A child when his parents divorced, Franz Wright turned to poetry as a teenager, and one day he mailed a poem to his father, who was no ordinary reader: James Wright was then on the cusp of winning a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “I’ll be damned. You’re a poet,” his father wrote back. “Welcome to hell.”
Franz Wright, who was 62 when he died of cancer on Thursday in his Waltham home, held onto his father’s letter and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet himself, getting the award in 2004 for his collection “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.”
After that somewhat ominous welcome, Mr. Wright recalled in a 2001 interview with The New Yorker, his father offered a suggestion: “Try, no matter what — no matter what sort of maelstrom of distraction you find yourself in at any given time — try to write one single clear line in a notebook every day.”
Write he did, publishing nearly two dozen books during a life that, like his father’s, was marked by mental illness and substance abuse. He collected several awards and in the past 15 years became more widely known to a reading public beyond the “poet’s poet” admiration of his writing peers.
Mr. Wright’s “piercing and prodigal gift for metaphor is what most enlivens his poems: here the thin trumpets, the insignificant vampires, the straw, the drops of blood with wings,” the critic Helen Vendler wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2007.
Reviewing “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard” for The New York Times in 2003, Stephen Burt wrote that Mr. Wright “promises, and can deliver, great depths of feeling: he favors the prophetic declarative, the minimal cry and the isolate image, unexplained or glossed by a named emotion: ‘Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.’ ”
Mr. Wright composed poems, many filled with short lines that cascade down the page, while weathering a life that might leave many a writer mute. His parents fought violently before divorcing, and Mr. Wright told the Globe that his stepfather was even more violent.
Like his father, Mr. Wright’s teenage arrival at the gates of poetry was quickly followed by the emergence of mental illness. Diagnosed with manic-depression, he slid into alcoholism and drug abuse, and over the years spent time in Massachusetts General and McLean hospitals. In 1999, Mr. Wright’s course shifted. He married Elizabeth Oehlkers, a translator he had met years earlier when she was his student at Emerson College. He also joined the Catholic Church and began an alcoholism recovery program a few months later.
Mr. Wright attributed a late-in-life surge in writing to his wife. “Without her, forget it. She literally, very literally, saved my life,” he said in an interview with Kaveh Akbar, posted in November on divedapper.com. “I was in this hole and I was trying to commit suicide every week and I was going to succeed sooner or later. She came back into my life miraculously, and I had been so in love with her.”
His poems include many moments of dark humor, such as the opening lines of “Translation”:
Death is nature’s way
of telling you to be quiet.
And some pithy observations slip into the spiritual, as is the case with “The Choice”:
God can do what is impossible, but
God can only do what is impossible.
Sad incurable gift.
“His habits on the page were most mysterious, most musical, most beautiful,” said Lucie Brock-Broido, director of poetry in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.
“I used to think his work appeared often indulgent, effortless, organic, and easily won,” she added, “until I became close to him and began visiting during his long illness, and found myself in his study, ankle deep in reams of multicolored paper – dozens and dozens of drafts strewn on the floor for any one of these poems that seemed to have accidentally happened. They did not accidentally happen.”
Born in Vienna, Mr. Wright grew up mostly in the San Francisco area after his parents divorced. In the interview with Akbar, he recalled youthful years seeing musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and Leonard Cohen, and even attending the Beatles’ final concert, though no one knew it at the time.
Mr. Wright and his father, who won a Pulitzer in 1972, are believed to be the only father and son to both receive that award for poetry. The elder Wright, who died in 1980, introduced his son to poets such as John Berryman, who would become an inspirational figure.
While attending Oberlin College, Mr. Wright published his first book. “He was absolutely devoted to the art of poetry,” said his former teacher David Young, a professor emeritus who is an editor at Oberlin College Press. “It was everything to him and the results, I think, speak for themselves. He had to overcome a lot of pain and a lot of sorrow and anger from his upbringing, and he did.”
Troubled years followed his Oberlin graduation as Mr. Wright entered and left a graduate program. “I didn’t fit in the academic world,” he told the Globe in 2004. “I was drinking; I didn’t know what I was going to do. I got in my car and drove to New York and lived there for a while. I don’t know how I survived — I did some things that were not legal. I lived with friends, or in the streets.”
Fellowships at the University of Virginia and the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown helped alter his trajectory, as did a teaching job at Emerson College, though he said he was fired for “drinking-related activities.” Then he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Fellowship, a PEN/Voelcker Award, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. “For the entire ’90s, I lived on literary awards,” he recalled.
Through it all, he wrote. “It was all I had, the only thing I felt I was good at and could take pride in,” he said in the 2004 Globe interview. “I felt like a complete failure, but not as a poet.”
Diagnosed a few years ago with lung cancer, he outlived prediction after prediction. “I feel as if poetry kept him alive. He lived for it every day,” said Deborah Garrison, Mr. Wright’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf. “Even in difficult times, he just cared so damned much. There was no one who cared more about every line than this person. That level of urgency is something we all need to have in our lives as editors and writers and readers.”
Information about Mr. Wright’s survivors, other than his wife, was not immediately available.
Through all the dark years “I’ve really never totally despaired,” Mr. Wright said in the divedapper.com interview. “I always had this little flicker of a belief that there was a possibility of some grace entering into my life,” such as when he married Elizabeth, found a spiritual path, and began volunteering with programs to help addicts in recovery and children grieving the death of a parent.
“It’s just as hard as it ever was, but I no longer feel every poem I finish is going to be the last thing I ever write,” he told the Globe after winning the Pulitzer. “The life of art, like the life of faith, is a perilous radiance, and one makes so many mistakes. But I do not despair now, not ever, not for a second.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.