The Language of Love: On Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival

Update: On May 15th in Charlottesville, VA, Mockingbird is honored to be co-hosting an evening […]

Mockingbird / 3.1.13

Update: On May 15th in Charlottesville, VA, Mockingbird is honored to be co-hosting an evening with poet and author Christian Wiman. Details can be found on the Christ Church website. Our good friend and Fall conference speaker (and literary editor of The Dish!) Matthew Sitman has been kind enough to offer some thoughts on what makes Wiman such a rare and wonderful beast:


WimanNietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” Faith in language and faith God, then, seem to go together for the German philosopher, as if the capacity to meaningfully articulate our experience of reality was itself the first step toward belief in the divine. Or rather, more precisely, so long as we hold that we can say anything meaningful about God, the possibility of religious faith remains. When language becomes more than the verbal corollary to the power struggles Nietzsche claimed to uncover, when words are more than conventional utterances we attach to subjective desires, skepticism might give way to hope – the sound and the fury might signify something.

Christian Wiman’s sterling, graceful collection of essays, Ambition and Survival: On Becoming a Poet, validates Nietzsche’s frustrations in profound and persuasive ways – it is, in a way, a case study in the decisive connection between grammar and God. The book is not a straightforward apology for Christianity. It is not a conventional story of conversion. It contains very little of what we think of as theology. Instead, fittingly for a poet, it is a book about language – what we can do with our words. And because of this, Wiman addresses, often indirectly, the contours of what it can mean to believe at this moment in time as powerfully as any book I have read.

One reason Wiman’s essays are not a typical conversion account is that, in the deepest sense, his metaphysics never had to undergo radical alteration. At the end of the book, the impression you get is that his Christian faith was slowly uncovered, that Christianity made sense of the experiences he had and gave added force to his most basic assumptions, not that some set of facts or series of arguments convinced him that Christianity was true. His approach is more hermeneutical than propositional, more about how the Christian narrative illuminates the contours of his own story than how his mind reached certain conclusions about theological principles. This is why the first term in his title, ambition, is so critical – his ambition was to be a poet. Which is to say, he believed in poetry, believed that words could be meaningfully used to convey something about his own, interior experiences as well as about the world in which they occurred.

A number of the first essays in Wiman’s collection are autobiographical, filled with searing honesty about his violent, dysfunctional childhood in Texas. You read about his strained relationship with his father, the specter of poverty that haunted his family, and the time, as a teenager, a friend’s father was shot in the face by his own son while hunting. And so, not long after encountering such tales, in the essay “Finishes,” you can feel the deeply personal element to his comment that “most young poets write less to organize life than to keep its chaos at bay.” His difficult youth, and vagabond young adult years, surely provided a measure of chaos he sought to endure, if not control and defeat. Articulating pain, giving it shape and form through poetry, serves a therapeutic function. There is, from the start, a grace to poetry that Wiman believes can come with the ambition to write it.

wimanphotoThis might be why, in the critical essays on poets and poetry that comprise much of the collection’s middle pages, he consistently defends poetry that partakes of forms, that does more than merely mimic the felt chaos of the late modern world. Wiman’s defense of traditional poetic forms is not reactionary; he never slips into a stringent conservatism that does not allow for experimentation. What Wiman does defend is a “formal coherence” and “sense of closure” in a poem that still is conscious of “the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes.” The poet has the capacity to wrestle our anxiety and uncertainty into a certain order, and the best poetry does that without obliterating – indeed, still intimating – those very feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.

It is in the midst of this essay defending poetic form – “An Idea of Order” – that Wiman divulges the image that, perhaps, is the most important in the entire book. He takes it from Simone Weil, and this is how he describes it:

[Poets] are enclosed in a kind of cell, but from beyond the wall on which they practice their half-learned language of taps and scratches there sometimes comes something like an answer, something that, in their better moments, they can almost believe is an “original response.” The wall is poetry. Life is on the other side. The wall is what separates the poet from life, but it is also the means by which life is apprehended and understood.

Weil, of course, used this imagery to describe our ideas – our language – about God. As she put it, “Every separation is a link.”

You can begin to understand how, for Wiman, poetry was a preparation for renewed faith in God, as well as shaping the contours of that faith. And it is in his aphoristic ruminations found in “Notes on Poetry an Religion” that these connections between grammar and God are most clear. He starts the essay with a declaration on how art and Christianity are alike: at their greatest, both “can give you access to the deepest suffering you can imagine…and at the same time a peace that is equal to that suffering.” The peace that art, that poetry brings “is passing and always inadequate” – and yet it might “point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding.” In a way, Christianity completes, however falteringly, the work that poetry began in Wiman.

Available April 2nd!

Available April 2nd!

The terms that Wiman uses to describe poetry find further use when he describes religious faith. Just as the poet has a certain hope that the language he uses to describe his experiences can meaningfully, if imperfectly, convey those experiences to others, so the language and symbols of a religious tradition can meaningfully, if imperfectly, convey God’s intentions toward us. Religious faith takes the transcendence that poetry always struggles to grasp and gives it form. In other words, what Wiman seems to be saying is that just as poetry can capture something of both the suffering and peace we experience and give them meaningful articulation, so religious faith can take the sorrow and love, and longing for fullness, that we find in life and give them shape as well. As he writes of both religious language and poetry: “At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”

The reason why Wiman can credibly discuss Christianity with those of us who inhabit this skeptical age stems precisely from his posture towards religious language. He allows for anxiety, suffering, and doubt, because the imperfection of our words necessarily renders our grasp of God inadequate. When every link is a separation, when we understand our communicating with God to be scratches on a wall, the complexity of life does not have to be evaded; we do not cease to wonder and wander, but merely are assured our wondering and wandering are not futile. To lose all faith in language is to fall into nihilism; to believe human words fully capture God’s essence is to slip toward fundamentalism, where there is no gap between the “literal” words of a sacred text and all that there is to know about God.

Wiman’s final essay in Ambition and Survival is “Love Bade Me Welcome,” a short meditation that describes his return to poetry after years of not writing, his falling in love, and his being diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer. Here the abstract questions about language and experience become painfully concrete: what is deepest about our life in this world? Do chaos and suffering reach further than love and hope? Wiman faces in acute form the dilemmas each of us confront in more subtle ways everyday. Do our experiences point beyond themselves? Do the glimpses of fullness we have here and now connect to something deep in the fabric of the universe? His answer in the affirmative provides one of the most remarkable testaments to hope I have encountered.

Ambition and Survival. Wiman’s ambitions have been made clear, the ambitions of what poetry can do and can mean. As for survival? Neither his words nor his body, nor ours, can survive this mortal life. Yet as he hopes, their use is not futile. As another poet once wrote, what will survive of us is love.

Poet Christian Wiman on Love, Faith, and Cancer from on Vimeo.

If you’re coming in from out of town for the event (which is free), we may be able to find you a place to sleep that night–email us at ASAP.