An Interview with Christian Wiman
Christian Wiman is the former editor of Poetry magazine and a current faculty member at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is the author of three collections of poetry, the most recent being Every Riven Thing, as well as a translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry. In 2013, he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, a work of prose that Marilynne Robinson described as possessing “a purifying urgency that is rare in this world.” His new collection of poems, Once in the West, will be published by FSG in the fall. Commonweal literary columnist Anthony Domestico conducted the following interview by e-mail.(Funding for this interview was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.)
Anthony Domestico: You edited Poetry magazine for ten years. That grueling, very public, frequently controversial work must have influenced everything from the kinds of poetry you were reading to the hours in which you were working on your own stuff. How has your life—as a poet and as a reader—changed now that you’re the former editor of Poetry?
Christian Wiman: Oh, Lord, my life has completely changed. Not only do I no longer have a hundred emails in my inbox every day, I’m also not buried up to my eyeballs in contemporary poetry.
I didn’t like editing Poetry at first—or, more accurately, didn’t like being known as the editor of Poetry. It didn’t accord with the “image” I had of myself, for one thing, but I also didn’t like negotiating the politics and personalities of the job, and I absolutely hated having to reject my friends. I would have resigned after two years had I not become sick. That trapped me—and, in a way, saved me. The great enemy for all of us is the “I” we interpose between ourselves and experience, the self we mistake for our soul. Nothing but difficulty destroys that “I.”
I learned to look outward more, learned to think of the magazine as a means to support poets and poetry and not as some absurd extension of my own ego. I never felt quite myself in the job, but I did love the people I worked with, both inside and outside of the office. I’m proud of what we accomplished there, proud of the writers we discovered and what they’ve gone on to do, and I feel extremely grateful that I was given enough time to see things more clearly.
Now—poof—it’s all gone, and I spend my days among people who don’t know anything at all about the poetry world. (Some of them know quite a lot about poetry, but that’s not what I mean.) It’s frightening sometimes to have my familiar world, and my place in it, just vanish. But mostly it’s a relief. There’s a clarity of purpose to what I am doing now, which is engaging literature and religion with budding ministers and musicians and professors and social workers so that they can go out in the world and teach the word of God in ways this desperate and deafened culture can hear. It feels like a great privilege to be here and to have these students, and I am working hard to be worthy of it.
AD: You currently teach at the Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and you’ve taught previously at a host of other schools—Stanford, Northwestern, Lynchburg College, and the Prague School of Economics. How, if at all, has teaching changed your writing and reading? And how does teaching at a divinity school compare with teaching poetry within an English department?
CW: I wouldn’t say that teaching (or editing) has ever had an effect on my writing, aside from the obvious way of demanding time. I work, when I work, in an iron cage of inspiration (if that metaphor sounds strange to you, you should try living it), and for better or worse I am impervious to the world when the world, through my work, is most available to me. I’m talking about poetry here, not prose, which is an altogether different order of experience.
Teaching at a divinity school is not at all similar to teaching in an English department, or at least teaching at Yale Divinity School isn’t (for the record, my primary appointment is with the Institute of Sacred Music). I have enjoyed some of the courses I have taught in the past, but there has never before seemed to be so much at stake. This past fall I taught a seminar called Poetry and Faith, and we all read poetry as if our lives depended on it. Which, I suppose, they did. We had our last meeting in a chapel and ended that meeting with an unplanned prayer. Yes indeed, I’d say teaching here is a bit different from more secular situations.
Still, there are dangers for an artist in any academic environment. Academia rewards people who know their own minds and have developed an ironclad confidence in speaking them. That kind of assurance is death for an artist. The great thing about the Institute of Sacred Music in particular is that it is founded upon the assumption that art is essential to any creative life of faith, so a certain amount of existential stuttering is not simply allowed but actively encouraged.
