In May 2003, Christian Wiman was named the new editor of Poetry, the Chicago-based magazine that Harriet Monroe founded and made justly famous.  This appointment came a year after Ruth Lilly made a massive gift to the magazine that brought its endowment to nearly $200 million and attracted enormous media attention.  Wiman, born in 1966, was considered by many a surprising choice, being somewhat young and unseasoned; he had in print at the time only one collection of verse, The Long Home (1998; reprinted in 2007).  (A second, Hard Night, appeared in 2005.)  Among other merits of the book under review is that it demonstrates his abilities as a judge and critic of poetry—thus vindicating the appointment.  That Wiman is, at his best, also a very good stylist is equally clear.

This volume is conceptually flawed, however; as a collection of disparate magazine pieces, published in Poetry, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Sewanee Review, the American Scholar, and elsewhere, it is somewhat uneven—and, worse, bicephalic, one head being autobiographical, the other critical.  These two elements are not without vital connection, of course; the author acknowledges and tries to link them.  The title (echoed in the text from time to time) suggests the connection, since the phrase “ambition and survival,” which can be applied to the career of most persevering poets, implies aesthetic values and standards (whether or not they are met); those illustrated in the critical prose published here are, in other words, an outgrowth and aspect of the poet’s literary aspirations.  Wiman’s has been a life in literature, including its critical dimensions, though literature is not his whole life—he denounces literary idolatry.  The essay “Milton in Guatemala” explicitly ties together his life and his reading.  Still, the two genres, autobiographical writing and literary criticism, are not necessarily tangent, and the presence of both makes this volume something of a miscellany, especially since the critical pieces are often very short notes that do not attain the searching reflection illustrated in Wiman’s best autobiographical writing.

It is fitting to make clear what a good book this is in all other respects.  Whether the author writes explicitly about himself or speaks as a critic, taking on major figures such as Thomas Hardy and Hart Crane as well as lesser ones, Wiman’s style—sensitive, versatile, and, most of all, authentically his—is everywhere at the service of his acute intelligence.  Adam Kirsch, writing in the New York Sun, called Wiman “one of the best critics at work today.”

Not surprisingly, the explicitly personal chapters are the more engaging, although some, especially “Filthy Lucre,” are somewhat fragmented.  The autobiographical pieces that precede the final one deal principally with a few topics (out of chronological order): rootlessness; the stay in Guatemala; the mores of the remote West Texas town where the Wimans lived; his unusual and dysfunctional family, especially his father, who became a psychiatrist and dealt with the criminally insane at the state hospital; the poet’s journey to Africa with his father and their encounters with some odd, anxiety-ridden Southern Baptist missionaries; and his personal reflections on religion (obliquely connected to poetry).  Interspersed elsewhere are additional elements of a self-portrait.  As one who, like Wiman, grew up in a small Texas town (mine was west of the Pecos), I appreciated his evocations in “The Limit” of his boyhood home and understood his desire to go to a distant university (Washington and Lee, in his case).  The Guatemala essay is another engaging piece.  While the considerations on Milton may not appeal to all readers because Milton does not, one is easily drawn by the portraits and the description of Wiman’s bizarre living conditions.  His residence was a rooftop shack of tin and cardboard, so miserable it would make the garrets of la vie de Bohème in France seem luxurious.  This mode of living suited, I suppose, the assumption he had made—as a young, talented man aspiring to a life of poetry with what he calls a “hypertrophied will”—that one must seek out new experiences and live precariously, if not in utter poverty.  He acknowledges that in fact what he succeeded in doing then was to miss both life and poetry.

The final essay, quite brief, dated 2006, recounts three momentous points in his life, all belonging to a short period after he had ceased writing early in the new millennium.  In Chicago, he fell in love with a woman and married her; he regained his belief in God, rather gradually, not by a lightning bolt; and a malady that had bothered him for years was diagnosed as an incurable cancer of the blood (Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, according to one source).  The writing in this short piece is discerning, wise, and sometimes beautiful, as, with what he calls his “sacred attentiveness,” he evokes his Chicago surroundings after he and his wife leave a church service:

. . . an iron sky and the lake so calm it seemed thickened; the El blasting past with its rain of sparks and brief, lost faces; the broad leaves and white blooms of a catalpa on our street, Grace Street, and under the tree a seethe of something that was just barely still a bird, quick with life beyond its own.

This was after learning the diagnosis; but the return to belief and church had been prepared well before, by reflection, reading, and a tacit attraction, shared with his wife.  The reading included Simone Weil, from whom Wiman quotes frequently, whose emphasis on communication through, and because of, separation from the divine appealed to him.  He concludes with a statement of hope, Saint Paul’s “hope toward God.”

The critical chapters illustrate Wiman’s wide reading, some in connection with his role at Poetry.  He is concerned, rightly, with the general state of poetry in America, and he can be blunt about it (as well as witty), speaking disparagingly of the “la-la land of workshops and blurbs” and “institutionalized efforts at actually encouraging the overconsumption of poetry,” which “always seem a bit freakish, ill-conceived.”  Such organized undertakings cannot replace the community that made a highly literary poetry possible, almost popular, as late as the first decades of the 20th century.  Already, that literary culture was waning and by now is, as nearly all observers agree, almost unimaginable.

The critical material includes numerous reprinted reviews (some called “Fugitive Pieces”) and chapters dealing with general issues, such as free verse versus formal (“An Idea of Order”), poetry in a visual culture, and the prose of those known chiefly as poets and the connections between the two modes, about which Wiman asserts (perhaps with his own writing in mind),

It’s fair to expect that some of the aesthetic elements that lead to distinction in poetry—metaphorical intelligence, a sense of linguistic rhythm . . . —will make themselves felt in the prose.

Wiman ranges easily over many aspects of 20th-century literature in English and offers countless perspicacious observations and sound judgments.  Major authors whom he obviously favors, among them T.S. Eliot, are cited repeatedly, so that the reader comes to see their work as touchstones.  Wiman does not hide his admiration (in certain cases qualified) likewise for Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, the early Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney, and, in fiction, Cormac McCarthy, though he considers Blood Meridian to illustrate an art of “exhausted moral resources.”  From these assessments and others, much can be concluded about Wiman’s aesthetics.  There is no attempt, however, at surveying modern poetry as a whole nor at defending methodically a set of criteria by which to assess it; in any case, Wiman is not a proscriptive critic.

Of course no reader is likely to agree with every evaluation here.  Open for discussion is Wiman’s tendency to judge a poet by the number of “great poems” he has produced.  Thinking in terms of “great works” can lead to undervaluing writing that imparts more in the aggregate than individually, or that is essentially an art of the small.  (Emily Dickinson’s is an example of both, though  Wiman does not underrate her.)

Wiman knows well enough how blind we can be to poetic achievement, how decades may be required for due recognition of work (for that work to create its audience).  He recalls how in 1915, acting on Ezra Pound’s advice, Harriet Monroe took a chance on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and thereby made literary history; whereas the reaction then was generally negative, other poets represented in that issue and presumably admired at the time are now in oblivion.  

Much of what Wiman likes in poetry is not the breezy, folksy (if accessible) stuff of many current writers but, rather, artful work on an elevated linguistic level, even somewhat formal (though he does not idolize the New Formalists).  It is at least in part on this splendid tradition of high language that the future of poetry in America depends.  You can’t have the poetry without the language.


[Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, by Christian Wiman (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press) 249 pp., $18.00]