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He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art

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A moving meditation on memory, oblivion, and eternity by one of our most celebrated poets What is it we want when we can't stop wanting? And how do we make that hunger productive and vital rather than corrosive and destructive? These are the questions that animate Christian Wiman as he explores the relationships between art and faith, death and fame, heaven and oblivion. Ab A moving meditation on memory, oblivion, and eternity by one of our most celebrated poets What is it we want when we can't stop wanting? And how do we make that hunger productive and vital rather than corrosive and destructive? These are the questions that animate Christian Wiman as he explores the relationships between art and faith, death and fame, heaven and oblivion. Above all, He Held Radical Light is a love letter to poetry, filled with moving, surprising, and sometimes funny encounters with the poets Wiman has known. Seamus Heaney opens a suddenly intimate conversation about faith; Mary Oliver puts half of a dead pigeon in her pocket; A. R. Ammons stands up in front of an audience and refuses to read. He Held Radical Light is as urgent and intense as it is lively and entertaining--a sharp sequel to Wiman's earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss.


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A moving meditation on memory, oblivion, and eternity by one of our most celebrated poets What is it we want when we can't stop wanting? And how do we make that hunger productive and vital rather than corrosive and destructive? These are the questions that animate Christian Wiman as he explores the relationships between art and faith, death and fame, heaven and oblivion. Ab A moving meditation on memory, oblivion, and eternity by one of our most celebrated poets What is it we want when we can't stop wanting? And how do we make that hunger productive and vital rather than corrosive and destructive? These are the questions that animate Christian Wiman as he explores the relationships between art and faith, death and fame, heaven and oblivion. Above all, He Held Radical Light is a love letter to poetry, filled with moving, surprising, and sometimes funny encounters with the poets Wiman has known. Seamus Heaney opens a suddenly intimate conversation about faith; Mary Oliver puts half of a dead pigeon in her pocket; A. R. Ammons stands up in front of an audience and refuses to read. He Held Radical Light is as urgent and intense as it is lively and entertaining--a sharp sequel to Wiman's earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss.

30 review for He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art

  1. 5 out of 5

    Laysee

    ‘The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.’ - Michelangelo Ever wondered why good poetry calls to us in the depths of our being and leaves us sometimes misty eyed and strangely warmed? I rarely read non-fiction but this past week, I was moved and inspired by an exceptionally well written book that examines the role poetry plays in our lives, in particular in relation to faith. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art is a 2018 publication by Christian ‘The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.’ - Michelangelo Ever wondered why good poetry calls to us in the depths of our being and leaves us sometimes misty eyed and strangely warmed? I rarely read non-fiction but this past week, I was moved and inspired by an exceptionally well written book that examines the role poetry plays in our lives, in particular in relation to faith. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art is a 2018 publication by Christian Wiman, an American poet (born 1966) and former editor of the world’s top Poetry magazine (2003 to 2013). I have never heard of Wiman but in the opening pages of this book, I was quite taken by his noble ambition to be a poet, not just any poet, but an impactful one. Wiman says, “When I left college and set out to be a poet, I thought of nothing but writing a poem that would live forever.” This book documents his early days as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University in the late 1980s, the poets (i.e., A. R. Ammons and Donald Hall) who influenced and shaped his literary career, interesting anecdotes of his interactions with renown poets (e.g., Mary Oliver), his passion for poetry writing, his health struggles at age 39 with a rare blood cancer that awakened a personal quest and fueled questions about the importance of poetry and the link between aesthetic truth and spiritual truth. The National Poet Laureate David Hall once told Wiman, “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last.” How humbling! Wiman, then also aged thirty-eight, despite being disturbed, understood that poetry has intrinsic worth because Hall (who became his friend and mentor) went on to write poetry for another fifty years. Wiman’s quest is summed up in one question: What is it, exactly, we want when we can’t stop wanting?’ This novel is a carefully considered, intelligent, and searching discussion of this all important question. I have asked myself the same question: ‘What have I been wanting all these years when I couldn’t stop wanting?’ In writing about his ‘calling’ to be a poet, Wiman is convinced that writing is a profession in which one never arrives. There is for him an existential resistance to writing however strong his passion. Can he truly navigate this powerful current to write without losing himself in it? He quotes Wendell Berry who says ‘The impeded stream is the one that sings.’ And thus, in the creative process, true poetry tends to emerge from within the poet’s own experience with his unfulfilled longing and striving after perfection. In Wiman’s words, “…A poem is part of a life, even the ones you only read.” Poetic words touch us because they hold forth some aesthetic truth, some revelation that illuminates a need or emptiness. The next logical question is: 'Can there even be aesthetic truth without some other, more ultimate truth as precedent?' I know it is tempting to think that Wiman is probably some crazed or fanatical Christian waxing lyrical about spiritual truth. I read him closely and was relieved to learn that his faith is clear-sighted and not swallowed up in a haze of holy smoke. Wiman confessed to being quite repulsed by writers who congratulate themselves on being delivered from hell fire. In this book, poets such as Jack Gilbert, Mary Oliver and A. R. Ammons wrote poems that touch on the spiritual dimension but they were resistant to God. In fact, Ammons professed not to believe in God. Strangely enough, these modern writers share a common tendency: ‘the art contains and expresses a faith that the artist, in the rest of his waking life, rejects.’ What a paradox! Some of the loveliest writing can be found in episodes of Wiman’s rare encounters with illustrious poets, especially when he was serving as editor of Poetry magazine. He first met A. R. Ammons in a university lecture hall in which the latter, invited as a guest poet, refused to continue reading his poem. He wrote warmly of meeting Mary Oliver for the first time and feeling surprised to find her inappropriately attired in an oversized hunter jacket with half a dead pigeon in her pocket, which she proffered to Wiman like an offering. He wrote movingly, too, about Craig Arnold, a young poet he came to love and respect, and the loss (upon Arnold's untimely death) not just to him but to the poetic community of that life force that conjured up insightful reflections on the existential issues we all face. Reading this book has acquainted me with several poems by some of the finest poets I have never read. There is Craig Arnold’s wondrous poem titled ‘Meditation on A Grapefruit’ that must be savored. Another poem Wiman quoted that touched me is ‘Sunlight’, Seamus Heaney’s elegy to his aunt. The most deeply affecting was Philip Larkin’s last poem, ‘Aubade’, whose theme is death. This poem gave me ‘ice in my spine’ as Wiman warned it would, as it continued to chill him even after thirty readings. I read ‘Aubade’ at a carpark while waiting to meet a friend for dinner, and remembered sitting there in stunned silence for a long while, and then inundating my unsuspecting friend with my equally 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.' Wiman used ‘Aubade’ to illustrate the faith of art in these words: ‘One of art’s functions is to give form to feelings that would otherwise remain inchoate and corrosive, to give us a means whereby we can inhabit our fears and pains rather than they us, to help us live with our losses rather than being permanently and helplessness haunted by them.’ However, Wiman is adamant that art is only a means to an end. Poetry by itself is not enough; art cannot be seen as redemptive. Why? (view spoiler)[Wiman argues that ‘Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point - whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss - you will have no efforts left to make.’ (hide spoiler)] At 115 pages, Wiman has written a profound and thought-provoking book. His articulate and elegant prose style has a wondrous facility to give expression to thoughts and feelings that struck me as unutterable. I am not sure I understood everything for now. However, I do know that new understanding awaits me when I re-read it at a future point in time. My heartfelt thanks to Winston who made me a gift of this gem.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ken

