Krista Tippett, Host: Christian Wiman is a writer who has come to give voice, to his own surprise, to the hunger for faith and the challenge of faith for people now. He has been the editor of Poetry magazine for nearly a decade. His Texas upbringing was soaked in both a history of violence and a charismatic Christian culture. He wasn't formally religious for years after he left home, lived all over the world and became a poet.
Then when he was in his late 30s, he married the love of his life, found God again, and was diagnosed with an incurable, unpredictable cancer. So Christian Wiman is more aware of his mortality than most of us. And he's bearing a kind of poetic witness to something new happening in himself and in the world.
Christian Wiman: I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all this energy that's going on, all of these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief — I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.
Ms. Tippett: "Remembering God." I'm Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.
Christian Wiman has published several volumes of poetry, including, in 2010, Every Riven Thing. He's also a writer of prose essays that are often philosophical or theologically reflective, and always in their own way both honest and poetic. One called "The Limit," for example, begins with this arresting sentence: "I was fifteen when my best friend John shot his father in the face." But details of that shooting, at which he was present, and of Christian Wiman's own destructive anger as a child mingle with observations like this: "It was nearly dusk, my favorite time in west Texas, the light like steeping tea, shadows sliding out of things."
Ms. Tippett: I always talk to people about this, and I've heard and read a lot of stories about the interesting ways religion and spirituality get communicated to us as children. I have to say Christian that your story, of all of them that I've heard all these years, is the most familiar to me. Growing up absolutely immersed in this religious universe, which meant everything, right?
Mr. Wiman: Right.
Ms. Tippett: But then when I left that place, and like you I went far, far away, the religious piece stopped to make sense as well, because it was the whole package.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah, I think, uh, for me it was a big loss. I didn't realize exactly how large a loss for years, because I just like so many people dispensed with it.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Wiman: Uh, and became an agnostic or whatever you want to call it, but I wonder, you know. I've got little kids now and — and I do think about what I should teach them and how I should teach them in terms of their spiritual lives because I greatly value the way I was raised, which was, you know, completely immersed in that culture.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Wiman: And in a …
Ms. Tippett: Going — did you go to church like twice on Sunday and Wednesday night?
Mr. Wiman: Yep, yep.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. Wiman: Sometimes even more. And we, you know, we had to learn Bible verses and say them in, uh, over meals and …
Ms. Tippett: And the hymns, the singing.
Mr. Wiman: Knew the hymns and had the singing and — and there was no possibility of puncture to that world, you know. I never met anybody who didn't believe until I went off to college, never met a soul.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right. Right.
Mr. Wiman: You know, and I value the coherence of it and I value the intensity of it.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Wiman: And, you know, the momentum that it's given my life, but it's also created all kinds of difficulties as I'm sure you know.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, yeah. I think there are a lot of people like us though in this country and especially in — I don't know what we call the Bible Belt, but I'm not sure — when you get outside the Bible Belt, I'm not sure it's a narrative people recognize.
Mr. Wiman: I think that's true. I think in — I have discovered that there are an enormous number of people in this — in this country who are, uh, you know, they have some kind of religious language that's — they are just unhappy with.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Wiman: It's not — it doesn't accord with their, you know, their feelings of the sacred or their feelings of what spirituality means, and they're casting about for some new way of believing.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Wiman: And yet you can't just jettison everything that you — that you have, you know?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: I — I also wonder about the origins of your life as a poet. You know, one of your essays you — you start by saying, when you were 20 years old you set out to be a poet. But I guess I'm curious too about, you know, where you see the inklings of that or the impulses or hungers or habits that were there earlier in your life that then somehow came to life at that point when you were 20?
Mr. Wiman: Well, I certainly wrote when I was a little kid. I just didn't really know that they were poems. I didn't — my mother is a creative person; she would paint and, you know, she would write things herself. We weren't a family that read. There weren't books around and — but I did try to emulate the hymns that I heard. And I would write these little fragments of things and little songs.
And in fact when we were — I think I was six or seven years old, we went to the First Baptist Church in Dallas, which at the time was the largest Baptist Church in the world. I don't know if it still is. But it took up four city blocks — was this massive place. And the guy's name was — he was Brother Cristobal. I forget his first name, but they published the Southern Baptist newsletter out of there. And it was just this enormous place.
