By Matt Malyon
Christian Wiman has been praised by Twentieth-Century American Poetics as “one of the most eloquent and authoritative poetry critics of his generation.” So his first book of criticism, released late last year, is a noteworthy event. Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet is not only a work of critical thought, but also a seamless blending of autobiography, rumination, and insightful analysis. Raised in a Baptist home, Wiman decided at the age of twenty to become a poet. Subsequently he became an itinerant traveler, maintaining a fierce regimen of reading and writing. “It’s a small miracle,” he writes, “that I didn’t take to wearing a cape.” Merging the personal and critical, Wiman delves into humorous and sad episodes with his father in “A Mile from Hell,” the intersection of faith and art in “Poetry and Religion,” and, in “In the Flux that Abolishes Me,” the poet’s vocation: “poetry is either a calling or it is not, its own reward or no reward, for the world can’t ratify what God demands.” Backed by his belief that traditional technique must be mastered for poetry to remain vital, Wiman’s own poems are formal and assured. Such a poetics, then, informs Wiman's musings on, among others, Thomas Hardy, Hart Crane, George Mackay Brown, and Basil Bunting. For all its autobiography and poetry, however, one of the book’s underlying subjects is Wiman’s own movement away from faith and his honest and perceptive struggle with it thereafter. This theme surfaces in an overt way in “Love Bade Me Welcome,” the book’s concluding essay. By 2002, feeling he’d “exhausted one way of writing,” Wiman stopped writing poetry. The following four years were intermittently joyous and painful: in 2003 he was appointed editor of Poetry, fell in love and was married, and—in 2005—found out he had an incurable cancer of the blood. Taking its title from George Hebert’s poem of the same name, the essay is a poignant conclusion evidencing not only Wiman’s acute insights, but also documenting his tentative return to both poetry and faith. At the end of the essay—speaking of his recent increased attentiveness to poetry, the world, people, and God—Wiman concludes: “I am listening with all I am.” As his readers, we’re thankful he’s let us listen alongside him.