    Good, good stuff. The type of little book you could finish and start over, giving it another go. Here's a more thorough review at my blog, where I'll have more runway for lift-off.... and follow-up in the days to come (where I plan to share some of the poems Wimar shared). Good, good stuff. The type of little book you could finish and start over, giving it another go. Here's a more thorough review at my blog, where I'll have more runway for lift-off.... and follow-up in the days to come (where I plan to share some of the poems Wimar shared).

  3. 5 out of 5

    Billy Jepma

    Christian Wiman is one of my favorite writers. His prose––and poetry, albeit to a different degree––is both dense and smooth. He writes sentences that start, stop, redirect themselves for words, lines, or even pages at a time, and then somehow end up back where they started, but bring with them a newfound understanding that changes the way Wiman, and his reader, interprets his original thought. For a book that's barely over a 100 pages, "He Held Radical Light" is a slow and careful read. Wiman pa Christian Wiman is one of my favorite writers. His prose––and poetry, albeit to a different degree––is both dense and smooth. He writes sentences that start, stop, redirect themselves for words, lines, or even pages at a time, and then somehow end up back where they started, but bring with them a newfound understanding that changes the way Wiman, and his reader, interprets his original thought. For a book that's barely over a 100 pages, "He Held Radical Light" is a slow and careful read. Wiman packs his prose with so much thought and narrative that to do anything less than a committed, deliberate reading would feel like a disservice to the depth and breadth of Wiman's meanderingly-precise examinations of faith, poetry, art, death, and more. Maybe that means this book is pretentious––it may very well be––but reading it over the last three weeks has been the closest thing to a "devotional" I've done in years. If you know Wiman's writing at all, then "He Held Radical Light" won't reinvent the wheel; but it will sharpen it. This book could almost act as the thesis statement for all of Wiman's work; it covers all the themes and subjects he values––that I, in turn, value––and his interjecting narratives of his personal life and experiences help create a book that seems to encompass everything Wiman has written about while also asserting that his journey towards understanding, faith, and art is far from over. If that doesn't make any sense, don't worry, I'm not sure if it makes any sense to me either. What does make sense to me is how much this book touched me, or better yet, *pricked* me, like a pin that draws a bead of blood. It's an honest, raw, and deeply thoughtful analysis of art, its ties to something More, and its effect on those who consume it. I can't recommend it enough.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    Not sure if I am becoming less responsive to Wiman's voice, or if my current distractedness is to blame, or whether this slim meditation on POETRY and GOD (or poetry/God - without the and) differed from those I've read previously (My Bright Abyss and pre-Goodreads, Ambition and Survival), but I had to push myself to finish this. Certainly, though, my worldview hasn't changed enough that a passage like this doesn't make me pause: I don't really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that Not sure if I am becoming less responsive to Wiman's voice, or if my current distractedness is to blame, or whether this slim meditation on POETRY and GOD (or poetry/God - without the and) differed from those I've read previously (My Bright Abyss and pre-Goodreads, Ambition and Survival), but I had to push myself to finish this. Certainly, though, my worldview hasn't changed enough that a passage like this doesn't make me pause: I don't really believe in atheists. Nor in true believers, for that matter. One either lives toward God or not. The word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day. But there is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor. I know the necessity of religion. I know the need for communal ritual and meaningful creeds. And yet I know, too, that all of this emerges from an intuition so original that, in some ultimate sense, to define is to defile. One either lives toward God or not. I have (nearly) always claimed an A-word (either the Ag- or the Ath-, depending on the day and the company). But reading Christian Wiman reminds me to shun easy labels. To define is to defile.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Abby

    Beautiful, clear; a quick meditation on how poets reckon with their chief obsessions of death, faith, and art. Wiman has a graceful humility and deep-seated wisdom that seem rare among many of his compatriots.

  6. 5 out of 5

    K.J. Ramsey

    I finished this book bathed in light. Hurtling toward home at 30,000 feet above the middle of America after two weeks of traveling speaking about my own book, I resisted the pull to productivity and settled into the sun of Wiman’s wanderings through both his career and modern American poetry. I’ve been asking questions about the cost of creativity, like Wiman asked early in his career: “Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself in it?” Describing the limitle I finished this book bathed in light. Hurtling toward home at 30,000 feet above the middle of America after two weeks of traveling speaking about my own book, I resisted the pull to productivity and settled into the sun of Wiman’s wanderings through both his career and modern American poetry. I’ve been asking questions about the cost of creativity, like Wiman asked early in his career: “Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself in it?” Describing the limitless love of God while feeling the limits of my body, maturity, and bank account can feel both like darkness and dawn; this is a new season of my vocation, and past my wanting for more and better, I want to be well, to be me, to be present. This book left me aware of the sun on my face, the warmth of welcoming where I am. I enter this new season of my vocation as a writer with intensity, but also, bathed in the light of willingness to witness the world as I am.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Gow

    This book is characteristic of Wiman: intensely thoughtful, deeply insightful, and seriously poetic. It made me simultaneously want to write poetry/make art and terrified of trying. This isn't an easy book to read, as he mingles stories and poems and thoughts, and his writing makes you work to understand but is really rewarding. That being said, he's so so smart and reading his thoughts on poetry, art, creativity, and faith was amazing. This book isn't about the relationship between faith and ar This book is characteristic of Wiman: intensely thoughtful, deeply insightful, and seriously poetic. It made me simultaneously want to write poetry/make art and terrified of trying. This isn't an easy book to read, as he mingles stories and poems and thoughts, and his writing makes you work to understand but is really rewarding. That being said, he's so so smart and reading his thoughts on poetry, art, creativity, and faith was amazing. This book isn't about the relationship between faith and art in any definite way. And while Wiman is a bit more universalist than other Christian writers, he isn't really concerned with clearly delineating between art and faith. He spends more time showing how the two intersect and interact and feed each other. It's great.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

    I read this one at just the right time, and it spoke soothingly to some questions and little anxieties that have been clawing around in my head recently. Still grappling with the main idea of the book—that truth can only be perceived and felt when we recognize its elusive and fleeting nature. That seems like a paradox to me, but maybe a true one, especially when it comes to art.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Edward

    Wiman, a poet, uses as an epigraph a quote from Juan Jiminez: The world does not need to come from a god For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to to one (where is he?) and that is why the poet exists. In a sense, a “god”, a state of some kind of transcendence is what art, particularly poetry aspires to, and the connections between the particular and the universal is what Wiman explores. It’s a thoughtful and challenging exploration, certainly not an abstruse academic exer Wiman, a poet, uses as an epigraph a quote from Juan Jiminez: The world does not need to come from a god For better or worse, the world is here. But it does need to go to to one (where is he?) and that is why the poet exists. In a sense, a “god”, a state of some kind of transcendence is what art, particularly poetry aspires to, and the connections between the particular and the universal is what Wiman explores. It’s a thoughtful and challenging exploration, certainly not an abstruse academic exercise. Wiman uses examples of contemporary poetry to clarify his thought, and his comments on the poems m are interesting in themselves. Wiman mentions that he is now teaching at a divinity school where many of his students are preparing for the ministry He tries to engage them in looking at he border between religion and art. To show a human, irreligious, in despair, he uses a poem, “Aubade”, for example, by Philip Larkin about the meaninglessness of religion, that “vast moth-eaten brocade/ created to pretend we never die . . .” And yet, this poem as an act of creation, one that has structure and form, is a tribute to something of value, of meaning, even though its subject is apparent meaninglessness. So to think about art is also to inevitably think about religion ,both providing types of meaning that strive toward the transcendent. Another example is from a late Wallace Stevens poem, “The Planet On the Table” in which Stevens writes of the sun that fosters both growth and decay and analogously, poems that are created and yet have no guaranteed permanence,. The sun and the poem are intuitively united. In a similar process. The poem is a statement of a “spiritual” reward in writing. Not an easy concept to grasp, but this is at the heart of what Wiman is getting at. For a human being to create something is a spiritual act, a striving after the transcendent. A paradox – as Archibald MacLeish put it, “They also live who swerve and vanish in the river. . .” The title comes from a poem by A. R. Ammons, “. . . he held radical light in his brain as music in his skull, music turned . . .” Again there is the merging of totally different sensations, light and sound, but they come together and fuse inside a human’s consciousness. A metaphorical way of expressing, again, the convergence of the universal and the particular. This book is in many ways a followup to Wiman’s earlier MY BRIGHT ABYSS in which he wrestled with religious belief, not a set of intellectual statements, but an ongoing struggle for a faith that engages both our emotions and our intellects. Here, the emphasis is more an engagement with the secular, an approach poetry and art, separate from religion, but still edging toward its concerns..

