Fail Like a Poet: Ambition and Failure in Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

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I was 23 when I first read My Bright Abyss: Meditations of Modern Believer, Christian Wiman’s stirring poetic memoir on art and faith in the face of death. I was dizzy with ambition, full of passion but unsure of where to put it, so it felt like Wiman was speaking directly to me when he wrote, “So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence on existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt, and you are pursuing a ghost.” It’s one of many passages that reads like one side of a correspondence between a seasoned writer and a young, ambitious one, like me—a contemporary Rilke tossing hard-earned pearls of wisdom from success’s far shore.

Wiman spends much of Abyss recounting the early days of his life as a poet when he pursued the aforementioned ghost, and how he eventually sacrificed that ambition for a purer and more rigorous one, aimed not for lesser eternities like fame or reputation, but animated by “that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated, and all you want is the poem.” In this kind of writing, this kind of life, the individual artistic self is willingly snuffed out for the sake of the truer, bigger art it pursues. The way to channel my own ambition, Wiman seemed to be telling me, was to sanctify it, which to me meant scrubbing the rank smell of the self from its pores. This charge is present in his new and similarly stunning memoir, He Held Radical Light, though I can’t help but feel his latest book is less a reiteration of that charge than a response to the questions that emerge after one accepts such a radical call.

My Bright Abyss has become nothing less than a cornerstone for a small but deeply serious contingent of faith-intrigued artists in my generation. Acolytes of Marilynne Robinson, Mary Oliver, or Annie Dillard might consider Wiman of the same ilk, a writer of both high literary merit and great spiritual depth. A mentor put Abyss in my hands in my first aimless year out of college, when the possibility of pursuing a life of art, an art which aspired to the standard Wiman put forth, was still something I could decide not to do. But his ultimate purpose in Abyss was more urgent and worthwhile than any I’d considered until that point in my life: to resurrect the lifeless body of religious language in order to adequately approach the spiritual conundrums of modern life. Wiman knew that the old well of spiritual metaphors and symbols had gone dry, but instead of cursing the soil, he set out with a divining rod to find new springs. And he urged a whole generation of other writers to do the same. So, I committed—one might say converted—to a life I did not know how to live, a life where art and faith were so tightly woven that to unravel one thread might put too much tension on the other. Pulled taught, it wouldn’t be long before one of them snapped.

itself,” writes Wiman, early in Radical
Light “like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can
never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.” This fits
with the earlier image of the insatiable, selfless artist, who erases her
tracks as she marches further into the dark; satisfaction with one’s work
equals artistic death. But its appearance so early in the book alerts the
reader that Wiman may not consider this the key
to an artistic life but the cost of
it. More accurately, it’s both, but Wiman has oriented the thrust of Radical Light around the recurring
realization of every serious artist that the molten core “at the heart of
creation itself” which once pulled him to an urgent, selfless art is the same
fire that would inevitably burn him.

In an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippet from 2014, Wiman mentions the modern tendency to favor the self and neglect the soul. True as this may be for many Americans, I suspect that the kind of person who gravitates to Wiman’s work in the first place may be more inclined to the inverse. In the hands of a young writer who’s embraced the self-obliterating art that looks a lot like faith—the kind of writer who considers satisfaction a sign of death—this plea for balance becomes a stick to beat back the needy hound that is the self. A self needs affirmation, needs companionship, needs a “real mattress”—things which may seem superfluous, even detrimental, when positioned against the needs of a soul.

hard-scrabble years into a frantic but still exciting life as a writer, led
into the Abyss by Wiman’s ethereal hand, it occurred to me that fierce commitment
to my own artistic craft simply wasn’t enough; total devotion meant congruence
between private art and public work. I had a challenging but generally
fulfilling job teaching writing to high school seniors on the Southwest side of
Chicago, but I still felt a lack of artistic purpose. I wanted more—more art,
more meaning, more…something. So, I moved from Chicago to Seattle to take a job
at a small but well-respected literary magazine that tended to the intersection
of art and faith. A crucial section of My
Bright Abyss had originally been published in the magazine’s pages. Even
though the job was largely administrative, promising only modest editorial
input, I took it. I would have taken it if they’d hired me to clean the

What narrative thrust exists in a book that relies mostly on poetry for dramatic effect surrounds Wiman’s experiences as the editor of Poetry Magazine and his eventual departure for a teaching post at Yale Divinity School. The move, we find, had little to do with Wiman looking for a more “meaningful” role than with discrepancies between his personality and the Poetry job’s demands. He’s more inclined to penning a poem on his train ride to the office than wrangling Poetry’s suddenly massive budget. Leaving Poetry seems a fairly easy decision for Wiman, but I suspect his ability to walk away from such an esteemed post is related to his long quest to understand the relationship between art and faith, that the hard work he’s done to disentangle poetry from salvation—in work, in relationships, in sickness—prevents him from equating his identity with his Very Important Job.

