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Interview

Christian Wiman was born in west Texas in 1966 and spent the first seventeen years of his life there. He attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has traveled widely and taught at Stanford, Northwestern, and Lynchburg College. Since 2003 he has edited the influential Poetry magazine, where he oversaw a redesign, increased circulation threefold, and greatly expanded the prose content. This spring he will leave Poetry to teach at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. His poetry collections are The Long Home, Hard Night (both from Copper Canyon), and Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux); his books of prose are Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon) and My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which is reviewed on page 115. He has also produced a book of translations: Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (Ecco). He was interviewed by Jeanne Murray Walker.

 

Image: In recent essays, collected in My Bright Abyss, you write that a cancer diagnosis led you to a new way of thinking about religious experience. Will you describe how that happened?

Christian Wiman: I have been obsessed with “religious” experience all of my life. (I put the word in quotes because I’m not sure that sacred experience and religious experience are the same thing.) It’s everywhere in the poems and prose I have written. It’s a shock to me now to reread the last poem in my second book, Hard Night, which ends with a direct and shattering confrontation between a very odd little man named Serious and God. (It is also disturbing to me, as Serious, though not old, is clearly dying from some mysterious disease; I wrote this poem four years before getting my own diagnosis. All of that postmodern anxiety about sign and signifier, écriture and différence, has always seemed so alien to me. Poetry knows us much better than we know ourselves. Our very cells sing, sometimes darkly.)

I was led to God by joy, but led to words, you might say, by grief. It was meeting my wife that first made me—made us—want to acknowledge the love that our own seemed to imply and include. It was the threat of death that made me want to give my inchoate feelings of faith some definite form. I knew that I believed, but I didn’t really know what I believed. In My Bright Abyss, I set out to try to answer that question.

Image: Many poets are quite private, but you’ve courageously gone public with this extraordinarily personal story. Why did you do that, and what has it been like, living a private narrative so openly?

CW: Courage, I think, inheres in the ability to realize that there is nothing singular in your own sufferings, that if they have value it is in the bedrock truth they enable you to fitfully glimpse and hopefully convey. This is as true for the truck driver or lawyer as it is for the poet.

Carried to its imaginative conclusion, this kind of courage leads to Christ’s anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: Not my will, Lord, but yours. How many people throughout history have actually managed to pray these words when their life was at stake, which is the only time they acquire their ultimate meaning? Not me, I’m afraid.

I originally planned to write My Bright Abyss without mentioning my own illness at all. I wanted to avoid any appearance of special pleading, and then too one just gets sick of sickness. The first chapter adheres to this circumspection, but I pretty quickly realized that to try to write an honest book about faith while your own life and faith were being constantly interrupted and periodically obliterated by illness was an absurd aim. So I let my own life into the book more, though I do hope it is a lens for a much larger subject and not the subject itself.

Image: My Bright Abyss repeatedly grapples with the problem of how to talk about your experience of God and your awareness of transcendence. It asks, what language on earth is adequate? Will you talk about your struggle to find words and syntax that can bear such pressure?

CW: As has always been the case in my life, poetry has led to the discoveries, and prose has been a means of understanding and integrating those discoveries into my life. Some of the poems in my last book, Every Riven Thing, are torqued and abraded in ways I couldn’t have imagined myself writing ten years ago. Whole theologies are crammed into quatrains, not all of which I can claim to fully understand. Prose is the clean-up crew, so to speak, creeping into the cave my unconscious has blasted open to mine and map its dimensions.

That said, Christianity inheres in communication between people. And not simply on the page either, and not from a podium. Christ’s life is nothing if not an injunction toward intimacy (Where two or three are gathered in my name…). I have found that for all of my artistic and intellectual forays into faith, the only real progress is made when I have an honest communication with another person.

There is a famished way of reading that only cuts our hungers deeper into us. How many intellectuals in search of authentic spiritual lives read every book with a kind of unconscious plea coming out of them at every instant: say something that will save me, say something that will save me. Well, it never happens. That doesn’t mean that books are irrelevant to the religious life, but they don’t become relevant until we stop expecting them to do what only God can.

