Last month, Mockingbird co-sponsored a talk with poet Christian Wiman, whose Ambition and Survival, My Bright Abyss, and Every Riven Thing have quickly become Mbird favorites. We also had the great pleasure of interviewing him – transcript below:
MB: Thornton Wilder said that “the revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem – new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” And you reference the need for a “new poetics of faith” in your new book – could you expand on that?
CW: I’m of two minds about that. There’s another quote in that book from a Polish poet, Anna Kamienska, who converted to the Church in her mid-thirties. And she thought she had to completely remake the language of faith in the way she had to remake the language of literature in order to be a poet. If you’re a poet, there has to be something sui generis in your use of language. At least, Modernist poets always believed this. But there has to be something that’s your own… She thought she had to remake the language of faith – redemption, grace, sin, words like this – in the same way. And then it was only after going to church over a long period and trying to remake the language of faith that she realized these word-vessels are so saturated with meaning and history that for her to actually remake them would be the act of a heedless parvenu, a new arrival.
And so I’m of two minds of it – I feel like the language does have to be reimagined somehow. Because I think when you use words like sin and redemption and grace, people who have not grown up in this tradition have no idea what you’re talking about. I had assumed the word “grace” had some meaning that we could all agree on, but I’ve discovered that’s not true. People have no idea what I mean by the word “grace.” And so there’s some way in which these words are completely fallen-out of meaning, and they have to remade. For me, poetry’s a great way of doing that. There’s a great poem by Seamus Heaney to his mother, called “Mossbawn: Sunlight,” that ends:
Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
“And here is love/ like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin.” Now ‘love’ is a very difficult word to use in poem because it’s decayed; it’s almost lost its meaning from overuse. But in that poem, he finds a way to use it by comparing it to this thing “sunk past its gleam.” This actual thing – the word has almost sunk past its gleam, and yet it’s reanimated by the way he finds a context for it. I think poetry can be very good at reanimating language like that. Religious people would do well to look to poets and art for ways of reanimating it. But I don’t think you just remake religion.
MB: In Ambition and Survival, you talk about your engagement with God being a latent thing. When you were writing poetry, or trying to write, during that time, was there any sense of recovering religious words?
CW: Not consciously. That’s a provocative question for me because that brings to mind a poem that I wrote. I hadn’t written in three years, and I wrote a couple of poems back-to-back, and I hadn’t been to church in a while. They’re both sort of psalms or outcries, and one of them ends like this:
My God, my grief, forgive my grief tamed in language
to a fear that I can bear.
Make of my anguish
more than I can make. Lord, hear my prayer.
And so it ends with that expression you hear in church all the time: “Lord, hear our prayer.” I hadn’t heard that in years, but that happened in that poem. It seemed to tie me into all that language that I had left behind. And so it wasn’t happening consciously, but that poem’s enacting exactly what I’m trying to describe. It uses a piece of language that the Church has used forever but it’s a plea to make that language mean more than I can make.
MB: And when you use the line “grief” tamed in language – do you think that’s a good thing?
CW: That poem is trying to get beyond that, beyond the belief that you can fix your grief in language. And someone once said to me that everything in you, eventually, everything in you has to bow down. And for poets that’s very difficult; poets feel that there’s some imaginative anarchy in them that they have to preserve, and if they lay it down before God, then the poems will become second-rate. And you only have to look at one of the religious poets to see that’s not true. So that poem is an appeal to find a way to bridge that gap, to be able to offer up to God this energy that sometimes seems prideful or egotistic.
MB: To return to the idea of imagination, in My Bright Abyss, you say “To imagine it – this peace, this unity, this life beyond the one we’re in – not necessarily to ‘believe’ in it. To have faith in the meaning and final fruition of this impulse in us, but not to anxiously attempt to fill out that faith with content.” What’s the relationship between imagination and faith for you?
CW: I think it’s not something I would answer to. That book seems to answer something and then undercuts it the minute it seems to answer it – I imagine people being frustrated with that. What I crave is a relationship with the church and other people that occurs in a traditional relationship with the Church and other people. What moves me much more and where I find that relationship much more intense is in art. My experiences in church almost never match my experiences in art, but my experiences in art are solitary. And if I give myself over to that as a religious experience, mistake that maybe for a religious experience, it becomes despair. So I’m constantly at this point where I want to move toward a more comfortable, accepting experience of traditional church, and yet I’m much more alive in the volatile space of making art. I don’t have a solution for it.
