Notes: May 2017

Franz Wright – Diane Fahey’s A House by the River – James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line

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Today is the two-year anniversary of the death of American poet Franz Wright. He and his father, James, remain the only parent-child pair to have won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category. The Washington Post, in its obituary, described Wright’s poetry as ‘frank, confessional verse [that] reflected a search for self-discovery and spiritual yearning amid struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.’ Critic William Logan called his poems ‘the Hallmark cards of the damned’: they are minimal, exact, melancholic and unflinching. The poem that began my exploration of Wright’s poetry was ‘Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse’:

[…] the Canadian wind // coming in off Lake Erie / rattling the windows, horizontal snow // appearing out of nowhere / across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.

For further reading from Wright’s work, there’s ‘Woman Falling’ and ‘Home for Christmas’ from Kindertotenwald (Knopf, 2011), a collection of prose poems, and ‘Another Working Dawn’ and ‘Night Flight Turbulence’, readings from Wheeling Motel (Knopf, 2009) with musical settings by Michael Rozon and Daniel Ahearn.

I spent the week reading Diane Fahey’s most recent collection of poems, A House by the River (Puncher & Wattmann, 2016), and James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf, 2008). Fahey’s is a likable collection of restrained and self-contained 14-line poems, primarily about nature and grief:

Rain falls in the middle of the night – / a statement, an unanswerable question. / Lightning flares for a sustained moment / in the rooms of the dreaming. (‘Summer Rain’)

I’d hoped for a marsh harrier, keeping / its place in the wind – a bookmark between / airy pages […] / […] My gaze hovers, sweeps over / that crack in the sea: a fault-line of foam / jagged as a gull’s flight through storm. (‘At the Cliffs’)

I’m still under way with Longenbach’s book, but among other things, he offers a fair argument for preferring the term ‘line end’ over ‘line break’:

Some lines end with a full stop – a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Others end with a comma, a semicolon or a colon that joins together two clauses or phrases within a sentence. And others end with no punctuation at all: the syntax continues on the next line. We might be tempted to say that the line “breaks” at such a moment, but the line merely ends – it doesn’t break […] it’s more helpful to think about “line endings”: the syntax may or may not break at the point where the line ends. (page 8)

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