There’s a wonderful, moving moment in Fanny Howe’s masterpiece, Indivisible, in which the main character, a self-taught but constantly balked visionary who has spent the preceding three hundred pages ruminating on everyone from Plotinus to Simone Weil, all while managing many toddlers and a couple of toddler-like men, finally finds herself confessing to a Catholic priest. And how does she mark her sincerity? She resolves to give up all “holy talk”—all the intellectual scaffolding, that is, all the beautiful but ever-elusive God-talk that has kept God at a distance. The priest laughs heartily. “A real conversion!” he says.

Image: In the chapter called “Varieties of Quiet” you write about both a longing for accurate, specific religious language and a sense that the available religious language is worn and inadequate—you have a sense of mistrust and distaste for it. But do you believe that worn old language can ever be rejuvenated? Can we ever learn to hear it with fresh ears?

CW: There is a beautiful poem by Seamus Heaney called “Sunlight,” which is dedicated to the memory of his mother, that ends like this:

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.

Something miraculous happens in that last stanza: a word that seems utterly exhausted, especially in poetic discourse, is reanimated, made strange (love is like a tinsmith’s scoop?) and newly available (love is like a tinsmith’s scoop: unlovely, durable, bound up with—and essential to—the daily requirements of our lives).

Those who use religious language have a lot to learn from this: the indispensability of metaphor, first of all; the mix of memory and imagination (tradition and innovation); the way the abstraction derives its meaning from the concrete, a meaning which it then exponentially enlarges.

Can we ever learn to hear such language—sin, redemption, grace—with fresh ears? I think so, but it may require an extended period of what looks like destruction, which is what liberal Protestantism in the West seems to be undergoing.

Image: Do you think of the subject of the new book as—at least in part—the limitations of language?

CW: That’s one subject, and it’s the direct focus of one chapter. But the capacities of language are also very much a subject. It’s astonishing the depths of experience language can disclose and enable, even if it’s pointing out its own ultimate insufficiency:

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

(Richard Wilbur, from “Hamlen Brook”)

The limitations and capacities of language are implicit in this poem. Its explicit subject—that “Nothing,” which I don’t think for a minute Wilbur believes is ultimately nothing—is also the main subject of my book.

Image: You open and close My Bright Abyss with the same stanza:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

I wonder, are you using “nothing” in a sense similar to Wilbur’s—both in the titular poem and the book of essays? What kind of nothing are you writing about?

CW: The stanza is actually very slightly, but crucially, different the second time: by the end of the book that colon after “this” has been changed to a period. Poets and their maniacally tiny obsessions!

I do think you’re on to something here, though I hadn’t realized it. I think the first time I quote that stanza I mean nothing as in nothing, an absence that has no usable energy to it, an abyss that draws me but cannot deliver me. By the end of the book the word has taken on some of the ambiguity and ramifications that you suggest. Thus the period. I’m not waiting any longer for some kind of explicable content to follow. “I do not know what I believe, but I know in whom I believe.” That’s Paul Althaus, by way of Karl Barth.

Image: Is the book consciously apophatic?

CW: I’m not sure it’s possible to be consciously apophatic, except in a mechanical and contrived way. The energy of apophasis, like the energy of poetry, emerges only at the limits of our conscious abilities.

That said, I think (hope!) you’ve put your finger on the main elation and anguish of the book: how does one even begin to speak of God? But if the book is indeed apophatic, it’s because that question is always burning in me, though it’s not one that I could ever plan on answering or even accurately formulating.

Image: Although you didn’t actively choose silence and stillness, by the end of My Bright Abyss, silence and white space and absence feel redeemed, maybe even necessary. Will you talk about the role of silence in your experience?

CW: My experience of silence is like just about all of my experience: mixed, conflicted, fraught, fulfilling. Recently I stole a line from Edward Thomas, who describes the plume of smoke rising from a train as “so fair it touched the roar with silence.” In Thomas’s poem, this is a genuinely visionary moment, a kind of primordial silence surviving and redeeming modern industrialism. But then I also understand all too intimately Patrick Kavanagh: “I have what every poet hates / In spite of all the solemn talk of contemplation.” Silence is the necessary soil for poetry, and it’s the blight that eats into our surest words. Silence is the only sound God ever makes, and it is the often crushing condition of his absence. Every once in a while you encounter a work of art that silence has truly and permanently entered, like fallen autumn leaves that, riddled with holes, are on their way to being entirely light. Emily Dickinson. Paul Celan. Lorine Niedecker. I treasure them.