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lee Kuiper

    Snarl at me if you will —or call me a philistine— but this book is a piece of candy. Allow me to explain. Having had faith as a core part of my whole life and identity and, having been someone who reads and writes poetry (I’m not claiming it’s any good), I really appreciate books in this rare niche. Wiman thinks deeply and, like any good (great?) poet, he has a wonderful way with words. I (mostly) read the book in one sitting. I should add that I never read books in a single sitting. Granted, th Snarl at me if you will —or call me a philistine— but this book is a piece of candy. Allow me to explain. Having had faith as a core part of my whole life and identity and, having been someone who reads and writes poetry (I’m not claiming it’s any good), I really appreciate books in this rare niche. Wiman thinks deeply and, like any good (great?) poet, he has a wonderful way with words. I (mostly) read the book in one sitting. I should add that I never read books in a single sitting. Granted, the book is not long, it is very well written. A joy to read. I also, occasionally, take joy in eating candy. At it’s most obvious moments the book is simply about the poems that have impacted his life: either poems that struck him with a clarity of insight immediately or, how poems have come back to him later in life with a poignancy revealed through the act of living. At it’s most fraught moments, the book is pure poetic verve effortlessly hypnotizing me into ponderous contemplation. Part philosophy, part poetic pastiche and part memoir. His life, strung together by his career as a poet and editor of Poetry, carries him (and us) through to the poets and their poems; he ties them all together with his thoughts on life, on faith, on poetry. It’s a mixed tapestry woven together with syntactical adeptness. Basically, I loved this book but it’s not a nourishing piece of soul-wisdom to be cherished (nearly worshipped) like a lot of people think. Wiman has a modern, intellectual mysticism. He raises a lot of deep, meaningful questions and offers a lot of paradoxes as the closest things to truthful answers while simultaneously drawing the reader into an alluring arch of some relevant poem or fascinating anecdote of a poet he once knew; all of which tend to back him up or spur him on. I’m not saying many of life’s truths aren’t paradoxical but the book feels more like an answer than it actually is any sort of answer. I think Wiman would agree with me: “Indeed, the key to reading a writer like [Simone] Weil is much the same as the key to reading poetry. You can’t let the flashes of insight harden into knowledge.” In He Held Radical Light, Wiman comes across a lot like Weil; not to mention he is already a poet. Thus, his warning is self-reflective. Don’t let this book harden into knowledge. It is experiential. Grab a cup of coffee and drink it in. Savor the taste of the words and the way he crafts and molds them in new ways to allow you to see “flashes of insight” —lightning apprehension of life, faith and poetry— but don’t try to hold onto the brightness of that flash. Ultimately, sometimes vitamins are sugar coated. This book is a chewy little gummy. It’s also, coincidently, a chewy little vitamin. Taste it. Enjoy it. Swallow it. But don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re healthy now.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    Poets, man. I just don't quite understand them - something in me is a little tone-deaf, but I do try (and, in support of Wiman's thesis, I do sometimes find myself a feeling little tone-deaf when it comes to faith, not "hearing" the spiritual music the way some seem to, but remaining committed to trying to sing my part, all the same). Novels (the art form I engage with most obsessively) often seem haphazardly hammered together compared to the fire forged beauty of poetry, and something deep insi Poets, man. I just don't quite understand them - something in me is a little tone-deaf, but I do try (and, in support of Wiman's thesis, I do sometimes find myself a feeling little tone-deaf when it comes to faith, not "hearing" the spiritual music the way some seem to, but remaining committed to trying to sing my part, all the same). Novels (the art form I engage with most obsessively) often seem haphazardly hammered together compared to the fire forged beauty of poetry, and something deep inside me responds more to the off-kilter carpentry of narrative. It is part of the reason I tend to think of art much more in terms of a craft (see the David Mitchell quote on my profile, for example) than in romantic/post-romantic terms. The sort of emotional intensity Wiman describes just doesn't come into it - I believe he's describing something real, I also think it's rare (and he describes it well). I do think Wiman is a better critic than he is a theologian, but he gives plenty to wrestle with here. And, despite my tone-deafness, I did enjoy the poems he includes and comments on (especially "Meditation on a Grapefruit" which was entirely new to me).

  12. 5 out of 5

    Luke Gorham

    4 1/2 Tackles faith, meaning, etc etc but specifically through the lens of poetry, yet could appeal to casual fans of poetry or the poetry-averse but literate-minded due to the memoirist's contextualization of verse. Wonderfully lithe, benefiting from an off-the-cuff conversational feel rather than a fully-wrought treatise. He Held Radical Light works best as that rare and pleasantly surprising incongruity - an ontological trifle. 4 1/2 Tackles faith, meaning, etc etc but specifically through the lens of poetry, yet could appeal to casual fans of poetry or the poetry-averse but literate-minded due to the memoirist's contextualization of verse. Wonderfully lithe, benefiting from an off-the-cuff conversational feel rather than a fully-wrought treatise. He Held Radical Light works best as that rare and pleasantly surprising incongruity - an ontological trifle.

