Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.
Christian Wiman is a poet who doesn’t just write about the spiritual struggles; he embodies them on the page. “Today I woke and believed in nothing,” the speaker movingly says in his most recent book, Survival is a Style. Belief and disbelief in this book at times crowd into the same stanza, even the same line. The result is both heart-wrenching and beautiful: this impulse of negative theology is made apparent in the language itself. How? With a blaze of questions (“What did he learn when he learned of his own bad heart? / That scared and sacred are but a beat apart”) wherein we see the vivid desire for peace found in the daily: “I want to hum just a little with my own emptiness / at 4 a.m. To have little bells above my door. / To have a door.” Toward the end of this searing book, there is a kind of resolution: this isn’t a crisis of faith, we realize, crisis is faith. Faith is in the very texture of Wiman’s language, the very fusion of his marvelous music and imagery, and that texture is what makes his work memorable to any reader who finds it.
ILYA KAMINSKY: Reading your book, I had been coming back, again and again, to language that deals with faith and time. Today, in 2020, so much religious language (e.g., language of institutions) feels stale. So will there be a new language that can capture our time, that ruptures the impossible questions in speech that are vivid and transformative for us? Which is to say: what is the relationship between the lyric and faith in our time? And, then, there is time: “a time so dry that time itself is tinder,” the speaker of your poems says. It is how the days pass in the meanwhile, the sensation of time passing, of being “suspended on the wire” of time. So, what is the passage of time for a lyric poet? In our very “fast” time of news and crises, what is the relationship between today’s poet and the passage of time?
CHRISTIAN WIMAN: Any sentient person is torn between chronological and kairological time. We feel ourselves moving ineluctably toward our deaths, and feel moments in life when we are given, as Wordsworth said, intimations of immortality (no matter what we believe), or at least intimations of some supreme unity that includes us.
“People still persist in thinking that life is flat and runs from birth to death. But life, too, is probably round, and much greater in scope and possibilities than the hemisphere we now know.” Van Gogh wrote that in a letter. I find it a powerful intellectual consolation but a difficult thing to genuinely feel — except in these certain moments that I have mentioned. Poems can be such moments. People talk all the time about poetry purifying the language of the tribe or enlarging the scope of available reality. I tend to agree with both of these formulations, and it’s obvious to see their relevance to religious faith. Obvious — and yet, I never do quite see it. That is to say, I often feel that my own spirit has been awakened and enlarged by poetry — I couldn’t do without it, really — but I see little indication that developments in poetry have anything to do with corporate expressions of faith. I wish that wasn’t the case. Church is boring. It’s also — religion, I mean — enormous, both in this country and around the world, obviously a fundamental necessity to the lives of billions of people. I think both it and poetry could be greatly enlivened if they ever found a way to recognize each other.
A corollary. One function of poetry is to enlarge consciousness with new metaphors, new idioms, new strangenesses. Another is to recover words and expressions that have calcified into cliché or that have become so familiar with overuse that we don’t hear them anymore. Love, for instance. Or sin, redemption, even faith. This latter transformation can only happen if poets subject themselves to a world, they have ceased to understand — collective expressions of faith, for instance, however and wherever they occur.
Another corollary. There’s no way a contemporary poet is going to improve on the poetry of the Bible. The Book of Job does not need to be updated or freshened, or in any way recovered. It’s as obdurate and immediate and impossible to assimilate as King Lear. I love your expression, “crisis is faith.” That describes the Book of Job perfectly.
I find this helpful: “The feeling remains,” said Teresa of Avila, “that God is on the journey too.”
If you ask me (as you do) what poetry can do to reawaken the language of faith, I am skeptical. But if you ask me (as you have) what poetry can do to counter the sense of being destroyed by time, I am quite sure that it can be salvific — both in the moments of its happening and in what those moments teach about the unity of life and time. More and more, I think of faith as simply a being at ease with time. But you’ll notice I began this answer with the verb torn.
And language? Certainly, I have never written a poem that began with an idea — not a single one. Very occasionally, there is an image or metaphor that takes some deep hold on me, but most often there’s a sound in my head that hasn’t even found its way to words yet. A rhythm, an ache, a not-quite-cry and not-quite-song, something in the air and in me that wants (needs) the distinction (between the air and me) erased. I have no ambition whatsoever other than keeping this possibility alive and remaining alert to it when it comes.