CW: It very much characterizes my relationship with the Church and with God, a vertigo back and forth. That particular essay was published in The American Scholar. They gave it a title, “Gazing Into the Abyss” I think it was. I never would’ve called it that. It seems to me ridiculous for that essay, seems so overwrought. But the title is “Love Bade Me Welcome”, always. And the reason the title is that is because the conversation we were having last night about suffering and joy. I quoted Simone Weil: “You cannot understand a supernatural experience of suffering unless you have had a supernatural experience of joy”, which is surprising for her. And that George Herbert poem is the one that Simone Weil would use to meditate. Her deepest meditations toward God were with that poem. And she would also use it to bring herself out of her migraines. She would quote that poem over and over, and it seemed to ease her migraines.
So in that essay, what I wanted to stress was that the first action that brought me toward God was love, not suffering. It was very much love that “bade me welcome” and not suffering that drove me toward refuge. And in my own life I do find that action that you described in the poem; it’s very much back-and-forth, back-and-forth. I can’t tell if it’s pride in me or some necessary resistance or recalcitrance, or if God actually wants me to resist Him at times. I say in there that some people are called to unbelief. I don’t know if I believe that – it’s something I wrote at the time. I’m very confused about how one goes about moving toward God; I can’t always figure out what direction that is. Whether it’s toward church or away from church, toward art or away from art. I’m no more at ease in that than I was ten years ago. Quite frustrating. If you have answers, I’d quite like to hear them; we can turn this into a pastoral care meeting.
MB: [laughs] What gives you the sense that sometimes God wants us to resist Him?
CW: Because the feeling I’ve gotten sometimes when writing poems that seem to be against God or seem to reject God is the same feeling (people from my background would say this is the devil talking) is the same feeling that I get in poems where I feel God’s present, where I’m giving myself over to God. There’s no difference; it’s exactly the same. I feel in touch with God at those moments. I feel in touch with God in art which rejects God. It’s a great paradox. And this is why I’m just not sure what the right action in the world is.
MB: The similarity between those two – are they similar in passion, or honesty, or something more ineffable?
CW: More ineffable. It’s something that the poem discloses, some aperture into reality that the poem makes possible. And it’s the same aperture; it’s the same opening. And I completely believe that God is there for both kinds of poems, but I don’t understand how that can be.
MB: And the drawing back: what emotions characterize that for you?
CW: There are poems that are angry at God, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The Bible’s full of people being angry at God. I’m unable to distinguish between them. I have so little insight into the process of my own writing, and I get less, rather than more, as the years go on. It seems I follow the sounds of the words – that’s it. I don’t know what I’m saying, but it’s the sounds of the words. And I’ll often hear a tune in my head that doesn’t even have words, and I’ll need to find words for that tune. So what the poem turns out to “mean” afterward is a complete mystery to me. I have to go back and figure out what it is I’m saying, because I’m trying to figure out the music of it. And it’s the exact same experience writing a poem of revelation as it is writing a poem of anti-revelation.
MB: Who do you see as the intended audience for you book?
CW: After I published that one essay in The American Scholar I started to meet a lot of people who seemed to me to be agonizing over the same questions, in one way or another. And so I thought of them as the intended audience. I don’t know how large that audience is. I didn’t think the book would be reviewed in the places it did – The New Yorker, etc – I didn’t think they would cover it. And so it’s reached a much larger audience than I would have expected, and I imagine some of those people are disappointed when they get home and it’s a memoir. It’s kind of a tough read. I did have in mind an audience. But the questions I was wrestling with were my own, and I would have written the book even if I wasn’t going to publish it, because I was trying to work out things.
MB: I’m very interested in the “one word leading to the next.” I think there’s something we call inspiration, following the music of the words. That’s a very compelling way to talk about it, even though it probably feels agonizing in the middle of it.
