Christian Wiman and I are neighbors even though we have never met in person. I have been frustrated with Mr Wiman for a long time especially when during a radio show here in Chicago when asked who are his favorite poets he lauded Phillip Larkin and Donald Justice and dismissed Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and others by not mentioning their names as important.
Wiman is part of a larger reaction to the poetic that starts with Pound and Stein and flows down to poets today like Cole Swensen and Peter Gizzi. This poetic of collage, parataxis, experimentation and juxtposition is not appreciated by Wiman and his poetic brethern like Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Dana Gioia and the rest because it challenges what poetry has been and will be and creates a poetic of challenge that in the end is disturbing.
But having said all this I cannot dismiss Wiman. There are few serious poets writing in the American idiom today who take religion and the spiritual seriously. Apart from Peter O'Leary (another Chicago Neighbor) most After-Postmodern poets are more likely to write about Johannes Kepler or Beehives then religious themes and Wiman does justice to this concern and does it well. Wiman is a committed Christian- and I am a committed Catholic which while not considered Christians by Fundamentalists; we are often concerned with the same questions.
I was book shopping last week at Seminary Coop- I picked up some Christmas reading and one of the books I picked up was Wiman's Ambition and Survival: Becoming A Poet. The structure of this book is puzzling. It is made up of essays on different topics that are laced with uncomfortably personal revelations and the poetic politic of the Neo-Formalists/Quietude. I could not help but think that this book was informed by the great Mid-Twentieth Century Catholic conversion/journey narratives of Thomas Merton (Seven Storey Mountain), Dorothy Day (From Union Square to Rome) Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and the poetry of William Everson. Unlike so many books written today on poetry or poetics there is a destination in this book and while I may not like or agree with it- we are going somewhere.
I am still working through the book but one essay that I keep going back to is one on Wiman's sojourn in Guatemala. I think Wiman and I are about the same age- late 30's early 40's and I also spent more time than Wiman, living in Latin America but it seems to be an important part of his life as is it of mine. The essay; Reading Milton is interesting . Wiman is in Guatemala one of the great fonts of poetry in the Americas reading Milton during Holy Week in Antigua.
If one does not know in Antigua during Holy Week the people make Alfombras (Carpets) of flowers and other organic matter that are kind of like Catholic Mandalas that are walked over by the procession it is one of the great specticals of this Hemisphere. So back to the melancoly. In this essay he talks about the generousity of the family he stayed with, the way they put themselves out for him- a broke poet- and it ends, sadly that he has forgotten their names.
The essay is both sad and a little disturbing. Does he mean to critique himself for his insentivity? or is he being ironic- which is not something that most Neo-Formalists are comfortable with? I keep trying to find the redemption in the essay and I read on in the book to look for that in the work.
I am going to blog more about Wiman's book because it is so different than what you get from other poetic essayists. I enjoy spending time with work and poets that I do not agree with There is a great word in all Latin languages Amplia, it means Ample in the English sense but it also means open and full and that is what reading someone you disagree with allows one to do.