You may have seen the evangelist Franklin Graham on MSNBC a few days ago saying he’s not sure if President Obama is a Christian or a Muslim. Or maybe you saw Republican Rick Santorum calling Obama’s agenda some phony theology, not a theology based on the "Bible." Here we go again.
When religion is used as a bludgeon. When political campaigns duke it out over religious beliefs, descending to strident partisan shouts of holier than thou, it’s hard to remember that true faith and reason still can be part of what it means to be human. Often, it is the words and ideas of our poets that remind us. One of them, William Carlos Williams wrote:
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
Today, a kindred spirit finds in poetry a way to face death with a graceful equanimity built on faith. A native of West Texas, Christian Wiman has published three critically acclaimed volumes of poetry including this most recent, Every Riven Thing. And a collection of personal and critical essays," Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet." He’s the editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English speaking world. This year, Poetry magazine marks its 100th anniversary.
Of late, Wiman’s poetry has been informed by several transformative experiences, including the diagnosis of a rare and incurable blood cancer, six years ago on his 39th birthday.
Christian Wiman, welcome.
Thanks so much for having me, Bill.
One critic, who praises your new book of poetry, Every Riven Thing, says we are a God-hungry nation. "Politicians," he says, "know it. And it just might be time for poets to know it." But don't poets know it? I mean, some of our most powerful inner emotions rise from poetry?
Oh, yeah, and I think, I think poets do know it. I think poetry has always done that. I think it’s a grave mistake for poets to give up on belief altogether, to give up on faith altogether. I don't know many who do.
Why have you been writing so much about religion?
It's interesting. You know, I went for a long time without being able to write, and I’d devoted my life to poetry and I felt that was my call. And it went away for a long time, for a number of years, I was sort of in the desert and in despair. And I had three things that happened to me in quick succession. And one was that I fell in love with the woman who's now my wife and that sort of caused the world that – it had seemed to go dead for me -- it caused it all to come alive. And shortly after that I started writing again. And about the same time that that happened, I got a terrible diagnosis of an incurable cancer, which I've been living for a number of years, but has been at times really rough. My wife and I when we fell in love, we found ourselves saying prayers occasionally. And both of us were from religious backgrounds, but had fallen away, me much further than she. Once the diagnosis hit we needed some more formal way of living that faith. And of feeling it. And we found ourselves going to a church around the corner. It just happened to be at the end of our block.
In Chicago, small church, nondescript, and they happened to have this wonderful preacher. And he and I became friends. We would just talk. You know, he's much more orthodox than I am. He’s a person of much clearer faith than I am. I feel like I'm very confused and in my faith. But we just talked. And we argued and I would say those discussion lightened things for me so utterly. And made me feel close to God in a way that nothing else has.
After your diagnosis, you went back to West Texas where you'd grown up, right? Is West Texas still the country of your heart?
Absolutely. It's the place that I return to in my imagination. And I find that nothing will take fire, except that landscape. Well, in places, it's just completely flat, so that you see all the way to the horizon. It's like the sky becomes this huge eye that's over you, just 'cause it takes on a curve from horizon to horizon. In other places, it's ranch land, and so it's cattle country. And so there are scrubs, scrub cedar and mesquite trees. And so it's incredibly rugged. The wind blows. We used to have these tremendous sand storms, where everything would just go dark.
Well, the people you grew up within West Texas are in these poems in a very powerful way. You have described life for them "was a battering ram the Lord used to shatter men's hearts."
My mother's father killed my mother's mother, in front of her, when she was 14 years old, in front of her two brothers, as well. And then killed himself, when they all ran out of the room. And so I grew up with that as well, images of this extreme violence. I think an act like that has certainly, you know, ramified through the years, in her own life. And it continues to echo in other lives for a long time, when something like that happens in a family, it just, it has a long tail.
But interestingly, my closest relationship I hadn't thought of this 'til right now, but my closest relationship was with my grandmother. She represented a kind of consciousness to me that is not found in, has not gotten from books. It's not intellectual. She was simply in her world so utterly and knew her world so utterly, every flower, every kind of grass that was out there in the yard, every kind of insect, every bird, I mean, utterly, she knew it. And she seemed to me to have a kind of existence that was in some ways exemplary.