CW: It can feel like elation and agony at the same time, those two things woven together. Writing a poem is mostly elation. I used to think it was agony, but maybe I just had to learn to write them or something. It used to take me so long to write them; maybe something in me eased up. But now, to be given a poem seems to me the most incredible gift, and I feel so elated when it happens. And it’s not common. It happens maybe five, ten times a year. I really treasure those moments.
MB: Is there anything you’re working on now?
CW: I’m trying to write another book of poems, actually. I’m having a hard time. The book’s been done for a year, but I haven’t sent to my publisher. Something seems wrong, so I’m having to wrestle with it quite a bit more.
MB: Do you try to bring any direction or intention to the subject matter of your poems, or does it just feel totally given?
CW: I don’t try to direct it at all. I had in mind writing a whole book where I didn’t use any religious language. That’s not this book. But what would happen if I denied myself certain words and wrote a book? I actually may try to do that, at least for some poems. But I never know; my wife puts my books together. She’ll readjust everything, and she’s done that for every book since we’ve been together.
MB: It feels like with the coverage of the book and the wider audience, the way it’s been received, that you’ve been thrust, whether you like it or not, into a larger conversation about Christianity that’s going on in our culture. Are there any unexpected or hopeful observations you’ve made from that position?
CW: You’re right about that. I get asked a lot of questions about which I have no idea. Because I haven’t given a lot of thought to certain issues. I find that the battle that goes on in the culture between the neo-atheists and liberal Protestantism, however you want to put it – I find it boring, and it’s just anathema to the way I tend to think about these issues. And I find it really hard to get interested in it. I’ll give people answers, or try to, but I find it hard to get interested.
I do think that we went through a time when irony prevailed: you can see it in all graduate English departments and Ph.D. departments – they become obsessed with Structuralism and deconstruction and that notion that no fixed meaning could ever be found. And students have migrated out of those departments en masse. The kids that I come across now when I go around speaking seem to me starved for meaning in the way you would hear about in the sixties – they’re desperate to find some language in which to put their meeting. And they know this thing, “spiritual but not religious”, isn’t enough. They know it as well as anybody. And so I do find myself talking to groups like that a lot, talking to individuals like that a lot. But I’m not sure if I have the right thing to offer them.
I find it ironic that I should be in a position to be talking to people about how to have faith when my own faith seems to be so in question all the time and so difficult to maintain. And yet I do call myself a person of faith. But it does seem to me something I’ve been called to do, something obvious that my life is meant to end up here.
MB: One more question – the problem of Christ’s absence, his ascension. Where in everyday life do you find God’s love or presence in the world?
CW: Well I don’t find it in poetry very often because it’s such a strange experience for me to write a poem. It doesn’t happen very often. But I do find it in writing, so I try to write something all the time. But I try to pray regularly, daily. I have a hard time doing it, and I’ve never learned to be better at it. But I do it.
It’s always in contact with people talking about Christ where I find Christ present. It’s always in some sort of ascent to “yes, this is what I believe.” Or even if you can’t say “this is what I believe”, [you can say] “this is where I’m going to live; this is how I’m going to live – toward Christ.” When I do it alone it doesn’t do me any good, but when it’s with other people, it seems to acquire meaning.
MB: And does this living “toward Christ” look like certain practices, or a certain kind of awareness, or what?
CW: Well, it’s the eradication of self. I know that. It’s some eradication of pride in serving others. Taking care of poor people, helping other people – forgetting your self.
MB: And how has that self-forgetfulness happened with you? How does that forgetfulness occur?
CW: I spent my whole life in my twenties and thirties devoted to art with a kind of obsessiveness that was absolute. I would do anything to give myself space to work; I would leave anybody; I’d take the worst jobs. It was absolutely single-minded, and in some way absolutely devoted to the self, although I wrote about how you had to eradicate yourself to make great art and all that. And in some ways that was bullshit – in some ways it was a life absolutely devoted to the self. So now I’m quite conscious of actual kids. On a daily basis, I have to take care of them when I don’t want to. I love them; I love taking care of them at times, but there are other times when I really don’t want to. And I have to do it. I have to do it in a loving way, and I’m very conscious of being given something back from that. I’m not going to pretend that those moments are pleasant for me, because they’re not (I get angry like everybody else). But I’m very conscious of that, in some way, as my self being necessarily effaced and worn away, in a good way.