At the end of the service, you know, they would have what I'm sure you grew up with, they would have the call for people to be saved and people would flood the aisles at this place because there were thousands of people in the congregation. So one day when I was six or seven years old, I left my family and ran down there. Didn't even tell them. They thought I was going to get saved, and I just handed him a poem that I had written and the poem was, "I love the Lord and the Lord loves me, I will not forget and neither will He."
Ms. Tippett: Wow.
Mr. Wiman: The whole thing.
Ms. Tippett: Wow.
Mr. Wiman: And then — and then it turned up in the Southern Baptist newsletter. He published it. I turned around and ran back and he'd published it in the Southern Baptist newsletter. There's this little poem there, you know, probably my biggest publication.
Ms. Tippett: That's right. And I would bet that you were the only editor of Poetry magazine who's ever had his first poem published in the Southern Baptist magazine.
Mr. Wiman: That's probably true, that's probably true, although there have been editors who are very interested in theology. Henry Rago was very interested in theology.
Ms. Tippett: I mean, and then, of course, on another level, somewhere you wrote that your childhood was the very forge and working-house of poetry. I mean, in terms of the raw materials of drama and pathos and emotion, I mean, your childhood was — there's so much violence in there, in your family.
Mr. Wiman: Well, I think — my family's very chaotic, you know, but I would not say that I had had a difficult childhood compared to a lot of the people I've seen since then because I was loved by my family. And, you know, a lot of people grow up without love.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Your mother watched her father kill her mother.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. That happened when my mother was 14, yeah. She — she watched her — her father came in and shot her mother. And my mother and her two brothers were sitting at the table. And then — and, um, oh, it's really an awful story. She turned around — my grandmother, her mother — turned around and said, "Oh, Fred, no." You know, she realized what had happened. She got shot in the back. And the kids ran out, and then her father just lay down beside his wife and shot himself. My mother moved from place to place. That happened when she was 14 years old, and all those kids got separated and they all, you know, came out — emerged out of that, but not psychologically intact.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. I suppose what's just striking me right now as we talk is that story gets told and it's very dramatic about that murder. But really what's astonishing about the story is, as you say, you were raised by this woman who went through that when she was 14 and she loved you and that was this defining thing that she was able to do despite that.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. Well, I was raised in a very masculine culture. And I was, you know, I played football and went hunting and I got in tons of fights when I was a kid. I had that sort of masculine inclination and imperative in me and around me all the time. But when I look back at my life, it's my mother and my grandmother who really shaped me. That both of them — it's feminine consciousness that I responded to and both of them — my mother's a more educated person than my grandmother. My grandmother had a kind of consciousness that really took me a long time to understand because I think many people would simply say it was unconsciousness. She lived within that religious culture that we talked about that was completely saturated and defined by, you know, Baptist theology.
But she also lived in her world in a way that is unlike anyone I've known since actually. I mean, she knew her world down to the least flower, the least creature that was in her yard, and every person that was in her life. It was a kind of passive consciousness. I like to use the word passive without any pejorative meaning, but a kind of passive consciousness that seems to me in some ways exemplary, and I think poetry comes out of that.
Ms. Tippett: You know, you say passive, but what else I think of is embodied, you know, conscious. I mean, physical, incarnational, almost, you could say, that in consciousness, that all manifests itself in physical reality and is in touch with that.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. I love that definition actually. I think that's a great definition of the way she was. There's a section in this book that is about her. Here we go. It says, "She who in her last days loved too well to lose a single weed to namelessness, in creosote, blue gramma, goatsbeard that is not thriving, is, amid the cattails' brittle whisper whispers, O, Law', Honey, ain't this a praiseful thing."
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: "Remembering God" — with the poet Christian Wiman. He describes his own turn back to God as an assent to a faith that remained latent in him from childhood. And he's drawn on disparate voices as he has sought to make sense of this for himself — from the French philosopher and social activist Simone Weil to German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who pondered what he called "religionless Christianity" from the Nazi prison in which he died.
