Hammer Is the Prayer of the Poor and the Dying

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I realized, as I began reading Every Riven Thing, that I had a very strong opinion about Christian Wiman as an editor and a critic, but I had almost no opinion of him as a poet. As an editor, he has done a good job with Poetry—the most prominent poetry publication in the United States. The magazine will win no awards for edginess, but since he took the editorial reins in 2003, the Poetry stagecoach has ferried more enjoyable passengers than in years past. As a critic, Wiman has been less inclusive. Famous (or infamous) for the negative review, Wiman championed divisive, even brutal reviews early on in his tenure at Poetry. And, in March of 2009, the Poetry website actually ran an essay review by Jason Guriel entitled “Going Negative,” a project which, fairly or unfairly, was seen as an extension of Wimanian schadenfreude.

Distinguishing between good and bad poetry is, according to Wiman, the critic’s (and the poet’s) duty. For him, that kind of aesthetic demarcation is a moral issue; for me, it is not. Goodness and badness in regard to poetry implies objective criteria and widespread agreement. Those are less interesting to me. I prefer to focus on what work a poem tries to do, which puts the emphasis on poem-making, not poem-pleasing. If you want to see just how completely readers disagree on good poetry, check out a smattering of “best poetry books of the year” lists and note the staggering levels of divergence. The same goes for the major and even minor poetry awards. To wit: one of the books Guriel gutted, D. A. Powell’s Chronic, went on to win the $100,000 Kingsley-Tufts Prize for 2010, along with several other awards. For better or worse, many of us want different poetries.

And so it was that when I opened the cover of Every Riven Thing, I found myself asking: what does Wiman want from poetry?

One thing he wants is for poetry to be poetic. Wiman stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from someone like Mary Karr, who foregrounds content over form. For Wiman, form is the fire his feet are held to. It’s the syntactic embers that burn, the linguistic flames that flare. At no point does Wiman let the reader forget he is reading poetry. Where else, except in a Cole Porter musical, does one encounter a rhyme with “proliferate” and “through with it?” This dropped-line couplet closes the poem “Given a God More Playful,” a delightfully dark light poem that marries whimsy with its estranged lover theology:

Given a god more playful
more sayful
less prone
to unreachable peaks
and silence at the heart
of stone

I might have plundered
thunder
from a tick’s back

I hear a lot in these lines: Dr. Seuss, greeting cards, Richard Wilbur, William Blake, but most of all, Gerard Manley Hopkins. All of these (even the greeting card) celebrate the joy of language. No one loved language (or God) more than Hopkins, and this book aligns Wiman with Hopkins both poetically and spiritually. Consider these opening lines from Hopkins’ “Windhover,” which he dedicates “to Christ Our Lord:”

                daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

What I love about Hopkins is his shamelessness. He busts out everything he can find from the poetry toolkit: alliteration, assonance, end rhyme, enjambment, internal rhyme, slant rhyme, substituted iambic meter, controlling metaphor, and an unbelievable sense of pace and rhythm. “The Windhover” is far more opulent than “Given a God More Playful,” but then again, 1877 was a far more opulent time. Wiman’s poem is less ambitious and more self-conscious but like Hopkins’ it relishes in—worships, perhaps—the degree to which poetry lit with holy fire glows with what one might call “god’s glory.”

That might be a bit over the top, but so what? God is a bit over the top. Why expect a poem about him to be otherwise?

God as an idea, a construct, a stalker, dots the entire book. The poems attempt to connect those dots in hopes that after the slow linear work is done, a recognizable profile will emerge. This is one of the other things Wiman wants from poetry—for God to find a form the way poetry does.
Spoiler: that does not happen.

Wiman’s god is elusive. Blithe and black-blooded but oh so elusive. Wiman’s god, like Charles Wright’s, has put him on the rack:

I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.

