Mary Oliver once picked up a pigeon—a dead pigeon—on Michigan Avenue, and put it in her jacket pocket. When she gave the headlining presentation at Chicago’s Poetry Day that evening, wearing this oversized hunting jacket, she still had the half-eaten feathered carcass in her pocket.
Christian Wiman, who was editor of Poetry magazine at the time, shares this story in his book He Held Radical Light. He had previously been unimpressed with Oliver: Overrated. Poems too “transactional.” Nature experience, nature experience...God!
But then he started to re-read her poems while preparing to introduce her at Poetry Day. And then he met her, the kind of person who would pick up a dead bird on a glamorous avenue, and wear a hunting jacket to a poetry reading. As he puts it, he fell in love.
In Christian Wiman's Radical Light, all easy answers about how spirituality informs the arts and vice versa are given fierce interrogation.
In Radical Light, Wiman, a poet and professor of religion and literature at Yale, is plundering the question of the “art of faith, the faith of art,” as the book’s subtitle puts it. He barely gives any leeway to either side. All easy answers about how spirituality informs the arts and vice versa are given fierce interrogation.
“Nothing prisons truth so quickly,” he writes, “as an assurance that one has found it.” Our notions of where goodness is can be upended like that. He has a preconceived truth that Mary Oliver, “the most famous poet in the country,” is not as great as everyone thinks she is; then has it thrown back in his face. No, she’s really got it, as a writer and a person. The Holy Spirit is often exactly where you don’t think it will be.
Whether it comes from surviving a life-threatening lymphoma diagnosis 15 years prior (which Wiman wrote about in his sublime 2013 memoir My Bright Abyss) or simply from having a naturally sharp and suspicious artistic mind, Wiman takes neither the operations of God nor beauty for granted.
One of the moments that kicks off these meditations came early in his career, when the poet Donald Hall told Wiman that one day he realized his own poetry would not live forever. Wiman, who went on to become one of the nation’s—if not famous, than most highly regarded, poets— was haunted for years after by this question of “writing a poem that would live forever.”
As with anyone who has ever decided to pursue seriously a life calling in poetry, Wiman realized the answer to the question was a big, horrible, resounding no, probably not.Maybe not a single word of your poetry is going to last forever. And...you have to do it anyway. What is the point? The point is: do the work and don’t worry about the point.
“Poetry itself,” he writes, “like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.”
“Poetry itself,” writes Christian Wiman, “like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.”
There is an almost Zen quality to the phenomenon he is describing in this mingling of art and the divine: You must detach from all certainty about how they fit together. A preacher proclaims that a bleak Philip Larkin poem, “Aubade,” (puts “ice in the spine,” says Wiman) “is exactly how he would feel if he weren’t a Christian.” Wiman thinks the preacher is totally off base. “I don’t think it’s possible for believers to stand outside of the most powerful achievements of secular art and say, ‘if only that artist could see what we can see…’”
In fact, Wiman goes on to point out that an author steeped in nihilism and despair could not write a poem as sublime as “Aubade.”
There is something like the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola at work here. One way to boil down the wisdom of the Ignatian approach—which itself has some Buddhist tendencies to it (non-clinging, except to Christ)—is to not predetermine where God is. God might be calling us to find him in health, or in sickness, riches or poverty, honor or dishonor, the glory of a despairing poem or even in the despair of a canned spiritual poem.
He Held Radical Light at times seems to be for an “insider” audience, those immersed in literature who wrestle with the same questions with which the author grapples. They are questions that not everyone might find so routine or even cliched as Wiman seems to find them. “This is not a Death-is-the-mother-of-beauty discovery, ala early Stevens,” Wiman writes at one point. Or: “the old poetry-is-prayer argument.” And “for all the talk of the extinction of personality...” If these are not concepts that kick around in your mind a lot, the book can feel as if it is for a self-selecting audience. Regardless, if you are encountering these concepts for the first time, they do deserve a second read, and the book earns it.
Christian Wiman: A poem's truth "is irreducible, inexhaustible, atomic," and "its existence as natural and necessary as a stand of old growth trees so far in the Arctic that only an oil company would ever see it."
One of the most gratifying moments of the book comes when Wiman lays out the timeless question all poets and English majors contend with: Why is poetry important? Especially if few people read it? Wiman responds in one of the most concise and helpful statements I have ever heard on the topic. “[A poem’s] truth is irreducible, inexhaustible, atomic;” he writes. “its existence as natural and necessary as a stand of old growth trees so far in the Arctic that only an oil company would ever see it; and just like those threatened trees, its reality ramifies into the lives of people for who it remains utterly irrelevant and/or obscure.”
Wiman tells us that about four years ago he was “given a reprieve by a futuristic drug that came into the world just as I began to go out of it.” He is not given to ecstatic shouts of joy in the book, praising Hallelujah to the Lord for his “reprieve.” But neither does he simply consign this wonder drug to the sheer result of cold, hard science. “I don’t really believe in atheists,” writes Wiman toward the end of the book. “Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not.” It is not unlike one of the most profound lines from scripture. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.