AD: You’re currently teaching a course called “Accidental Theologies,” which you define as the kind of theology that gets done in seemingly nontheological texts—letters, poems, and novels, for example. Why are you drawn to this kind of writing? What in particular interests you about the kind of theology that gets done in, say, the novels of Fanny Howe or Marilynne Robinson? And how do the pleasures you get from accidental theology differ from the pleasures you get from the more traditional theology of a Karl Barth or Hans Urs von Balthasar?
CW: I seem immune to ideas that have no concretion to them. Most systematic theology—modern theology, I should specify, like Barth or Balthazar—just bounces right off the stone of my brain. I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy it—I do—but it seems not to stick with me in any meaningful way, seems ungraspable the minute I’ve closed the book.
Embodied theology, though, ideas about God that have some music and physicality to them, ideas, that is to say, that aren’t primarily ideas—these sorts of works I understand and love and am able to carry with me in my life and faith. I’m not ranking the ways one does theology, though; just diagnosing my own magpie method, which has its own strengths and weaknesses.
AD: Very broadly—and maybe reductively—speaking, we might classify Christian poets as falling into two camps: those who emphasize the Incarnation (W. H. Auden, for instance, and the Hopkins of “God’s Grandeur”) and those who emphasize the crucifixion (Geoffrey Hill and the Hopkins of the dark sonnets). Where would you locate yourself? Or do you resist that kind of categorization altogether?
CW: I would have thought myself resistant to such a categorization, but the way you’ve framed it is compelling—though perhaps we should add poems of the resurrection, like Stevie Smith’s “The Airy Christ” (“For he does not wish that men should love him more than anything / Because he died; he only wishes they would hear him sing”), or Mary Karr’s “Descending Theology: The Resurrection” (“it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water / shatters at birth, rivering every way”), or Geoffrey Hill’s “Lachrimae Amantis”:
So many nights the angel of my house
Has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
Whispered “your lord is coming, he is close”
That I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
Bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
“Tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”
This may not constitute a third category, since the resurrection is the seed, meaning, and final fruition of the incarnation.
In any event, I feel that there is a great deal of joy in my work of the past ten years, but I do get letters from people telling me to ditch the sackcloth and ashes, and I get tired of my own grimace in mirrors. Can one really just decide to be more joyful, though? One aspect of joy is the suspension of will—the obliteration of will, really—though probably there is an element of discipline in being prepared for joy, just as there is in being prepared for poetry. “Iridescent readiness,” W. S. Di Piero calls it. And there are these lines from Richard Wilbur:
Try to remember this: what you project
Is what you will perceive; what you perceive
With any passion, be it love or terror,
May take on whims and powers of its own.
The thing is, we are always going to feel God’s absence more than his presence. We are always going to feel the imprint and onslaught of necessity, which is the crucifixion, more than we feel the release and freedom of pure joy, which is the resurrection. The first we experience; the second, even when it emerges out of experience, we believe. In that tiny gap of grammar is an abyss of difference. Suffering we know and share intimately with Christ (it’s how we bear it). Faith and hope are always imaginative—that is to say, projective—acts: “Tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”
AD: Speaking of Hopkins, so much of your poetry channels his music, from your poem in Every Riven Thing (2010) “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud,” which begins, “Madden me back to an afternoon / I carry in me / not like a wound / but like a will against wound,” to your 2012 translation of Osip Mandelstam’s “Black Earth,” which begins, “Earthcurds, wormdirt, worked to a rich tilth.” What is it that draws you to Hopkins? Is it his music, his formal adventurousness, his accidental theology?
CW: You’re not going to believe this, but I don’t really think of Hopkins as a significant influence. I read him years ago and memorized a few poems, but I’ve hardly returned to him over the years.
Influence is a much more complicated and chaotic process than critics tend to realize. (“You have no idea of the trash that goes into making a poem,” said Anna Akhmatova.) Recently I was having a drink with a friend, the fabulous poet Atsuro Riley, whose work really is elaborately Hopkinsesque, or at least it seems so. Yet he told me that when people asked him this question he always said that Hopkins was way too strong a drink to take straight up. He got his Hopkins through Seamus Heaney, who has also been an enormous influence on me. (For sheer sound, though, I’d give more credit—or blame—to Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, and Robert Frost.)
