Christian Wiman: Art & Oblivion

THE PUBLICATION OF a book by Christian Wiman is always an event. One of our leading poets and public intellectuals, he is a writer who, whether he is working in poetry or prose, exhibits an urgency and an intensity that can sometimes feel intimidating. But he is also a writer who amply rewards those willing to put in the effort.

One might call Wiman a muscular writer, not in the sense of someone who bullies the reader, but on account of his command of thought and expression—his willingness to use both rational and poetic-oblique approaches to his material.

Like Marilynne Robinson, he is an author who is both philosophical and literary, and has found a way to maintain a Christian identity while addressing a broad and diverse audience.

He Held Radical Light, subtitled The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, is a prose work, but different in many respects from Wiman’s magisterial My Bright Abyss. The latter volume—dense and rich as a flourless cake—consisted of long, demanding essays, coming from someone who might have been the love child of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. That book was an awful rowing toward God, arduous yet full of ardor.

By contrast, He Held Radical Light is a slim volume, different in tone and texture. For one thing, the element of memoir, fairly minimal in the earlier book, takes on a larger role here as Wiman relates encounters with some of the great poets ofrecent decades from A.R. Ammons, Denise Levertov, and C.K. Williams to Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, and Mary Oliver. This seems apt, because Radical Light is a book about the significance of art-making in the face of life’s most pressing questions—above all, the reality of death and the way that reality forces us to doubt the existence of meaning or purpose.

Yet this is not a memoir in the traditional sense: it takes a more anecdotal approach, never approaching a sustained narrative. With the exception of one fabulous scene involving Mary Oliver and a dead pigeon, these notes about great poets are fairly tame—brief sketches of their eccentricities,hopes, and fears. There are moments when these bits veer perilously close to name-dropping and yet it has to be conceded that these writers do, in fact,constitute Wiman’s community—after all, he was editor of Poetry for a decade and is a poet of no small achievement himself.Still, I found myself hoping that he might recount some encounter with a car mechanic or janitor with a gift for metaphor or humble insight into the mystery of things.

Radical Light has less awful rowing and more meandering, making a more approachable book, if perhaps making its trains of thought a little more elusive. At times it felt a bit like reading the footnotes to some larger, more ambitious tome, one where Wiman more fully works out the theological and aesthetic concerns he touches on here.But on a second reading (and I highly recommend a second reading), I felt I had a much better grasp of the book’s flow and coherence.

The issues he covers are difficult to summarize but there are a number of recurring questions. What value does art-making have in the face of a potentially meaningless universe? How do we account for the endlessness of our desire if nothing in this world seems to satisfy that desire? Can art itself fulfill the role that was formerly ascribed to religion?

Wiman’s claims to Christian insight into these matters are humble and self-deprecating. “I fear I’m sounding wise,” he says near the end of the book, which goes a long way toward helping us accept his wisdom. He has no time, however, for conventional piety: “the casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive.” And the corollary thought: “You can’t let the flashes of insight harden into ‘knowledge.’” He is also candid about his own doubts: “People tend to think that Christians feel rescued from death, and perhaps some do (I don’t).”

But if he can freely share his doubts, Wiman is also unafraid to challenge the secularism he finds among the cultural elite. Early on in the book he speaks of the contemporary effort to “attempt to replace the soul with the self.” Then there is the vexed question of artists using religious language and metaphors:

“the common tendency among modern artists: the art contains and expresses a faith that the artist, in the rest of his waking life, rejects.And quite often…the art relies on, even while extending, the religious language for which the artist has no practical use and of which he is perhaps even contemptuous. Is this a failure of art, then, since presumably a living poem ought not to rely on language that is dead at its root? Or is it a triumph of God, resurrecting blossoms from a branch that seemed irrevocably withered? If the former, how does one change one’s art? If the latter, how does one change one’s life?”

Wiman arrives at one of the book’s key insights in his commentary on “Momentary,” a poem by A.E. Stallings. It is a poem

“aimed outward rather than inward, and suggesting that it’snot simply that the hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be other than what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end. When art becomes the latter, it eventually acquires an autonomous hunger of its own, and ‘it does not wish you well.’”

There’s much more to say about Radical Light, but you need to sample it for yourself. There is a method in his meandering. Like any great poet he knows how to shift from exposition and narrative to the gem-like epigram that both summarizes and pushes the reader on to a new round of thought and reflection.

If some of those epigrammatic summations fall flat (“One either lives toward God or not”), others convey—well, let’s go ahead and call it wisdom (“For the genuine artist…there is no such thing as a resolved existential crisis,” and my favorite: “Our only savior is failure.”)