Christian Wiman

Interviewed by Forester McClatchey

Last year you published an anthology called Joy, which gathers poems that seem to “undergo” that emotion. You wrote in the introduction that different people had very different reactions to the project. Some approved, some found it academically interesting, some were affronted. Since the book came out and people read the poems, how have those responses changed?

For a lot of people (myself included, actually) the word joy is sentimental from the get-go. One thinks of toothpaste commercials. I had to find some way of working against that while preserving the very real and necessary meaning of the word in our daily lives. People seem to have been appreciative so far, but then I don’t hear from the haters. Perhaps I will do a companion book called Woe.

Also in Joy’s introduction, you mention Paul Tillich’s assertion that certain terms “need healing before they can be used for the healing of men.” What, in your opinion, are some other terms in poetry that a) need healing and b) are worth healing? When is it worth the risk?

It would be wonderful if we could ban “the body” from poems for a while. Not the body with which we feel, fuck, fight, etc., of course, but “the body” that is the theorized concept that has infected contemporary poetry.

But I guess that’s a little different from what you are asking. The word God seems awfully tired or reflexive in a lot of what I read (including, sometimes, in my own poems!). We probably all need to pause for a long time before we use that word. Paul Celan and Yehuda Amichai are exemplary cases here. I very much admire the ways that both poets found to reawaken the Name.

Conversely, what terms and ideas are now staler than poets realize?

See “the body” above.

In your view, are there any poetic forms or subjects that seem unduly neglected at the moment?

I love poetry that manages to combine high lyric intensity with encompassing statements about human existence. Anne Carson, Seamus Heaney, Richard Wilbur, Gwendolyn Brooks. But it’s hard to say that the fusion of music and mind that these poets exemplify is being neglected, since you can’t really conjure or teach this kind of genius.

What about neglected poets?

All the dead are neglected. When is the last time you heard a young poet mentioning George Herbert or Charlotte Mew? (Just to name two poets I have brought up recently to young poets as examples from whom they might learn.)  I don’t read much contemporary poetry anymore because I feel so obligated to the dead and the kind of consciousness that they have sustained and made possible.

In a 2014 interview with Commonweal Magazine, you said, “There are dangers for an artist in any academic environment. Academia rewards people who know their own minds and have developed an ironclad confidence in speaking them. That kind of assurance is death to an artist.” I’m curious to hear more about this—do you think an artist needs to be uncertain and ambivalent in order to generate something good and lasting? When do political, moral, and aesthetic convictions damage one’s art?

I don’t actually recall saying that. In a way, the statement illustrates the very problem it pretends to indict.   suspect something must have set me off that day.

But yes, I do think art feeds on uncertainty, and we are never more in danger than when we know our own minds. This is the great difficulty of making moving political art—or religious art, for that matter. Too often it ends up being merely an illustration of pre-existing opinions.

Blah, blah—everyone knows all this.

Speaking of which (blah blah, that is): for me, the great danger of academia is not necessarily knowing my own mind too well, but simply talking too much. Kazim Ali once said that if you talk too much about something you stop knowing anything about it. (And he was referring specifically to God!) The statement startled me when I first read it and continues to be a bracing reproach, though it’s tough to conduct classes in silence.

Is it necessary for poets to have a metaphysical framework from which to work? Put another way, can a poet afford to be indifferent toward philosophy, theology, etc.?

Those don’t seem to me the same question. It is certainly possible to write good poetry without having a metaphysical framework. In fact, it’s difficult (but not, as some people now automatically say, impossible) to write good poetry with a solid metaphysical framework, at least so long as the poem can’t float free of that framework during composition. But can a poet afford to be indifferent to philosophy and theology?  In their contemporary academic manifestations, perhaps, which can be desiccated and specialized, but not insofar as the questions that philosophy and theology raise are part of any complete existence.

I remember when you visited UF in 2016, you said that your poems often begin with you hearing a kind of music. Where is that music located? In the words or outside them?

Both. Sometimes a poem will begin with a particular alignment of actual words, and sometimes (the best times) it will be a kind of hum under or in or above the words I find—often with great difficulty—to hold that hum.  I’m hardly the first person to experience this. Frost, Hopkins, Bunting, and Eliot have all written about the dynamic. And many poets (most poets, I would guess by what I read) work entirely differently.

What have you been reading lately?

Lots of stuff for a course called Modern Faith I’m teaching: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fanny Howe, Osip Mandelstam, Sara Grant, Gillian Rose, Tomas Halik, etc. I’m lecturing on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping this week and am convinced it’s our American Lear, though the voice is Cordelia’s.

I also recently read Anthony Domestico’s wonderful and revelatory critical book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, which has much to say about whether poetry and theology can nourish each other (for many of the modern poets, Domestico argues quite convincingly, they certainly did).

And recent poetry? I loved Peter Cole’s Hymns and Qualms, a fusion of modern and medieval sensibilities, with a huge heart.