Christian Wiman is a gifted poet who formerly edited Poetry and now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. Over Labor Day Weekend, I read his new memoir, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art (2018). Entitled after A. R. Ammon’s poem of the same name, the subtitle provides a greater clue about its subject, which Wiman formulates as a question in the book: “Is the question ‘What does an authentic life in poetry look like?’ the same as asking ‘What does an authentic faith look like?'” (93).
I first became acquainted with Wiman when my friend, Sean, gifted me with a signed and dated copy of his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (2013). I doubt that this work is “destined to become a spiritual classic,” as the publisher wagers, and I disagree with Ilya Kaminsky’s effusive endorsement: “In another day and age, this book would be called a revelation, a mysticism, a holy text.” Nevertheless, Wiman’s fierce honesty, searching faith, and—at times—luminous writing earn my respect.
When I gave a copy of My Bright Abyss to Joey, a former student, I could never have predicted that Wiman would become a resonant voice for him. “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice,” as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. “Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” I am grateful that Joey has come to share my professional and personal enthusiasm for literature. We travel in the same direction, even when our taste in writers are not always shared. Our friendship involves an exchange of literary riches. Just as I have encouraged some of Joey’s reading endeavors, he has encouraged mine, including some poems from Wiman’s Hammer is the Prayer, a volume that brings together three decades of work selected by the poet.
It is difficult to explain why one person befriends a writer and another does not. Temperament, aesthetic, enculturation, mimesis, and education all influence taste. While I recognize the merits of Wiman’s prose and poetry, I have not experienced “the rescuing effect” of his art because, it seems, I am not his target audience, which he identified in an interview:
I have no illusions about adding to sophisticated theological thinking. But I think there are a ton of people out there who are what you might call unbelieving believers, people whose consciousness is completely modern and yet who have this strong spiritual hunger in them. I would like to say something helpful to those people.
With an education in the great books of the Western canon, a vocation in classical Christian schooling, and an adherence to creedal Christianity, I am not an “unbelieving believer,” nor is my consciousness “completely modern.” In a review of My Bright Abyss, Reformed theologian Peter Leithart speaks to his ambivalent experience of reading Wiman, which consists of admiration and frustration “to the point of irritation.” He writes:
Wiman sets apophaticism alongside an insistence on God’s nearness to the world, which verges at times toward an identity between God and the world. It is not an entirely coherent position, but he has pre-inoculated himself to doctrinal correction. The best response is simply to point out his own inability to escape dogma: “God is with us not beyond us, in suffering” is, after all, a piece of dogma and a bold one at that (unless it’s sentiment, which it certainly is not for Wiman.)
Few books have left me feeling so (uncomfortably) professional in my theology. Nearly every page of this lovely book elicits both an enthusiastic “Yes” and an equally decided “No.”
I am ambivalent about Wiman’s ambivalence on matters of faith: on the one hand, it avoids hackneyed pieties and expresses honest doubt; on the other hand, it may inadvertently blunt pious devotion and enshrine doubt. A good example of this equivocation, which occurs repeatedly in his writing, can be found in He Held Radical Light: “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? I say God, but Jack Gilbert’s greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means” (7-8). Wiman thinks both answers may be “equally accurate,” which may comfort the unbelieving believer but discomforts the believing believer, who can reasonably maintain that God is the only correct answer. Is Wiman accounting for different points of view, or betraying his own relativism? Does equivocation reveal defiant or timorous disbelief?
There is benefit to reading an author that leaves you deeply ambivalent because the tensions provokes a desire to clarify your thinking and feeling. For that reason, I am grateful to engage Wiman’s latest book. He Held Radical Light deserves attention for its central paradox, which can be regarded as a needful reproach to Percy Bysshe Shelley and all who believe that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: like a wide-eyed watchman, Christian Wiman is alert where others are drowsy to the element of overweening that sneaks into his guild and takes hold, resulting in the fancy that poetry saves; he fights this pretentious enemy, insisting that “poetry is not enough,” and yet everything must be given to crafting words that will not survive the poet or the reader. This understanding of the artist, which does not forfeit dedication or passion for humility, recognizes that the deepest hungers of the human being are satisfied outside of art, while art gives those hungers their force and vividness.