Image: You grew up in a conservative church, which you eventually left. The book argues for the value of love and community. Given the problems of finding language that connects us to one another as Christians, how can we establish religious community?

CW: I have no answer to this question, which is a real torment in my life. For a few years my wife and I did discover and join a genuine religious community that was diverse, intense, intellectually engaged, emotionally demanding and rewarding. It was a very small, old UCC church on Chicago’s north side, led by a charismatic minister with whom we became close friends. But then the minister went on to bigger things, and the church quickly withered. That’s one problem with Protestantism (a paradoxical one given its origins): so much depends on the central figure. We’ve been casting around for a home ever since.

I have friends and family members who attend very conservative Protestant churches and enjoy a strong sense of community there. I envy them, but I can’t stomach some of the theology and feel that the animus against homosexuality is evil. (The people I know aren’t evil—hate the sin but love the sinner!—but evil has entered the institutions that have made this a means of solidarity.) I have Catholic friends who decry the whole reactionary and patriarchal hierarchy of the church but swear by their parishes. It seems a bit schizophrenic to me, but I can certainly see how hard it would be to give up on something so ingrained and ritualized and beautiful. A friend just sent me an essay arguing that the entire history of Catholicism is a history of tension—necessary tension, he argues—between orthodoxy and heresy, that that’s precisely what the church is and must be if it is not to calcify and die.

Maybe so. In any event, I think all of Christianity is being remade right now. Geographically, the center is shifting rapidly southward to Africa and South America. Intellectually, Christianity is still trying to right itself after the onslaught of modernism and the twentieth century’s tidal waves of violence. American fundamentalism and the shocking attrition of liberal Protestantism are obvious symptoms of this. I come back to those words of Christ: “where two or three are gathered together in my name.” Maybe that’s all we can hope for just now: two or three. Maybe, for some, that is the only authentic church.

Image: Someone told me that at one stage of your life, you were a fantastic tennis player. Did the intense practice that must have required carry over into your writing?

CW: My undoing as a tennis player was lack of discipline. Or discipline very erratically applied, I guess. I was a head case and could beat some national star one day and lose to a person without legs the next. I think there may in fact be some analogy here to my life as a poet, but it’s not a happy one for me to contemplate.

Image: What made you start writing prose?

CW: See above: I needed some way of understanding and consolidating the gains I had made in poetry. (Admittedly, almost all of those early poems turned out to be terrible. The great grace of literature—no writer would survive without it—is that subjective illuminations are not contingent upon objective successes: a bad poem can be very good for the one who wrote it.) I began writing prose because I needed some firm ground from which to move forward.

Then, too—and this may in the end be the chief reason—so many of the poets I most admired in my twenties had not simply written prose, but taken it very seriously as part of their art: Yeats, Eliot, and Heaney, notably.

Image: What’s the role of form in your own poetry? I mean (as opposed to a manifesto about form), how do formal concerns actually operate while you’re writing?

CW: I’m with Basil Bunting here: “All arts are concerned only with form in the end.” Except I would replace the “only” with “ultimately,” as art is certainly about more than form. I would also stress that form is simply feeling carried to its furthest and finest expression. “Technique is the test of a man’s sincerity,” as Pound said. Or, if you really want to tighten the ratchet all the way, here’s Edmond Jabès: “The invisible form of the book is the legible body of God.” Bunting knew all this but (as usual) overstated his case for rhetorical purposes.

(August Kleinzahler, who was a student of Bunting’s in British Columbia and equally prone to inflammatory gestures and rhetoric, used to bring in recordings of birdsongs for graduate MFA students to sit and listen to and, um, learn from. Entire classes would pass like this: chirp, chirp. The students, as you can imagine, were livid, but I’ve never met one who didn’t remember the workshop with great vividness—which was maybe the whole point.)

I never think of form apart from the words I’m writing, never think of a poem being “in a form,” so to speak. The form either happens organically as I listen into the music (I usually hear a rhythm before any actual words), or I lose both at the same time and the poem is gone. This is as true of a sonnet as it is of a prose poem. Not that I’ve written many sonnets or prose poems.

