Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Interview by Aaron Rench

What Poetry Demands

A conversation with Christian Wiman.

Christian Wiman is a poet and essayist and the author of three books, most recently Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press). His poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and The New York Times Book Review. He is married and lives in Chicago, where he is the editor of Poetry magazine, a position The New York Sun describes as "the equivalent of a bishopric in the American poetry world."

Wiman has taught at Stanford, Northwestern, Lynchburg College in Virginia, and the Prague School of Economics. The concluding essay of Ambition and Survival is forthcoming in 2008's Best American Spiritual Writing.

The Poetry Foundation, the publisher of Poetry magazine, made news in 2003 when philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $200 million to what is now one of the largest literary organizations in the world.

This interview was conducted by email while Wiman was on a visit to Texas, his native state.

Many people have asked about the impact of Ruth Lilly's $200 million gift to the Poetry Foundation. I'm sure that answers to that question are part of your mental FAQ, but I'm curious about this question from the other direction. What do you think is the economic impact of the art of poetry? I know this may sound like a crude question—poetry does not need to be justified by the bottom line, and its impact isn't quantifiable—but what part does it play in the marketplace?

I don't think poetry has any economic impact in this country. There are the occasional big sellers like Billy Collins or Maya Angelou, but this accounts for a tiny percentage of the poetry produced in this country, and even these instances don't amount to much in the massive capitalist machine that is modern America.

I do think a life in poetry is a calling, but for a long time I was unwilling to admit that the call might come from God.

Some people have argued that this marginality is actually a strength, that it allows poets to "be free." I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I'm appalled by the rampant greed and sharp disparities of our economic system and value the aspect of poetry that is both apart from and sharply opposed to this pure materialism. But on the other hand, I'm sick of the insular, coterie world of contemporary poetry and feel that it would be (and often is) greatly enlivened by ANY contact with the world at large. The Poetry Foundation might be said to exist at this crux: we want to preserve the powerful spiritual interiority of poetry while making that power available to many, many more people.

As the editor of Poetry, you were at the center of the literary controversy of the year in 2007, following the story that ran in The New Yorker. How has that controversy benefited Poetry and the art in general?

The article was primarily about the foundation, though the magazine was also part of the story. The thrust of the piece was mostly negative, I think, objecting to any sort of populism in poetry. I say "I think" because many poetry insiders understood it that way, though many outsiders thought the opposite, which indicates the sharp rift between poetry and the rest of the world right now. In any event, the major effect of the article has been a positive one for us. It has caused people to look more closely at our programs and to see how inclusive and wide-reaching they are. We've had major surges in growth since that article appeared—200,000 kids in our national recitation contest, millions of people coming to our website (poetryfoundation.org) to find poems and use our educational material, people all over the country tuning in to our programs on radio and television. I believe this is a pure good for poetry in general, but then I believe very strongly that poetry exists for the sake of life in general, exists to help people, all people willing to work at it, live their lives.

The title of your most recent book is Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Are the qualities of ambition and survival particular to the experience of certain poets like yourself, or are they more universal and inherent to the process of becoming a poet?

When I was young all I wanted was to be a great poet, and I went at it with an indefatigable fury. I thought that this ambition was "pure," insofar as I knew that being published by the best magazines and presses and praised by the best critics wouldn't ever answer this need. The only judgment that truly mattered was that of the great, dead poets I most admired, and they were unlikely to speak.

Now I'm not so sure. (About the purity of the ambition, I mean; the dead still aren't saying a word about my work, though I do occasionally hear a disturbing kind of skeletal chuckling.) All ambition has begun to have the reek of disease to me, the relentless smell of the self. We want to stamp our existence upon existence, our nature upon nature. We are pursuing a ghost—even my image of the dead participates in this—rather than a god.

And that is the issue, at least for me. I do think a life in poetry is a calling, but for a long time I was unwilling to admit that the call might come from God. And if he is the one calling, then he is the only one who can ratify your response.

Which is to say: my thinking on this has evolved over the years. I don't regret or renounce my early ideas—I do think a poet's ambition ought to be aimed higher than any sort of worldly success—but clearly, since I myself have often been confused, I can't claim to speak for all poets!

I was startled recently to learn about Josef Stalin's secret poetic career. In a letter to a friend, Stalin explains why he gave it up: "I lost interest in writing poetry because it requires one's entire attention—a hell of a lot of patience." Stalin's words were fresh in my mind when I read this at the beginning of your book: "I still believe that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything." Obviously the people and circumstances couldn't be more different, but this only emphasizes the central idea here. What does it mean for poetry to demand "absolutely everything"?

