What are the poets trying to do when they write their poems? I don’t mean the poems that are composed for birthday or anniversary celebrations, nor the short verses written for Hallmark cards. I mean the carefully crafted pieces that appear in poetry journals in language that is cut so close to the bone that you find it almost impossible to flesh out the meaning. If we are to believe Christian Wiman – former editor of Poetry Magazine and now professor of faith and poetry at the Yale Divinity School – they are looking for God.
Wiman discusses this question in his exquisitely beautiful and deeply personal book He Held Radical Light by writing about his life as a poet and editor and about his encounters with other poets. Most of these poets would not identify themselves as believers, and many are avowed materialists. Yet, says Wiman, they are all driven by the same hunger for an experience of transcendence.
Wiman should know. He confesses that as an unbelieving young poet he dreamed of writing a timeless poem, one that embodies transcendence in its very essence. But over the years he learned that in his own work, and in the best works of other poets, this dream is never fulfilled. Hoping to capture the essence of God in a poem, all he found in his creations was a void that threatened to become malevolent if he kept seeking God in this way. The dream became a form of greed, a transparent attempt to replace the soul with the self. Quoting as illustrations Moses, who was allowed to see only the back of God, and a poem by A. E. Stallings about a snake that is glimpsed only as is slides away through tall grass, Wiman came to realize that God can only be perceived indirectly and is never fully revealed. In the same vein he quotes Simone Weil’s paradoxical assertion that “absence is the form God’s presence takes in the world.” In other words, a poem should be a means and not an end; when art becomes the latter it acquires an autonomous hunger of its own that does not wish you well.
Wiman did not come to this more mature understanding without a struggle. Meeting his wife, leaving his post as editor of Poetry Magazine, and being diagnosed with cancer all in the span of a few short years, his life was changed radically. Suffering the silences of God during his battle with cancer, Wiman was forced to acknowledge that, contrary to the stated beliefs of many of his friends, real redemption is not found in art. When drugged by pain killers and faced with the possibility of his own end, Wiman turned to God. “For once,” writes Wiman, “all that background chatter in your brain, all that pandemonium of blab, ceases, and you can hear – and what some of us hear in those instances is a still small voice.” When you have no effort left to give, you need grace that has nothing to do with your own effort.
Interestingly, the collapse of his dream of artistic immortality helped Wiman to see more clearly that God insinuates himself into the poems of his atheist and materialist colleagues, and into the hunger that feeds them. The title of the book comes from the poem “He Held Radical Light” by A. R. Ammons, an avowed materialist who in that poem struggles to keep his sense of artistic transcendence grounded in things. But in another poem, “Hymn,” Ammon comes tantalizingly close to confessing God as both transcendent and imminent. Various other poets are discussed as well to show that often art contains and expresses a faith that the artist, in the rest of his waking life, rejects.
Wiman’s transformation from a poet who seeks transcendence by writing an immortal poem to one who is content to wait for God to reveal himself in his own time became whole when Wiman recognized the presence of God in the love of his wife and his young daughters. “Perhaps love is necessary for revelation to remain revelation” he writes, finding that love not only sets him free to approach his own work in a new way, but also enlarges his ability to see God’s grace at work in the poetry of his unbelieving colleagues. I thank God for the way his grace is richly present in this very honest and insightful book.
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