I used to think this was the only way authentic poetry could be written, utterly from the ear, but as with all of my rocklike ideas reality has gradually eroded it down to nothing. I think of Anne Carson, who seems to me to have no real formal sense at all, at least not in the way that Bunting meant, yet she has written great poetry (“The Glass Essay” especially). Or D.H. Lawrence. Auden thought Lawrence had an “infallible ear,” but I don’t understand that remark: all Lawrence does is break the lines into obvious syntactical units. The form is an afterthought, or really, not even a thought. But some of the poems are masterpieces. Or James Schuyler, maybe, though I feel he had a more ingrained sense of the necessary noodling economy of his poems, some of which I love.

Image: You have a wonderful ear for sound in poetry. I’m wondering whether you’ve spent a lot of time listening to music, and if so, what kind? If not, how did you develop sensitivity to sound in the language?

CW: I love classical music, especially chamber music, but I have no time to listen to it anymore. I can’t stand background music of any sort; it makes me a nervous wreck (why is there no such thing as a silent coffee shop?). So listening to music requires, for me, the same kind of attention that I give to reading. I wish this weren’t the case. We live in a multitasking time, and I plod around in it like a turgid turtle.

Not that music and poetry really have much to do with each other. I’m with Donald Justice here, who knew an awful lot about both music and the “music of poetry” and was adamant about the distinction between them. There are superficial ways of emulating music, as Eliot did in “Four Quartets” (one of my favorite poems, I should add). But this is a replication of structure, not any organic intuition of real form. Some composers, too, have had their suspicions. Mahler believed that the composer who wanted to set poems to music had to choose middling poems, because otherwise the arts competed with each other. On the other hand, there’s John Adams’s setting of Donne’s “Batter my heart” sonnet in Doctor Atomic, which I loved (that moment in the opera, I mean, though I also enjoyed the work as a whole). But that one can, to great effect, set a poem to music is extraneous to the question that Justice was addressing.

I should say that I’m speaking exclusively (and amateurishly!) of classical music. It seems obvious enough that some forms of music—blues, country, hymns, rap—have analogues and clear lines of influence in poetry.

I have no idea how I became so obsessed with the nerves and bones of sounds, the innermost workings of the language. It wasn’t conscious, and some of the poems in my first book (I wince to think of them) don’t evince this. I would actually like to be a little freer from this, capable of the stark clarities and moral seriousness of Zbigniew Herbert, Yehuda Amichai, Czeslaw Milosz. It never ends, the unlearning one has to undergo.

Image: Literary scholars in English departments teach works of literature as cultural artifacts, as I’m sure you know. Because fiction and nonfiction prose tend to yield more easily than poetry to that approach, courses in poetry are disappearing at many colleges and universities. Students, even graduate students, are unaware of the great poets. I find this troubling and I wonder whether you could address the issue.

CW: Ah, to hell with it, there’s little that can be done. Eventually these anemic disciplines will die off, not because they don’t have something inherently important to say—they do, actually—but because they have displaced the primary passions and functions of literature in favor of ideological axes and bland sociology. A very famous scholar once told me that she saw her job, insofar as it related to undergraduates, as “ironizing naïveté.” This is a hell of a long way from Kafka’s notion of literature as an ice axe for the frozen sea inside of you. Surely there’s something better to do with naïveté than “ironizing” it. Surely young people are no less hungry for meaning than they ever were.

I persist in believing that poetry—broadly conceived, including its manifestations in everything from music to scripture—remains one of the best ways we have of coming to consciousness, that it is integral to a unified spiritual life. I have also come to see that it is quite unkillable. It might turn out to be very good for poetry if it finds new life apart from specialists and outside of classrooms.

Image: Do you find there is a relationship between poetry and prayer for you?

CW: I see them as quite distinct. I know there are poets who say that poetry is their “spiritual practice,” but I think a spiritual practice ought to be about obliterating the ego, and that just isn’t the case with poetry. Even as reserved a figure as Elizabeth Bishop could say that it takes an awful lot of ego to write a poem. So I’m inclined to keep the categories clear and think there’s some value in my own life in doing so.

That said, there are certainly some poets whose work seems to me to blur the line: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka (who actually said that all writing was for him a form a prayer). I don’t think it’s any accident that these are all writers who (mostly) didn’t publish their work, who sometimes even sought to destroy it.

Image: What poets influenced you and in what ways?

