Franz Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose frank, confessional verse reflected a search for self-discovery and spiritual yearning amid struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, died May 14 at his home in Waltham, Mass. He was 62.
The cause was lung cancer, his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, announced.
Mr. Wright was the son of James Wright, a celebrated poet who won the Pulitzer in 1972. They are the only parent-child combination to have won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Franz Wright’s parents divorced when he was 8, but James Wright, who died in 1980, remained a vivid presence in his son’s imagination. At 15, Franz Wright wrote his first poem, which he sent to his father. He received this note in return: “I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”
In the poem “Flight,” from his Pulitzer-winning 2003 volume, “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” Franz Wright wrote of his father:
Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely
star-far from the person right next to me, but
closer to me than me bones to you
you are there
Like his father, Franz Wright struggled with alcohol for much of his life and was hospitalized at least five times for substance abuse and manic-depressive disorders. He often wrote about his problems in his poetry, noting that he had a two-year period of psychosis in his 40s when he was incapable of writing.
“I thought of nothing but suicide, even in sleep,” he told the New York Times in 2004.
In 1999, Mr. Wright had a religious awakening — it occurred precisely at 1 p.m. on Sept. 13, 1999, he said — that led him to become a practicing Catholic. He entered a recovery program, stopped drinking and using drugs, and embarked on an energetic period of literary productivity.
Sometimes, he said, poems appeared to him fully formed in his mind: All he had to do was type them out. His 2001 collection “The Beforelife” was a dark, candid look at his addictions and his experiences in a mental hospital.
Mr. Wright continued to chronicle his journey of self-discovery with “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard,” which touched on his troubled memories of his father and examined questions of mortality.
In the poem “On Earth,” he wrote:
How does one go
Who on earth
is going to teach me—
The world is filled with people
who have never died
Mr. Wright typically wrote in short, irregular lines, with a blunt, unadorned style that could sound more like prose than verse. He published his poems in the New Yorker, Paris Review and Virginia Quarterly Review. Critic Helen Vendler, writing in the New York Review of Books, noted that Mr. Wright’s “scale of experience” ranges “from the homicidal to the ecstatic.”
With Mr. Wright’s later collections — “God’s Silence” (2006), “Wheeling Motel” (2009), “Kindertotenwald” (2011) and “F” (2013) — his reputation continued to grow, perhaps even eclipsing that of his father.
Poet and critic Anis Shivani, who called Mr. Wright “our greatest contemporary poet” in a 2013 essay for the Huffington Post, wrote that he helped lead a movement to “return poetry to a public art, popular and profound at the same time.” Mr. Wright sometimes read his poems to musical accompaniment.
Some critics, however, were unmoved by his rough-hewn manner. Critic William Logan complained in the New Criterion that Mr. Wright composed “the Hallmark cards of the damned.”
The two had a spirited dispute, culminating when Logan published a private letter in which Mr. Wright wrote, “I do not wish to kill you or hurt you, and so I beg you to get away from me, without delay, if you realize we are in the same room somewhere.”
Franz Paul Wright was born March 18, 1953, in Vienna, Austria, where his father was studying on a Fulbright fellowship. His mother was a nurse who later became a therapist and author.
After completing high school in California, Mr. Wright graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1977. He published his first volume of poetry in 1976, when he was still an undergraduate.
He taught at Emerson College in Boston from 1984 to 1989, when he was dismissed because of erratic behavior. He received a series of fellowships and continued to write, even as his addictions and mental state grew worse.
Mr. Wright’s religious conversion in 1999 occurred the same year as his marriage to a former student, Elizabeth Oehlkers. Other survivors include his mother, Liberty Kovacs of Sacramento, and a brother.
Later in life, Mr. Wright worked as a counselor for addicts and troubled children. In a 2004 interview with NPR, he said it was “the only way I ever could escape from my own tendency to self-pity and the idea that I was under some sort of special doom.”
His mother said Mr. Wright was at work on another volume of poetry shortly before his death.
In many of his poems since 2000, Mr. Wright described his newfound state of grace, including in his poem “One Heart,” from “Walking to Martha’s Vineyard”:
Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the
sane; thank You for letting me know what this is
like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening
blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without
terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly
with this love