Faith That Aches

This month saw the publication a new volume of poetry from Christian Wiman, Once in the West. Paul Otembra notices “the spiritual ache” coursing through the book:

The poems are continually looking for ways to make something of the frustrations and doubt. This is not the same as trying to make sense of them, and it is uncertain whether these poems believe that is even possible, let alone advisable. Instead, Wiman suggests “to make of the ache of inwardness— // something, / music maybe.” Everything here hinges on that qualifying “maybe.” It is not a shrug of surrender. It is recognition that the singing, while perhaps helpful, is not abundant compensation for suffering. All these poems can claim is to “sing a little nonce // curse / for the curse // of consciousness.” The songs are not plaintive. There is too much edge to the voice for that.

Putting these latest poems in the context of Wiman’s previous writing, Joe Winkler observes the way violence is a preoccupation of his theology:

He finds countless ways, metaphors from all sides of existence, to describe the violence of faith and the faith brought about by violence. Whether the physical violence common in his childhood town: shooting accidents, dead snakes, and birds he kills with a pellet gun, or the violence of “finding Jesus” in front of his church as a youth, or the wounds of belief, the scars of cancers, all of these varied forms of violence cohere into the ultimate wound, for Wiman,  the wound God’s presence or nonpresence leaves behind. For Wiman the violence of the whole of life can’t help but be meaningful, the way a scar is meaningful, a meaning only known to this person through the pain involved. For a few years now, this has been Wiman’s central obsession, a central viewpoint, this “holy flu” of God, the antinomy in which you cannot separate what we turn into opposite categories of evil and good or holy and secular.

You can read one of Wiman’s new poems, “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians,” here. Literary Editor Matthew Sitman’s Deep Dish essay on Wiman is here, and our Ask Anything podcast with him is here.

Andrew Asks Anything: Christian Wiman On Poetry And Faith

I was on break when Matt Sitman’s Deep Dish essay on Christian Wiman and the need to find new language for Christianity in modernity appeared. If you read the essay, you’ll see why Matt is such an integral part of the Dish team, both in terms of the depth of his reading, the elegance of his writing, and the miracle of his enduring faith. Matt and I also had a chance to sit down with Wiman and talk to him about what it really means to be an intelligent, modern person who is also a non-fundamentalist Christian.

Here’s a segment from our conversation when Wiman talks about his descent into unbelief, around his cancer diagnosis, and how he found a way forward through writing poetry that surprised him with its lingering hope. He rejects – as I do – any clear dividing line between belief and unbelief, believing that they both form a process in which belief can be transformed into something more real, and honest:


Dish subscribers can listen to the full podcast here. If you still need to subscribe, here’s the link. Matt’s Deep Dish essay on Wiman is here. A reader loved it:

I’m just writing to give a big thank you to Matt, Andrew, and Christian Wiman for the wonderful conversation, and an special thank you to Matt for his insightful, illuminating essay on Chris’s work. (I feel like I can use that rather intimate name after listening to the conversation this morning). I have long loved Chris’s work and enjoyed listening to him on the Poetry Foundation podcasts for years. What a joy (I use that word reservedly, but it is appropriate here) to hear him discuss his own work, as well as his faith.

As someone who was not raised in any religious tradition, it is a long, confusing, and often lonely path towards finding some way to acknowledge/accommodate/celebrate my strange knowing that God exists, that we are all somehow held by God. As you all acknowledged in your conversation, finding people who feel the same way, or similarly, so helps to ease that loneliness. I felt in communion with all three of you this morning as I walked through my neighborhood with my earbuds in, smiling at your jokes, nodding at so many of your observations. I didn’t feel lonely.

Andrew And Matt Ask Anything: Christian Wiman, Ctd

by Matthew Sitman

Going into our conversation with Christian Wiman, Andrew and I wanted to make sure we gave him the chance to read a few of his poems. Not only is Wiman a brilliant poet, but he’s an exceptionally gifted reader of poetry – he brings an intensity to the task that I always find striking. You can tell this is a man for whom poetry really matters, who sees in an arrangement of words the possibility of revelation. Hearing Wiman read his work transforms how you read it yourself. Or it should. I can’t crack open his books without his Texas-tinged voice crowding out my own.

