I first read Wiman’s prose and then immediately, subsequently his poetry, a few years ago after hearing him lecture on anxiety and language. Resisting conclusion and revelation, Wiman seems to revel in questions that elude, evade. His allergy to dogma and his passion to drive deeper into questions themselves make his work, I think, of irrevocable importance.
One of my most beloved friends, a fellow poet and loyal reader of my work, started reading poems into my voicemail a couple years ago. It became a habit that kept us close despite physical distance. When, this year, we both faced separate instances of heartache and tragedy, the habit became a way to survive the pain and our distance amidst the pain. I read most of Once in the West into her voicemail. The poems are wrought with loneliness, abandon, and longing. But they are not dire poems. Hope lays in the liminal, in a “grace of sparks,” in the soft space between held hands.
Wiman’s writing has shown me, especially this past year, the hope we can both find and carry in language.
The Rumpus: How would you describe the relationship between Once in the West and your previous collections of poetry?
Christian Wiman: I have become only more sonically inclined (sonically insane, it sometimes seems) as I’ve gotten older. These poems are torqued and contorted in ways that surprise even me. And I suppose there is a religious rage in the book, though that has been building for many years, maybe since the moment I first wawled and cried, to quote Lear.
Rumpus: What kind of landscapes—geographical, autobiographical, emotional, literary, etc.—did these poems rise out of?
Wiman: I can’t seem to escape the apocalyptic flatlands in which I was raised. It is my homeplace, and my hellplace. Even the city scenes are fraught with (“A city of loss lit in me”) and occasionally saved by (“endlessly expendable hours”) a sense of pure space.
There are of course other influences: Dante, Goethe, Csoori, Larry Eigner—all have poems attributed to them. And I suppose Mandelstam is everywhere, as I began this book when I was translating him. Certainly the extreme pressure brought to bear on discrete points of language—enough pressure to actually break words open in places—is something I absorbed from Mandelstam.
Rumpus: A breadth of subjects are elegized in Once in the West—childhood friends, lovers, even the West Texas landscape—which says something about the human need for elegy. When and why do you go to elegy?
Wiman: Like most artists of this time, I go to elegy too automatically. It is a tendency I have to fight against. Adam Phillips thinks there is a whole group of people these days who, because they do not believe in any form of permanence, commit themselves to the loss of those things they love. Even before those things have been lost. This seems to me a fatally accurate diagnosis of one kind of contemporary artistic consciousness. It’s more of an addiction than a philosophy.
Rumpus: Loneliness inhabits many of these poems, often very explicitly. Would you say the human experience is inherently lonely? In a poem called “Music Maybe” you write “one wants in the end just once to befriend / one’s own loneliness, // to make of the ache of inwardness— // something / music maybe.” Is art a (the?) conduit toward connection?
Wiman: Yes, I do think the human experience is inherently lonely. I say this as someone who is in a wonderful marriage and has two ebullient and beloved daughters, plus a number of intimate friends. To be conscious is to be alone.
And yet, there is something sacred and potentially saving in that aloneness too. There is the possibility of God. I’ve long thought that what God’s response to Job—Have you gone down into the springs of the Deep etc.—really is, is a primordial cry of loneliness. No one has seen what I have seen, says God. No one can know what I know.
Rumpus: In a poem called “Rust” you write “And art? // When the rocking stops. / A sense of being henceforth always after.” Some see art as irrelevance, or worse, opulence, in the face of tragedy. Others, art as balm, restoration. How does art converse with loss, suffering, chaos?
Wiman: Well, this goes back to the previous question. In a way, art is elegy even when it isn’t, simply because of the nature of language and perception: there is no now.
I sometimes think art is useless in the face of extreme suffering, but then I remember Miklos Radnoti, Paul Celan, Anna Akhmatova, or Mandelstam—and I bow my head (to them) in awe. I suppose I do believe that the greatest art consoles a wound that it creates, that art can give you the capacity to endure and respond to the pain it forces you to feel. Psychological pain, I mean.
Rumpus: Your work seems to wrestle with, and even revel in, the strain between chaos and order, doubt and belief. How do you use form, line, metaphor to indicate these tensions?
Wiman: I have no idea. I truly do just feel my way through the “bones and nerves” of language. The material aches itself into forms, which inevitably set before I’ve had a chance to understand them, and inevitably leave me—the bundle of accident and incoherence who sits down to breakfast—stranded outside. People ask me sometimes what a particular poem means. I have no idea.
Rumpus: God appears silent, often elusive, in Once in the West and dogma collapses on itself. Grace abounds, however, in quick, inchoate flashes. How can language, poetry specifically, encounter the evanescent nature of the unknown?
Wiman: The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me. Meister Eckhart. The experience of making something can include the experience of being made. I believe there is a mystical dimension to the making of a true poem. I know some poets who don’t believe this at all, but I just don’t see how or why they persist with such an arduous art in light of that.
Rumpus: Lines like “to elegize is obscene” and “too many elegies elevating sadness to a kind of sad religion” seem to refuse memorialization. Memory is often flawed, not as static as we would like to imagine, and a big part of what makes us human. How do we best serve memory, elegy, in poetry?
Wiman: By resisting it. See above. Only the impeded stream sings, to paraphrase Wendell Berry.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? What’s next?
Wiman: I seem to be working on a new prose book. There’s a long chapter—about snakes and faith, both of which I grew up surrounded by—coming out this winter in The American Scholar.
Rumpus: What would it mean for you (or perhaps anyone) “to surrender / to the wonder / nothing / means”?
Wiman: I think this is what Camus was getting at in The Myth of Sisyphus, but he only had the word “absurd” to describe the existence that Sisyphus was reduced to. For Camus (a hero of mine, I should say), Sisyphus’s grin could only be ironic. It was seriously ironic and capable of credible action, but there’s no meaning in it. For some time I have been obsessed with (or maybe by, as it sometimes feels that I am the object, not the subject) the way an utter emptiness can exude some positive force. Meaninglessness rings, sort of, if one can stand in the right relation to it. Like Larkin’s “Aubade.” Like Celan’s “Deathfugue.” Like Christ on the cross crying out to an absent God.