November 13, 2020


SHORT CONVERSATIONS WITH POETS: CHRISTIAN WIMAN ( Ilya Kaminsky, 11/12/20, McSweeney's Quarterly)

Christian Wiman is a poet who doesn't just write about the spiritual struggles; he embodies them on the page. "Today I woke and believed in nothing," the speaker movingly says in his most recent book, Survival is a Style. Belief and disbelief in this book at times crowd into the same stanza, even the same line. The result is both heart-wrenching and beautiful: this impulse of negative theology is made apparent in the language itself. How? With a blaze of questions ("What did he learn when he learned of his own bad heart? / That scared and sacred are but a beat apart") wherein we see the vivid desire for peace found in the daily: "I want to hum just a little with my own emptiness / at 4 a.m. To have little bells above my door. / To have a door." Toward the end of this searing book, there is a kind of resolution: this isn't a crisis of faith, we realize, crisis is faith. Faith is in the very texture of Wiman's language, the very fusion of his marvelous music and imagery, and that texture is what makes his work memorable to any reader who finds it. [...]


If you ask me (as you do) what poetry can do to reawaken the language of faith, I am skeptical. But if you ask me (as you have) what poetry can do to counter the sense of being destroyed by time, I am quite sure that it can be salvific -- both in the moments of its happening and in what those moments teach about the unity of life and time. More and more, I think of faith as simply a being at ease with time. But you'll notice I began this answer with the verb torn.

And language? Certainly, I have never written a poem that began with an idea -- not a single one. Very occasionally, there is an image or metaphor that takes some deep hold on me, but most often there's a sound in my head that hasn't even found its way to words yet. A rhythm, an ache, a not-quite-cry and not-quite-song, something in the air and in me that wants (needs) the distinction (between the air and me) erased. I have no ambition whatsoever other than keeping this possibility alive and remaining alert to it when it comes.

Posted by at November 13, 2020 12:00 AM