“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”

– Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Camp is not the obvious center in Christian Wiman’s new book of poems. But given his title’s invocation of affectation — Survival Is a Style — and given that camp is the supreme aesthetic (obviously), it will be my project to read into the poems as much too-much-ness as I can. If style is a way to survive, then you can thank me for the help.

Yes, I do mean eisegesis, imposing my own radical agenda on the poetry from outside. Here’s why: For one thing, what’s the fun of reading a review of poetry instead of the poetry itself, unless the review is completely unfaithful to the original?

For another, no one can just read a text free of their own contingency. Even the strictest exegesis, in highlighting certain points instead of others, follows the interpreter’s individual taste.

Most important, Wiman himself wants us to shove meaning into the poetry. He can’t supply it all:

For love read faith
into these lines that so obviously lack it.

This couplet arrives halfway through one of the loveliest pieces in the collection, “The Parable of Perfect Silence,” an elegy that turns on memories of the speaker’s (Wiman’s?) family but wanders widely. Whatever the shifting subject, “lack” is his lens. A few stanzas earlier, Wiman entwined lacking and liking as Texan homophones:

We were five souls crammed into one life,
and so incorrigibly poor — or was that fear? — we all slept in one room
and shared one great big chester drawers, as we called it,
and not with irony but in earnest ignorance,
just as like meant lack, as in
“How much do you like bein’ done with your chemo?”

Given how often “like” appears in poetry, the link haunts the rest of the book. Whether a likes b or a is like b, all the affections and analogies he describes now sound hollower than before — like wanting, both desire and deficiency. Toward the end of the “Parable,” Wiman returns to this link, to trace how entangled it is with faith:

         When I began writing these lines
it was not, to be sure, inspiration but desperation,
to be alive, to believe again in the love of God.
The love of God is not a thing one comprehends
but that by which — and only by which — one is comprehended.
It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being,
and like that time, we learn it by its lack.

*

Now that’s just beautiful poetry. Why impose extravagance and artifice on it? It seems not just irrelevant but destructive.

To be frank, I also wanted to talk about camp here because free verse makes me suspicious. Without meter or rhyme, it can’t be measured against any strict conventions but, like abstract painting, can only be experienced on its own, subtler terms. Practically, though, how do I know I’m not being had? I can’t gauge any writer’s “sincerity,” but sonnets, villanelles, even limericks prove that a poet spent a quantum of energy to follow a tradition, which means my spending a reciprocal length of time digesting it won’t be worthless. I admire the art of Wiman and other poets writing today, free of form; I just can’t help looking over my shoulder as I read them. If, on the other hand, I can approach it as camp, then, as they say, the lower the brow, the closer to God. So if it turned out to be merely bad poetry (unfortunately it didn’t), I could just say “it’s good because it’s awful” (Sontag).

But does camp trivialize Wiman’s pain? I am anxious not to make light of his ache but for him to help me deal with my own. I think he does so, oddly enough, through affectation and irony.

One is drawn to Camp,” Sontag tells us, “when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough.” Instead of narrow, self-serious focus on content, one can indulge in stylization (for survival!), which is one place Wiman goes with his sorrow and doubt. He tells us, “grief’s a craft like any other,” and if so, then one can certainly practice one’s pose. Later, he rolls his eyes, declaring,

People ask if I believe in God and the verb is tedious to me.
Not wrong, not offensive, not intrusive, not embarrassing.
Tedious.

(Visions of Wilde recumbent upon a velvet chaise immediately filled my head: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”)

It is certainly not superficial thinking but well-worn experience that produces such divided, incongruous feeling. It’s what you have to write when your life is full of the paradoxes of being alive while suffering a disease, of having faith while God seems gone. In his “Ten Distillations,” Wiman describes a series of spiritual sensations in couplets:

Inspiration
“The clearest morning is a think to bear,”
he writes, overjoyed, once more, by despair.

Apophatic
Why wouldn’t I praise the vacuous black?
The one abundance I could trust was lack.’

(Note the apparition of lack.) In the very next piece, a paragraph poem, Wiman recounts being called a heretic and how he wished he’d responded:

I should have said that “no human being possesses sureness of self: this can only mean being bounded and unbounded, selves and unsolved, ’sure’ only of this untiring exercise. Then, this sureness of self, which is ready to be unsure, makes the laughter at the mismatch between aim and achievement comic, not cynical …

The chuckling echoes from this accusation into the pain. Sometimes, he says, the sorrow is “so absurd it left nothing of us / but laughter.” This experience, of emotion so exquisite it backflips into its opposite, is probably universally human. It’s also characteristically camp, and it’s why gritty endurance and ironic artifice can go together. As the writer David Halperin put it,

To live one’s love life as melodrama, to do so knowingly and deliberately, is not of course to refuse to take it seriously … it is to do what is otherwise culturally impossible — impossible for normal folks, that is: to combine passion with irony.

… just as a camp perspective on family con­flicts provides for an attitude toward intense emotion that is alienated without being either skeptical or reductive, so the effect of living one’s love life knowingly as melodrama is to cultivate an outlook on love that is disabused, but not disenchanted.

Far from being fatal to love, a camp sensibility is the result and expression of love’s self-knowledge.

I recently read this passage to one of my closest friends, a woman who would have made an extraordinary dandy. Afterwards she sat in silence a moment, then she said, “I don’t have anything to say in response. It’s true. And it’s beautiful.”