As for Mandelstam—that’s a different case. I don’t speak Russian. I translated Mandelstam with the help of Ilya Kaminsky, who kept telling me that the Russian sounded so much like Hopkins that it was uncanny. So the sounds in those poems, especially the later ones, are quite intentional.
Have I evaded the question? There is certainly an energy and passion in Hopkins to which I feel very sympathetic, a sense of religious rapture raveled up with linguistic intensity, an understanding that art isn’t a diversion but a divine refraction, that in the finding of a form for experience one’s whole soul can be at stake. This is why one sometimes wants it all to go away, and why poems can be pleas in several different ways at once. “I want the one rapture of an inspiration,” Hopkins says. And then, piercingly: “My own heart let me more have pity on, / Let me live to my sad self hereafter kind.”
AD: What other poets do you find yourself returning to again and again?
CW: Not poets so much as poems, which I find here and there and cling to as I can. I don’t really believe in Collected Poems. They’re almost always bad. The bad so far outweighs the good, I mean, that you’re left with a negative impression of even truly great poets like Frost or Stevens. And poets who wrote tons of poems but only one or two real gems just get totally lost—like James Dickey, for instance, whose poem “At Darien Bridge” is like a tiny diamond in a huge mass of hog slop. But what a diamond!
So I tend to think in terms of poems, not poets, and I tend to be forever desperate for something new. This was the great thing about editing Poetry, the discoveries. Lately I have been thinking a lot of this deceptively plain little piece by the Polish poet Anna Kamienska, which is called “A Prayer That Will Be Answered.” The translation is by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.
Lord let me suffer much
and then die
Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear
Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before
Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it
so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love
Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain
And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head
What does it mean to pray as Christ prayed in the garden, to ask not for release or rescue but that one’s will be conformed to the will of God? This poem is one answer—which, by the way, is not as nihilistic or ironic as it may seem, since we readers are “bumping our heads” on this poem that has indeed been made clear as a windowpane. No doubt the day after Anna Kamienska’s death (May 10, 1986) was much like the day of it, and so her terrible prayer was indeed “answered.” Yet another part of that prayer asks for an art adequate to the implacable fact of matter, and the consummation of that art sends a little ripple of something right back through that implacability. The uncanny clarity of this poem makes one believe, while the poem is having its way with you, that that “something” just might be a soul.
AD: There’s been a lot of handwringing lately about how few contemporary novelists and poets grapple with religious belief in their work. More specifically, people like Paul Elie have pointed to the vibrant Catholic literary culture of the mid-twentieth century, when Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene were all writing, and have lamented how far we’ve fallen. Do you agree with this gloomy picture of contemporary literature’s unwillingness to engage with religion seriously?
CW: I love Paul Elie’s work but don’t quite see things as he does. One could argue that the best living poets are all seriously engaging religion in their work—Richard Wilbur in this country, Anne Carson in Canada, Geoffrey Hill in England, Les Murray in Australia, Adam Zagajewski in Poland (in Polish, I should say, as he lives here). And of course there is the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, who died in 2000, and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who told me over dinner not long before he died that he felt caught between the old forms of faith in which he had been raised and something else that had not quite emerged. Among American prose writers, there is Richard Rodriguez, Annie Dillard, Frederick Buechner, Fanny Howe, Mary Karr, Cormac McCarthy, Jamie Quatro, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson—how many does one need?
But this list-making misses the point. What Paul Elie is really responding to, I think, is two things: the diffuseness of American literary culture in general, which makes it impossible to feel any voices as anything other than singular, and the weakening of religion’s hold on the definition of faith. Is this really a new thing? Flannery O’Connor’s letters and talks are full of articulate expressions of these exact anxieties. History’s greatest distortion is coherence. It may be that the future will see our religious writers as a recognizable milieu, whereas we are all experiencing spiritual isolation amid cultural chaos. And properly so, I might add: “The burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.” That’s Paul Elie—at the end of his wonderful book The Life You Save May Be Your Own.
Underneath this sociological question is an existential issue of greater consequence. We all live in an agony of unbelief, and we all survive it by solidarity with others, including those minds we meet only through their works. I suppose no artist has the duty to make his or her faith available to an audience, but just think how heartening it is when one does. My existence on this earth is made easier (by which I mean more fruitfully difficult) by the examples of Terrence Malick, John Tavener, Makoto Fujimura, or Marilynne Robinson. By the same token, it is disheartening when an artist I admire specifically for his Christian intensities—Geoffrey Hill, for example—refuses any notion that his work is Christian because he doesn’t want to be defined by that. Of course I understand the impulse: “religious” writing—like religion in general, actually—is mostly embarrassing. Still it feels to me, especially at this particular historical moment, like a flinch.
AD: What differences do you see between the Catholic literary imagination and the Protestant literary imagination?
CW: I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m pandering to my audience if I say that, to the extent that art is great, it tends to become more Catholic. Perhaps I could add, by way of pissing off all parties equally, that in the times that we are in, religious art, in so far as it is also great art, tends to become less obviously religious.
Let me try and explain. Art is essential to Christianity because it doesn’t simply remind us of the incarnation but makes us feel the truth of that encounter—God and matter—in our bones. Catholicism takes the sacralization of matter quite seriously, as it does the possibilities of mystical encounters with God. Protestantism is allergic to mysticism, because it thinks of God as absolutely beyond. For Protestants, a line like this from Meister Eckhart—“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me”—is heresy. (Of course, Eckhart himself was considered a heretic by the Catholic Church, so its embrace of his visionary insights has been, as usual, a bit belated.)
How does this play out in poetry? Here is a bit of obviously Protestant poetry, courtesy of Richard Wilbur. These lines follow a long and very beautiful description of a brook:
Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with the ache
Nothing can satisfy.
Here is a similar idea—what is human joy and what does it have to do with the divine?—recast through the Catholic imagination, in this case the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh:
Leafy-With-Love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
For Wilbur, an experience of nature elicits a very real joy, which then elicits a very real pain that the joy is not enough, that matter is not enough: God is beyond. For Kavanagh, redemption inheres in seeing matter as matter, which is to say as divine; to be joyful is to fully inhabit “the habitual, the banal,” which is a mystical order of experience—not a grand visionary epiphany such as saints have, but one available to anyone who will simply pay attention and be.
This is an accurate distinction, I think, but it’s also somewhat contrived. Much of the best of Wilbur is concerned with “the blind delight of being” in a way that resists any specific religious codification. Similarly, Kavanagh’s chief theme is an innocence that is existential but not specifically religious, as in these lines in which the adult speaker suddenly finds himself back in a childhood that is more than mere imagination:
I do not know what age I am
I am no mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.
My point is this: Poets are still guardians of the truths of faith, but poetry has less and less to do with the institutions that presume to name that faith. This makes some religious leaders think they do not need poetry, when in fact they need it now more than ever, because within poetry is the same anarchic energy and disabling insight that causes people to seek religion at all. It is the aboriginal energy of existence itself that is missing from most religious services these days. Art has this energy in abundance.
AD: Last year, you published My Bright Abyss, a beautiful, moving account of your journey back toward the Christian faith and, just as crucially, of the relation between poetry and faith. You open that book with a description of how you usually come to know your own mind: “feeling through the sounds of words to the forms they make, and through the forms they make to the forms of life that are beyond them.” This idea—that sensual and aesthetic experience (“the sounds of words”) ultimately suggests and makes present that which is beyond them (“the forms of life that are beyond them”)—strikes me as a very sacramental understanding of language. What role have the sacraments played in your life, either as a believer or as a poet?
CW: I’m not sure I have a sacramental understanding of anything except language. I have never felt anything but self-consciously inadequate when taking the Lord’s Supper, for instance (and not even morally inadequate, which at least might mean something; I mean inadequate in the sense that I can’t muster up any feeling for what I am doing).