Ms. Tippett: So one thing I really like in your poetry and I think it connects also to your faith is this real tie to reality, which also gets intellectualized, the notion of reality. Do you know what I mean? I don't know. When I was reading through you, I also found a lot of reference to reality from Simone Weil: "It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy in order to find reality through suffering." Or even in this essay you wrote, "Hive of Nerves." You talked about Christ using metaphors, speaking the language of reality in terms of the physical world. So tell me about how you think poetry works with reality uniquely.
Mr. Wiman: Well, I think, you know, I've been sick lately and I actually had a bone marrow transplant back in October and was in the hospital for quite a long time. And one of the things, poetry died for me for a while. I found that it just wasn't speaking to me. I think I had certain expectations that took me awhile to realize were false expectations. I think we often talk about poetry getting us beyond the world, taking us to the very edge of experience and then getting us into the ineffable. I have to say, when I was faced with the actual ineffable, I didn't want poetry that gave me more of the ineffable. What I wanted was some way of apprehending the world that was right in front of me that was slipping away.
I wanted the world in front of my eyes, and the poems that I found useful were absolutely concrete, sometimes not at all about religious things and not at all about spiritual things, but simply reality and reality rendered in such a way that you could see it again. There's a great quote from the mid-20th-century literary critic R.P. Blackmur. He was talking about John Berryman. He said that his work, you know, "adds to the stock of available reality." It added to the stock of available reality, and that's a good way to think about what a real poem can do. It suddenly makes the amount of reality that you have in your life greater. You're able to apprehend more of it.
Ms. Tippett: Right, right. You know, recently I was talking to a physicist, a string theorist, who's working with a new kind of mathematical language. And the analogy we were talking about is the difference between poetry and prose. So the fact that there are truths you simply can't convey in a factual sentence, right? And it seems possibly that there are physical realities that you can't convey with an equation, but that a more visual mathematics might be able to convey.
Mr. Wiman: Gosh, that's interesting. I think that's why physics is so fascinating to so many of the poets. You know, contemporary poets these days, there is some kind of reality that's being revealed that we can only reach through oblique ways. You know, I think it reaches way back. It's why I'm drawn to mystics like Meister Eckhart and more contemporary ones like Simone Weil and language of Apple Faces, where you state something, but the statement sort of unstates itself. So that Meister Eckhart said, you know, "We pray to God to be free of God." We ask God to be free of God. And I don't think he wanted to, you know, give up his religion. The idea wouldn't have occurred to him, but he wanted to give up that idea of God as being this thing outside of our consciousness.
I think one thing poetry can do is take us to those places where reality slips a bit. You know, what we think of as reality slips a bit, like those equations in physics and suddenly we're perceiving something differently than before. And it's not — it's not all airy-fairy mysticism either. It's quite angular and hard-edged and that's what I think the analogy is with physics and with physical science.
Ms. Tippett: So it's very interesting that your return to faith was very much connected to finding love.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah, it was.
Ms. Tippett: You know, I'm resisting saying falling in love because we do throw it around so much and it's something you fall into and fall out of. What you have really, really dug into, love as something that puts us in touch with transcendence and with mystery. You were just really aware of that and articulate about it.
Mr. Wiman: Well, I think — I mean, it was a revelatory time for me because I certainly would never have said those things in the past. I had to have the experience to be able to write about it. In fact, I would have actively denigrated the notion probably.
Ms. Tippett: The notion of …
Mr. Wiman: Oh, the notion that love could open up the world for you in that way. We just published a poem in the magazine by a poet named Spencer Reese who's become an Anglican priest as it happens. He's talking about the whole poem is an elegy for someone he knew and is trying to get at the truth of his life. He says, "All I know is that the more he loved me, the more I loved the world." I think in any genuine love, and it's not simply romantic love …
Ms. Tippett: Right. It's other loves, yes. It's our love for our children, yeah, it's friendships, yeah.
Mr. Wiman: Right. I think there's some kind of excess energy. We tend to think of love as closing out the world and we can only see the face of the beloved. Everything else goes quiet or goes numb, but actually what I experienced was that — and I've experienced it again with my children — is that the loved demanded to be something else. It demanded to be expressed beyond the expression of the participants. You know, it kept demanding more. That excess energy, I think, is God and I think it's God in us trying to return to its source. I think it's — I don't know how else to understand it, but if I think of myself as having returned to faith, and I do think of that, although I feel like I'm a desperately confused person and when people look to me for advice or direction on faith, I just feel sometimes like it's hilarious.
