Where Does a Great Poem Point To? – Poems and Comments by Franz Wright and Li-Young Lee

Franz Wright (1953-2015) Pulitizer- Prize-Winning American Poet

Franz Wright (1953-2015) Pulitizer Prize-Winning American Poet


for Dzvinia Orlowsky

Where is the 
the man of heaven
in me—

my body’s filthy, face and hands

completely filthy
the man of dust

This mask
this glove
of human flesh

is all I have
and that’s not bad
and that’s not good

not good enough

not now

Franz Wright (1953-2015) from The Beforelife, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

This poem by Franz Wright (Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet like his father, James) jumped out at me with a shovel and a rake when I read it today. The day after I came home from a week long poetry retreat with American poet Li-Young Lee at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe sponsored by Seattle-based Image Journal (the Journal of Art, Faith and Mystery).

What a line by Wright: Where is/ the man of heaven/ in me—. It challenges me especially after my week at the Glen. How do I access, not my persona, but what Lee calls my unknown self, the one I discover if I surrender myself to my poem and what ultimately my poem points me to! Can I get to the same place Wright does where he says his mask of flesh is not bad but where he adds that this is not good //not good enough // not now.

Wright’s first lines cohere with Lee’s main contention during our week together: if we, as poets, don’t write from the ultimate authentic place in us (in Christian terms, the Christ consciousness within us) we are writing as a persona and our poems will not fulfill their ultimate potential. Lee makes no bones about his contention that poetry is a spiritual practice. Other poets will disagree but not me. Here is one of Lee’s statements that still echoes inside me.

The artist knows we are surrendering to something bigger…. We have to practice being God’s eye, heart, mind and will. I don’t want more separation. I don’t want to write a persona poem. My ego is a persona. I won’t get to the real Li-Young unless I let Christ inhabit the art.

Since the Glen Workshop sets itself inside a strong Christian tradition is not surprising to hear the word Christ used there as proxy for the divine, the “ultimate other.” For those for whom this language is limited, the use of higher power, beloved or any other word for ultimate reality works too.

Anytime I start talking about God or ultimate reality I am approaching a mystery. I don’t think there is one way to define that mystery. All I know is that when I surrender myself wholly to a poem of mine, and sometimes that can take years of revisions, I approach some reality beyond me, greater than me. This echoes for me another comment by Lee: Only grace writes the great poem. The mind can’t do it.

Here is Lee again: We pray through a poem. Don’t make a god of the poem. Poetry is a gate to what contains the thing. Go to the thing.


American Poet Li-Young Lee (1956 - )

American Poet Li-Young Lee (1957 – )

In a post on Image’s Good Letters blog last year, Morgan Meis wrote this about Franz Wright, a recovering addict, who fought addiction for much of his life: Descending into the pit of the self, Wright came back out again with the sense that he’d come into contact with God. He became a Catholic. He started listening to the silence within himself and to the poetical rhythms of prayer. Meis illustrates the results of this journey through this poem by Wright.

              THE READER

The mask was gone now, burned away
(from inside)
by God’s gaze

There was no
I, there

was no he—

there was no text, only
what the words stood for;
and then

what all things stand for.

Franz Wright from God’s Silence, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

I appreciate how this poem echoes back to Lee’s comment: Poetry is a gate to what contains the thing. Go to the thing. I am grateful that “something” led me today to the poems of Franz Wright. And now, one more from Wright:

                 BASED ON A PRAYER OF RABI’A

God, if I speak my love to you in fear of hell, incinerate me
                               in it;
if I speak my love to you in hope of heaven, close it in my face.
But if I speak to you simply because you exist, cease
                                withholding from me your
                                neverending beauty.

Rabi’a al-Adawiyya was an early Sufi poet. She died in 801.

Franz Wright from The Beforelife, ibid


  1. martha
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    “Only grace writes the great poem. The mind can’t do it.”

    Lovely post, Richard, all of it. Thank you.

    XXX M

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Dear Martha: Sorry I missed you in July! So glad this struck home with you!

  3. Posted August 8, 2016 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post, Richard. Thanks so much for so clearly and passionately articulating and exemplifying the true source of poetry. In the rare moments that I’ve been a conduit for a poem like that, it felt like a benediction.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted August 8, 2016 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Donnie.

  5. Posted August 9, 2016 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    So glad to stumble here on this post. I will take these thoughts with me on my trip today. And share them with others. Thank you, Richard.

  6. Dzvinia orlowsky
    Posted December 5, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Richard. You can imagine how much this poem means to me, and coming across this post.

  7. Richard Osler
    Posted December 18, 2016 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dzvinia: What a wonderful surprise to receive your comment. And to place you now with Franz’s poem. I will look forward to buying one of your books of poems! All best, Richard

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *