One of the themes that speak most powerfully from Christian Wiman’s writings—poems, essays, memoirs—is that of the absence of inspiration or the absence of God. To begin with the first formulation, Wiman concedes of the texts most close to his heart that for page after page after page they will fail to inspire. For one of the most prominent Christian poets working in North America today, it might seem surprising to see how he calls the Bible, for the most part, “cold ash.” It is also in these pages—his first volume of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)—that Wiman relates his time reading Milton in Guatemala in similar terms: reading for hours on end while getting nothing in return. The poet has to be patient, as his art doesn’t care for him in the same way he cares for her.
The absence of God, the second form that this absence takes in Wiman’s writings, is a motif he takes from Simone Weil and, for the present volume, from the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. The absence of God in the contemporary world is, to Wiman, the cue par excellence for Christian faith to seize on. What presented him decisively with this cue was when, a year after he married the poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. Coming from a deeply religious family and culture, in the years following his diagnosis Wiman began to revisit the words, forms, and stories that belonged to his Christian upbringing.
This theme of the absent God and the absence of inspiration connects to a crucial stake of Wiman’s work. This is the redemptive work of the poem itself, how it absolves the poet, and releases him from ambition. The poem, it seems, mediates between the self and grace. This is evinced by Ambition and Survival, as well as Wiman’s poetry, for instance “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing (2010) which ends with the lines “that life is not the life of men / And that is where the joy came in.” Joy, grace, God—as these concepts are not subject to ambition, which means they cannot be secured by the exercise of free will. All of Wiman’s writing brings out how the poet, with his own measure of skill, his form and style, attempts to come to terms with this lasting truth. Within poetry, there is something greater at stake than poetry itself—not just an expression of Christian thinking on Wiman’s, this is an essential stake of his poetics.
Christian Wiman was known in literary circles for his poems and work as a critic, when he came into the spotlight as the editor of the renowned Poetry journal, at a time when that institution was gifted a massive financial bequest from Ruth Lilly in 2003. In fact, the present volume talks about his time working at Poetry’s Chicago offices, and it seems to hint at a running gag about Wiman’s resolution to stay with the journal for a year, maybe two or three at most, while in fact he ultimately held the job for a decade. Notwithstanding his legacy as the editor of Poetry, Wiman definitively made his name as a writer and thinker when in 2013 he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. In this book, Wiman uses poetry and theology to contemplate his mortality and his illness as he searches for the words to articulate his faith. Currently, Wiman teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.
With Wiman, absence effectively becomes conditional to whatever presence it denies. This is true for his poetics as well as his theology. In the case of poetry, Wiman often relates his discoveries in reading other poets as well as his own creative process as significantly coming from a place of intense boredom. For example, it matters to Wiman that Milton’s towering Paradise Lost is, for the most part, practically unreadable and certainly disagreeable to the contemporary reader, as it is also important to him that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, only seems to find his voice in the correspondence with his friend Eberhard Bethge. These examples are from Ambition and Survival and My Bright Abyss. Similarly, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, his latest publication, takes its cue from a particularly uninspired performance of A.R. Ammons to build its narrative arc (Ammons is also behind the book’s title) while it also tells a funny and moving story about how Wiman finds unexpected joy and insight in the work of Mary Oliver—an experience that is confirmed when they meet. In this respect, the time with Poetry journal must have been highly formative, as it equipped him with the capacity of reading poetry as a desk-based job, describing himself as ”a clerk of verse.”
The absent God is a point of theological principle to Wiman—influenced by Weil, Bonhoeffer, and other avant-garde Christian thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who take as their point of departure the image of Christ dying at the cross, crying out his abandonment. Importantly, however, Wiman speaks in this sense from experience, about this dangerous and unpredictable form of cancer that he has lived with since 2007.
He Held Radical Light displays the poetical prose familiar to readers of My Bright Abyss: Every sentence is chiseled into stone, beautiful and lasting. Although Wiman can be casual in his formulations—for example when he declares his regret with ever having put Lolita “into his brain”—his ear for the rhyme of a prose sentence, enhanced with great precision and sincerity, makes for a reading experience that is extremely rare. The transparency of the writing is so strong that it illuminates and reflects on the reader. There are also structural similarities between He Held Radical Light and My Bright Abyss, like Wiman’s fondness for telling sobering anecdotes about meeting older poets, as these play their part in preparing the young poet for a lifetime waiting on poetry. These two books are different on another level. While in My Bright Abyss, composed from standalone essays, Wiman is really writing aphorisms, He Held Radical Light consists of one single narrative thread. If the subject matter of the earlier book might have constrained Wiman to short bursts of writing, here his endurance has expanded. This dissimilarity aside, both books are difficult to revisit, to dip in to. The insights or thinking they inspire come with the flow of the writing; they are not reducible to any particular content.
Wiman’s motif of underlining the absence of inspiration invites a comparison with his younger colleague, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner. In his essay The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Lerner has argued the radical inaccessibility of poetical content, one that is waymarked and forbidden precisely by the poem itself. The true poem, to Lerner, is forever absent. Lerner is dissatisfied with the contingent form every poem has to settle on, as it will inevitably fall short of the heavenly music it refers to. In this sense, it is revealing why Lerner values Dickinson over Keats:
Personally, I have never found Keatsian euphony quite as powerful as Dickinson’s dissonance. I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord… and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres.