  13. 4 out of 5

    F.C. Shultz

    I’m not sure how to review this book. I enjoyed it very much, and will be returning to it often, though I can’t put a finger on exactly why. Reading it was like having coffee and pastries with an old friend in their favorite coffee shop (to which you’ve never been), and the only thing on your agenda for the day is catching up and eating jelly-filled donuts. Just like coffee and donuts, I think this book is best consumed early in the morning, just as the sun is rising over the horizon.

  14. 4 out of 5

    John

    Wiman reflects on the role of art in life as he looks back on his encounters with poets and poems over the course of his adult life. Beautifully written, as is usual with Wiman. There is much to reflect upon here.

  15. 4 out of 5

    t.a.

    "Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied." "Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied."

  16. 5 out of 5

    Trey Hall

    Lean and yet rich. “Noctilucent”: night-shining. I hope I will remember this book on my shelves and pick it up again in a few years and again and again.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Cbarrett

    Wiman's latest is one of the most elegant books I've read. His poetry is beautiful and his prose about poetry is brilliant. Wiman's latest is one of the most elegant books I've read. His poetry is beautiful and his prose about poetry is brilliant.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Eliana

    Do not ask me how it was; words will fail me every time. Instead, slip into the space yourself and just let go.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Theresa

    Poetry is an imposition of order (form) on a feeling or a happening which is not in my control, not something I conjured, but which intruded on me, and was gone. Nothing discernible from the outside was changed, but on the inside (my self ) was changed. The labor of putting form and image to such a happening makes poetry. Wiman lives in the now. He finds old 'forms' inadequate. If one forces a form, what you have is not genuinely a poem, but an exercise you are performing. And so it is now with f Poetry is an imposition of order (form) on a feeling or a happening which is not in my control, not something I conjured, but which intruded on me, and was gone. Nothing discernible from the outside was changed, but on the inside (my self ) was changed. The labor of putting form and image to such a happening makes poetry. Wiman lives in the now. He finds old 'forms' inadequate. If one forces a form, what you have is not genuinely a poem, but an exercise you are performing. And so it is now with faith. The old forms/language are inadequate. They don't really speak to us as they once did, except maybe as in looking at a pretty painting, which is not art because it is pretty, it is rather, decoration. As culture changes, our lives are affected and we need to re-imagine our beliefs in terms of the time in which we live. Sometimes it takes long periods since it is not an individual matter. It is an inculturation. Art today struggles with forms, as does faith. The old ones don't fit what we feel, and the new are mostly fragmented or broken or fumbling. And many of us are at a loss. Wiman uses select poems and a couple of prose excerpts (Polkinghorne, Bonhoeffer) to make his point. And they work. But I needed his clarifying explanation to get it. I loved this book. As with Wiman's "My Bright Abyss", his laser sharp focus and intense light beam reach into to me with a rare clarity and a depth of feeling. His precise words/images and his spare/scoured form feels true.

  20. 4 out of 5

    BHodges

    "Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been." (9). This book is a series of digressions by a poet asking an existential question: "What is it we want when we can't stop wanting?" Christian Wiman believes humans are fundamentally driven to seek safety and meaning—we must address our needs and wants. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sleep. The basics, yes, but he speaks about a deeper longing people "Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been." (9). This book is a series of digressions by a poet asking an existential question: "What is it we want when we can't stop wanting?" Christian Wiman believes humans are fundamentally driven to seek safety and meaning—we must address our needs and wants. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sleep. The basics, yes, but he speaks about a deeper longing people feel drawn to address. What is it? To answer that question he writes about some of the writers he's met and examines some of the poems he's read and a few he's written, people and writings which speak to his longing. Wiman comes across to me as a sort of cranky Christian in a grandfatherly sense (he's aware of this; he calls himself "snarlish"). He seems like a sort of Christian nihilist, if such a thing exists. That is, he affirms belief in Christianity without affirming the continued existence of himself as a conscious human soul into the eternities, as far as I can tell, or without believing he knows what will happen to him after death. He spent time as an atheist before returning to this Christianity when he was diagnosed with cancer and faced death (which he beat), and his faith comes trailing clouds of glory from that past.. To Wiman, poetry exists on the same level as religion and faith; he thinks and writes and even fights about it just as passionately! (68) He is an observer and an analyzer. He notices so many things, and notices them deeply, that it seems like he's ready with a carefully reasoned judgment for everything from a single word in a single line of poetry to the shape of a tree to the tone of someone's voice. This is exciting to read because he turns your senses toward so many things, but it's also exhausting because I'm not sure I'd ever get a mental break if I had both his powers of interpretation and his temperament. The digressive style is disorienting, but I think he wants that. Russian doll paragraphs with insights tucked within insights, stacked up and surprising. What is it we want when we can't stop wanting? Here's one of his many attempts to give an answer: "I don't mean to sound mystical, except inasmuch as there is a persistent, insistent mystery at the center of our existence, which art [and religion] both derives from and sustains. The mystery is not, in any ultimate sense, explicable to anyone, but it is available to everyone who will not resist those moments when the self and all it suffers are finished—again, in both sense of the term. It may happen in art, your own or that of others. It may happen in love, grand or minor. It may happen at any moment in life when, 'with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy' (Wordsworth), we cease to be ourselves and become, paradoxically, more ourselves. Our souls." (69-70). In Wiman's experience, this wanting is most often unfulfilled. He says we only get glimpses, and faith is actually living in memory of those few moments when we actually had faith (quoting Heschel). The book will resonate with people who struggle to feel grounded by traditional faith. He quotes Fanny Howe, who said "she could wake up an atheist and go to bed a believer, and vice versa, and —her little silver salvaging laugh—pretty much every goddamn day!" (60) I enjoyed pretty much every page of this deceptively small book with its big unfinished ideas.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jim Coughenour

