By Fleming Smith
On Wednesday, February 17, the critic Adam Kirsch visited Sewanee and gave a lecture on the poetry of Christian Wiman, who was awarded the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry the next day. He described Wiman’s evolution as a poet as well as the “rareness of poetry” that he believes Wiman’s poetry embodies.
“Literary awards, when you really think of them, are paradoxical things,” Kirsch began. “It’s the feeling of having been admitted into company that really appeals to writers when they desire recognition.” This company of great poets, however, is often only found in the next world, in the same way that Dante wanted to meet Homer. “I think there’s no poet working in America today that deserves that welcome more than Christian Wiman,” continued Kirsch.
Kirsch noted how Wiman’s motivations for poetry changed very much from his beginnings as a poet. “Writing about his own feelings as a poet in his twenties and thirties, [Wiman] consistently dwells on the way artistic ambition draws on and produces a sense of alienation from life,” said Kirsch. He cited Wiman’s essay “Milton in Guatemala” as a key example, where Wiman can only observe the happy family life of the apartment below him through a hole in his floor. “If poets long for the companionship of the dead, it’s because they very often have trouble feeling at home in the company of the living,” said Kirsch.
After a childhood in West Texas, Wiman moved forty times in fifteen years. Kirsch believes this feeling of homelessness can be seen in Wiman’s poetry. “But this feeling of homelessness is not only geographical. It also marks Wiman’s affinity with the romantic tradition of poetry…poetry was the language in which the breach between the real and the ideal could be at once named and closed,” said Kirsch. He quoted from Wiman’s poem “The Clearing,” adding that places like this, where we feel most at peace, can never be considered our homes.
“In Wiman’s first two books, there’s a constant longing to break out of the prison of the self,” continued Kirsch. He also described Wiman’s struggle with pride as perhaps his greatest sin, which might explain his fascination with Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which Satan is banished from heaven for having the pride to challenge God.
However, Kirsch noted a shift in Wiman’s poetry from his publications in 2005 to his next book of poetry, five years later, called Every Riven Thing. “Wiman’s not a confessional poet. He lacks the relish in self-exposure,” Kirsch said. “There’s nothing easier for a poet than to write about yourself. The art lies in making the self representative, in turning one’s own experience into a metaphor or allegory in which the reader, too, can see himself.”
Kirsch explained that Wiman used his own life experiences—falling in love, a cancer diagnosis—to reinvigorate his poetry in a way that was not confessional, but very spiritual. “What has changed in Wiman’s work, what perhaps always changes in what we call a conversion, is not the content of experience but the perspective on experience,” said Kirsch. “Now, there’s a resolution, and I think that word captures the kind of conscious decision involved. To find the truth in the arrival of grace, not in its departure.”
He mentioned the distinction that Wiman makes between faith and belief. Faith, in Wiman’s words, is the “motion of the soul towards God,” while belief is the objects of that; Christ’s resurrection, for example. “In the house of Christian poetry, there are many mansions,” quipped Kirsch. Wiman’s poetry often involves the direct incarnation of God in this world. “In this way, his adult faith differs from the faith of his childhood,” said Kirsch. Although Wiman was taught that love of God meant renouncing love of the earth, he now believes that to be a false choice, and that love of Earth almost demands love of God.
“As Wiman’s sense of the truth has changed, so too has his motive for metaphor. Early in his career he spoke of ambition, a high artistic sort of ambition, rare and honorable, which Milton called the last infirmity of noble mind,” said Kirsch. “But in Wiman’s most recent work, even this infirmity seems left behind in favor of a deeper kind of magnanimity and generosity.” Kirsch concluded by saying, “Writing in the dark, [Wiman] has lit the dark for thousands of people, of whom I am one. And that’s why I can say in closing that I am very grateful for the chance to take part in this ceremony honoring him.”