Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry and current faculty member at the Yale Divinity School, has four poems in Image issue 81. We asked him to talk about what went into the writing of them.
Image: You’ve been interviewed a great deal lately about some rather large topics: illness, death, faith, doubt, and beyond. Some of that, of course, is because your prose book My Bright Abyss deals with precisely those issues. But you’re first and foremost a poet, so we thought we’d take a different tack by focusing on the poems of yours we’ve published in this issue of Image. Do you ever fear that people are more interested in your ideas than in the poetic forms you’ve created—in what you say rather than how you say it?
Christian Wiman: I don’t just worry about it, I witness it all the time. And not just with poetry. There are certain works of prose that are equally bound to their forms. The formal pressure is less intense (it’s simply impossible to talk about a poem’s content apart from its form), but it’s still there. Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran, Simone Weil—these people are all very great artists if you read them right. But they can all be pretty frustrating if you simply extract the “content” of their thoughts.
I don’t mean to compare myself to those people. Good lord. I just mean to nod vigorously in response to your question and admit that it remains a concern. I don’t know what one can do about it though. I have spoken out publicly about concrete intellectual and social issues. You can’t really blame people for conflating those statements with poetic ones. It will all come out in the wash at some point, or—alas, more likely—fall into oblivion.
Image: “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians” is a dramatic monologue that combines humor and a certain astringent realism about human nature. (It makes us wonder if the poem arose from your recent move to teaching at a divinity school.) The poem starts out as a butt-kicking handed out by the preacher to presumably naïve seminary students but by the conclusion the speaker utters a poignant confession. In the end, it seems to be about the need for preachers, as well as laypeople, to “help untold souls back into their bodies.” If that’s true, what does that phrase mean?
CW: I wrote this poem long before coming to Yale. I’ve just sat on it for a few years, as I usually do with my poems.
I suppose the poem is on one level about the body/spirit distinction, the fallacy of that. So many of us float—in our minds, our beliefs, our loves, our art—above the “No” that our actions express. The No to existence, I mean, to reality. Karl Barth has a great quote somewhere about the duty of every Christian to say “Yes” to existence, whatever it may bring you.
The traditional Christian distinction between heaven and earth is not helpful to me. I wrote somewhere or other that to love one’s life is to assent to its terms, the severest of which is death. (That’s the lesson the preacher learns in the incident with the goat, which is of course the same lesson that Jesus taught.) I think it’s the duty of preachers to ease people back into their bodies, back into the reality they must not only deal with but even come to love—and again, the hardest part of this is death. “Untold” has two meanings in the poem. It means innumerable, of course, but it also means quite literally “those who have not been told” the good news, which is also bad news (“costing not less than everything,” as Eliot put it). So that’s what the preacher is trying to teach the seminarians.
Image: There is a lot going on in “Self-Portrait with Preacher, Pain, and Snow.” For one thing, those epigraphs. You start out with a scientific conundrum about the influence of an observer on what she observes. You then pair that with theologian Karl Barth’s reflection on our human ability to perceive truth. The poem itself seems to be about a dying woman and a pastor who has gone to visit her and offer words of comfort. What’s going on here?
CW: Hmmm. Maybe the poem is too confusing. I never have any idea how my own poems get written and often feel at sea about what they “mean” in some sort of explicative sense. But what the hell, here goes.
There are actually three people in the poem, as it is, ultimately, a self-portrait. Everything in the poem actually happened (except for the snow; that was a retrospective gift). I wrote the poem sometime after meeting with a minister friend of mind, Matt Fitzgerald, at a coffee shop in north Chicago. He had just come from visiting the woman in the poem, who told him of her declaration to her doctors and her desire to die. He told me the story while we were discussing theological questions, specifically the extent to which one can know God. The Barth came from him. The Eckhart came from me. The Horgan came from a book I was reading at the time; I pulled it out and read that very passage to Matt.
Barth and Eckhart are, in these quotes, completely at odds. Barth believed that humans could know nothing of divinity apart from Jesus Christ. Eckhart clearly believes in different forms of revelation, and his ancient perception seems to me eerily in line with some of the discoveries of modern physics (thus the first quote).
There is no “answer” to this argument. It is significant that I am absent from the poem, that the reader has to infer my presence in the second half from the way the information is conveyed (that preacher has to be talking to someone, has to be telling the story). I don’t know my own mind well enough, don’t know my own “self” well enough, to be present in my own self-portrait. That’s one reading, I suppose. Another is that the grace bestowed upon our exchange has enabled that self to vanish for a time, and the ending scriptures exist (like the snow) as both provocation and peace.
Image: “Coming into the Kingdom” has the feel of an autobiographical poem, perhaps a recounting of a conversion story. It begins with almost biblical language about kingdoms and deserts but then ends up in a very mundane part of north Chicago. The poem speaks exile and bewilderment, but the ending, with its focus on the ordinary sights of an urban neighborhood, feels like an affirmation of sorts—a moment of grace. Are we close?
CW: Yes, I think that is an accurate reading of the poem, though again I wrote this poem in utter confusion. I was just following the sounds early on, an echo of the Old Testament cadences from one of the prophets—Isaiah most likely. (The distance traveled in the poem is cultural as well as personal—it’s about more than me.) Then the tense suddenly shifted at the end and there I was in my back yard in Chicago, a miserable and filthy little place, really, though the poem bestows a kind of grace upon it. David Brooks pointed out in a recent column that people from ugly places often love their homes much more than do people who are from exquisite cities. Chicago is in fact exquisite in some areas (rich areas) but not where we lived. It was dirty, and druggy, and occasionally dangerous. I never loved it, but I became, let us say, loyal to it.
Image: “Love’s Last” is a poem about memory, reminiscent of Wordsworth’s famous phrase, “The child is father to the man.” What is it about this episode from your childhood—where you stirred up a bee’s nest but weren’t stung—that has made the memory a blessing to you now?
CW: I have no idea, but you are dead-on with the Wordsworth reference. I thought I was dying when I wrote this poem. I was in the hospital, and I wrote it just hours before being blasted with something called BEAM chemo, which is meant to bring you as close to death as possible so they can reconstruct your immune system. It was pretty tough.
It is abstraction that is terrifying when you are near death, the sense that you are losing not only physical sensations but also your memory of them. You long for the particular—Love’s last urgency is earth.
An odd—and to me disturbing—detail, which only just now occurs to me: while it’s true that I wasn’t stung among that cloud of bees, it’s also true that my mother, who was standing far away on the front porch (the grass was in the alley), was. Just once, but she had an anaphylactic reaction and had to be rushed to the hospital. There was real danger amid that grace. I suppose there always is.