Poetry Spotlight #2: University of One by Franz Wright

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 10.52.38 PMIs it possible for any Type A English major to enter a book store and NOT buy a book? My vote is no. Even as my to-read stack at home is collecting dust I can’t resist adding another text to this soon-to-topple-over stack. But with a few unread novels at home and a read-more-poetry goal in the back of my mind I decided to use this bad habit for good and pick up some new poetry reads. And as I stared at this giant shelf of poetry, the names of icons jutting out from the rows, I realized I don’t know shit about shit. Where do I begin? I know a few people I don’t ex. Dickinson (unless she’s talking about death) and a few things I do like ex. Dean Young, various slam poets. I started pulling random texts from the shelves: I picked up a book of haikus and put it back after glancing at a few dozen nature haikus. Eh. I eventually pulled out “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard” by Franz Wright, its Pulitzer Prize winner sticker an indicator that at least a few people think this is worth reading. I pull another book from the shelf: “How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps” by Laura Yes Yes. Awesome title. I am with two friends and ask one to read some of it aloud: it’s weird. So of course I’m tempted to gamble on it. Then I notice it’s published by “Write Bloody Press”–a company that has published other writers I enjoy such as Andrea Gibson, Taylor Mali, Franny Choi, Hieu Nguyen, and Sarah Kay–so of course I buy it. In fact, I buy both.

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I’m about halfway through “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard” by Franz Wright but I haven’t found a poem that moved me in its entirety. But I have been struck by several lines and stanzas and a few works seem to demand a second or third reading to fully be understood/enjoyed. I hesitate to comment on the collection as a whole but so far there is a powerful religious motif throughout the book; interesting to read as an atheist. The very first poem, “Year One”, ends with these lines: “Proof/of Your existence? There is nothing/but”. A stanza I love because I’m a sucker for syntax inversion and formatting that contorts meaning; a stanza that sets the tone for the collection.

I didn’t fall in love with any of these poems, not yet at least, so this week’s poem was selected because it had a lot of lines I enjoyed and is among the poems I’d like to spend more time with. Poems I think are worth revisitng.

University of One
by Franz Wright

And I’ve lost my fear
of death
here, what death?
There is no such thing.
There is only
mine,
or yours–
but the world
will be filled with the living. Mysteriously
(heavy dear sky-colored book), too,
I have been spared
the fate of those who love words
more than what they mean!
My poem is not
for example
a blank check in pussyland
anymore,
nor
entry in the contest for the world’s
most poignant suicide
note. Now
I have to go–, but
meet my friend Miss April
snow.

The title’s paradoxical nature, University of One, attracts my aesthetic. Though in some ways it’s not paradoxical at all, for “One” is composed of multitudes. I also enjoy the way the poem begins with “And”–the poem emerges on the page midthought. Touching on death, people, and poetry, this work is a hodgepodge of cliche motifs but it approaches them in interesting ways: ranging from cryptic to cheeky.

I’m not sure what to make of the speaker’s opening musings on death, he claims “but the world/will be filled with the living. Mysteriously” (this is of course untrue as the planet will eventually decay) but perhaps they mean this is the spiritual sense: the way heaven “immortalizes” us. Wright’s unique phrasing for ideas we’ve all heard before (in some capacity) is what sets this poem apart for me, like here: “I have been spared/the fate of those who love words/more than what they mean”. Here the speaker is talking about those who value indulging their own ego above all else but Wright puts it in a way I’ve never heard before.

The humor in this poem is also a draw for me because I’ve found it rare for a work to be funny and still “*poetic” (*a loaded term that I am still trying to define, for the sake of this post lets say by “poetic” I mean literarily impressive: figurative/descriptive writing that most can’t achieve). And I have to say, the phrase “a blank check in pussyland” is both a hilarious and creative image. As well as a “contest for the world’s/most poignant suicide/note”.

While I enjoy elements of this poem I don’t necessarily understand how these elements are suppose to work together (and perhaps they don’t). But this comes with the poetry territory; unlike other types of lit, like the novel, enjoying a poem at face value can still leave you unable to grasp the “meaning” of it. And at the end of this week, that’s where I’m at.

And that’s okay.

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