Franz Wright (1953-2015), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Catholic convert, struggled with addiction and depression, and wrote movingly of isolation, illness, and religious transcendence.
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Wright was born in Vienna, Austria, to the poet James Wright and his wife Liberty (now Kovacs), an American-born daughter of Greek immigrants who later became a nurse. The elder Wright suffered from alcoholism and bipolar disorder, and the marriage was tempestuous. As a child, Wright was exposed through his father to such literary luminaries as Theodore Roethke, Saul Bellow, and Robert Bly. His parents divorced when he was eight. His mother remarried a man who was physically abusive.
As a poet, Wright taught poetry at various universities, held down jobs in mental health clinics, and worked as a volunteer to grieving children. He was also hospitalized himself on several occasions for depression and alcoholism.
In 1999, he married the American translator Elizabeth Oehlkers. He also attained sobriety that year and converted to Roman Catholicism.
In an interview with American poet and critic Ernest Hilbert entitled "The Secret Glory" and published in 2006, Wright was asked, "Must one feel extremes of pain or love to create authentic poetry, or is stylistic capacity enough?"
He replied, "You must have both, clearly. And have them to a terrible, excruciating, and obsessive degree."
My religious faith is very real and literal, almost to a child-like degree — though with my ancient skepticism and dread of abandonment thrown in — and I can only say it has made it possible for me to go on living.
"Religion seems to be central to your writing," Hilbert continued. "Can you say a few words about how religion has affected your life and your view of the world?"
"My religious faith is very real and literal, almost to a child-like degree — though with my ancient skepticism and dread of abandonment thrown in — and I can only say it has made it possible for me to go on living. I would not have been able to go on living otherwise."
Critic Helen Vender observed in the New York Review of Books, "Wright's scale of experience...runs from the homicidal to the ecstatic."
Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller wrote that Kindertotenwald [loosely translated as "forest of dead children"] is "ultimately about joy and grace and the possibility of redemption, about coming out whole on the other side of emotional catastrophe."
Novelist Denis Johnson said of Wright's book Entry in an Unknown Hand: "These poems break me, they're like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers — miraculous gifts."
Of winning the Pulitzer, Wright said, "I consider it a great honor, and it still amazes me, and I think it will always amaze me." His father James Wright also won the Pulitzer for poetry.
Wright died of cancer at his home in Waltham, Massachusetts, in May 2015. He was sixty-two.
"Soon, soon," he wrote in "Nude With Handgun and Rosary," "between one instant and the next, you will be well."
John Janaro "Franz Wright." Magnificat (2017).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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