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This item is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

‘PERHAPS ONLY BAD POETS become poets. The good ones, though they may wax vatic and oracular in public, and though they may even have full-fledged masterpieces behind them, know full well that they can never quite claim the name.’

Christian Wiman’s new book He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is brief and generically challenging. It combines anthology, memoir, meditation, theology, critical exploration, standing apart from the hectic fray of twitter assaults and batteries, blog and Facebook campaigns, all the shriller bat-calls that drive the distracted Muses deeper and deeper into the wilds. It listens in poetry for ‘those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity’; the terms are theologically loaded and yet even readers resistant to theology may recognise what is meant here, those ‘spots of time’, perhaps, ‘which with distinct pre-eminence retain / A renovating virtue’ or, as Wordsworth preferred later, ‘a vivifying virtue’. Or like Barthian ‘flashes’ that re-illumine and transfigure (even if only for a moment) the over-familiar.

Wiman, who for a decade edited Poetry, has written ten books of poems, a memoir and Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. He is that rare creature, a professor of literature and religion at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. He knows that a holy mountain, whether Parnassus or not, survives though the public world has given itself over to the excitements of instant response: outrage, retro-outrage, correctness, incorrectness. It is possible to engage in considered dialogue with poems and poets, and with readers. They demand it, they deserve it. We deserve it:

I stayed up late last night reading the letters of A.R. Ammons, who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca. ‘Keep Ithaka always in your mind,’ wrote Constantin Cavafy, ‘Arriving there is what you’re destined for.’ And he did, Ammons, keep that mythical Ithaka in his mind, which is to say in his poems, decade after decade of diaristic ramblings that are as flavorless as old oatmeal this morning, as null and undifferentiated as deep space – then lit up suddenly by a meteoric masterpiece that must have surprised the workaday writer as much as it does the fatigued reader.

The meteor poem is ‘The City Limits’, which he quotes, and then remembers Ammons whom he met when he was an undergraduate. He evokes who he was himself three decades ago, and then who Ammons was. Wiman was attending one of his first poetry readings:

[…] ten minutes into his reading he suddenly stopped and said, ‘You can’t possibly be enjoying this,’ then left the podium and sat back down in the front row. No one knew what to do. Some people protested from the pews – we were in a place that had pews – that they were in fact enjoying it, though the voices lacked conviction and he didn’t budge. Finally the chair of the English Department […] cajoled the poor poet into continuing. Ammons mumbled on for another fifteen minutes before the cold mortification of the modern poetry reading, and the beer-lacquered bafflement of press-ganged undergraduates, did him in. ‘Enough,’ he muttered finally, and thudded his colossal body down beside his wife like the death of faith itself.

The word ‘Faith’ in the book’s title blinks like a warning light. That’s what it’s about, what Wiman is about: faith in a sense older and more challenging than we normally encounter it in the neighbourhood of modern poetry, and yet the sense of it nuanced, maybe even modern in what it has required of the writer, the poem, and of the reader willing to go along with him. Wiman wears his theology lightly enough so as not to offend those steeled against traditional faith. ‘Nothing poisons truth so quickly as assurance that one has found it.’ His meditations include alerting human anecdotes, the kind that change our sense of a writer and of writing. When the late Donald Hall eats a burger and declares:

‘I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last,’ I felt a galactic chill, as if my soul had chewed tinfoil. I was thirty-eight. It was the very inverse of a calling, an ex post facto feeling of innocence, death’s echo. In a flash I knew it was true, for both of us (this is no doubt part of what he was telling me), and yet the shock was not in that fact but in the nearly fifty years of further writings Don had piled on top of that revelation.

One is struck by Hall’s understanding of his place in the order of poetry, and by persisting in what he seemed to acknowledge as radical failure. Mary Oliver reads The Faerie Queene in order ‘to spend what time I have left with masterpieces’ – words that had lasted and might, despite the current age that forgets, politicises and misvalues, or revalues them, still last.

Wiman’s book is about the rewards and also the perils of a calling that can never quite deliver the poet, or the reader, to its inferred, its intended destination. It is a kind of road novel, without a destination on the map, yet with an existential purpose. The human act of writing (he talks of his own practice, he is in his book, a subject), the body bending over page or keyboard, is in a living engagement with the language and literature that has shaped it, as with the world in time it occupies. Spots of time are in their expression shared, providing access, often indirectly, obliquely, slant. They are points of communion. ‘Poetry itself – like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger – thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been. And what is true for the poem is true for the poet […].’

This item is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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