Both of the poems below are from Every Riven Thing, a volume Wiman published in 2010 that grapples with his cancer diagnosis and renewed Christian faith. The first, “2047 Grace Street,” is one of my personal favorites, and the poem with which I began my essay:


The second poem is “From a Window,” which captures a flash of insight that occurred while looking at a tree:


Dish subscribers can listen to the full podcast here and read my essay on Wiman here. If you still need to subscribe, here’s the link.

Andrew And Matt Ask Anything: Christian Wiman

by Matthew Sitman


I’m fairly certain the first time I encountered Christian Wiman’s work was in October 2012, when I stumbled on an essay of his in The American Scholar titled “Mortify Our Wolves.” I know this because, searching our archives, that was the first time we featured Wiman’s writing on the Dish after I started working here, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. When his book My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer was published the following spring, it was clear no one was writing about faith quite like he was. With our plans to launch Deep Dish starting to take shape, Andrew and I knew we had to sit down with Wiman and record a podcast.

Just over a year ago, we did just that in Andrew’s apartment when Wiman was in New York City for a poetry reading. As a participant in that conversation, I’m not unbiased, but I found Andrew’s and Christian’s exchanges powerful and fascinating. Both men are survivors, have lived longer than they thought they might – and so religion and mortality, along with what the afterlife might be like, figure heavily into the podcast. We also discuss poetry and faith, the problem of suffering, our childhood religious experiences, and more. Philip Larkin’s poems are quoted every few minutes, it seems. You also can hear Andrew sing in Latin. It was a privilege to have spent an afternoon talking with Andrew and Christian, and it’s a real pleasure to now share that conversation with all of you. As a preview, here is the part in which the two of them share their personal experiences encountering death, and how those experiences influenced their faith:

Dish subscribers can listen to the full podcast here. If you still need to subscribe, here’s the link.

Introducing “Finding The Words For Faith”

by Matthew Sitman

It’s an honor – and rather daunting – to see my essay on Christian Wiman, “Finding The Words For Faith,” published on Deep Dish today. Wiman’s poetry and prose have occupied much of my thinking over the past year, and this is my attempt at explaining why I find him such a singular, bracing writer. Indeed, as I assert in my essay, I believe he’s the most important Christian writer in America today.

finding-the-words-for-faithThat’s a big claim to make for a poet and essayist who, while certainly having devoted followers, probably can’t be described as famous. As an admirer of his work, and as someone who has pressed his books into the hands of many of my friends, I’m not the best judge of this. I trust that those immersed in Wiman’s work will appreciate my arguments about how to understand him, and I hope that those hearing about him for the first time will be intrigued by his approach to Christianity. Whether or not Wiman is new to you, however, I can say that when reviews of his latest and most important book, My Bright Abyss, began to emerge, I was disappointed. While many were admiring, I thought most skimmed the surface of Wiman’s thought, or focused too much on the cancer diagnosis that threatened his life. It’s impossible to ignore that a rare, incurable cancer nearly killed him, yet his grappling with faith far exceeds that biographical detail. Christian Wiman offers a creative, powerful account of the Christian faith, but I’m not convinced his work has generated the kind of debate it should have.

What I’ve tried to do in my essay, then, is give Wiman’s writing the sustained attention I believe it deserves. We’re living through a time in which Christianity no longer retains its persuasive force, when religious faith can seem anachronistic, obtuse, or irrelevant. My conviction is that Christian Wiman suggests a better way forward, advancing a credible, compelling way of re-imagining the meaning of faith that can connect with all of us doubting, anxious inhabitants of modern America. The essay available to you now is a result of that belief, and an explication of what he has to teach us.

It’s worth noting, too, that Andrew and I sat down with Christian for a conversation about all these matters, which will be released as a podcast tomorrow. You can have access both to my essay and the podcast by subscribing here.