But, um, you know, I think we have these experiences and they are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But, uh, I don't know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences. And then religion comes after that. Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it's whatever practice we have, whether it's going to church, it's how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you're not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I have had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me, and the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people.
Ms. Tippett: I actually wanted to ask you about the words faith and belief. You know, you've written "faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world."
Mr. Wiman: The way I've defined it to myself is I think of belief as having objects. Faith doesn't have objects. Faith is an orientation of your life or it's an energy of your life or however you want to define it. But I think it is objectless.
Ms. Tippett: Doesn't have to be faith in.
Mr. Wiman: Right. That has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses, if I let them be solitary as I am comfortable in being, I'm comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating, inevitably if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I'm in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.
Ms. Tippett: Your story to me is very much an example also of this phenomenon of our time where we choose these things, where we create our spiritual lives, which is really new. You know, you were given this religious world as the center of gravity in your childhood, which a lot of people were until just a decade or two ago. And then there's the image I have of you and your fiancée standing outside this church the day you got engaged.
Mr. Wiman: That's right, and not going in, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Not going in, but then eventually deciding to go in.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. I think it's a perilous, difficult situation for people to — for everyone to be left on their own trying to choose their spiritual life.
Ms. Tippett: To have charge of this.
Mr. Wiman: Right. And I think that's a lot of mid-century Protestants' theology led by Karl Barth was a reaction against this, that you can't simply trust your gut, trust your impulses, that we've got to have some way of finding God together. For him, it was the Bible, and he was very conservative in certain ways. I just cannot go there. I cannot follow. I don't think we can just recover orthodoxy in that way. I think — I really feel that a whole new language is being created, and there's too many who are struggling with this. I mean, traditional religious language is part of it and will be part of it, but a whole new thing is being created and it's going to involve other religions, it's going to involve other practices. I don't think you can simply resist it and say, you know, I'm going to just have my little corner and keep it safe and secure.
Ms. Tippett: I think a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison before he died in an extreme situation of having seen the church and orthodoxy and religion language be completely co-opted by evil.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: But saying, you know, starting to talk about what would religionless Christianity look like, but — and also saying that he thought that even as the language and the ideas might cease to be relevant, that the truths behind them would persist, kind of what you just said, that new language and new forms would continually be recreated to express those.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. I love Bonhoeffer, and I'm struck by something else he said. He said in a letter that he was often more drawn to atheists. He felt more fellow-feeling with atheists than he did with his fellow believers, and he was trying to understand that in himself. I find Bonhoeffer an incredible figure, because, I mean, not simply because he returned to Germany when he could have had a safe life in the United States.
You know, he returned and he felt like if he didn't share in the destruction of Germany, then he couldn't credibly participate in its restoration. And he also simply felt that he had a call. You know, we wait and wait and wait for the right thing to do in our lives, but he says no, no, no. You've got to obey, follow that impulse as hazy as it is and then your faith will come. You don't get it first, you don't get it first. So he lost his life in that. He also said at one point, you know, God has called us to be in a world without God.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right.
Mr. Wiman: Before God and without God, we stand with God. Some of his statements have the feeling of poetry. They seem so wonderfully suggestive.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, absolutely. So when you said a minute ago, you know, we're developing a new languag. I mean, to me that spiritual clarity and in fact, let's say, Bonhoeffer also was orthodox certainly.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah, he was, very orthodox.
Ms. Tippett: You know, the spiritual clarity, orthodox clarity, and for want of a better word, you can call openness to reality, let's say. I feel like that's what we're grasping for now. So when you see in somebody like Bonhoeffer, those things were not in contradiction. And that's what you're describing in yourself.
Mr. Wiman: There is some combination of austerity and clarity that I think we as a whole culture are grasping toward. The main movement of the culture is against it. All the political language, all that is just rot, but I do think there's this huge cultural grasping toward something that won't be so frouufrou and slip out of our grasp and just make us think it's ridiculous and yet also something that is open enough to engage those parts of us that we don't understand.
Ms. Tippett: At onbeing.org, find links to Christian Wiman's writing, including his essay "Love Bade Me Welcome," written a year after his cancer diagnosis; and "The Limit," that essay about the hunting accident with his friend John and the mystery of the different paths their lives took.
