David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Is Franz Wright the Rush Limbaugh of American Poetry?


I had intended this week to write about gratitude. To express my thanks to all the new readers of Poetry Wire and The Rumpus and to wish you all a pleasant Thanksgiving. I wanted to say something about the necessity of thankfulness in art and poetry, to say that this week I rededicate myself to having kind thoughts, to not get angry or think badly about others, to work to the benefit of others as much as I can. In poetry and in life.

But then, on Sunday, I awoke to news that, after he received a generic invitation sent to thousands of others merely to “like” the Pine Manor MFA program from its director Meg Kearney, poet Franz Wright attacked Kearney, among others on his Facebook page.

And, well, gratitude gave way. I’m sorry. Here’s Franz Wright’s vitriolic Facebook post:

More of these pugilistic posts have followed on Wright’s FB page. But, for now, here are some thoughts.

First, Jesus! Here we go again, Franz Wright getting his drawers in a twist about poetry and throwing a temper tantrum (more on that below).

Second, even though Wright attacks Kearney for generically Facebook-inviting him to do something benign like “like” her program, and even though he then writes this absurd tirade against her and the MFA establishment, it turns out that, in the past, Wright has given two readings at Pine Manor’s MFA. I mean, c’mon, if you felt this way about MFA programs, Franz, you shouldn’t have accepted the invitations to Pine Manor, nor taken the honorariums. (In an interview, Meg Kearney confirms his participation in the program.)

Before I go on, two disclosures: I think Wright’s minimalist poems are best when they address the other, the odd, the foreign. They are less interesting to me when they address himself and collapse into self-indulgence. As a confessionalist, he aims for pure unleashing, but ends up, more often than not, simply self-aggrandizing. His poems masquerade as sensual but they are manipulatively moralistic. None of this bothers me really. Like any poet, Wright is welcome to write whatever kind of poems he wants.

Another disclosure: I have never met Franz Wright. Or, to be precise, we did meet, sort of, nearly thirty years ago in the middle of the night when he burst into the Boston apartment of a girl I was then dating and launched a screed, a ranting monologue, against her roommate (who, at the time was his paramour, or something). I forget what the folderol was about, but I’m guessing it had to do with unrequited love. Now, on his behalf, this was the 80’s. We were all young. But when the fulmination seemed like it wasn’t going to subside, I got out of bed and padded into the living room, feigning something about not being able to sleep and offering to make some coffee. Want some? No. Then he left. I have never forgotten this last detail: The exposed bully, Franz Wright, walking out of the apartment and leaving the front door wide open behind him for somebody else to close. Some things never change. I was told that night that he was the “son of a very famous poet.” Years later, when I began to see his poems in print, I put him together with his father, James Wright.

Though I didn’t recognize him then, I do recognize him now as a veritable Rush Limbaugh and bully of American poetry.

Like Limbaugh, Wright believes in a golden age. Limbaugh’s lodestar is the anti-tax conservatism of Ronald Reagan, while all the while ignoring basic historic fact that Reagan raised taxes seven out of the eight years he was president and that the size of the federal government, long despised by conservatives, ballooned. Wright’s lodestar is the outsider French surrealists and the semi-romantic notion of poets as devotees of poverty, despite the basic historic fact that the French surrealists have been de rigeur in the academy’s MFA schools Wright so dislikes. More to the point, those French poets weren’t so ascetic: Arthur Rimbaud was from a stable middle class family, Charles Baudelaire was the son of a senior civil servant, Paul Verlaine’s father was affluent, and Stephane Mallarme was, throughout his life — oh, my God! — employed in that most dreaded Meg Kearneysque profession as a schoolteacher.

Like Limbaugh, Wright bullies in order to aggrandize his own choices. Reread his FB post again, and you’ll see the Limbaugh spirit: I’m right, you’re wrong.

Like Limbaugh who sides with outsiders and uses false airs of victimhood to rally his ditto heads into a narrow interpretation of lived experience, Wright plays the outsider as well — mind you, that’s the son of poetry royalty outsider, a poet published by a New York corporate publishing house outsider, a Pulitzer Prize winning outsider. You know, he’s an outsider they way Ted Kennedy was an outsider. Wright’s followers, his fellow “outsiders,” love Wright’s anti-MFA diatribes, including the Limbaughesque shorthands: “Femi-Nazi” is to Limbaugh as MFA “Prograsms” is to Wright.

Finally, like Limbaugh who seldom exhibits public grace, humility, and fairminded-ness and so undercuts his right wing philosophy of stability and continuity, Wright’s public screeds undercut his own best art, diminish the vision he has sought to bring to his poems, and reduce his stance to the rest of the poetry world as a single, unattractive position: Get off my lawn. Hmm? Your lawn, oh, outsider, you?

Poetry like politics is populated with enough cranks. Limbaugh was set back recently, as you know. After he attacked University of Georgetown undergraduate Sandra Fluke, advertisers withdrew their support of his program, costing Cumulus Radio millions of dollars. Will poetry readers do the same to Franz Wright? Already the Facebook de-friending is underway. Will we stop buying his books, too? What is he attacking Meg Kearney for? Or all the others, mostly women, in this post? I mean, Kearney is guilty only of working for a living. Is it right to support Wright when he wrongs others?

I can only imagine now how furiously Wright will now attack me for this post. He’s long shown that he will say anything in public to bring attention to himself. I expect he will do so again. Hypocrisy, contradiction are not impediments to his long history of invective. Who can forget his threatening to beat, yes, beat William Logan? Or his series of Letters to the Editor blowups in Poetry magazine?

In the meantime I take a back seat to no one, including Franz Wright, in defending the idea and ideal that the poet holds a special place in the human tribe. To be a poet calls one to be an illuminator and a seer. It calls on one to reflect on time and history and the future. It calls on one to invent and to bring into relief clarity and metaphor and insight. It calls on one to reveal the evidence of living. It calls on one to be geometric and sensual. It calls on one to synthesize lunacy and truth. It calls on one to look at the world, as Wallace Stevens says, “the way a man looks at a woman.” It calls on one to breath experience into language. It calls on one to transform pain into pleasure. It calls on one to make new myths.

But, here’s the deal, it never calls on one to be a jackass.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →