Wimanian Wisdom

Christian Wiman

I wasn’t familiar with the poet Christian Wiman before watching his interview with Bill Moyers. But his tone in that conversation—the comfort with the “don’t know” mind, a willingness to drop into the interior landscape in spite of many prevailing cultural trends that favor distance and detachment, a fearlessness in facing up to the exacting demands of the creative life—was so singular and memorable that I immediately ordered a volume of his poems and his only prose book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Once I started reading the essays in A&E, there was no putting it down. It is all I’ve read for days. Already well worn and dog-eared, my copy has marks and annotations on every page. What a great book. What an extraordinary writer.

Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has published several volumes of his own work. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of blood cancer, one that mysteriously might end his life immediately or then again, may not. The profound precariousness of his life has, understandably, sharpened and concentrated his wisdom about poetry and about life. He has a voice that merges the poetic with the spiritual without falling prey to the usual disbalancing distortions that often occur when those two are coupled up. What is often a source of discomfort for many contemporary readers is a seamless ride in Wiman’s world. The refiner’s fire of his life has clarified and crystallized the personal into something much larger than one man’s journey, one man’s life.

There’s food for weeks in this book (and I’ll be pulling more from it in future posts) but here’s a few samplings to whet your appetite for Wimanian wisdom:

Any writing that is merely personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is…inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.

There are people of abstract passion, people whose emotional lives are intense but, for one reason or another, interior, their energies accumulating always at the edge of action, either finding no outlet into reality, or ones too small for the force that warps them.

What happens to a passion that, though it fuels art, remains in some essential human sense abstract, never altogether attaching itself to any one person, any one time or token of the perishable earth? Does art, at least in some instances, and for some artists, demand this, that they always feel most intensely the life they’ve failed to feel? Is it worth it? The will, at least in its higher manifestations, is not a capacity that humans have learned to exercise with much precision. Always there are secondary casualties, collateral damages inflicted upon whoever happens to be in the way. To love is to really be in the way.

If you one day find that you are living outside of your life, that whatever activity you thought was life is in fact a defense against it, or a crowding out of it, or just somehow misses it, you might work hard to retain some faith in the years that suddenly seem to have happened without you. You might, like Milton, give yourself over to some epic work in which you find a coherence and control that eluded you in life. You might, like me, begin recounting vaguely exotic anecdotes to account for a time when you were so utterly unconscious you may as well have been living in Dubuque—might present them in such a way that your real subject remains largely in the shadows they cast. You might find that the hardest things to let go are those you never really took hold of in the first place.

11 Replies to “Wimanian Wisdom”

  1. Wiman’s interview with Moyers was so compelling. I’ve watched parts of it more than once. I just ordered Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing” and plan to read the essays. Many of his poems have left me moved and deep in thought.

    (An anthology to celebrate 100 years of Poetry magazine is due out this September. So many fine poets have been published by Poetry, the anthology should be a keeper.)

    The line in the excerpt above – “To love is to really be in the way.” – is such a provocative statement.

  2. You are my special edition supplement to The NY Review of Books, Deborah. The last quote you cite above is searingly true for me, as I stumble through my first months of retirement and seek to know what I left in the years behind and if any part of it was ever true.

    1. You are so kind Andrew. I think we rely on each other to vet and forage.

      That last quote cuts through all of us. I thought of it also in relation to the life demanded by certain religious creeds that you and I are very familiar with…

  3. The last quote is a knife to the heart. I feel the juice of an epic body of work seeping into this famished soul. Thank you D.

    1. That quote seared through me too. I have needed to read it many times to really hold it in. I knew you would know what he is talking about–we are sisters in that knowledge, truly.

  4. Wiman was just in residence at the West Chester Poetry Conference, not too far from my home, but I was unable to attend this year. I hear that he gave a transcendent reading there. It has taken me some time to warm up to his poetry–I didn’t feel much emotional response to his early work.

    It is possible (likely?) that the diagnosis of blood cancer forced him to work through many, many things–including how he writes poetry and what his purpose it. I really like his newer poems; and “Ambition & Survival” is wonderful.

    Those among your readers who are interested in poetry as well as visual and the plastic arts might also check out Gregory Orr’s book “Poetry as Survival” and Donald Hall’s anthology “Poetry and Ambition.”

    It strikes me as wonderfully true that our experiences act as a lens through which we see “reality” and that it is helpful to remember that a lens can be a barrier and can distort. And that other people are using other lenses.

    1. Ann, Thank you for bringing your poet’s sensibilities to this post, and I have just ordered copies of both books by Orr and Hall. Thank you for those recommendations.

      What did you think of the list at the back of Wiman’s book of the “prose by poets” he referenced in his essay, A Piece of Prose? He seems to really love W. S. Pi Piero, John Hollander, William Logan. I’d like to read the whole list.

      I hope you will share other recommendations. I rely on my poet friends for guidance since I feel more aligned to the insights of poets than I do those of visual artists. You guys own the words after all, and we are more focused on tackling the ineffables. Not that we succeed but that’s the intention…

      1. I haven’t read all of the writers Wiman cites. I’m a fan of Hollander’s writing about poetry, and I’ve read Justice’s book and Chappell’s & and Pinsky’s. Chappell is a gentle guide to poetry, I think. Logan less so–useful in a different way.

        I must read Mary Kinzie, clearly! She’s not on my bookshelves–or even on my radar.

  5. Thanks Ann for your guidance. I’m going to follow your lead.

  6. If we discover and expose our real lives and our real selves, what lovely, terrifying things might happen?

  7. This conversation prompted me to go look for Mary Kinzie – and I thank you for putting her on my radar:


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