Coming up, Christian Wiman on the problem with beautiful language about death and the lure of "eccentric heavens." Also, more of his poetry.
I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, "Remembering God." I'm with Christian Wiman, a poet and essayist and the editor of Poetry magazine. He was agnostic for a number of years, after a Texas Baptist upbringing, though he says he was never really at ease with the word "agnostic." Christian Wiman became actively religious again in his late 30s during a period in which he fell in love with his wife and was diagnosed with a rare and mysterious form of blood cancer.
We've been talking about the hunger for faith and the challenges of faith for people now. In an essay on this subject, called, "Hive of Nerves," which he published in The American Scholar in 2010, Christian Wiman asked this: "How does one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one's life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life?
Ms. Tippett: You've written about God, just the word — well, not just the word, the idea. You've written about how it's difficult for modern people. And you talk about like existential anxiety, which is something that all the classic philosophers and theologians wrote about even in the 20th century, you know, Niebuhr, our essential anxiety that's at the heart of the human condition.
Mr. Wiman: Right.
Ms. Tippett: When I'm reading you, I'm thinking, gosh, I don't think there are lots of people now who are right in the middle of things writing about this, but actually what you helped me see is that we do talk about this all the time, but we don't talk about it in that way. We talk about how our technology is driving us crazy, how we have to create down time, right, and how we don't have space in our lives for what matters. It's just the trappings of this existential anxiety are very different and also very new.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah, we've deflected the soul into questions of the self. There's a great quote from Fanny Howard. She talks about the self has replaced the soul with the fist of survival, that we've created a kind of climate in which to survive. We all need to hone ourselves, so we develop and hone ourselves and we project those selves in all kinds of various ways, whether it's Facebook or whatever we're doing. We think of our lives as being successful to the extent that those selves are ratified by other people. We've gotten away from the notion of the soul. It can be a real shock just to find somebody who is suddenly talking about those things quite openly.
I am a Christian. I believe that Christ comes alive in communion between people. Sometimes I'll think all kinds of things are wrong with my life like, you know, my job is messing me up, my writing is messed up, something's messed up, and then I'll have a conversation with someone about a religious topic or it's spiritually informed in some way and it's honest. Even if we don't get anywhere, even if we disagree, the air has been cleared in me and I realize that in some ways I was dealing with all these things that weren't bedrock, you know. They weren't the ground of my being and I'm trying to take care of things. The structure is on top instead of the ground of my being, and I find that often all you need is some kind of conversation with someone even if it's just expressing pure anxiety.
Ms. Tippett: Right, which just names that even if it doesn't tie it up.
Mr. Wiman: Exactly, exactly. Just names it and shares it. That it can stabilize you in the world.
Ms. Tippett: And I think that something also that modern people will identify with in the way you talk about faith is about the animating aspect of doubt in that even in your prayers, even in the act of going to church. It's not something separate. It's not a problem, it's just part of it.
Mr. Wiman: Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can't be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. And that sometimes when I think of all of this energy that's going in, all of this what we've talked about, these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.
Ms. Tippett: Let's go back to the idea that you discovered love at the same time that you discovered faith. In a mature relationship, in love as in faith, the feeling isn't always there, right? That initial clarity and intensity is not a constant part of actually being vital and growing, but it's part of the health of the thing.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. I think that's — I hadn't thought of that, but that's helpful for me to think of it that way. Yeah, I think it's …
Ms. Tippett: You know, if we're grownups about this stuff, if we're grownups about faith, then …
Mr. Wiman: Then why can't we all get together and lament the fact that there's no God? You know, I mean, the Bible is actually full of moments like that too.
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Mr. Wiman: You know, I think that is part of any mature faith. You're right. But I like so many people tend to fall into despair at those moments and think, oh, my God, I don't believe in anything.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, we fall into those moments of despair in our love relationship as well?
Mr. Wiman: That's right, yeah. Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I wonder, there is a lot of language about death in religion and in poetry, and I wonder if some of it feels — I mean, how your perspective on that has changed being, as we said, a person who's more conscious of his own mortality than most of us. I mean, you've faced death as possibly something in the near term and, you know, death and transcendence, death and beauty, death as a choice, death in discovering what really matters. Do you hear those kinds — that kind of language differently now?
