He Held Radical Light Christian Wiman

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“The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art”

Voice. It’s that magical, magnetic je ne sais quoi that draws us. To people, yes. But to writing, too: artists heard through the medium of paper and ink.

From the earliest pages of Christian Wiman’s book He Held Radical Light, I found myself attracted to the voice. To me, it seemed the voice of reason. Balanced, yet opinionated. Informed, yet informal.

And the biggest test of all? I found myself liking most of the poems that meant a lot to Wiman. As Facebook and Twitter have proven (though not to me, as I avoid both like the plague), there’s nothing people like better than listening to a sermon from the choir.

On the first page, in the first sentence, we find Wiman reading the letters of A. R. Ammons “who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca, New York.” This leads to an Ammons poem, the one that would lend Wiman a title for his collection of short essays. Let’s listen in:


by A. R. Ammons

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.


From here, Wiman gets into anecdotes about listening to Ammons do a memorable (for the wrong reasons) poetry reading. Then to 80-year-old Donald Hall’s scary admission, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.” Those words gave Wiman a “galactic chill.” For a writer—especially a young writer—it’s like walking willingly into that dark night.

Which of course puts Wiman onto his themes for this book. Or shall I say its dichotomies: religion vs. atheism, fame vs. obscurity, faith vs. art. He offers up two looks at the same chasm: Jack Gilbert’s and Mark Strand’s. Here are the two poems, a bracing start for your Sabbath Day morning with Wiman’s commentary in  between:


They will put my body into the ground.
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.


Wiman comments: “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. Gilbert’s poem amounts to a kind of metaphysics for materialists. Something survives us, the poem suggests, some cellular imperative ravening past whatever cohesion kept us, us; some life force that is suspiciously close to a death force: it’s winter, after all, and not any ordinary winter but one from which even Puccini and Pittsburgh have vanished, an ur-winter, you might say, even a nuclear one. Of course on the literal level the poem is referring to the way information dies out in one man’s brain—Gilbert was actually from Pittsburgh, and I assume he loved Puccini—but the end of the poem reverberates in a way that is both beautiful and terrible. When you are ending, it can seem like everything is, and the last task of some lives is to let the world go on being the world they once loved. But what song—or what but song—can contain that tangle of pain and praise?”

Then comes the example of Mark Strand, who sheds some light on love. A love, perhaps, you haven’t thought of.


by Mark Strand

. . . And here the dark infinitive to feel,
Which would endure and have the earth be still
And the star-strewn night pour down the mountains
Into the hissing fields and silent towns until the last
Insomniac turned in, must end, and early risers see
The scarlet clouds break up and golden plumes of smoke
From uniform dark homes turn white, and so on down
To the smallest blade of grass and fallen leaf
Touched by the arriving light. Another day has come,
Another fabulous escape from the damages of night,
So even the gulls, in the ragged circle of their flight,
Above the sea’s long lanes that flash and fall, scream
Their approval. How well the sun’s rays probe
The rotting carcass of a skate, how well
They show the worms and swarming flies at work,
How well they shine upon the fatal sprawl
Of everything on earth. How well they love us all.


One Poetry Editor’s Epiphany

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine and a poet himself, has been there and back. Not just the highs and lows that come with the life of a poet who gets hosannas one second (via acceptances) and brickbats the next (via rejections), but the more soul-searching variety—the one that comes with cancer, bone marrow transplants, and an arduous journey back.

I say this by way of explanation. Wiman’s new collection of essays are about poetry, yes, but they are also about art as faith (and faith as art). Thus, the subtitle in his new book He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art. Thus the reason Wiman walked away from one of the most prestigious editorships for other callings: art, love, faith coming in the form of writing, marriage, and Yale Divinity School (how’s that for a career shift of a higher order?).

The mix of art and faith, so seldom seen together in these troubled times (unless you’re in a museum or Florence, say), makes for a bracing read. And Wiman does not go wild with add-in poems by way of example—either his own or others’—instead choosing to fine tune his own prose voice by choosing support more selectively: the poets and the poems who have spoken to him on a transcendent level.

Who are these poets? They are A. R. Ammons (circular, as he appears at both beginning and end), Donald Hall, Mary Oliver, Craig Arnold, Susan Howe, Denise Levertov, Jack Gilbert, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Strand (among others). Of this lot, I’d yet to meet Ammons and Arnold, but all that’s changed now, which is the beauty of reading books—they create a new you under the currency of change.

First, though, Wiman tackles himself, namely his youthful confidence that a poem could be written that would outlast him forever (meaning: enter the annals of eternity).  He no longer believes this. Even Shakespeare will face a time when there are no eyes to feast on his lovely pentameters, Wimar reminds us.

A quote I liked: “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.”

In addition to the poetry and the philosophy, there’s a rich vein of memoir running through this little book. Wiman recalls, for instance, reading poems sent to Poetry in Herculean 8-hour shifts. He writes, “An editor…especially one responsible for a monthly magazine, and especially one whose literary predispositions are, let us say, snarlish, quickly discovers that if complete critical approval is the only criterion for inclusion, then either he or the magazine is going under. I became a different kind of reader.

“I started out as a poet believing that greatness will out, as it were, that fate will find and save the masterpieces from oblivion no matter what. A decade of standing in that aforementioned storm, as well as making my way through the collected works of just about every American poet of note for the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement, has convinced me otherwise. Chance and power play a large part, and I feel sure that some genuinely great things fall through the cracks—forever.”

Wow. Your suspicions (and mine) affirmed! And even though you may be kidding yourself, you can’t help but believe that some of your stuff is some of that stuff. You know, the sterling silver being rejected as flatware. Through cracks the size of the Grand Canyon. In a cold, cruel poetry world where Chance and Power share the throne with an iron fist like Ferdinand and Isabella.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll share a few of my favorite poems among Wiman’s favorite poems. And continue writing for the cracks. Until then….