In fact, let me read a new poem. This was written, this was the last poem I wrote. And I wrote it in the hospital, before the chemo, I wrote it in one day. And then the chemo the next day obliterated me. And so I had this one window when this poem was given to me. And I wrote this. And this returns to Texas an image from my childhood. It doesn't have a title. It's untitled.
and grief is all
and the long fall
back to earliest
but in one’s brain.
"From the hard-
a dark ardor
"of angry bees
"the trees and block
his way home.
"I like to hold him
"under what survives
"I learned too late
how to live.
"Child, teach me
how to die."
Who are you addressing there?
The child that I was. The child that I was. I think, well that first line says it all. "Love's last / urgency / is earth." I think there's a notion that when you're sick, when you're in danger of dying, that you want to get beyond. You know, you would think you want experience that takes you beyond the earth. You want some sense of an afterlife or, you know, something some sense of a beyond.
But my experience has been just the opposite that when you feel threatened, what, in fact, you want is the earth. You want, you want concreteness. And that's what, that's what rescues you. And I think we talk too much about how poetry can get to the edge of the sayable, can take us back and take us beyond what can be said. I love poetry, because it gives me the concrete. It gives me concrete experience and it helps me to understand my experience.
So you fell in love, the diagnosis, and what was the third thing?
I started writing again. I started writing again.
After the diagnosis, after falling in love?
Yes. And I started writing poems again. But somewhere along in there, it became clear to me, I think you know, you don't come to faith. It can't just be a sort of, it's not just an accoutrement to your life. It's not an appendage to your life. If you open yourself up to faith there's every possibility that it will change your life radically.
And one of the changes that it asked of me was that I change what I was writing. And so I wrote a whole prose book, which is coming out in a year. That book is wrestling with what it means to be a believer at this time, in this culture.
There was a marvelous essay in The New York Times by Eric Weiner, whose most recent book is Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine.
He says Americans are undecided about God. He says, "We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone … who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious … [T]his new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive ... [It would] celebrate doubt, encourage experimentation, and allow one to utter the word God without embarrassment." (Sic) And I must say, I thought he was describing you.
I do think he's really onto something in suggesting that we need a new language for belief. That people find the old language inadequate. And that in some way we need to find new language that articulates this urge that's in us. It's in all of us, too. And I think poets are actually at the forefront of this. That they are finding it. That they are finding ways of articulating what we all feel.
The critic, Clive James, an Australian living in London now. He was on one of my earlier broadcasts. And we talked about the subject you and I are discussing, God. Let me play for you something he said.
What kind of God would you have reinvent Western civilization?
Well, I wouldn't. Because God didn't invent it in the first place. And this doesn't make me an atheist. I don't want to be defined as an atheist anymore as I want to be defined as someone who drinks water.
To me, to me the fact there is no heavenly power that intervenes has been obvious since I was a kid. If there had been it would have brought my father home. If there had been a heavenly power that could intervene that power would have saved the children from the death camps. One and a half million children were being exterminated for no reason at all when I was their age. I never got over it. I still haven't got over it.
Of course, there's no heavenly force that intervenes. But on the other hand, there is a religious sense. I think that all the arts and everything to do with them are heavenly order. I experience them as a heavenly order.
Clive is projecting a human God. And so he's angry at the God for allowing these things to happen. But that is a projection. That is a humanized notion of what God is. And I think we have to get beyond that. I do think that Clive is, I mean, I'm sympathetic to what he says. I think he is objecting to the notion, the traditional notions of God, which I think we have to do. And he does recognize the sacred nature of art or the sacred nature of people's experience.
Why does that appeal to you?
One of the ways in which I feel close to God is writing poetry, even when it has nothing to do with God. There is something in the nature of artistic creation, I think Clive was putting his finger on it. Wherein you become, well, it's an ancient notion. You become a vessel for the Gods, they thought. And I think something speaks through us. I mean, you know, contemporary psychologists might say it's you know, you’re just neurological. It's you know, that's--
The God spot that--
God spot, which neurologists are calling this experience of the filter between our brain and the world just sort of disappearing. And you're at quote "one with the universe.”