    I bought this book on a whim, prompted by Casey N Cep’s fine review, and read it in a single evening, to my surprise, completely absorbed. Surprised – because I am not a Christian and am completely uninterested in appeals to faith. On the other hand, I’m susceptible to high claims for poetry, knowing that certain poems can capture and encode a reality otherwise untranslatable, which sustain, deepen and transform the silence. If I sense that someone might give me access to another such poem or po I bought this book on a whim, prompted by Casey N Cep’s fine review, and read it in a single evening, to my surprise, completely absorbed. Surprised – because I am not a Christian and am completely uninterested in appeals to faith. On the other hand, I’m susceptible to high claims for poetry, knowing that certain poems can capture and encode a reality otherwise untranslatable, which sustain, deepen and transform the silence. If I sense that someone might give me access to another such poem or poet, I’m willing to listen. Turns out that Wiman is a spirited talker. I finished this slim book feeling that I’d been party to a rare conversation. Many of its short chapters, detailing encounters with poets and their poems, are unexpectedly moving. A favorite passage is a quotation from Susan Howe, with whom Wiman had had a bruising encounter, only discover years later this passage in a memoir she’d written: “Nietzsche says that for Heraclitus all contradictions run into harmony, even if they are invisible to the human eye. Lyric is transparent — as hard to see as black or glare ice. The paved roadway underneath is our search for aesthetic truth. Poetry, false in the tricks of its music, draws harmony from necessity and random play. In this aggressive age of science, sound-colored secrets, unperceivable in themselves, can act as proof against our fear of emptiness.” Wiman is right to doubt the notion of “aesthetic truth” — “of what value would that be, finally? can there even be aesthetic truth without some other, more ultimate truth as precedent?” That’s the core question of his book. But in Howe’s passage, what a marvelous feel for what the searching and the finding are like. And how acute her description of such poems as “sound-colored secrets.” This is to confess I belong to that slightly ludicrous group of people who cherish particular poems, who share them carefully (after a certain point) only with others who will grasp their value. If you’re “that way” – you know who you are – maybe this book is worth checking out.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    Christian Wiman’s meditation and memoir He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art reads like a metaphysical mystery featuring twelve poets or so and is ever more laser-focused—as opposed to his previous attempt felicitously titled My Bright Abyss with all its fragmentary gems and brief but beautiful crystallizations—on these most “lit” poems in companionship with personal narrative moments which irradiate the language and illuminate the livelihood of having faith and art in a kin Christian Wiman’s meditation and memoir He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art reads like a metaphysical mystery featuring twelve poets or so and is ever more laser-focused—as opposed to his previous attempt felicitously titled My Bright Abyss with all its fragmentary gems and brief but beautiful crystallizations—on these most “lit” poems in companionship with personal narrative moments which irradiate the language and illuminate the livelihood of having faith and art in a kind of relationship of the most intimate conversation if not being sorrowfully in love actually. “POEM ENDING WITH A SENTENCE FROM JACQUES MARITAIN” It was the flash of black among the yellow billion. It was the green chink on the chapel’s sphere. It was some rust or recalcitrance in us by which we were by the grace of pain more here. It was you, me, fall and fallen light. It was that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite. —CW

  23. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Guest

    It’s a powerful, compact little book with wonderful, as is typical of Wiman, digressions. But for me, where I am right now, this book felt too flat. The final chapter is marvelous but what builds to this, it wasn’t enough for me to really feel the sentiment he’s reaching for— but at the same time the eponymous poem is grand. I think I lot of this has to do with where I’m at— tethered to that metaphorical hook. I’ve returned to Wiman’s My Bright Abyss four times. There’s a sense here, in this wor It’s a powerful, compact little book with wonderful, as is typical of Wiman, digressions. But for me, where I am right now, this book felt too flat. The final chapter is marvelous but what builds to this, it wasn’t enough for me to really feel the sentiment he’s reaching for— but at the same time the eponymous poem is grand. I think I lot of this has to do with where I’m at— tethered to that metaphorical hook. I’ve returned to Wiman’s My Bright Abyss four times. There’s a sense here, in this work, of a time in my future where I will need to return to this book because I know I once felt his ideas on imperfection and beauty more fully in my own life than I do currently. But in the middle of my own creative and psychic vertigoes I don’t think I can appreciate the details in these ideas right now, but I know they’re there— “it is a strange state of affairs...to be in possession of knowledge that you cannot, in any meaningful sense, know.”

