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Christian Wiman

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#1 Darren H

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 07:31 AM

I hadn't heard of Christian Wiman until Sunday, when I listened to part of Krista Tippett's interview with him.

http://being.publicr...emembering-god/

Yesterday, after listening to the complete, unedited interview on iTunes, I walked over to the university library and checked out his most recent poetry collection, every riven thing, and his collection of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. He's really an inspiring, thoughtful, and well-spoken guy, and his ideas about God and art would probably be of interest to many of you.

Bill Moyers has interviewed him too:

http://billmoyers.co...ith-and-cancer/

#2 Stephen Lamb

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 09:26 AM

I agree, Darren. I checked last week, after listening to those three interviews (both the edited and unedited On Being interviews, and the one with Moyers), to see if there was a thread here about him, and meant to start one when I didn't see anything. I also bought every riven thing after listening to those interviews, and hope to dive into his essays as soon as I finish Marilynne Robinson's new book.

The Other Journal did an interview with him last month, my first real exposure to him:
http://theotherjourn...hristian-wiman/

And as I mentioned on Facebook, that service on Whidbey Island that he mentioned during his interview with Krista Tippett, the one he found "very moving," was a part of SPU's MFA program, run by Greg Wolfe.

#3 Overstreet

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 09:38 AM

He knows Greg Wolfe, and came to speak to the MFA in Creative Writing students at SPU. Lauren Wilford, an SPU undergrad and a writer for Filmwell, read an excerpt from one of his essays at the last meeting of the Thomas Parker Society (the reading group I've been meeting with for 20 years). I've been impressed with everything I've heard and read.

#4 Darren H

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Posted 17 April 2012 - 10:05 AM

I listen to a lot of podcasts at work while doing mindless tasks, and I'm finding that the On Being interview with Wiman is one that I'm having to constantly stop and rewind. He packs a lot of insight into every phrase, even when talking off the cuff.

#5 Darren H

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 09:32 PM

I've now listened to versions of the On Being interview four times, and today during my lunch break I was on the verge of tears while watching the Moyers interview. Wiman is expressing all of the things I've been struggling to understand for the past seven or eight years. In the Moyers interview he mentions that his book about faith will be published at some point in the next year. I can't wait to read it, and I desperately hope he's still here to talk about it.

#6 Christian

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 09:48 PM

Michael Dirda reviews Stolen Air in today's Washington Post: http://www.washingto...5qRT_story.html

You need to read poems just as you need to do those exercises. Not because they’re good for you — which they are — but because they will make you feel good. Poetry also will make you smile, or weep, or remember. You don’t need to analyze symbols or spend hours explicating every line. Just pick up a book of poems — say “Stolen Air,” a collection of Christian Wiman’s versions of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam — and turn, almost at random, to “Night Piece”:

Come love let us sit together
In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.
There’s fuel enough to forget the weather,
The knife is ours and the bread is clean.
Come love let us play the game
Of what to take and when to run,
Of come with me and come what may
And holding hands to hold off the sun.

#7 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 30 May 2012 - 12:36 PM

So I just read his book, Every Riven Thing. I started to read the book through silently, but then I found that I just had to start over and read the whole thing out-loud instead. One of the best things about this book is that you read one of the poems, then you just have to stop and consider what you just read, and then you find that you have to go back and re-read the poem (sometimes even more than once). When you're reading Wiman, I've also got to strongly recommend that you pay close attention to the punctuation. Sometimes he plays with the punctuation in order the change the meaning of what he's writing.

Regardless, I'm now a fan. There is a level of melancholy mixed with grit in some of these poems. The language is occasionally gruesome or shocking, and at other times ... well, just enchanting. A few of the poems paint little scenes that are distinctly American. The one about the old breakfast diner is priceless. The little simplistic poem for which the book is titled could be read over and over again for a whole week without getting everything out of it that is in there.

It's to be highly recommended, and it's short, so you can probably read the whole book in one hour. It just took me longer just because I kept repeating parts of it.

#8 Darren H

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Posted 30 May 2012 - 12:59 PM

There is a level of melancholy mixed with grit in some of these poems.


Don't know if you've read much about Wiman or listened to the interviews, but a few years ago, soon after he became a father and husband, he was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer, which sent him into a long dry spell as a poet. Every Riven Thing began when he was in the hospital, undergoing one of many treatments. So, yeah, the melancholy is hard-earned.

So glad to hear you enjoyed it. I listened to the On Being interview again last week.