Well, I think that's why creation is at once this tremendous elation and also a grief afterwards.
Yeah, I think you are filled and then you're not. And a poet is someone who has to exist between those moments. And between those moments, you don't feel like a poet, you know? You don't, it's been two months since I've written a poem and I don't feel at all like a poet. It goes away, you know? You're just a person going about your life like anyone else. And the gift seems not yours. It seems on loan. Whereas with prose, you can do that any time. You can crank that out.
Welcome to journalism. Yeah, well, you describe moments in life when and I'm quoting you directly here, "It is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if we ourselves, as if we ourselves were being perceived." What were some of those moments for you?
Certainly falling in love. I, it was as if the world just looked back at me. And it was a mysterious, mystical experience for some time. And there have been other instances. There have been instances of grief, of great grief. Around my diagnosis, because they happened so soon after we fell in love. We had not even been married a year, when I was diagnosed. And there were moments around then when that the suffering made possible that, when it seemed like the world was looking back at me. It was just lit, just radiant.
Simone Weil says that you can't have a supernatural experience of suffering until you've had a supernatural experience of joy. And I don't know if that's true, but it was true to my own experience. And during that time, when I fell in love with my wife, in that time afterward, it was as if reality was just over brimming its boundaries. And I needed to thank somebody. There was so much excess energy, so much excess, so much joy. I needed to I needed to praise it. And so I needed to pray.
Do the words omnipotent, eternal, omniscient say anything to you about God?
No, I don't think we can even know what those words mean. They're just, all we can think of is, if you think of power, you can only think of human power. And so something that's all powerful, it just means they have all the power that we can imagine. It's meaningless. Those are meaningless words.
This is called Lord of Having.
"Lord of having
hell at hand
Lord of losing
what I have
this heaven now
"may I move
like a cloud
my torn form
"may my suffering be
as of water
in some reach
it would take
"and may my hands
the very nub
of my tongue
out of this hour
if I should utter
the dirty word
The dirty word?
Yeah, I don't want to think about eternity. It's like the eternal and omniscient. It's one of those words that has no meaning. My imagination just goes dead when I think of the word eternity. And I think we have to think of now. We have to live in time and deal with time. And so I don't want to, I don't think of, I don't think of my life as, I don't think of eternity.
When you stopped writing, and this was before you fell in love, when you stopped writing, was it in any way connected to a crisis of faith?
I think in retrospect, it certainly was a crisis of faith. I think I mean, a crisis of faith is the only crisis there is. We're always having it. Everyone's always having it. We mistake it for other things. 'It's a crisis of my job. It's a crisis of my marriage. It's a crisis of this.'
I think it's always a crisis of how are we relating to our ultimate concern? If life is messing up, it's messing up, because we are somehow out of whack with our ultimate concerns. There may be things that we've got to take care of, there often are. But that’s, you can't fix your life, if the ground of your being is messed up. If the ground of your being is unsure, then your life will always be unsure.
It sounds to me as if this is what you mean, when you write, "Two or three times every expression of faith is provisional."
I think so, because I may speak constantly about faith, but I'll fall away the minute I walk out of here. You know, I think we are condemned to express things provisionally, to live in contingency. And I think that's just, that's just the way it is. That's why I'm so moved by Christ, the notion of Christ, the incarnation, because that is an intrusion of God into reality, into the contingent nature of our lives.
"All reality," you wrote, "is the expression of God." Including sorrow. That is very powerful in your experience, is it not?
It is, I do believe that there is something in Christianity that makes suffering sacred. It does give a meaning to suffering, even when we can't understand it. I don't claim to have been good about this. I've spent a lot of time in the hospital in the last year, and there have been times when I've been in complete despair. And have felt faith fall away.
Well, again, Simone Weil comes to mind. She says that you know, the greatness of Christianity is not that it gives you a remedy for suffering, and I must say I've never felt a remedy, a religious remedy from suffering or for suffering. It's not that it gives you a remedy for it, but it gives a use for it. It puts suffering in a place. It gives a pattern. The complete consort dancing together as Elliot put it, it makes suffering part of the meaning of your life. And not this meaningless thing that destroys us. We go through life and suddenly we're destroyed by suffering. You know, all life becomes is just a way to avoid suffering. And I think Christianity gives meaning to it.