In this quatrain from Wright’s “Clear Night,” the poet seeks God’s brutality as proof of his presence. The poem dabs its forehead with the waters of the penitent and prays with the voice of the punished. Compare with Wiman’s “Then I Slept Into A Terror World:”

I was rifled, pilfered, praised, used.
I was lifted up into the rain’s mania,
laid cadaverously down amid the avid seeps
and intuitive roots, a little slime

Sleeping, clear night; pilfered and praised, strung up and stretched; used and bruised. Wiman and Wright look to the body as the place where the dark god goes. In Wright’s case, alienation from both language and landscape leads to a kind of prayer in which the poet asks to be reinstated into the two churches that have excommunicated him. For Wiman, “terror” is no doubt a reference to the world after 9/11 in which men eager to know their god made their own kind of mania. In both instances, the poets are estranged from yet flattened by the divine.

But, another terror Wiman wakes to is the possibility of accelerated death. Several years ago, Wiman was diagnosed with cancer, which led him to stare down mortality along with the god his West Texas Baptist upbringing taught him to revere. The very fallibility of the body might be why Wiman continually creates corporeal metaphors for god to inhabit. It is in this way that Wiman resembles John Donne. Like Donne, Wiman knows what it means to experience a crisis of belief, as in “Hammer is the Prayer”

Grace is not consciousness, nor is it beyond.

To hell with remembrance, to hell with heaven,
Hammer is the prayer of the poor and the dying.

And as wind in some lordless random comes to rest,
and all the disquieted dust within,

peace came to the hinterlands of our minds,
too remote to know, but peace nonetheless.

Metaphorically, Wiman channels Blake here, but Donne is in the background swinging the hammer, battering the heart into peace. In “This Mind of Dying,” the poet, like Donne, becomes the priest.

My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language
To a fear that I can bear.
Make of my anguish
More than I can make. Lord, hear my prayer.

How can one not hear in Wiman’s desperate quatrain Donne’s equally desperate “That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend / Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new?”

O to be bent by the master poet the way language bends. To bend and break. To make. In “Small Prayer In a Hard Wind,” Wiman asks to be Blaked and Donned back to life, “wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood / this is open enough to receive it, / shatter me God into my thousand sounds.” That’s so Donne it’s almost over-Donne, but, at the risk of another pun, I think Wiman cooks it about right.

Both poems use wind to indicate an absent present—that thing we feel but do not see. Wind as inspiration and exhalation, wind as breath and death, life and love. Love is the third thing Wiman wants from poetry. He sees it in God, he sees it in suffering, he sees it in his family. Sometimes, it flares in all three concurrently, as in “2047 Grace Street:”

                    It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love beyond
my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will love
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet

I suppose it is dangerous to assume this is a poem about Wiman’s wife, but what is poetry for if not danger? Even if it’s not intentionally about the poet’s wife, it’s about the poet’s wife. And it is about the poet. And it is about that death which is coming for both of them—only god knows when.

Few poets have been able to pull off contemplative/metaphysical poetry in the 20th and 21st centuries. Our detached sensibilities make that level of immersion feel overly forced. It can come off as both too submerged and too transcendent. We’d rather float. But Wiman makes a case for going old school. He dives right in to sentiment but swims up with hardly a drop of sentimentality. He asks for belief but never sounds fatuous. We are a god hungry nation. Politicians know it, and it just might be time for poets to know it. Wiman, in this case, is ahead of the curve.

What does Wiman want from poetry? He wants it to be the little wafer on your tongue. He wants it to be what the wafer turns in to. He wants his poems to be what sustains you. Are the poems good or bad? I don’t care. What I care about is that they do good work.


Dean Rader’s debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book of the year. He was won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2016 Common Good Books Prize, judged by Garrison Keillor, and the 2015 George Bogin Award from the Poetry Society of America, judged by Stephen Burt. He writes and reviews regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Huffington Post. Two new collections of poetry appeared in 2017: A book of collaborative sonnets written with Simone Muench, entitled Suture (Black Lawrence Press), and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon), about which, Publishers Weekly writes “few poets capture the contradictions of our national life with as much sensitivity or keenness.” More from this author →