Mr. Wiman: I sure do. I hear that kind of carpe diem language. There's a famous line from Wallace Stevens, "Death is the mother of beauty," you know, meaning that we can never perceive our lives until we look through it through the lens of death. But if you look through the lens of death and it's suddenly much more abundant and beautiful and sharp. I have come to think that that is just a load of crap. I think anyone who could write that line was someone for whom death was an abstraction. You know, a kind of pleasant abstraction, actually. As it is, death is abstraction for all of us. Even if you get, as I have been close to dying in the last year, even if you get that close, it is still an abstraction. Not as much of an abstraction, but you simply cannot imagine your own death and the mind will not do it and you can't quite do it.
I think that we actually have to have the past and the future. If you think about it, we have no present. You know, we're always remembering. There is no actual present. It's the way reality is. It takes that long for our brains to process the instant. We're always remembering events and we're always projecting some sort of future, and I think that's where meaning — that's how we get meaning in our lives. But I do — I — I feel more that my imagination keeps opening onto these eccentric heavens, and I have to give them credit. I have to give them their due.
Mr. Wiman: I'm much more moved — I think, if you think of someone like Wallace Stevens, he sat back and said death is the mother of beauty, hence from her shall come fulfillment to all our dreams and our desires. It's very distant. It's very detached. It's a very abstract notion of how we live our lives. I'm much more moved by someone like the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, and I happen to have just translated a few of his poems. Let me read you this.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Wiman: This is the last poem that Mandelstam wrote. Now Mandelstam was hounded to death by Stalin, and one of the reasons was he wrote a famous poem that was a mockery of Stalin, which he recited to some friends. And in those days, people were so used to hearing poetry and reciting poetry that they could hear it once and keep it in their heads. And someone memorized the poem from his recitation and then took it to Stalin, and his fate was sealed.
So here's the last day of Mandelstam's writing life, not the last day of his life. He died in a transit camp not long after this. Picking through garbage is the last anyone saw of him. He knew what was about to happen to him. He knew all too well, and he was composing these poems right up until the end. The last day he died, he wrote either two or three poems, depending on how you put these poems together, but this was one of them. "And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear, / Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree. / It was all leaflife and starshower unerring, self-shattering power, / And it was all aimed at me. / What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth? / What is being? What is truth? / Blossoms rupture and rapture the air, / All hover and hammer, / Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot. / It is now. It is not."
Now that seems to me an incredible expression of hope and persistence.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Wiman: Seamus Heaney says somewhere, hope is a condition of your soul, not a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself. I'm mangling that somehow, but think of Osip Mandelstam writing this knowing what he was going through and compare that with Wallace Stevens setting back and saying, "Death is the mother of beauty."
Ms. Tippett: Right. That line you said a minute ago, the eccentric heavens. I also hear that there.
Mr. Wiman: Yeah. These strange sort of ways of surviving seem to keep occurring to me, though if you ask me do I believe in heaven, no, I don't really believe in heaven in the way that people conceive of it, yet it somehow keeps asserting itself in my imagination.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett with On Being. Today: "Remembering God," with the poet Christian Wiman.
Ms. Tippett: So if I ask you to think about yourself in church all those years ago in west Texas, the church you grew up in, which was just given to you like the air you breathed and then when you're in church now, what's going on that's different? How is that experience different?
Mr. Wiman: Well, it's utterly different. I think it's a weaker experience now. I mean, I'm just too conscious. I wish I were able to let myself go in ways that those people did in my childhood and still do. When I go to my mother's church now, it's one of those big mega-churches. You know, I don't agree with their theology and I don't like a lot of the ways that they commercialize their services, but it is an incredibly diverse church and the people are intensely involved. They're treating it as if their whole life were at stake. The churches I go to, liberal Protestant churches, it seems pretty casual. I wish there were some credible middle ground. I wish there was some way of harnessing that — the intensity that I felt in my childhood in more sophisticated ways.
Ms. Tippett: That may be another way of describing what the new language that we talked about that a lot of people now are searching for. It's not just new language. It's new forms, right?
