Christian Wiman

The poet on the need for awe

Maggie Millner

In the increasingly secular world of contemporary American poetry, Christian Wiman is a rare poet of faith. His religious belief, which began in his evangelical childhood and renewed itself during his nearly two-decade struggle against cancer, suffuses each of his eleven books of poetry, prose, and translation. His latest, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair (2023), draws his many métiers together in a single volume; blending verse with prose, criticism with memoir, and quotation with provocation, the book is an exuberant tribute to both poetry and faith, which Wiman contends can help us not only survive crisis but also find awe within its clutches.

Above all, Zero at the Bone is the document of a daily, devotional, and highly eclectic practice of cultivating awe. The collection includes close readings of poems by the likes of Lucille Clifton and Anne Carson, bedtime stories first addressed to the author’s twin daughters, musings on gym culture and snakebites, and sidelong critiques of masculinity and autofiction. For Wiman, this kind of teeming plurality is the point; his work is driven, in his own words, by an instinctive feeling that “in the incorrigibly plural swirl of life there abides some singularity of being, however fleeting its presence.” His new book asks: What is faith but that?

Wiman currently serves as Professor of the Practice of Religion and Literature at Yale. The following conversation, conducted over email in November, touches on memory, “destructive writing,” and the limitations of Mary Oliver.

Maggie Millner, Senior editor


Maggie Millner Much of Zero at the Bone models and explores the art of holding two contradictory ideas in tension at once. Can you speak about the necessity of embracing contradiction in the life of a person of faith? In the life of a poet?

Christian Wiman No one has ever improved on Keats’s definition of negative capability: “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Irritable is the salient word there, because it’s not as if poetry and faith are uninterested in fact and reason. They are quite concerned with both. But there’s a kind of poetry that’s clingy or defensive, that seems either positively frightened by fact and reason (e.g., Mary Oliver) or wields those things like weapons against any destabilizing incursion of imagination (e.g., Alexander Pope). There are strains of faith that correspond to each of these poetic tendencies, too, with much of modern American evangelicalism in the frightened camp, and much modern academic theology in the well-armed one. In Entry #50 of my book, I say: “Now I am here, no diamond, no time, / no omen but awe / that a whirlwind could in not cohering cohere. / Loss is my gift, bewilderment my bow.” (“Bow” rhymes with “cow,” in case there’s any confusion.) Triumph or concession? An admirable attempt to remain faithful to the chaos or a throwing up of one’s hands? I expect readers will read it according to their own dispositions.

MM In Entry #1, you write that “the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute—and perhaps even annihilating—awe.” What is the relation, in your mind, between poetry and awe?

CW The relation between poetry and awe is intimate and absolute. Any poet who loses that capacity for wonder—the Biblical sort, which includes fear—is done. One of the most important theologians in my life is Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose whole theology is built around awe or wonder. (“Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.”) It’s not a bouncy castle kind of wonder, though. In one of his poems, Heschel hints at the cost: “I prayed for wonders instead of happiness, Lord / And you gave them to me.”

It feels like the past is alive in me, a matter of nerve, suddenness, instinct.

What did I learn of this relation from this book? That the antidote to despair is awe. (Despair and depression are not synonyms.) For me, poetry has been a reliable source of this for my entire adult life. Take the following section from “For Paul,” Lorine Niedecker’s poem addressing the son of her friend and former lover, the poet Louis Zukofsky:

Paul

when the leaves

fall

from their stems

that lie thick

on the walk

in the light

of the full note

the moon

playing

to leaves

when they leave

the little

thin things

Paul

One instance of such sonic perfection, such vision, can get me through a hard day.

MM Memory is a recurrent theme for you; there’s your father’s deteriorating mind, your own “honorary doctorate in dementia,” your periodic conjuring of scenes from childhood. How do you understand the link between writing and memory? Between the poetic impulse and the drive to memorialize?

CW I really did get an honorary doctorate in dementia, as I write in one of these entries. I didn’t make that up.

Some of my early poems are definite attempts to honor and even retain a vanished past. But for the most part, I don’t really think of poetry and memory working like that. When I write a poem—and to some extent, in this book at least, prose too—about something in the past, it’s not to memorialize. It’s an act of memory, of course, but that’s not what it feels like. It feels like the past is alive in me, a matter of nerve, suddenness, instinct. Van Gogh once said that life is round, not linear, and art perceives this quality, whereas our daily minds rarely do. This is partly what art is for. “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present,” says Eliot, an abstract statement of what great literature actually enacts.

MM In Entry #10, you write, “Hypothesis: there are creative writers, and there are destructive writers, and sometimes the destructive ones are a hell of a lot more creative, and sometimes both kinds emerge from one mind.” Which kind of writer is the author of this book, do you think?

CW In the (inevitably sloppy) dichotomy I’ve set up, “creative” writers disclose and further reality, helping human consciousness to grow, whereas “destructive” writers wage “an assault on the kinds of unconsciousness that falsify, obscure, and deform reality.” The categories are not cleanly distinct, and a writer’s work can fall in both (and “destructive” writers are sometimes a hell of a lot more creative than “creative” writers).

Destructive writers are rare, though much of what we think of as “high” modernism was a kind of cumulative blow. Eliot seems to me at war in “The Waste Land,” attacking the polite restraint of Victorianism and of his own mind, whereas “The Four Quartets” feels altogether different, the work of a man much more at ease with both his mind and his time. But maturity isn’t the issue. King Lear lands like a bomb in one’s consciousness. Or in one’s unconsciousness, rather. Four centuries after its composition, and it’s still a shattering experience.

I need both poems and prose—and even some things in between—to be true to my experience.

Weirdly, I never even thought of my own work when I was articulating this thought. Turning my attention to it now, I have no idea.

MM I was so exhilarated by the formal variousness of this book. The word “entries” in the title is telling; it seems to me a word that stealthily dodges the question of genre, while also conjuring an image of ingress or approach. Why call this book a collection of “entries”?

CW I have chafed against expectations of genre for a long time and have come closer and closer to merging verse and prose within single “essays.” (I put the word in quotes because I have written essays, even long ones, that felt like poems to me, with a similar sonic and formal compulsion.) I finally just decided to go all in and write an entire book that could not only contain the various forms in which I have worked. I need both poems and prose—and even some things in between—to be true to my experience.

As for the title, your question answers itself: it’s a dodge. I needed something that would work for any genre. But you also put your finger on a deeper meaning to the word. I quote William Bronk in an essay about him: “I deal with despair because I feel despair. Most people feel despair but they are not prepared to deal with it except pretend that it’s not there. I think it’s there metaphysically, that it’s not a matter of individual predicament. It’s in the nature of reality and not to be denied.” I agree with this completely, even though I consider myself a person of faith. Why fifty “entries”? Because I needed fifty different ways of “entering” the problem. Entering, not solving, maybe not even exiting, as the final entry makes clear.

Maggie Millner is a poet and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
January 8, 2024

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