It’s snowing pretty heavily outside, which actually looks quite lovely, despite the fact that I’ve had enough of winter. But the snow is a sleepy, peaceful, pure sort of image, so I’ll take it for now. I’ll take it and let it guide me to a warm place in the bed and a nap under cozy blankets while that bluish light sifts into the room. Yeah, I couldn’t sleep again last night. But I’m sleepy now.
After the jump: an annotation on Franz Wright’s book Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems. And discussion of an insomnia poem. You can read it while I’m snoozing.
Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Franz Wright’s Flavor
To show you how close Franz Wright’s poetry struck to my bones, I present to you the final poem from his collection Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems, and I inform you that I read this poem in the early hours of the morning after a night of insomnia, right at that time when the sky slowly loses its darkness outside the living room windows.
in a dead language.
The empty house filled with the sound
of your name
before you finally slept.
So, in some ways, this feels like a poetry that I could have written myself. Certainly, this particular poem feels that way, except that these are Wright’s words, not mine. For instance, I doubt it would have occurred to me to use the word “abruptly.” I probably would have said “suddenly” or perhaps nothing at all, letting the timing of the whisper be described only by the title and the last line. I respect “abruptly,” though, and it is a decent indicator of what Wright’s poetry is like compared to my own-a little rougher. More abrupt, even.
My experience of reading this poem about sleeplessness while experiencing sleeplessness myself makes a nice anecdote, and easily illustrates why I felt an instant connection to Wright’s poetry, but there’s a lot more to my experience of this book that isn’t so easily reduced to anecdote. And it comes back to that sense of instant familiarity. The thing is, I’m not used to entering a book of poems exclusively through its subject matter. My education has trained me to experience poetry from the angle of craft, appreciating word choice, line breaks, rhyme, imagery, symbolism, structure, etc. with subject being just one element out of many. But some of Franz Wright’s poems engaged my emotions so quickly that they circumvented the education-formed section of my thoughts, and I was left feeling but not necessarily understanding.
Reading this book, I was constantly forced to ask myself whether my reaction to a poem was just because I empathized strongly with its subject matter or whether it was due to Wright’s treatment of that subject matter. Did Wright’s poetic craft make the emotions sharper, more universal, heightening the intensity of any basic factual similarities between my own life and the events in the poems, or did Wright’s craft have little to do with my reading experience? Or, in other words, was I affected by something simple or by something complex? And since my emotions were engaged, I found it that much harder to look at these poems objectively. At the end of each one I felt a haze, a sense of things slipping through my fingers. The emotion remained with me, but clarity about the elements of poetry I’d just experienced was lacking.
Of course I know that it’s really impossible for me to read a poem without having a reaction to the way it’s put together as a poem. Franz Wright has practiced craft in writing each poem in this book, and even if I can’t see it at first because I’m distracted by other things, that craft is still playing a part in my reading. If these poems weren’t carefully crafted, then I would have noticed, jarringly, problems and inconsistencies and been ejected from the poems, frustrated. This did not happen. I remained engaged with the poetry throughout the book. But to see and understand exactly how Franz Wright’s craft was keeping me engaged, I had to go back and look at a poem over again until I’d got over that initial emotional reaction that so clouded my intellectual capacities.
Take that poem “First Light” for example. My very first reaction to it was a shiver of self-recognition, almost a mystical experience, as if the poem had told my fortune. If I’m remembering correctly, I think I focused on the idea of my name being called, and thought something about how the poem itself had sort of just called my name. I would have said “ooooh” if there had been someone else in the room to talk to. But as I re-read the poem in that moment, and again as I typed it out at the beginning of this annotation, I began to see the many things that Franz Wright had done to craft the poem in ways that went hand in hand with its subject matter to create my strong and vivid reaction.
I’ve already mentioned the word “abruptly.” There’s also the way the third line first hints at the sound of the rain, then connects to the sound of the name being whispered, creating an element of surprise. There’s the way the word “once” stands alone on its own line, reinforcing its own meaning. There’s the strange idea of the “raining in a dead language,” enough to engage the mind in many rich thoughts while seeking the meaning of that phrase. And then the idea of the dead language connects to the speech later in the poem, the whisper of the name. And the fact that the name is whispered rather than spoken. I could go on. And I could create similar lists for all the other poems in this book. But the light of morning is lurking behind my curtain, and I really should get to bed.