The Chronicle Review

The Spiritual Autobiography of Christian Wiman

March 18, 2013

It's often difficult to hear poetry, to appreciate the "still, small voice" that spoke to the prophet Elijah, a voice that grows larger in memory or subsequent readings. In a confessional line toward the end of The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot reflected on the blizzard of quotations that make up his poem: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." These are the fragments that, assembled over a lifetime of reading, provide something to rely on in hard times. These are the memorable passages that, in his poetry and his criticism, Eliot drew the reader's eye and ear to with an affectionate insistence.

It strikes me that criticism—systemic reflection on texts, even on life itself—has lost its urgency during the past 30 years or more, having complicated (and deadened) reading in ways nobody could have foreseen. It's not simply that teachers of literature don't often read for pleasure nowadays, or don't believe in the transforming powers of art, or no longer value any statement that hasn't bounced off many walls of irony and landed, like a squash ball, in some distant corner of the court. It's the loss of pressure that stands out, a sense that literature matters because it informs, quite literally, our consciousness as well as our actions.

One turns gratefully to instances of urgent critical writing when they do arise in Terry Eagleton, Daniel Mendelsohn, Martha Nussbaum, or James Wood. Such critics search out, and find, connections between writing and pressing life questions—aesthetic, political, moral, and philosophical. Nussbaum, a philosopher and a classicist by training, put her finger on the problem years ago: "For the Greeks of the fifth and early fourth centuries BC, there were not two separate sets of questions in the area of human choice and action, aesthetic questions and moral-philosophical questions, to be studied and written about by mutually detached colleagues in different departments," she wrote. "Instead, dramatic poetry and what we now call philosophical inquiry in ethics were both typically framed by, seen as ways of pursuing, a single and general question: namely, how human beings should live."

What stands out among earlier poet-critics such as Matthew Arnold, Eliot, and Adrienne Rich was the immediacy of their concerns as readers. Their poetry criticism felt deeply unified, emerging from primal concerns, a belief that language—especially the language of poetry­­—mattered because it addressed ultimate concerns.

For example, Rich's essay on Emily Dickinson, "Vesuvius at Home," represents an astonishing effort to get at the heart of the writer's project. I've never read Dickinson the same way after encountering the essay, almost 40 years ago. With withering aptness, Rich notes that much scholarly ink has been spilled in trying to identify the male lover whom Dickinson may have renounced in poem "#315" ("He fumbles at your Soul"). Rich goes on to suggest that "the real question, given that the art of poetry is an art of transformation, is how this woman's mind and imagination may have used the masculine element in the world at large, or those elements personified as masculine—including the men she knew; how her relationship to this reveals itself in her images and language."

Poetry is the art of transformation, and we value critics who make us see freshly what transformations lie before us and help us to make the necessary connections between poetry and life without destroying the ineffability of the poem itself.

One looks around, half in desperation, for those critics today who direct us not beyond the text before us, but through it, to the life beyond its linguistic boundaries. These are the critics who understand the incarnational aspects of poetry, its way of refreshing the currency of feeling by how it makes life itself visible, palpable, creating what Roman Catholics refer to as "real presence," the embodiment of spirit in matter, as in the Eucharist­—the ultimate transformation.

A new book breaks this deadening mold, and it's noteworthy that it does so within the tradition of spiritual autobiography that reaches back to St. Augustine.

In My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, to be released in April by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Christian Wiman—himself a fine poet and translator of the Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam—contemplates the meaning of poetic incarnation in specifically Christian terms, drawing on a wide range of authors. He blends poetry (his own and others'), criticism, theological speculation, and memoir in ways that defy easy categorization, although this work might well be considered a distant offspring of Pascal's Pensées (1669), which offered a skeptical audience at the beginning of the Enlightenment a defense of the Christian religion in the form of "thoughts" that resembled journal entries.

"What is poetry's role when the world is burning?" asks Wiman, in a meditation that began with a 2007 article in The American Scholar. He refers here to encroaching environmental disasters and a world perpetually at war. But in passage after passage—the book is loosely organized, a sequence of entries—he also refers to his own body.