CW: There are too many to list, honestly. I find I hardly think in terms of bodies of work anymore, except with fatigue. It’s poem by poem for me. There are poets whose work I don’t really respond to and yet a single poem has at some time pierced me and enabled something in my work or life: Charlotte Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride,” Robert Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said,” Robert Duncan’s “Such Is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing,” Frederick Godard Tuckerman’s sonnet that ends:

No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,
But leaving straining thought and stammering word
Across the barren azure pass to God,|
Shooting the void in silence like a bird,
A bird that shuts its wings for better speed.

Once I loved Robert Lowell and now I can hardly read him (though I have some of the early poems permanently embedded in my brain). Once I thought all language poetry (I’ve never really heard a coherent or meaningful definition of this) was useless, but recently I read Susan Howe’s book That This and walked around for days pierced by its luminous lacunae.

It’s all in flux. It’s always been in flux. It just occurs to me that “flux” has two meanings, aptly enough.

Image: Which poets do you keep reading?

CW: George Herbert.

Image: Your translations of Osip Mandelstam make clear that you value music in poetry. How did you go about creating those little sculpted pieces of sound?

CW: Intimacy, illness, and instinct. I was sick for a long time and couldn’t get around well at all, but I was (unlike later) clear-headed and avid for work. My wife was reading Mandelstam and, as is so often the case with me, I followed in her wake because I wanted to be part of the conversation going on in her head. When you are young you read mostly to discover and clarify your own inner life. As you get older, unless you’ve sunk in the quicksands of yourself, you read mostly to make connections—with the world outside the self, yes, but also with the self you are outside yourself. I think of these wonderful lines from Lawrence Joseph:

The deepest being being a longing
To satisfy a longing for a solitude of two.

I started toying with some lines because it seemed like I could sense something in the various translations that was at once hinted at and missing from all of them. At the same time I met Ilya Kaminsky, who is brilliant and charismatic and tends to sweep everything and everyone up in his wonderful Russian enthusiasms. Mandelstam became a way for us to stay in touch, often with multiple emails during a single day, and somewhere in there poetry—the listening for it, the untrammeled intimacy of it, the sudden gift that does not belong to you, and is you—took over. I’d like to think the spirit of Mandelstam was whispering in my ear, of course, but now that I’m back to my meatheaded self, murdering hours with internet political chaff or watching football, I wonder. In all honesty, though, that experience with Mandelstam’s poetry was pure joy, pure life. I’ve tried to replicate it with a couple of other poets—Ilya is eager to do Akhmatova—but the fuse won’t light.

Image: American readers have more translations of poetry from other languages than we had available previously. What is the value of reading poets from outside this country, even if their work must be read in translation?

CW: I’m not sure there’s any value in reading bad translations, and that’s mostly what one gets. Young poets would be better off delving deep into the poets of the English Renaissance, say, for an example of the extraordinary musical capacities of their own language.

I don’t mean to sound like a crank. It’s just that I’ve come across so few translations in my life that have truly entered me—poetry, I mean; prose is much more amenable to being brought over into another language.

Not everyone feels that way, I realize. Ted Hughes, who with Daniel Weissbort founded Modern Poetry in Translation and had much to do with the expansion of foreign poetry in English, believed that there was some spirit of poetry itself that could transcend any specific language. He thought that often the best translation was the most literal, and some of his versions of János Pilinszky (for example) are practically word-by-word transcriptions.

On the other hand, there’s Paul Celan, who believed that poetry was absolutely fixed within one language, and there was no such thing as “translation” per se. Meanwhile, Celan had full command of eight languages and translated constantly throughout his life, including brilliant, original versions of such sonically idiosyncratic poets as Emily Dickinson, Charles Baudelaire, and—perhaps most important of all to Celan—Osip Mandelstam. Celan believed that translation was a kind of sympathetic violence to the original, that to be faithful one had to betray. Mandelstam, too, believed this, though he was much more suspicious of the whole enterprise.

