Exclusive: Christian Wiman Discusses Faith as He Leaves World's Top Poetry Magazine
Soon you will release a set of essays. How has your turn to faith shaped or influenced these essays?
After my diagnosis, I wrote a short piece trying to make sense of all that had happened to me. It was published in a relatively small magazine, The American Scholar, but the response to it was pretty overwhelming. I began to realize there was an enormous contingent of people out there who were starved for new ways of feeling and articulating their experiences of God. I wanted to have a conversation with these people.
I also wanted to figure out my own mind. I knew that I believed, but I was not at all clear on what I believed. So I set out to answer that question, though I have come to realize that the real question is how, not what. How do you answer that burn of being that drives you both deeper into, and utterly out of, yourself? What might it mean for your life—and for your death—to acknowledge the insistent, persistent call of God?
You have had some very difficult health issues the past few years, and according to one essay, have recently been "close to death." How is your health now? And what have your health struggles meant for your work?
I've been through a multitude of treatments, culminating in a bone-marrow transplant last fall. There's no question that illness has brought a great urgency to my work: One speaks differently when standing on a cliff. Then again, I have always had little patience for art that is not elemental, art that doesn't take on the major questions of our existence. Perhaps my own inclinations have simply been intensified by my illness.
As for that illness, it's gone. For now. I haven't felt this healthy in eight years. I hope I am now faced with the difficult task of learning to live without my familiar miseries. "Our torments also may, in length of time, Become our elements," says John Milton. "[T]hese piercing fires [a]s soft as now severe." There is always some devil in us—that's a demon speaking the lines above—who makes us think we love or need our pain.
Sometimes your essays feel like you are arguing with yourself. Do you write them for yourself or others?
I've never thought of my essays like this, but I see immediately that you're right. W. B. Yeats defined rhetoric as the quarrel we have with others. Poetry, he said, comes out of the quarrel we have with ourselves. Prose isn't poetry, obviously, but I've always felt the two arts to be raveled up with one another for me.
I read a lot of theology, even though I am almost always frustrated by it. Thomas Merton once said that trying "to solve the problem of God" is like trying to see your own eyes. No doubt that's part of it. There is something absurd about formulating faith, systematizing God. I am usually more moved—and more moved toward God—by what one might call accidental theology, the best of which is often art, sometimes even determinedly secular art.
I am moved by works of art that don't so much strive to make meaning as allow meaning to stream through them: Bach, certain poems by T. S. Eliot, the novelist Marilynne Robinson, the late work of the American sculptor Lee Bontecou, even less conventional religious writers like Simone Weil or Sara Grant. People can occasionally embody and enact this kind of meaning as well—we are, after all, works of the very greatest Creator's hands.