In Dickinson, embedded into the very score of divine music, Lerner finds an immanent division and critique of poetical form, which is something his taste for poetical authenticity demands. Lerner perceives in Keats’s work a claim to a structural integrity that, to him, is simply untrue to the experience of poetry. In a spot-on digression, Lerner illustrates the divide between poetry and world as he relates the illusion of recognition when laymen hear the names of poets. I think this is phenomenologically accurate. It is telling, then, that even Lerner locates our botched attempts at identifying unknown poets within the capacity of memory, and of soul-searching, as if even those of us whose stated position would take an indifference to poetry think of it as something close to the heart.
Wiman’s stance is remarkable because he never gives up the point of the significance of poetry, even for a world that is indifferent. And this significance depends on the balance between the presence and absence of inspiration, of God, and the question of salvation. To some, perhaps, this explains Wiman as a religious poet. Indeed, Wiman is attuned to the miracle of experiencing poetical content, not in spite of the mediocrity of poetry—as with Lerner—but thanks to its genius. However, for Wiman it is a poetical demand that the poem moves beyond itself, moves beyond artistic or creative accomplishment.
So when for a poet like Lerner there is a clean separation between the divine and profane, for Wiman the poem works as an intermediary, and can unlock eternal truths within a finite context. The existence of poetry has this religious meaning, it plays a part within the soteriological scheme of things. Soteriology means the study of salvation. As a field within systematic theology it has in recent years been taken up more and more in philosophy and political theory. For Wiman, the way he discusses soteriological questions has everything to do with the motifs I commenced this review with, the absence of God and the absence of inspiration. And this implies, crucially, how the poem itself is never enough. The poem is a means to purge the poet of their literary ambitions—not to realize them—and to help its audience navigate a way toward a truth that overrides the beauty of its language. It has to make the self see the innocence and vulnerability of the soul.
One particularly moving motif from He Held Radical Light is that of the lineage of poets, of how the experience of the older poet is not just useful to their younger colleagues but eerily similar. It is as if the poets go through the same life, or at least confront the same ethical dilemma between life and art. Wiman suggests this, and more, by weaving certain patterns into his relationships with the world of poetry: his bad starts with female poets Susan Howe and Mary Arnold—after which reconciliation follows—and the way in which older male poets mentored him, notably Donald Hall, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney. Especially within the context of such a short essay, and even when the writer concedes that perhaps every poet has a choice to make between art and life, these patterns stand out and remain puzzling. They remain puzzling as the poet’s dilemma is overshadowed by strange coincidences of fate, as the book relates an orchestrated scattering of illness striking, almost always cancer, among Wiman’s professional acquaintances. These are of more than superficial interest, and Wiman’s writing—and in this the new publication is more pronounced than its predecessor—works to save by remembering. And remember it does, if only for some time. Highly contingent and uncertain, this is how memory saves. Nothing illustrates this better than Wiman’s brief and entirely parenthesized recollection of another departed friend, halfway through the book, and his final struggle to remember a forgotten word from childhood. This restricted view on salvation, as always falling short, is the most radical idea from He Held Radical Light.
My Bright Abyss and He Held Radical Light—the change of pronoun between these titles indicates the bolder resolution of Wiman’s latest work. The new book is less personal, yet allows for more intimacy. For instance, in My Bright Abyss the poet Danielle Chapman, Wiman’s wife, was only indicated by her initial, while now she is named. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman sounds more at ease, surer of himself, as he is more generous to share his life with his readers. This readiness, by the unescapable paradox that Wiman analyses so well, of course means that he reveals less. Less personal, then, the condition of the absence of inspiration is attributed a more general pertinence, as indeed we see how the poets share their affliction, as human beings share their suffering. At the same time, the existence of the poem—lone bastion within this wasteland of boredom—holds a soteriological significance: The poem saves, yet it is not enough. Indeed, the poem can be soteriologically instrumental because it is not enough, and in Wiman’s reading every poem knows and enacts this insufficiency. This is Wiman’s explicit position, outlined halfway through the book within a brilliant discussion of Philip Larkin’s final poem “Aubade.” This is also the important difference between Wiman and Lerner: The poem’s very insufficiency is drawn into the matter of salvation. We might call it Wiman’s wager:
You must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you.
This stance goes with Wiman’s mature and sobered position of the significance of his, or any poet’s, legacy, as he gives up on the aspiration of his youth to write a poem that would “live forever.”
Can the poet chance his salvation on writing great poems, perhaps on writing a single great poem? This question animated Ambition and Survival before, it remained in the background of My Bright Abyss, and here again it takes centre stage. “Yes and no” is Wiman’s answer, just as any religious stance is flawed in a way. (As Marilynne Robinson, a writer close to Wiman’s heart, has said, ”As soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes false.”) Ultimately, the poet has to risk it all on the creative life itself and suspend their share of this finished article that would last forever. To this truth, between these two incomparably accomplished works, perhaps My Bright Abyss will still bear stronger testimony. It successor, however, certainly benefits from its eerie assemblage of poetical recurrences within the lives of poets to bring out the soteriology of remembrance.