He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art

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

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.

“Poetry
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.

Three
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
gutters.

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.

I
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.

And
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.

“Failure,”
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.

Absence of Inspiration, Absence of God: On Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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.

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