Here are salient passages that rattle around in my head, inspiring and vexing me:
I suspect there is no artist who does not cling to the belief that something essential of himself inheres in his art—and it was the first casualty of Christianity for me. People tend to think that Christians feel rescued from death, and perhaps some do (I don’t), but first there comes the purge. Nothing survives, I suddenly realized. Dante, Virgil, even sweet Shakespeare, whose lines will last as long as there are eyes to read them, will one day find that there are no eyes to read him. (6)
What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting? (7)
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: “No layoff from this condensery,” as Lorine Niedecker says, no respite from the calling that comes in the form of a question, no ultimate arrival at an answer that every arrangement of words is trying to be. Perhaps only bad poets become poets. The good ones, though they may wax vatic and oracular in public, and though they may have full-fledged masterpieces behind them, know full well that they can never quite claim the name. (9)
Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. (10)
Susan Howe: Nietzsche says that for Heraclitus all contradictions run into harmony, even if they are invisible to the human eye. Lyric is transparent—as hard to see as black or glare ice. The paved roadway underneath our search for aesthetic truth. Poetry, false in the tricks of its music, draws harmony from necessity and random play. In this aggressive age of science, sound-colored secrets, unperceivable in themselves, can act as proof against our fear of emptiness. (25-26)
[T]he hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be other than what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end. When art becomes the latter, it eventually acquires an autonomous hunger of its own, and “it does not wish you well.” (39)
That we might remembered: what an almost impossible thought that is. That there is a consciousness capacious enough, to recall each of us in our entireties just as we call our own fragile but all-meaningful moments. That our lives might be the Lord’s insight. (42)
What is it that we want when we can’t stop wanting? “Lord,” prays a character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, “give us what you have already given.” (42)
The self that intones the poem is not the soul that received it. One needs to know the difference. (48)
The sense of mortality—our own, of course, but also that of those we most love—doesn’t only cast us backward. It also propels imagination forward. It makes us imagine heavens in which wounds are healed and losses restored, or helps us to ameliorate oblivions by imagining our atoms alive in other forms. But heaven too often turns out to be little more than projections of the precious self ad infinitum, and it is cold comfort to think of one’s smithereens blasted throughout some new forms of matter from which we—whatever it is that makes us, us—have vanished. (48-49)
[E]very writer fights the final silence in his own way. (62)
I don’t think it’s possible for believers to stand outside of the most powerful achievements of secular art and say “if only that artist could see what we can see,” as if their visions were greater than what the artist achieved in the work of art. No, if we have seen properly, then the identification has been too deep: we have participated in the revelation, however dark it has been. That’s not to say that some art isn’t harmful or even demonic. (64)
One of art’s functions is to give form to feelings that would otherwise remain inchoate and corrosive, to give us a means whereby we can inhabit our fears and pains rather than they us, to help us live with our losses rather than being permanently and helplessly haunted by them. I now teach at a divinity school, where many of my students are preparing for the ministry, and they all get a strong shot of Larkin because, as Rowan Williams says, “Preaching is cheap if it fails to meet human beings at their darkest points.” (64-65)
Jurgen Moltmann once wrote that all honest theology had to be conducted “within earshot of the dying Christ” . . . Hope is not hope until all ground for hope is lost, to paraphrase Marianne Moore . . . Resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death. But to really see this despair clearly—”it stands plain as a wardrobe”—is the first step to being out of it. (66)
I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry. But that’s almost beside the point. The real issue, for anyone who suffers the silences of God and seeks real redemption, is that art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make. (66-67)
It has been my own experience that the reason why there are no atheists in foxholes, so to speak, is not because of the roar of death and destruction that makes a person terrified, but because when one is truly confronted with one’s own end, everything goes icily quiet . . . You don’t turn to God in a crisis because you are afraid, at least not primarily. You turn to God because, for once, all that background chatter in your brain, all that pandemonium of blab, ceases, and you can hear—and what some of us hear in those instances is a still, small voice. (68-69)
I still believe in the visionary reach—and the very real risk—of certain kinds of art. I still believe there can be callings in which deliverance and destruction are raveled up in ways that, to an outside observer, might seem like madness. (“Whoever would save his life will lose it . . . “) Perhaps there is even some sense in which, for the genuine artist, there is no such thing as a resolved existential crisis . . . I do feel, though that there is some viable middle course between vision and will, some way of productively harnessing rather than either suffering or enslaving one’s spiritual turmoil. (75)
I don’t really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know we need communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not. (83)
It has been my experience that faith, like art, is most available when I cease to seek it, cease even to to believe in it, perhaps, if by belief one means that busy attentiveness, that purposeful modern consciousness that knows its object. (85)
Meeting [Seamus Heaney] was a momentous event for me, though in a way it was impossible for me to meet the man, for I knew so much of his work not simply by heart, but by bone and nerve. The poems had become authorless inside me. . . (87)
[J]ust as there are truths we can see only at a slant, there are truths the very authenticity of which depends upon their not being uttered. (89)