At age 39, recently married, he had fallen desperately ill with an incurable form of cancer. Without sentimentality, he relates his terror and anguish, the real and almost unimaginable pain he suffered as he slogged through various treatments, which at once raised and dashed hopes:

I have had a bone-marrow transplant. I have been home from the hospital for five days. Among other "side effects," it skinned me on the inside, leaving me so bloody and abraded from mouth to bowels that I couldn't even eat an aspirin. Even worse than that, though, was the way the Armageddon dose of chemo destroyed my mind so that I was unable to read even an ordinary magazine article, unable to follow a simple drama on television. I was in the hospital for several weeks, and the hours acquired a palpable thickness to them, like a pill impossible to swallow, some "cure"—by now the word is both radiant with, and devoid of, meaning, like "faith," like "God"—you fight down at every instant because there is no other choice, you are out of options.

Contrary to expectations raised by his topic, the author makes no effort to say that he is somehow more in touch with God, with the meaning of human anguish, simply because of what he has endured. Yet he realizes that severe illness put his spirit in a kind of hothouse, forcing spiritual growth. Only in times of crisis does spiritual growth become possible.

"There must be a shattering experience," Wiman says. "Words are tied ineluctably to the world. Language has its bloodlines, through history and through our own beating hearts." He shrewdly quotes the poet and playwright Derek Walcott: "To change your language you must change your life."

Born in West Texas and raised a Baptist, Wiman drifted away from his childhood faith during college and afterward, living "not with God, nor with his absence, but in a mild abeyance of belief, drifting through the days on a tide of tiny vanities." After a period of deep reflection, he explains to us in candid terms: "I assented to the faith that was latent within me." This was not the road to Damascus, where St. Paul encountered a blast of white light that blinded him. Instead, the tiniest seed of belief "finally flowered" in him, and he began to search for God in a variety of ways: by going to church, by reading theological works and poetry, by prayer and meditation. His faith strengthened, in due course, and this book details that growth in luminous ways that seem bound to make My Bright Abyss a kind of spiritual classic.

Wiman anticipates the usual objection to conversion stories, that these transformations "often happen after or during intense, especially traumatic experiences." He quite rightly asks: "How could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption." It takes even more trauma to "startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins."

Here, as throughout My Bright Abyss, Wiman avoids formulaic responses. His prose is poetry in the truest sense: language adequate to one person's experience. Although Wiman is himself only vaguely comfortable with the traditional idioms of Christianity, he chooses to dwell in many of its terms and formulations. "I'm a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier)," he writes. "I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"

It's fascinating that at that pivotal moment, Jesus quotes from the Book of Psalms (which I often describe as an early version of the Norton Anthology of Hebrew Lyrics). If Jesus in crisis quotes lyric poetry, why not the rest of us?

Wiman's book is a moving argument for the use of poetry as a spiritual guide. Hardly a page goes by without a few shimmering lines from his favorite poets: Eliot, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Mandelstam. He also dwells on favorite passages of prose, highlighting writers such as Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, and Marilynne Robinson. I was repeatedly stunned by his quotations from unexpected sources, too, like the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, a Hindu scripture known as the Kena Upanishad, the Irish poet and writer Patrick Kavanagh, and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

What I love in Wiman is the way he reads poems as urgent messages in a bottle, weaving their texts into his evolving consciousness, his sad personal story, linking his language with theirs, showing us clearly and definitively what Dr. Johnson, the great English critic, meant when he said: "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."

Yet Wiman does much more. He shows us what happens to a man when his relation to the divine is reawakened, his mind becoming alert in ways previously unimaginable. That alertness carries over into his readings of poetry, which occur in a pressured context, as the language of the poems becomes part of his evolving mental landscape, part of his recovery, his spiritual (as well as physical) survival.

Not surprisingly, a fair portion of the most useful criticism has come in the form of spiritual autobiography, in which writers rely on scripture, or lectio divina­­—the practice of close, even reverential, reading—to concentrate the mind and kindle the affections. In recent times, examples of this genre abound, as in Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010), where the novelist's thoughts range widely over sacred and secular writing, or Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories (1999), which includes intense and memorable readings of Whitman, Plath, and Anne Frank. In such writing, the authors' faith bolsters their reading, allowing for a kind of focus rarely seen in more conventional criticism, where "objectivity" becomes a relevant concern.

In My Bright Abyss, Wiman offers a demonstration of what faith means to a critic: not a new way of life but, more mysteriously, the old life freshly understood, filtered through a range of texts. He reminds us that revelation comes not in a whirlwind or fire, but in that "still, small voice" that came to Elijah in the desert.

"The voice is always there, for everyone," writes Wiman. "For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it." It is this urgency that separates the wheat from the chaff among critics.

Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His biography Jesus: The Human Face of God will be published by New Harvest in December.