#9 Darren H

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Posted 23 January 2013 - 03:10 PM

My most anticipated book of 2013: My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. (Coming April 2)

#10 Christian

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Posted 11 April 2013 - 08:15 PM

GQ's The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read includes Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Each selected author is asked for his or her own choice of a 21st century must-read. Here's Robinson:

"I've read a book that comes out this month. It is Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine and has now accepted a professorship at Yale. His book is a memoir, his coming to terms with cancer and a very dark prognosis—which he has outlived. The thing that is exceptional about this book, aside from its intelligence and its language, is the quality of its theological reflection. It is very lucid and not at all simple, a book in the great tradition of truly serious thought.

#11 Darren H

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Posted 11 April 2013 - 09:00 PM

I'm about 30 pages in and am really enjoying it. I don't possess the language to describe my faith, so I'm incredibly grateful that Wiman does.

#12 Christian

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Posted 18 May 2013 - 08:53 PM


I don't possess the language to describe my faith, so I'm incredibly grateful that Wiman does.

What did you think of the rest of the book, Darren? My sense is that he spends about 100 pages saying he doesn't buy into "theology," etc., but then gradually admits that such an approach can't hold.

p.123: "The whole modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief that leads so many people to dismiss all doctrine out of hand, or to say that they are spiritual but not religious, or to emphasize some form of individual 'transcendence' over other aspects of spiritual experience -- all this is fine until life, or death, comes crashing onto you with its all-too-specific terrors and sufferings. We do not need definite beliefs because they enable us to stand on steady spots from which the truth may be glimpsed. ... Definite beliefs are what make the radical mystery -- those moments when we suddenly know there is a God, about whom we 'know' absolutely nothing -- accessible to us and our ordinary, unmysterious lives. And more crucially: definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots."

I've only just finished the book, which has my sticky notes all over it (library copy), but my main thought about it, other than my admiration for its eloquence and honesty, is that I wish I were clearer on what Wiman's "definite beliefs" are. Yes, he wrote 200 pages about his experience of God, and, in a way, about what he believes about God. But he's more pointed in describing what he dismisses in terms of cultural understanding of God.

Despite my very real concerns with the book, I found the writing magnificent.

Edited by Christian, 13 March 2014 - 01:46 PM.


#13 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 12 June 2013 - 09:47 AM

Peggy Rosenthal on "Wiman and Words" at Good Letters.

#14 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 21 June 2013 - 11:41 AM

I've only just finished the book, which has my sticky notes all over it (library copy), but my main thought about it, other than my admiration for its eloquence and honesty, is that I wish I were clearer on what Wiman's "definite beliefs" are. Yes, he wrote 200 pages about his experience of God, and, in a way, about what he believes about God. But he's more pointed in describing what he dismisses in terms of cultural understanding of God.

Despite my very real concerns with the book, I found the writing magnificent.

So I read the first half of My Bright Abyss last night, and I'm already kicking myself for taking so long to getting around to reading it.

There is a sacramental devotional quality to Wiman's prose. I can't say I've seen anything quite like it since I read Frederick Buechner for the very first time. Some of the chapters are complete essays, other chapters are fragmented thoughts and paragraphs which, nevertheless, still follow a line of thought or feeling. I can feel T.S. Eliot's influence on Wiman - he pursues many of the same dreams that Eliot did, taking older ideas and insights and magically and beautifully expressing them within today's framework - while still admitting that language is a limitation, that it still doesn't go quite far enough.

I'm not convinced that Wiman appreciates the idea of nailing down "definite beliefs" in purely abstract and conceptual terms. But, while this trait troubles me in the intentionally vague writing of people like Brian McClaren or Rob Bell, it doesn't bother me in Wiman. Maybe it's because Christian leaders like McClaren and Bell are still working within a theological framework that has embraced much of postmodernist philosophy while Wiman explicitly rejects postmodernist philosophy. Maybe it's because, unlike someone like Stanley Grenz, Wiman's "definite beliefs" are necessarily implied, even while he admits the inability of language to comprehend such beliefs in their complete entirety. Maybe it's because the beauty of Wiman's writing, and the transcendent and visionary divine that his poetry is a reaching out towards, touches and hints at the eternal in ways that Grenz's views on language negate.

The Christian "postmodernist" or "postconservative" seem to revel in embracing both sides of a contradiction. Wiman transcends this type of thinking, almost taking yet another step back and viewing the affirmation of truth on one side and the affirmation of paradox on the other as both containing great value. It's like Wiman is rejecting a form of modernist or postmodernist dualism, embracing how art can see truths and beauty and goodness in ways that mere abstract reason cannot, but also how this realization does not destroy the objective existence of these things outside the self.