Unity and clarity are not necessarily coextensive. There can be a kind of clarity that is bewilderment, and there can be a kind of bewilderment that reorients one’s spirit. (90)
It may be true, as Mallarmé thought, that poetry’s duty is “to purify the language of the tribe,” but I think we have tended to hear in that statement an injunction of radical innovation rather than recovery, of creation rather than resuscitation. (91)
What might I have said? All you have to do, Seamus, is open your big Irish heart to Jesus. One more truth that dies with the utterance. No, the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety. (94)
A. R. Ammons: Nothing changed, and yet everything changed. (95)
To say there is no saving absolute is not to say that there is nothing that saves. (96)
But perhaps if one lives long enough, and fails fruitfully enough, then the existential tension between all the old antinomies—imagination and experience, art and life, God and Not—might, at moments, be eased. (96-97)
For a time I would say I was released from this hook by faith, a faith that did not originate in me, but came from elsewhere, or from so deep inside me that I could not claim it—a faith that, I should add, I cannot recover now. But I would also now say that it was ambition that released me from ambition. “The best way out is always through,” said Robert Frost, who himself wriggled on one long, sharp, and never-quite-nameable existential predicament. If I say that the hook is God, will only believers understand me? If I say the hook is the Void, will only atheists understand me? The hook is both God and Void, grace and pain. I am reasonably sure that most poets will know what I mean. (99-100)
God is present wherever genuine love is present, or perhaps more accurately, God, who is omnipresent but often experienced as absence, is made available through the expression of genuine love. The life of God and the life of humans are—for this one time and in this one way—one thing. This doesn’t mean that some form of shared human love is necessary for revelation. God comes to the loveless and the loneliest among us, as the whole histories of art and faith attest. But perhaps love is necessary for revelation to remain revelation. (100)
Much has been written about the effort of the lyric poem to stop time, to seize some tiny eternity with the music of a moment. And indeed, music is the operative word here. If reality is, as this entire book has been arguing, perceived truly when the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception (“I only recognize her going”), and if poetry has any reach into ultimate reality at all, it is the abstract element of music in which that connection is most deeply felt. (106)
Now the world is not only too much with us, as Wordsworth said, distracting us from our true selves, but too little with us as well. (108)
Awe without an end ends in dread, for however much the mind is lit by the fires of that eternal elsewhere, we inevitably fall back into this singular being that, though it matters so much to us, matters not at all in the furnace of infinity. Hence the deepest “spiritual” feeling of our time: dread. If ninety-nine percent of all creatures that have existed are now extinct; if even the most apparently placid natural prospect is in reality a fevered scene of mechanical contest and immeasurable death (it was this that most disturbed some of the first readers of On the Origin of Species, that beauty itself became an abomination); if the depth and dimensions of reality are not simply inaccessible to an individual consciousness but inimical to it, then truth and death are but sneering synonyms, and our awe no more meaningful than a sneeze. (109-110)
Rowan Williams: It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now—that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it. It means that every object or person we encounter is in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will. (110)
Everything in you must bow down. If not to God, then to the god-damned fact of existing at all, “the million-petaled flower of being here,” as some gracious angel, through the pen of Philip Larkin, once put it. The stage has enlarged, but the old tensions obtain, and the rescue we need is not from oblivion but from ourselves, “the torment of self-serving demands,” that keep creation in an unimaginable past, or keep consciousness in an imprisoning present. (111)
What have I been wanting all these years when I couldn’t stop wanting? Form? Order? Yes, certainly those things, something to both speak and spare the turmoil of my own consciousness, something to protect and preserve me from the ramifying reality of impersonal space and matter long before I had science to confirm these things, and long before I had my own malevolent cells to ram that fact into my heart. But after all this, what I know is that poetry is not enough, and to make it an end rather than a means is not simply a hopeless enterprise but a very dangerous one. “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.”
Yet it’s not that simple. For the paradox—the vital, fact at the heart of human existence—is that with art, as with every truly creative act in life, 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. “If you don’t believe in poetry,” said Stevens, “you cannot write it.” He might have added (and perhaps, implicitly, he did): If you cannot believe in what poetry—in all of its forms, even the wordless ones—has revealed to you, you cannot survive it.
And of all those revelations, a certain “sacred weakness,” as Maritain calls it, is key. (Thank you for my losses is the prayer that a friend of mine—also a poet, also a patient—found herself bafflingly but joyfully praying recently.) To admit an insufficiency can be to acknowledge the existence of, if not yet to claim full faith in, a healing wholeness, in the way an imperfection can call forth a beauty whose true nature would never have been felt otherwise. Not the imperfections one chooses, like the missing stitch that certain master craftsmen weave into their rugs as an act of piety meant both to imply and appease the original Maker, but the ones forced upon us by necessity or genetics, our physics or our failing cells, which keep us hungering for, and open to, that ultimate order that we cannot in this life inhabit—except in the spots of time that nourish our souls, and haunt our selves, in equal measure. Our only savior is failure. (112-113)
NOTE: I want to thank Farrar, Straus, Giroux for sending me a courtesy review copy of Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light.