If I could, I would give this review a flashing, neon title. I would aim on it a bright and roving spotlight. I would print it up like a recruitment poster, pointing finger and all, because I WANT YOU, yes you, to read this book.
You’re not that interested in art? Poetry isn’t really your thing? Your stack of books to read is already too high? Make those apologies, and I will only press my point harder. It is precisely because there are too many voices calling for our attention—too many books on our bedside tables, too many apps fired up on our screens—that we, as people of faith, should tune our ears to silence. Poets, in particular, help us do exactly that. Only when the “pandemonium of blab—ceases,” Christian Wiman writes, can we “hear—and what some of us hear … is a still, small voice.”
Poetry depends on silence. It depends on the word not written, the pause of line break or comma, the white space on the page. If you are intrigued by the silence that poems can open up in and around words when those words are placed with artful precision and concision, you could dive right in to the quiet rhythms of T. S. Eliot’s quartets, Seamus Heaney’s metaphors, or Mary Oliver’s epiphanies. I suggest beginning with He Held Radical Light, the latest offering from Wiman, a poet, editor, and, most recently, divinity school professor.
Pressing into the Silence
He Held Radical Light is a book-length essay woven of spiritual memoir, literary criticism, and lyric poetry. It demonstrates with intelligence, honesty, and humor how vital poetry can be for any exploration of faith, an argument the subtitle (“The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art”) makes succinctly, as if it, too, were a kind of poem. This is not a book about art and faith, as if one or the other could be peeled away and considered singly. Instead, this book suggests that the field of imagination is one of the most significant places where the divine and the mortal can meet. If that is true, who among us would refuse to travel there merely because we have always found poetry “difficult” or life has become “too busy” for the poetry we once loved?
Wiman is worth listening to because he is himself an accomplished poet and, thanks in part to a decade at the helm of Poetry magazine, he is intimately acquainted with the lives and the works of so many of the best poets of the last century. With Wiman as our guide, we witness his highly personal, sometimes surprising encounters with poets—among them Heaney and Oliver—and what those encounters reveal about the relationship between the life (and faith) of the artist and the art itself. We are also shown how Wiman reads poems, thus becoming more perceptive readers ourselves without any heavy-handed lessons in “how to read a poem.”
But Wiman is also worth listening to because he is a dying poet and a dying man. He is dying in the sense that we are, each of us, dying, but his dying has more urgency and more pain: In 2005, on his 39th birthday, Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer. Since then, as he has recounted in his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss, he has undergone hospitalizations, chemotherapies, and even a bone marrow transplant. While neither of his unconventional memoirs offers much medical detail, they offer enough to understand that a poet who can feel his own cells wreaking havoc is a poet for whom the reality of death is more real than it is for most of us.
Why does this matter? It matters because, as Wiman writes, “Resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death.” I claimed this book could tune our ears to silence, but I might have said it could tune our ears to what Wiman calls the “final silence” of death. I’m sure you understand why I buried this analogy beneath five full paragraphs. Who among us is eager to confront the prospect of our own demise? The answer to this question goes far in explaining our collective addiction to the “pandemonium of blab.”
But for the faithful seeker willing to press into the silence, or for the one who has had silence pressed upon his or her self by diagnosis or despair, Wiman is a relatable artist-guide. The memoir elements of this book, peppered with honest self-deprecation and confession, insure that Wiman is no poet on a pedestal. He is too human for that, too mortal as well, and he has accepted the painful truth that even his poems are mortal. He recounts the “galactic chill” he felt in his soul when, at the age of 38, he heard his friend and our 14th poet laureate, Donald Hall, casually mention, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.” This book asks us to consider that not only will our bodies die but so will much (perhaps all?) of the work of our hands. If poets go on writing, if we go on working and creating, then it must be for some other reason than securing some portion of immortality.
An epigraph from Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez introduces the notion of the poet as spiritual guide on page one: “The world does not need to come from a god. For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to one (where is he?), and that is why the poet exists.” In our day, religion and science both seem fixated on origins. Wiman’s book implies that this fixation is a distraction from a much more pertinent and personal question: Where am I headed? Wiman claims, “One either lives toward God or not.” He gives that simple statement the power of poetic refrain by repeating it twice in one prose paragraph.
Poetry Is Not Enough
Some readers might find Wiman’s definition of faith too simplistic. Those for whom faith has more content might bristle when Wiman, referring to speculation about the poet Wallace Stevens and a deathbed conversion to Catholicism, writes, “I yawn just pondering it.” For Wiman, the “creative faith” of a poem like “The Planet on the Table” is “enough,” though he is careful to add that the poem is enough “because it enacts and acknowledges its own insufficiency.” For Wiman, the weakness or failure of poetry can become a “lens” with the potential to reveal an ultimate spiritual truth and a final spiritual reality that the poem can only ever suggest in glimmering moments that collude with eternity but never encompass, explain, or define it.
Though Wiman does not often invoke the names Jesus or Christ, and then only to push against the highly familiar ways most American Christians use those names, he is absolutely concerned with the content of faith. Too many of the poets he reads, admires, and shares with us in this book have a faith in the art itself that Wiman finds completely inadequate. “Art is not enough,” he writes, and again, “poetry is not enough” because “at some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts.” Poetry matters, not because it saves, but because it can help us perceive the ultimate reality of a saving grace that lies not above, beneath, or even beyond the experience of death, but somehow within it.
If we as Christian believers already feel ourselves well acquainted with this amazing grace, does the art of poetry have less to offer us? On this question, Wiman speaks persuasively not only as a dying man but as a living one. Since his diagnosis, he has married, become a father, found faith, written more poems, and grieved the deaths of poets, young and old, whom he admired and whom he called friend. He has known the “tangle of pain and praise.” He has experienced the dying that leads to life.
A poem by A. R. Ammons suggests that life is found in God but God is found in death, and Wiman hears in it echoes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”), and in Bonhoeffer he hears echoes of Jesus himself (“Whoever would save his life will lose it …”). You and I have read Christ’s words in our Bibles countless times, we have heard them spoken in our churches Sunday after Sunday, yet in their familiarity they risk becoming only one more sound in the general noise of our distracted lives. Heaney, as Wiman reminds us, once claimed that poetry “set[s] the darkness echoing.” The paradox of poetry becomes the paradox of Christianity: In death, we receive the Word of life. Having read He Held Radical Light, my ears are freshly tuned to hear and to respond to Christ’s liberating, devastating invitation.
Christie Purifoy lives with her husband and four children in a farmhouse in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She is the author of Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons (Revell) and the forthcoming Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace (Zondervan).