I have to be careful in writing this. I still need to read the second half of the book, and I don't think Wiman's intent is really to make any kind of coherent argument against postmodernist philosophy. But, responding, Christian, to your comment that you didn't find it clear what Wiman's "definite beliefs" were from this book, I'm getting the sense that they are there. It's just that the purpose of the book is not doctrinal in nature. It's more a series of meditations, profound meditations, on problems in his own life with belief, faith and grace. There is a way towards "definite beliefs" that is not through Thomist scholastic reasoning that the poet can reach. I just don't get the sense that Wiman is rejecting that reasoning like other Christian writers I've read do. If you've read any essays by T.S. Eliot about what art and poetry are for, Eliot doesn't use the Socratic method or creedal statements to get to "definite beliefs" either. But Eliot fundamentally disagreed with those who rejected the reality of "definite beliefs," and I'm getting the impression that Wiman (along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is like Eliot in this.

#15 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 21 June 2013 - 12:36 PM

Every time I see this thread pop up, my first thought is that it's about feminism and someone didn't know how to spell "Christian womyn".

#16 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 24 June 2013 - 11:51 AM

Now that I've finished the book, I'm going back and reading through the reviews. There are some interesting and thoughtful ones. But the thing that strikes me the most is that they are all very admiring and respectful. Wiman's writing doesn't seem to be jarring anyone, like the writing of many other Christians today does. And, his book has all these publications discussing ideas that they don't necessarily usually discuss. It's almost as if his book is forcing everyone who reads it, no matter what they believe, to take his Christianity seriously and even thoughtfully.

Jay Parini in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
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.

Scott Russell Sanders in The Washington Post:
What Wiman chooses to believe is that “we have souls and that they survive our deaths, in some sense that we are entirely incapable of imagining.” He knows how easy it is to dismiss such faith as wishful thinking. In fact, throughout the book he questions his every statement or speculation about ultimate things, especially those that comfort him in the extremity of pain and fear brought on by cancer. He anticipates the objections of skeptical readers, for he has had to wrestle with those objections himself: “Live long enough in secular culture, long enough to forget that it is secular culture, and at some point religious belief becomes preposterous to you. Atavistic. Laughable.”
Still participating in that secular culture, as writer and editor and man of the world, Wiman recognizes how suspect the language of faith can seem to readers accustomed to the rigors of science. Like religion, science maintains that invisible forces and unifying patterns shape the cosmos; but unlike religion, it denies that those forces and patterns bear any regard for us, respond to our prayers or promise everlasting life. The scientific story of the universe offers wonder and beauty galore, but we must look elsewhere for consolation.

Kathleen Norris in The New York Times:
In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”
... This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near.

David Yezzi in The Wall Street Journal:
His clear-eyed ability to access deep feeling lends his work an almost brutal force. Without setting solace as his goal, he nonetheless receives it; without offering the reader comfort, his book everywhere grants it. Mr. Wiman does not fall for the sops he sometimes finds in contemporary Christianity, which too often promotes "a grinning, self-aggrandizing, ironclad kind of happiness that has no truth in it." Faith for him has to do less with belief than with the acceptance "of all the gifts that God, even in the midst of death, grants us . . . acceptance of grace." The idea is a familiar one, but Mr. Wiman's takes a new road to it. Perhaps every generation needs a writer to clear off this age-old path, renewing access and inviting entry, as Christian Wiman does in his weighty account of modern faith.

#17 Christian

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Posted 08 November 2013 - 04:45 PM

My Bright Abyss is a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2013. I imagine we'll be seeing Wiman's books on many more lists by year's end.



#18 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 12 March 2014 - 01:17 PM

So this interview came out earlier this year and I've been meaning but forgetting to post it on here for a while now.  Listening to Wiman talk is always worth the time.

 



#19 Stephen Lamb

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Posted 13 March 2014 - 01:24 PM

I just read this again, in preparation for writing about it for the Art House blog, and my appreciation only grew.

 

http://www.arthousea...pilgrimage.html



#20 Christian

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Posted 13 March 2014 - 01:49 PM

I'm rereading it again as well, or at least reviewing all the stuff I pulled out on first reading.

 

Question: Is this book eligible for a Pulitzer Prize? Sorry if that sounds dramatic, it's just that the prizes are usually announced in April, I think, and I'm wondering if this book could even be under consideration for that type of recognition. I don't know enough about release-date specfics or other details that might exclude the book from consideration. Also, I'm not sure if it would win in the poetry category (probably not, although it's written by a poet) or nonfiction. Or something else.


Edited by Christian, 13 March 2014 - 01:49 PM.






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