In The Chronicle Review, Jay Parini, a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College, reviews Christian Wiman’s autobiography, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, which he expects will become “a kind of spiritual classic.” The opening articulates my inchoate grievance against most contemporary criticism :
It’s often difficult to hear poetry, to appreciate the “still, small voice” that spoke to the prophet Elijah, a voice that grows larger in memory or subsequent readings. In a confessional line toward the end of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot reflected on the blizzard of quotations that make up his poem: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” These are the fragments that, assembled over a lifetime of reading, provide something to rely on in hard times. These are the memorable passages that, in his poetry and his criticism, Eliot drew the reader’s eye and ear to with an affectionate insistence.
It strikes me that criticism—systemic reflection on texts, even on life itself—has lost its urgency during the past 30 years or more, having complicated (and deadened) reading in ways nobody could have foreseen. It’s not simply that teachers of literature don’t often read for pleasure nowadays, or don’t believe in the transforming powers of art, or no longer value any statement that hasn’t bounced off many walls of irony and landed, like a squash ball, in some distant corner of the court. It’s the loss of pressure that stands out, a sense that literature matters because it informs, quite literally, our consciousness as well as our actions.
One turns gratefully to instances of urgent critical writing when they do arise in Terry Eagleton, Daniel Mendelsohn, Martha Nussbaum, or James Wood. Such critics search out, and find, connections between writing and pressing life questions—aesthetic, political, moral, and philosophical. Nussbaum, a philosopher and a classicist by training, put her finger on the problem years ago: “For the Greeks of the fifth and early fourth centuries BC, there were not two separate sets of questions in the area of human choice and action, aesthetic questions and moral-philosophical questions, to be studied and written about by mutually detached colleagues in different departments,” she wrote. “Instead, dramatic poetry and what we now call philosophical inquiry in ethics were both typically framed by, seen as ways of pursuing, a single and general question: namely, how human beings should live.”
What stands out among earlier poet-critics such as Matthew Arnold, Eliot, and Adrienne Rich was the immediacy of their concerns as readers. Their poetry criticism felt deeply unified, emerging from primal concerns, a belief that language—especially the language of poetry—mattered because it addressed ultimate concerns.
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Poetry is the art of transformation, and we value critics who make us see freshly what transformations lie before us and help us to make the necessary connections between poetry and life without destroying the ineffability of the poem itself.
One looks around, half in desperation, for those critics today who direct us not beyond the text before us, but through it, to the life beyond its linguistic boundaries. These are the critics who understand the incarnational aspects of poetry, its way of refreshing the currency of feeling by how it makes life itself visible, palpable, creating what Roman Catholics refer to as “real presence,” the embodiment of spirit in matter, as in the Eucharist—the ultimate transformation.
The closing addresses how Christian Wiman’s faith influences his literary criticism:
What I love in Wiman is the way he reads poems as urgent messages in a bottle, weaving their texts into his evolving consciousness, his sad personal story, linking his language with theirs, showing us clearly and definitively what Dr. Johnson, the great English critic, meant when he said: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
Yet Wiman does much more. He shows us what happens to a man when his relation to the divine is reawakened, his mind becoming alert in ways previously unimaginable. That alertness carries over into his readings of poetry, which occur in a pressured context, as the language of the poems becomes part of his evolving mental landscape, part of his recovery, his spiritual (as well as physical) survival.
Not surprisingly, a fair portion of the most useful criticism has come in the form of spiritual autobiography, in which writers rely on scripture, or lectio divina—the practice of close, even reverential, reading—to concentrate the mind and kindle the affections. In recent times, examples of this genre abound, as in Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010), where the novelist’s thoughts range widely over sacred and secular writing, or Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories (1999), which includes intense and memorable readings of Whitman, Plath, and Anne Frank. In such writing, the authors’ faith bolsters their reading, allowing for a kind of focus rarely seen in more conventional criticism, where “objectivity” becomes a relevant concern.
In My Bright Abyss, Wiman offers a demonstration of what faith means to a critic: not a new way of life but, more mysteriously, the old life freshly understood, filtered through a range of texts. He reminds us that revelation comes not in a whirlwind or fire, but in that “still, small voice” that came to Elijah in the desert.
“The voice is always there, for everyone,” writes Wiman. “For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it.” It is this urgency that separates the wheat from the chaff among critics.
Essays by Christian Wiman
- Gazing into the Abyss (American Scholar, Summer 2007)
- My Bright Abyss (American Scholar, Winter 2009)
- Hive of Nerves (American Scholar, Summer 2010)
- Mortify Our Wolves (American Scholars, Autumn 2012)
Reviews of My Bright Abyss
- Casey Cep, A Poet Confronts Cancer (New Republic)
- David Skeel, The Edge of All We Know (Books & Culture)
- Dwight Garner, Turning a Dark Place into a Beacon of Discovery (New York Times)
- Andrew Sullivan, On Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss (The Dish)