Perhaps this is what poet, why poetry and religious sentiment are so powerful together. That poetry is the intensity of our experience here.
And we live for these moments of intensity, you know? When we think of our memories, it's moments of intensity. Whether they were sorrowful or happy, moments of great loneliness or moments of great communion. We live for these moments in our life. And I do think poetry that is a way of, it's a way of recognizing the moments, first of all, in your life. But also a way of preserving them.
So this intensity visited you when you fell in love. You felt it again, when you had a diagnosis. Tell me about that. What was the disease?
It's called Waldenström's macroglobulinemia. And there have been complications after that. So I have something, additional things now. But it's a very rare cancer. It is in the bone marrow, primarily. But also it's everywhere in your body. And it is completely unpredictable. Some people die quickly, some people live 30 years with it. And it doesn't even change. It doesn't even do anything in their bodies.
But you were told, if I understand it, that you could die very soon.
It looked like it at the beginning. And I've had two-- I've had a bone marrow transplant. So I have been on the verge of dying a couple of times. So it's been very difficult. I think less so being close to death than being in great pain. I think being in great pain, and I'm talking really serious pain, islands you from everybody. It takes you away from everybody.
You wrote this essay in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin for the Winter/Spring of 2012. And you describe this pain and this experience. Would you read that?
Sure. "Six years have passed since I wrote the first words of these notes. I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die; joints lock in my face and arms and legs so that I could not eat, could not walk; cancer pack[ed] my marrow to the point that it began to expand excruciatingly inside my bones. I … filled my body with mouse antibodies, small molecules, chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been islanded even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury."
What sustained you through all that?
Oh, I think my family sustained me through it. And I think that faith does sustain me. You know, my sense of faith is often not counter to the man in that article that you were talking about earlier, or counter to Alfred North Whitehead, actually, whom he quotes. He's saying that religion is what we do in our solitariness. I do not think that's true. I think we have those solitary experiences of the divine, but that's not religion.
Religion is everything after those moments of solitude. One thing that sustained me is not those solitary moments, which I found conducive to despair. What sustained me was the company of other people who believe. And I was able to talk to them and to take comfort from them. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that Christ is always stronger in our brother's heart than in our own. Now you don't have to be a Christian for that, to understand what that means. You've got to have other people. And you need other people to sustain yourself and to sustain your faith.
You wrote this poem that is particularly -- I think seems particularly pertinent right there in "Every Riven Thing."
I wrote this poem, after the diagnosis, after we had gone back to church.
"God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky
man who sees and sings and wonders why
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where
God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself;
under the tree, a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see.
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made."
I suspect that's one that Clive James hates.
He says this is a favorable time for poetry, when everything is against it. What do you think he means that it's, everything is against it, therefore it's a favorable time?
Well, I think what he must mean is that everything seems to be aligned against the kind of inner life that poetry requires, against the kind of consciousness that poetry requires. And the world seems to be going faster and faster, and our attention seems to be more and more fragmented on these various, in various ways. And threatening the inner life. And what I would say is that poetry is a bulwark against these things. That I think people will realize, in the midst of all this, that they need some way of putting up resistance to it. And reading a poem can be an act of resistance, because it can be an act of individual consciousness in this onslaught of information that's coming at us.
So what's the prognosis for you?
Well, I just had a bone marrow transplant, so I just have to wait and see. There's no, there's no way to know. You just wait and see now.
But you write, "I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening shadow of death."
I feel death around me all the time. And I, my wife doesn't like this poem I read, "Love's last / urgency / is earth," because I say, "teach me / how to die." At the time, it seemed like I was going to die. I felt it very present, but I don't think, I think of learning how to die is a long process. And I don't think of this as somehow a swan song. So you know, I expect to be around.
To which many of us would say, amen.
Oh, thanks, Bill, thanks.
Thanks for being with us.
Thanks so much for having me.