No doubt how I was raised has something to do with this. Baptists, at least the ones I grew up among, don’t even use the word “sacrament.” The Lord’s Supper is an “ordinance.” We sat in our pews and ate saltines and drank grape juice from tiny plastic vials, and we did that only once a month. It didn’t seem too mysterious.
But would fancier mechanics really make any difference? Flannery O’Connor, despite her famous avowal about the Real Presence—“If it’s a symbol, to hell with it”—seems to have had her own indifference to contend with. “When you go to Communion,” she wrote in a letter, “you receive grace but you experience nothing, or if you do experience something, what you experience is not the grace but an emotion caused by it.” This is a helpful separation of grace from feeling, but it remains at a purely intellectual level for me. (I am not helped by the realization that that was precisely O’Connor’s point.) I assume there is grace in the sacraments, because so many people I admire tell me it is so. But I have to take it on trust.
Poetry is different. With poetry I experience the world almost as I once did, before the calamity of meaning. The enchantment of childhood is due to the fact that there are no metaphors. One lives the fluid truths and strange adjacencies that metaphors can only suggest. (To argue that something is or isn’t metaphorical is to be hopelessly on this side of the divide.) Art is charged and charmed for me in ways that religion never seems to reach. I’m not proud of this. It is a great sadness in my life—that religion remains inert, I mean, that I can’t seem to feel anything in the forms of it. The closest I have come is the daily chapel service at the divinity school. Something is freed in me there—perhaps because there is usually poetry involved, perhaps because these are the people I work with, perhaps because so many of them seem willing to admit the same spiritual insufficiencies and bare needs.
AD: In his new book Darling, Richard Rodriguez describes the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as a “desert God,” a God who “demands acknowledgement within emptiness.” So much of your poetry is steeped in the west Texas landscape of your childhood—its endless plains and endless horizons, its harsh winds and bitter dryness. What connection do you see between this landscape and your own faith? Between this landscape and your poetry?
CW: The connection is intimate, difficult, and durable—for better or worse. The desert is a good purgative for the moister emotions: self-pity, treasured gloom, spiritual lassitude. I didn’t grow up among much of this. People were tough as old mesquite trees, and just as vulnerable to the spiritual elements—bare, forked creatures before a quite palpable and demanding God. I admire that intensity now, and miss it. Of course there were also plenty of self-righteous zealots and fire-eyed maniacs, who also seem to thrive in waste places. Them I don’t miss so much.
I can certainly see the ways in which my poetry has been shaped by both of these forces, both formally and thematically.
In the end, as that quote from Rodriguez suggests, I simply experience literally what every modern believer experiences metaphorically. “We have to be in a desert, for he whom we must love is absent.” That’s Simone Weil, whom I first read in my twenties while staring balefully into the null nowhere of Colorado City, Texas, where I was living in a tiny trailer in my grandmother’s backyard. In some ways—again, for better or worse— I’ve never left that little trailer. “We must take the feeling of being at home into exile,” says Weil. “We must be rooted in the absence of a place.”
AD: You published your first collection of poems, The Long Home, in 1998. A lot has happened to you since then, both professionally (you edited Poetry for ten years) and personally (you got married, had twins, and were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer). How do you see yourself as a different poet from what you were in 1998?
CW: I was a bad poet in 1998, but rather than hoist up that particular piñata, which I have whacked all to hell in my own head (no goodies therein!), let me concentrate on the differences.
I spent a decade discovering the whole notion of a formal imagination, learning to recognize it in what I read and trying to figure out what it meant that my nerves and my words were in some weird and potentially saving sync with each other. Then I spent another decade certain that the only authentic energy in art was the energy of absence, that even an aubade was made of pain. “Light writes white,” as the saying goes.
Then I got a tidal wave of real pain that tested all of my ideas pretty severely—and found them wanting. It wasn’t as if I had to relearn how to write poems. It was as if I had to finally deploy the whole arsenal, which includes abundance, extravagance, and inexplicable joy.
But are the poems actually better? I feel freed from having to worry about that. I take that freedom to be an act of authentic grace in my life, for which I am immensely grateful.
[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]
About the Author
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.