At my own moderately important job, I began to disappear within a matter of weeks. A toxic and emotionally dysfunctional environment effaced itself as a test of my own intellect and will, a test I quickly realized I would not pass. I gritted my teeth and mustered the manic energy to get through each workday, only to collapse into a despair-like exhaustion within the first hour of leaving that acerbic office. Depressed, I hacked away at a novel in the evenings, drinking alone to numb the day and forestall my fantasies about what unforeseen humiliations awaited me in the next, tamping down the unsettling and undeniable fact that the job I thought would bring me closer to the “heart of creation itself” had brought me to the edge of a void. You signed up for this, I told myself, blaming myself while patting my own back. In no time, the novel—the actual art I’d sworn to pursue— took on the quality of so much fiction written by a depressed person: All of the characters were depressed. The limitless scope of human emotion I’d so desperately wanted to explore reduced itself to three or four variations of the same dejected malaise; “brooding clouds” figured heavily in the text. Still, I trusted that something important was happening to my soul, that feeling terrible all the time was the necessary cost of a meaningful artistic life.

Wiman’s mortality, and his gradual but profound embrace of faith in the grip of a rare bone cancer, was the primary subject of Abyss. Radical Light, on the other hand, draws primarily upon the lives, work, and deaths of other poets—Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, C.K. Williams, and Phillip Larkin, among others—and courts the occasional temptation to revel in the glow of literary celebrity. But Wiman, having lived the life most writers would envy, cuts such romantic illusions off at the quick. His authority privileges him with witnessing firsthand the tension between the lives of our world’s greatest poets and their transcendent poems. His proximity to those figures, in their lives and in some cases their deaths, affirms the recurring conundrum that, more often than not, a poem’s truth may elude the poet who wrote it. In his work, Phillip Larkin inches toward a Void he won’t call God but can proceed no further than the page allows; Seamus Heaney confesses to Wiman that faith keeps breaking free of the language he’s so ardently crafted in his lyrical life. Time and time again, the people most capable of unlocking the kingdom’s doors have begun to doubt the efficacy of their keys.

I had been in Seattle for one year and felt myself on the verge of an emotional, mental, and spiritual collapse. I was spent and cynical, paranoid and thin. I slept too much or not enough, avoided crowds but feared true silence. I dreamed of running from angry religious clowns. I had swapped a conviction for art’s civic and spiritual value for a bitter disdain towards earnest expressions of both faith and art, like Indiana Jones swapping gold for a bag of sand. My triune method of self-preservation—endorphins, prayer, and beer—wasn’t cutting it anymore. For the first time since I’d started the job, I managed to call friends and family and tell them what had been happening, to confess that for the last year I had been unraveling in secret. It took hours to explain the situation, how day in and day out I allowed myself to be a witness in the petty theft of my own self-worth, my passion for the written word, my love of life in general—all of it there and then suddenly not, as if by slight of hand. I’d kept all this hidden for one main reason: admitting to anyone else that my dream job turned out to be a nightmare would mean admitting it to myself. Quit, they said. Now.

Wiman frequently mentions his “wriggling on the hook” of ambition for the first several years of his writing career. At first, I pictured the kind of hook where you might hang your keys, a holding place fastened to a wall, dangling something. This gives the impression of ambition as toil and nothing else, and by extension may encourage a crude dismissal of ambition altogether, may temp an ambitious person to hate the hook for snagging him at all. But Wiman’s careful treatment of the the metaphor suggests that the Hook has a more mysterious function beyond restraint, beyond wriggle and toil. “For a time I would say I was released from this hook by faith…” he says, alluding perhaps to the moments recounted in Abyss when art could no longer withstand death’s weight, and faith buoyed him. But he continues: “But I would also say that it was ambition that released me from ambition.”

The night I wrote my resignation letter, wildfires burned north and south of Seattle, in Canada and Oregon, and the smoke had carried on the winds of a heat wave to settle over the city like a lusterless fog. The temperature hovered above eighty until well after midnight, so by the time I finished writing I was covered in sweat. It may have been the sirens bleeding through my open windows, or the smell of smoke lingering on the wind, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d committed some terribly selfish crime, like quitting the job meant quitting the life I’d committed to living.

It is in wriggling on the hook—in his ambition to write poetry and live a life worthy of the standard he previously put forth—where Wiman discovers the ultimate insufficiency of his or anyone else’s art. And it is in acknowledging this insufficiency that his art becomes true, where it shape-shifts into grace.

no longer believe that suffering in a tedious and dehumanizing literary
non-profit job was part of some holy artistic struggle. I could have wriggled
anywhere; depression is not a pre-requisite for grace, and despair is not the
only key to breakthrough. It was in recognizing that my struggle there was not
a sacred one that I finally allowed the hook to do its work. The hook—“both God
and Void, grace and pain”—holds us whether we wriggle or not.

“The best way out,” Wiman reminds us, quoting Frost, “is always through.” I knew, when I turned in my resignation, that the collapse I had been staving off through denial and repression would quickly follow. I knew that the loneliness I felt both in the job and outside of it, the despair which had begun to seep through the cracks of my denial, would not dissipate when I acknowledged their presence. But I also knew, finally, that the diminishment of a self was not the same as true artistic or spiritual sacrifice.

I knew that for a long time I would feel like I had failed—failed to become the
dynamic literary pro I once wanted to be, failed to write my novel, failed to
transform in the way I imagined I would when I packed up my car and moved across
the country for that job. In those ways, I really had failed, and it was
painful to see those dreams dry up. But sometimes it’s not until a dream is deferred
that we can recognize its insufficiency, its utter wackness as a dream.

Christian Wiman concludes, “is our only savior.” It is the poet’s failures, his
myriad brushes with death in poetry and life, which give him the authority to
make such a claim. The rest of us have to find out for ourselves, as often and
as fully as we can.