubt as to where the inspiration comes from, as Wright has confirmed this as his invocation of the French poet Baudelaire, author of Les Fleurs du Mal. He was ‘the single author that magnificent and winged lunatic Rimbaud ever deigned to admit admiration for.’ Baudelaire was considered a dandy whilst extravagantly squandering his inheritance. He famously declared that, ‘Le dandy doit aspirer à être sublime sans interruption. Il doit vivre et dormir devant un miroir, (‘the dandy should aspire to be uninterruptedly sublime. He should live and sleep in front of a mirror.’) The image of the mirror is prevalent in the Frenchman’s work, a symbol of insight into an individual’s reality, so it seems apt that Wright summons it early in ‘The Wall’. His vision of Baudelaire captures him as dissolute down-and-out, ‘going through one of his brief stretches of addresslessness,’ and ‘reduced to recording on his own flesh one of the few lines of genuine poetry ever written.’ The parallels between Wright’s struggles and those of his subject are numerous, not least the impacts of drug abuse on mind and body. Sordid details are not spared. The description of a poet ‘doing a marvellous impression of somebody not crushed by dread’ could be applied equally to either man.
Just as Franz Wright draws from the experience and expression of another poet to inspire his work and to give life to his own reality, so David Sylvian brings Wright’s art into his music, the words resonating with his own experience. Sylvian had used spoken word recordings earlier, such as the voice of artist Joseph Beuys (see ‘The Healing Place’) but there a light.. is on a grander scale and therefore a more completely absorbing experience.
‘There’s a knowledge of the world in Wright’s work (not world weary but wary of the false note, pulsing with a current that comes from bearing witness to what’s “real” whilst remaining vigilant of the tide of delusion and vanity that threatens to engulf us) that omits neither light nor dark but embraces both. Here’s a man who’s been to the other side and returned or remained to tell of what he’d seen, not without sacrifice, nor a wonderfully dark vein of wry humour.’ (DS, 2014)
The sweeping sounds generated by Christian Fennesz formed a key element of the backdrop for Franz Wright’s readings in both the live context with The Kilowatt Hour and for the studio recorded version. I love to couple ‘Wintersleep/The Wall’ with the title track from Christian’s album Agora. Like some vast abstract painting, light tones mingle with the deep creating intense washes of textural sound. As Sylvian described it on release, ‘Christian, still at the top of his game. Powerful, expansive, emotive as ever.’ (2019)
Franz Wright died on 14 May 2015
‘Wintersleep’ & ‘The Wall’
Franz Wright – spoken word; Christian Fennesz – guitar, laptop, David Sylvian – piano, sampling, laptop, electronics; John Tilbury – additional piano
Music composed by David Sylvian
Recorded and produced by David Sylvian, from there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight, samadhisound, 2014
Franz Wright’s prose poems taken from the volume Kindertotenwald, © 2011 Franz Wright, recorded by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House llc.
The readings from Walking to Martha’s Vineyard in this article are taken from an interview broadcast on National Public Radio in April 2004, the poems are copyright as above.
Full sources and acknowledgments for this article can be found here.
‘If there are themes they are always the same, I think, in my books – the world as it was presented to me as a very young boy was a horrifying and hideous place of danger and fear which I have struggled very hard all my life to turn, within my own small range, into one of compassion and beauty, and I am quite sure I failed, but I can say I did try and that the poems are one result of that attempt.’ Franz Wright, 2011