You want it darker; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part One

I strut around thinking I know stuff, so it’s good for me to encounter minds that reveal to me readily that I don’t know shite. Marilynne Robinson does this reliably. Anne Carson. Doug Glover. Sometimes you. But lately it’s been Christian Wiman giving me my comeuppance. Wiman’s engagement with poetry is gut-level and reaching, such that I feel like I’m a kindergartner struggling to learn my ABCs.

His latest book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, is difficult in many ways. I am not always following his thought process as he grapples with art, the spirit, faith, death, and poetry. There is a bitterness to it as he confronts his own mortality in the midst of all that he loves. As the book goes on, he does begin making grand statements that I can’t always get behind, statements that seem arguable but he neither expands nor explains, and often leave me thinking “Hey, but wait a minute.” But he offers up some incredible poems, his own and others’, and deeply interesting ideas.

Here is something he says that I’m still pondering. He’s referencing A. E. Stallings’s poem “Momentary,” but he says this: “…it’s not simply that the hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be otherthan what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end.”

I think the “hunger” he is talking about is the human need for answers, for explanations, for meaning, for something other than randomness at work in the world, for something at work larger than our meager efforts. The art is the reaching, the inquiry. If art — or the poem — attempts to be an answer, it can only be an echo of our own noisy voices. Is that what he’s saying?

Here’s another interesting thing: He considers whether art is a redemptive activity, and bristles at the idea. “I think it’s dangerous to think of art — or anything, actually — as a personallyredemptive activity…For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it….” He writes: “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.”

I had never thought of making art in quite this way — I don’t look to it as something to do something for me, but rather as something to do with myself and my energies, proclivities. If I get anything external from it, accolade or opportunity, it’s chance and luck. Grace? If grace is that inner peace that comes from a transient sense of oneness with all things, then a walk in the woods can do that for me. A poem is me nattering in the dark, my yelp as I bark my shins on life.

More on my encounter with this book next week.

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