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    another essential Wiman

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nate Hoover

    I came looking for the sweetness of Christ in verse and got only the bitterness of mainline Christendom in epitath. They long ago decided honey was too fantastic to be real and would rather exalt images resembling mortal man, birds, animals and creeping things. There is no sense of the best of Jonathan Edwards, which is what poetry ought to be - to taste the sweetness of God, bitterness of sin, nearness of eternity. Those in love with orthodoxy will choke while chewing this book. Or they ought t I came looking for the sweetness of Christ in verse and got only the bitterness of mainline Christendom in epitath. They long ago decided honey was too fantastic to be real and would rather exalt images resembling mortal man, birds, animals and creeping things. There is no sense of the best of Jonathan Edwards, which is what poetry ought to be - to taste the sweetness of God, bitterness of sin, nearness of eternity. Those in love with orthodoxy will choke while chewing this book. Or they ought to anyhow.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

    He's a great writer and makes poetry analysis approachable. But too much Ammon, Charlie and Donald Hall and not enough Mary Oliver or *some* other women poets. He's a great writer and makes poetry analysis approachable. But too much Ammon, Charlie and Donald Hall and not enough Mary Oliver or *some* other women poets.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Naomi

    (basically: I adore Wiman at his most winsomely didactic—shown by the quotations below—but my theo-ethicist-brain is not trained to appreciate his more meandering style of poetic rumination. we do always share a love of em dashes, though.) "—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger— thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled. . . no respite from the calling that comes in the form of a question. . . Still, there are moments in any writer's life when the movement away from one kind of s (basically: I adore Wiman at his most winsomely didactic—shown by the quotations below—but my theo-ethicist-brain is not trained to appreciate his more meandering style of poetic rumination. we do always share a love of em dashes, though.) "—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger— thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled. . . no respite from the calling that comes in the form of a question. . . Still, there are moments in any writer's life when the movement away from one kind of silence—the kind that keeps your soul suppressed—is decisive. . . . It's almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it." "The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined faith as primarily faithfulness to a time when we had faith. We remember these moments of heightened awareness in our lives, these clearings within consciousness in which faith is self-evident and God too obvious and omnipresent to need that name, and we try to remain true to them. It's a tenuous, tenacious discipline of memory and hope." "That we might be remembered. . . 'I want my life,' he writes in a poem from that time. 'I demand my / own life back. My past. You!' This is not what one expects from a man confronting his own death. It's not the future that Bonhoeffer feels slipping from him, but the past; not some totality of existence he fears losing—he still believes in salvation—but its molecular singularity, all the minute perceptions and sensations, retained by the body if not the mind, that comprise one particular human consciousness. This is an abstract articulation of a reality that is gloriously, excruciatingly concrete. What is it we want when we can't stop wanting? 'Lord,' prays a character in Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing in Odessa, 'give us what you have already given.'" ". . .the past so immanent in objects that it seemed as if the right touch, or maybe the wrong one, would release it into immediate being again." ". . .because I have required great order in my habits to counteract the great disorder in my mind." "Once, in the other order our best creations conjured, we sensed a mystery that enlarged our existence. Now we reach for an explanation and secure a despair. For that's what it is, to lower one's god to the level of one's need, to be the wizard of one's own Oz: despair." "Resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death. But to really see this despair clearly. . . is the first step to being out of it." "I think it's dangerous to think of art—or anything, really—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. . . . At some point, you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make." "The thing I felt slipping from me was faith—and slipping from me not like a proposition to which I could no longer assent, but like a life force, the very engine and aim of being." ". . .when one is truly confronted with one's end, everything goes very quiet. . . . You don't turn to God in a crisis because you are afraid, at least not primarily. You turn to God because, for once, all that background chatter in your brain, all that pandemonium of blab, ceases, and you can hear—and what some of us hear in these instances is a still, small voice." ". . .there may be some pride at work in that austerity as well. . . Oblivious is one truth. It is devouring us and everything we love. Heaven is the same truth, seen by the light of timelessness that our spots of time, however fugitive or rare, have opened."