Mr. Wiman: Yeah, and I think art has big role to play in that, encompassing art. I mean, if I think of some of the most intense experiences in my life, they are artistic experiences. Not simply making art, but responding to it. I think if a church could allow those experiences to happen without necessarily putting them in place and saying they have to be, you know, they mean this in our liturgy or they represent this, you know.
Ms. Tippett: Right. I think we're very self-conscious, you know, when people just inject art into worship. That's the danger there. You're talking about, I think, part of the …
Mr. Wiman: But I've seen it done well. Yes, I've seen it done well where it is just — in fact, I'm just coming from a — I was out on Whidbey Island at a conference, and the people there put on — I guess the students did it — they put on a sort of makeshift service and it was made up of songs that clearly had been written by one of the people there and had just sort of been set to music on the spot and there was a poem. It was unlike any service that I had been to. They just sort of did one thing after another, which were all addressed to God and that was the service. And I found it very beautiful, very moving, sort of the perfect thing for me.
Ms. Tippett: In the preface to Ambition and Survival, this collection of writings, which was 2007, so it was a few years back, you wrote, "I still believe that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything including, it has turned out for me, the belief that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything." Would you tell me what you mean when you say that?
Mr. Wiman: Oh, no. What a paradox.
Ms. Tippett: It's five years ago, so maybe it's not still true. But if it is, what do you mean? I'm trying to wrap my mind around it.
Mr. Wiman: For years — ere's a poem I love by Canadian poet named Robert Bringhurst and it starts like this: "These poems, these poems, these poems, she said, are poems with no love in them. These are the poems of a man who would leave his wife and child because they made noise in his study, she said. These are the poems of a man who would murder his mother to claim the inheritance. These are the poems of a man like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not comprehend, but which nevertheless offended me. These are the poems of a man who would rather sleep with himself than with women, she said. These are the poems of a man with eyes like a drawknife, hands like a pickpocket's hands woven of water and logic and hunger with no strand of love in them. These poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant as elm leaves, which, if they love, love only the wide blue sky and the air and the idea of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said, not a beginning. Love means love of the things sung, not of the song or the singing. These poems, she said. You are, I said, beautiful. That is not love, she said rightly."
I didn't mean to quote that whole thing, but for years I carried that poem like it was a kind of totem in my mind. It expressed to me so perfectly what tensions that I felt between my life as an artist and my life. I felt that I was giving everything to poetry and you had to give everything to poetry. And yet at the same time, I felt some sort of essential energy missing from some of my poems. And I had to eventually give up that notion that you could give your whole life to poetry, that poetry could be this abstract thing that you could devote your life to. I mean, I'd made a God. You talk about idolatry, I'd made a God out of it, and I had to have that shattered in order to come to write some of the poems that are in Every Riven Thing. I had to really have that notion tested severely.
Ms. Tippett: I think I'd like to end by having you read at least maybe one of the poems that illustrate what you just said, the place you've come to where that paradox is less agonizing.
Mr. Wiman: So the title is "Every Riven Thing," and riven is kind of an Old Testament word meaning broken, sundered, torn apart. This was actually the first poem that I wrote after years of silence. All those years I mentioned, I had gone I think three years without having written a poem. And in the middle of all those dramatic things happening to me, this was one of them. I sat down one day and found myself writing again and this poem came to me all of a sudden. It was quite a shock to write a poem and quite a shock to write a poem especially like this one.
"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, / a part from what man knows, / God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made."
Ms. Tippett: Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine. His books of poetry include Every Riven Thing. He's also published a collection of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
At onbeing.org, read and hear more of Christian Wiman's poetry, including all of the poems he recited this hour. You can download them and share them with others. We also live-Tweeted my interview with Christian Wiman, and you can find that Twitterscript on our blog. Stay in touch with future interviews in real time by subscribing to our Twitter feed — our handle: @beingtweets. And as always, you can always get downloadable MP3s of this week's show and other shows, as well as our unedited interviews through our podcast and on our website. Again, onbeing.org.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Special thanks this week to Robert Bringhurst; his poem that Christian Wiman read, "These Poems, She Said," has been newly published in by Copper Canyon Press.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I'm Krista Tippett.
Next time, "Reimagining Sitting Bull." We explore the long-suppressed spiritual legacy of this Lakota Sioux leader who came down in American history only as a warrior. Please join us.
This is APM, American Public Media.