I’m in the latter camp. It seems to me that often the most interesting poems result from collisions or tensions between translator and poet, rather than obvious sympathies. An example: For Poetry’s last annual translation issue, in which we tried to bring in some people who don’t ordinarily translate a good deal, Adam Kirsch produced a formal version of Bertolt Brecht’s “Hollywood Elegies.” This was especially surprising, because Brecht’s poems are in free verse. We’re all accustomed (too accustomed!) to translators eliminating formal elements, especially rhyme, for the sake of clarity of image or meaning, but who ever thinks to go the other way? And yet Kirsch’s poems are brilliant. Brecht comes alive in them. Brecht and Kirsch come alive together, I should say.

Image: At the moment we have language poetry and spoken word poetry and formalist poetry in this country. The confessional movement lingers, and there are other schools and ideologies. How do you define the magazine in relation to them?

CW: I don’t really believe in movements. I mean, they exist, they’re useful enough in terms of talking about literary moments, but no poet worth reading—or at least worth rereading—ever fits into them. So I’ve never felt a need to define the magazine in relation to contemporary literary culture. I wish we could print more traditionally formal poetry, because there’s still real power in this way of writing. But you just don’t find many poets willing to risk the work it takes to learn the techniques.

Image: Can you explain the role of prose in the magazine? Why have you chosen to publish so much prose?

CW: Three reasons:

When I took over I wanted people to pay more attention to the magazine than they had been, and you don’t make that happen quickly with poems.

Second, there’s a lot more good prose in this country than there are good poems. That’s always the case. There’s very little middle ground in poetry. A solidly written poem is like a piece of second-tier sushi: better never to have put it in your mouth or mind. But a solidly written prose piece? It can be genuinely enjoyable, and you can learn something from it.

And finally, there’s just not enough good prose about poetry in literary journals. Some of them don’t print any criticism at all, which is astonishing to me, as it’s criticism that the culture really needs, not more poems.

NB: I should say that we publish the same number of poems that we always have, about thirty pages per issue, sometimes more.

Image: Poetry receives an extraordinary number of submissions. In practice, how do you choose among them? What’s a day of editing like?

CW: Since we began accepting electronic submissions a few years ago, we’ve been getting about 140,000 submissions a year. We’re still doing things the way we have for years, but maybe we’ll be overwhelmed by the numbers at some point and have to change.

Virtually everything goes first to the poet and critic Christina Pugh, who is brilliant, fair, and astonishingly efficient. She passes everything she thinks worth another look to our senior editor Don Share, appending a note to direct his reading. Then Don makes another cut and passes things on to me with his own notes. Then Don and I go back and forth about various poems to determine what finally goes into the magazine.

Reading poems may be the smallest part of my job in terms of actual hours spent. Assigning and editing the prose, taking care of correspondence, proofreading, setting strategy, managing a staff, participating in various foundation events and initiatives: all this requires an enormous amount of time.

Image: What advice can you offer young poets?

CW: Everyone always says read, read, read. True enough, but no poet who is at all a poet needs to be told that. A successful composer, who had been through years of schooling, all the very best places and people, once told me that he could boil his entire education down to a handful of things that people had said to him over the years, usually in passing. That’s been my experience.

I’m with Rilke on one point: give up poetry if you can. If it’s a major urge, I mean, if you feel it at once bestowing and annihilating life. If it’s just something you do occasionally, one activity among others, that’s no problem. Some people even manage to produce great art out of this dynamic (Walter Ralegh!).

But here’s the thing: It has to be a decision you make. That’s the catch. It can’t be imposed upon you because of children, poverty, neurosis, lack of courage. I do know a couple of very talented poets who have walked away from it. Richard Pevear, now famous as a translator, once told me that giving up poetry was the best damn thing he ever did. I remember the moment distinctly. We were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, and he was wearing a cravat, and I was already minting the moment for my memoirs. It was as if he spat out a big glob of literary phlegm. I was shocked and appalled—give up poetry?! what kind of life is that?—but now I see his wisdom.

And if you can’t give it up? Go all in. This will mean different things for different people, but the key is to hold nothing back. If you get past that early anguish of imitation and indecision, if you adapt to the schizophrenic existence American culture forces on its artists, if you endure the hard lesson that poetry is for the sake of the world and not vice versa, then a life of real metaphysical significance is possible. And there is also—though the word obviously doesn’t come trippingly off my tongue—joy.

Image: If you’re able and willing to say, how’s your health now?

CW: Excellent. I had a bone marrow transplant eighteen months ago. It was brutal, but I seem to have come through it quite well and am even back to running several days a week.


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