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lee Razer

    Reading Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine, on poetry and faith is always a pleasure. Here he argues that poetry, or art generally, cannot be an end. The hunger that gives rise to art cannot be satisfied by it. But experiencing or creating great poetry, or art, I think he is saying, functions to quiet the incessant chatter and cacophony in one’s head (what I think Buddhism calls the “monkey mind”) forming a “spot in time” to quote Wordsworth, in which faith is present, before, inevitably, i Reading Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine, on poetry and faith is always a pleasure. Here he argues that poetry, or art generally, cannot be an end. The hunger that gives rise to art cannot be satisfied by it. But experiencing or creating great poetry, or art, I think he is saying, functions to quiet the incessant chatter and cacophony in one’s head (what I think Buddhism calls the “monkey mind”) forming a “spot in time” to quote Wordsworth, in which faith is present, before, inevitably, it slips away again in the currents. In this it is similar to being confronted with the hard fact of one’s imminent death, which also serves to still the mind. Wiman, a poet and rare cancer survivor, at least argues from firsthand knowledge. Interestingly Wiman believes that even great poets who reject theistic faith - Ammons, Oliver, Larkin - express these spots of time in their works. They express the divine order in their poetry while rejecting it everywhere else, and indeed, this is a feature of modern artists. Even Larkin’s famous and possibly terrifying poem Aubade, reading in part, “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon: nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” does this. The dark night of the soul, the scouring of the ego, is no stranger, no unknown companion, to faith. Larkin himself could not accept the signs of faith in his own work, but they are present. What eternal outcome faith points to Wiman cannot say. He discounts the traditional Christian conception of the continuation of self in another form as a mere dream and fantasy, granting Larkin and other critics of religion a point when they say it is all about fear and trying to avoid death, though Wiman still identifies as Christian. Many believers would say his own faith is therefore weak, though it reminds me of Nabokov, writing in his fiction of how unoriginal and uncreative the human imagination is, that all we can envision eternity being is basically more of what we already know. We can’t know. Wiman quotes Rabbi Heschel’s definition of faith as faithfulness to a time when we had faith. It’s a slippery thing, coming and going, impossible to pin down, but at times glancingly accessible. Great art being one of those times, capable of emerging even through persons who posses no faith at all, who may not recognize it in their own work. Poets treat their art as an ends rather than a means of expressing the greater order at their own peril, however, for “Understand that there is a beast within you / that can drink till it is / sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied... / It does / not wish you well.” (Frank Bidart)

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bob Mustin

    Wiman is one those I call pie men - he’s had his hand in too many things over the span of his years to identify him with any one mental discipline – and yet he’s no DaVinci either. He never hangs around a given discipline long enough to be proficient in it. Still, he’s no superficial type. He’s a searcher, a searcher for meaning, and toward that end he bounces back and forth like a tennis ball between the arts and religion. He’s been an editor, a writer, a fan of Mary Oliver and others, and if h Wiman is one those I call pie men - he’s had his hand in too many things over the span of his years to identify him with any one mental discipline – and yet he’s no DaVinci either. He never hangs around a given discipline long enough to be proficient in it. Still, he’s no superficial type. He’s a searcher, a searcher for meaning, and toward that end he bounces back and forth like a tennis ball between the arts and religion. He’s been an editor, a writer, a fan of Mary Oliver and others, and if he’s what he seems in this book, he tends to keep life at arm’s length. I’ve known several like him, I think, and they’re as necessary to the world as the various lauded people of the year. Theirs is the gift of insight over the gamut of society. Meaning, in this fragmented world we inhabit, he has a unique view of the world, seeing it and us with fresh eyes. This perspective of his seems to have taught him two things: First that art and religion are separate things, despite efforts by the mavens of religion to conflate the two. And second that religion is an unfulfilled project. Because since perhaps the Protestant Reformation, religion has been an intellectual affair, trying to understand divinity through concepts, the argument and deterministically paced nature of the intellect, which all but forbids direct contact with divinity. Small wonder, then, that world religions are rife with intercessor models unintended by Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna et al. What Wiman seems to be coming to ever so slowly is that art can’t fulfill religion, nor can faith in this intercessor-mediated concept modern religion has adopted. What religion’s fulfillment is, then, is direct contact with the divine. However you see that happening. This throws reality into the realm of relativism, precisely where science places it, something that’s anathema to modern (and I mean centuries-old) religious thought. What eschewing relativism is really all about, then, is control. Control of ideas, indeed of reality itself. Expending so much time and energy coming around to the consequences of intercessory-based faith will tell you all you need to understand about the hold this quaint form of religion has on world society. And it tells you even more about the value of art in understanding the links between humanity and divinity, of why there’s so much effort put into attempts by religion to co-opt art. My Rating: 17 of 20 stars

  30. 4 out of 5

    Eric Yap

    A beautifully written book, even though the poetic and literary abstractions have flew a bit too high for me, but I suspect that this is the effect that would please the author’s poetic instinct. A spiritual memoir that explores the author’s own existential tension between poetry and faith, death and meaning, elusive forms and concrete words, literature students and poetry avid would probably grasp and enjoy this more than I did. Nevertheless it did gripped me through an entire single sitting an A beautifully written book, even though the poetic and literary abstractions have flew a bit too high for me, but I suspect that this is the effect that would please the author’s poetic instinct. A spiritual memoir that explores the author’s own existential tension between poetry and faith, death and meaning, elusive forms and concrete words, literature students and poetry avid would probably grasp and enjoy this more than I did. Nevertheless it did gripped me through an entire single sitting and engulfed my aesthetic consciousness between prose and poetry. “It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm. Nothing poisons truth so quickly as an assurance that one has found it. “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendell Berry) Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been. I don’t mean to sound mystical, except inasmuch as there is a persistent, insistent mystery at the center of our existence, which art both derives from and sustains. This mystery is not, in any ultimate sense, explicable to anyone, but it is available to everyone who will not actively resist those moments when the self and all it suffers are finished—again, in both senses of the term. It may happen in art, your own or that of others. It may happen in love, grand or minor. It may happen at any moment in life when, “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy” (Wordsworth), we cease to be ourselves and become, paradoxically, more ourselves. Our souls.” - Christian Wiman

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