Stalin makes you think of me? I'm trying to feel flattered.

A life in poetry does have a high cost, and not simply because this country doesn't value the activity (though this doesn't help). If you have that particular fire in your head (to paraphrase Yeats), it's going to play practical havoc with your life. It's going to require a lot of the emotional energy that you might be giving to other people, it's going to afflict you at odd and unpredictable times, and it's going to afford no compensation except for the sweet relief you feel when, as a poem finds its form, that fire goes out. What a relief that is, though, and how close to the very center of being itself you can feel at that moment.

But it's worth finishing the sentence you quote above. What I say in the book is, "I still believe that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything—including, it has turned out for me, the belief that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything." Which is to say that the very belief that poetry somehow costs everything, which can become its own kind of comfortable deprivation ("I can't give myself over to this relationship/cause/belief because I have to give myself to my art"), might be part of the cost and have to be renounced or moved beyond. Certainly this has been the case for me.

In the chapter on poetry and religion you start off by saying, "Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine." Would you say this is why art resists sentimentalism?

Well, the adjective is important there: greatest. I was trying to point out how the highest moments of art can at once enact our deepest sufferings and provide a peace that is equal to them, and how this is similar to (though lesser than) what I understand to be the deepest truth of Christianity. The peace does not eliminate the sorrow or the tragedy: great art acknowledges intractable human suffering, and Christianity's promise of resurrection is empty without a clear, cold sense of the cross.

So yes, art does resist sentimentality, as does, at its best, Christianity.

That said, there are all kinds of art, and all kinds of Christianity, that include sentimentality—and are not necessarily vitiated because of that. I love many novels, poems, and pieces of music that have obvious sentimental moments or characters in them, and it seems to me that the daily life of a Christian can't be lived with the kind of austerity I'm describing above. Some people, those inclined to severity and sternness, actually need more sentimentality in their lives, and others who are over-inclined to frivolity and vapid cheerfulness need to be dropped more often into the depths of their beliefs. Art is a good means for achieving both of these.

In Ambition and Survival you talk about growing up in a fundamentalist family, and then go on to describe some of that experience, which included drugs, adultery, suicide, and divorce. When people talk about Christian fundamentalism, those activities are usually not the first things that come to mind. What role did your family's Christianity play in the midst of all that?

It hasn't been my experience that fundamentalist families—or religious families of any sort—are somehow immune to the problems that plague secular families. In fact I think a religion that defines itself chiefly with rules and rigid codes often causes emotional explosions that a saner spirituality would have helped to avert.

That said, my own family is full of highly intelligent, highly imaginative people, and I feel it would be patronizing for me to speculate about what effect our strict beliefs had on them individually—and in truth, as I say in the book, I'm not at all sure exactly what any of them believe anymore; certainly it couldn't be said to be "fundamentalist." I do think the emphasis we all had on sin and guilt was poisonous, and it has kept wounds fresher for much longer than they needed to be. But whether this was something inherent in our beliefs, or something particular to the kind of people we are, I couldn't say.

As an undergraduate you attended Washington and Lee University, and at that point left the faith. What were one or two of the key factors that contributed to your leaving the faith almost effortlessly?

See above. The religion I grew up in was one of rules and order. In my mid-teens my life exploded, and I didn't have the wherewithal to distinguish between the deep emotional and eternal truth of Christ and the temporal social codes in which that truth was trapped: it all just suddenly seemed a lie to me. It took the tiniest push—meeting my first atheist at college, trawling through all of Nietzsche with a kind of terrified elation—for everything to fall away.

The last chapter of your book narrates quite a dramatic convergence of recent events: your marriage, the end of a poetry writing drought, your return to the faith, and the diagnosis that you have a rare form of incurable cancer. At this point in time, what kind of poem would you say your life is?

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh once wrote a very beautiful narrative poem called "The Great Hunger." It's fantastic, easily the best thing Kavanagh ever wrote, though he did write other wonderful things. The poem was written relatively early in his life, though, and later on he came to think of the poem as a failure because it was purely tragic, whereas he believed that the highest art was, at its heart, comic.

Now, by "comic" Kavanagh didn't necessarily mean something that makes you double over with laughter. He meant comic in the sense that tragedy is overcome, or, more accurately, he meant that in the deepest human tragedy there is a seed of supernatural joy.

I would like that kind of life, that kind of death.

Aaron Rench received his B.A. from New Saint Andrews College, and is currently a graduate student at the University of Oxford in Creative Writing. He and his wife, Gentry, have one daughter, Eve, and make their home in Idaho.

Most ReadMost Shared