Monday, September 17, 2007

Christian Wiman

"I consider not being able to write as a manifestation of grace; I think grace sometimes can be anguishing."

I have not written a poem in over a year. I have not worked meaningfully on my memoir in over a year (though I am slowly beginning--I do graduate in 2008). The poetry--I've been tired, I've been disenchanted, I've been crying in the peaceful silence that is, almost always, an immense blessing down the road, but is agonizingly so. The agony of not producing / living what so deeply drives your soul and existence is something I can't describe fully at this point in my life, but reading of Wiman's experiences in his first collection of essays gives me immense hope, immense confidence, and helps me see that my long periods of depressed constipation are necessary, beautiful moments of my evolution as a writer.

Wiman's first collection of poetry was on my comp list a year ago. I marveled at his blank verse, a form that has come to define my own work and way of seeing the world via language. I've not picked up his second collection, but will. I just received his prose, Ambition and Survival: On Becoming a Poet, because right now prose carries more promise and joy for me, and because the title--perhaps--hinted at getting me back to being a dualistic writer. I write the best when I have both poetry and prose nipping feverishly at my feet. (I have a terrific idea for a new book of poems--which needs much research--but I cannot possibly begin work until the research and writing for the memoir is done).

Anywho, this is becoming a personal review on a book I've only read 1/4 of. I had no idea Wiman is suffering from a rare and mostly unknown type of cancer in his blood. An article in Poets and Writers led me to pick up my newly purchased book with fervor this afternoon.

A confession--I consider myself a Christian (why must I feel guilty for that? Because I work in the liberal bastion of higher ed? I am middle of the road thank you very much). I don't go to church, I will someday again I have no doubt, but God isn't so much in buildings as he/she is in everything else (see Wiman below). So it's interesting to me to find Wiman talking about how periods of absence in his own productivity were periods of gathering faith--in literature, self, world, and God--and how this led him to a more spiritual relation to his work, and the belief that such kinds of substance in postmodern writing is severely lacking and even hurts poetry's readership (And faith--avant garde poets have no faith in language or what faith causes it to come forth--"You can sense the staleness and futility of an art that seeks energy in gestures and language that are, in the artist's life, inert. It feels like a failure of imagination, a shortcut to a transcendence that he either doesn't really buy, or has not earned in his work."). I've alienated many people I enjoy talking to.

See if you can get your hands on this Wiman musing:

"Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine--not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature--and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the sorrow, the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art--its "sumptuous Destitution Without a Name," in Dickinson's phrase--can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding: Herbert, Robinson, Eliot...."

"I think most writers live at some strange adjacency to experience, that they feel life most intensely in their recreation of it." And oh how this is me at this point. If I write, I live fully. If I don't, I might as well be ashes.

And my eco ears perked up here: "I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God."

I've longed to be published in Poetry, the prestigious journal he edits. But now I think I'd like to be published in it for other, more substantial reasons.

I see connections here to the stuff I'm reading about Jews gardening in the Warsaw ghetto, POWs gardening in forced labor camps in Japan, and anticipate more of in a thick anthology This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. Namely, there's something up with connections between art, religion, and the earth that is new and vital, that might save us from something horrible if we stop to really feel the suffering and the peace together, instead of separate. I think in gardening and writing--here goes my thesis--there is a moment of peace in the midst of suffering; suffering that is large and real, or small and imagined. In the act of experiencing life, and for a writer that might mean writing vs. "living" it (just as for a painter it's painting), we suffer peace. Poetry is 50% absence. All great art is this. I think our lives are this, too. While writing--as with gardening--I feel an occupying absence (I think this is God, or you can go with muse if you'd like). I used to fear it and tried to ignore it, I used to want to fill it to banish it, I used to think something was wrong with me for knowing and identifying it. Now I think I'm beginning to understand that the ground rules for living a passion aren't so much the stuff of real substance as they are momentary tributaries into being more fully human. And other. The substance of absence?


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for writing--it is that tension isn't it? That balance which possesses everything of this earth that we know, the intense beauty and intense suffering, everything fades, everything dies, every geranium and marigold, or what else, ends as a dead dirt, frozen in winter. Its so... I don't know how to say it... broken but wonderful in the same moment.

I met a monk in Chicago once who told me that the crucifixion of Christ was also called the serenity of Christ. I believe that Jesus was/is God (if you'll call that which is beyond all of our definition and yet allows us to know its Other-ness by the name of God) and in some mysterious way His grace makes me one with the Spirit I meet here... so I guess that makes me a Christian too.

Sometimes I think that God was free before he made us, and then giving up his freedom in loving us, he made us free so that we could give up our freedom to love of him. That's what I take to be absence I feel in this life, the absence of him to make us free.

I'd love to read whenever you write again--

Benjamin Vogt said...

Thanks for reading and responding. I am very consumed by the idea of absence, and its power to be filling and fulfilling. I like the way you describe it toward the end of your note. I BRIEFLY considered joining some monastic order during my graduate studies, and am still drawn to it in some aspects (I enjoy Kathleen Norris's book Dakota on the theme of moastic life, absence, and living in the midwest). BV