Talking About God, To Ourselves

Charles Mathewes argues that “we are awash in religious speech even amidst a desert of religious conversation.” He puts much of the blame on how the modern West conceptualizes religion:

[T]he very categories we use to organize our social life and delineate the space we allow for religion—particularly the categories of “religious” versus “secular”—actually hamper our attempts to have such conversations. Scholars … have shown that these categories are the product of the past few centuries of European history and have been shaped by the peculiarities of European religion (especially Protestantism) and politics (especially liberalism). Misshaped, in fact, for our situation: They assume a particular picture of what religion essentially is—mostly, the private encounter of the individual soul with God that takes place in the sublime space of the individual’s most inward and inaccessible subjectivity. In contrast, the “secular” is the outward space, where we negotiate our way amid the material cosmos and our “properly” political concerns—which, by definition, cannot be “properly” religious.

Though he praises the book, he doesn’t exempt Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss from these tendencies:

Wiman seems … more focused on current questions about his wounds than on the route he took to get to those questions, or those wounds. … Augustine turns us to wonder at God and what God hath wrought; Wiman makes us wonder at himself, at the questions he asks and at the courage with which he asks them. But he asks little of the reader beyond that. I am not asking for an altar call, but perhaps some suggestion that a life lived with such intensity and self-awareness may have lessons for our own. Wiman’s prose stops before the foot of the imperative, however, unwilling to climb and address the crowds gathered on the plain.

Previous Dish on Wiman here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Bringing Joy To Life

In an interview, the poet Christian Wiman, whose work often grapples with doubt and death, turns his attention to joy:

I feel that there is a great deal of joy in my work of the past ten years, but I do get letters from people telling me to ditch the sackcloth and ashes, and I get tired of my own grimace in mirrors. Can one really just decide to be more joyful, though? One aspect of joy is the suspension of will—the obliteration of will, really—though probably there is an element of discipline in being prepared for joy, just as there is in being prepared for poetry. “Iridescent readiness,” W. S. Di Piero calls it. And there are these lines from Richard Wilbur:

Try to remember this: what you project
Is what you will perceive; what you perceive
With any passion, be it love or terror,
May take on whims and powers of its own.

The thing is, we are always going to feel God’s absence more than his presence. We are always going to feel the imprint and onslaught of necessity, which is the crucifixion, more than we feel the release and freedom of pure joy, which is the resurrection. The first we experience; the second, even when it emerges out of experience, we believe. In that tiny gap of grammar is an abyss of difference. Suffering we know and share intimately with Christ (it’s how we bear it). Faith and hope are always imaginative—that is to say, projective—acts: “Tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”

Previous Dish on Wiman here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Glimmers Of God

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PBS recently featured Dish favorite Christian Wiman, a poet and essayist, on its Religion & Ethics program. One theme that emerges in the above short video is Wiman’s search for a new, fresh language to describe his encounters with the divine – a search intimately bound up with poetry. In his words:

If you ask me, do I get glimpses of God, yes, I get these glimmerings of intuitions, stronger than that really, where the existence of God seems to me absolute. We all go through our lives and then suddenly we’ll have a moment when we think, I have faith right now in something. I find that I’ve had these moments in my life when I have been overcome by what I only know to call God…

In my experience, the artists that I know, even though they wouldn’t call themselves Christians — some would — but they are the ones who are fighting to remake some kind of language to connect us with the ineffable, with the divine.

If we think that metaphor is how we talk of God, and that seems to me very hard to dispute that there’s any other way of talking to God, talking about God, other than metaphorically, then it would follow that the place where metaphor is most powerfully used, most compressed, most concise, most explosive in poetry would be where we would go to find religious enlightenment.

Previous Dish on Wiman here, here, here, here, and here.

The Road Finally Taken

Robert Frost’s influence on the generations that followed him seemed limited, but the last several decades have yielded renewed interest:

Narrative was the road not taken for Modernism, and Frost’s powerful examples were ignored by the few poets who did major work in the narrative mode. … Then, in the 1980s, just when it would have been safe to declare the matter of Frost’s narrative influence dead, something unexpected happened. A new generation of American poets began to revive verse narrative, and they chose Frost as their chief model.

Born seventy years after Frost and steeped in Modernism, they felt that he had opened up possibilities for a contemporary style of narrative poetry that had never been exploited. They admired both Frost’s technique (blank verse, conversational tone, understated diction, direct dialogue) and his powerfully psychological characterizations. “The New Narrative” became one of the signature movements of the period, and a significant group of young poets emerged, including David Mason, Andrew Hudgins, Mark Jarman, Marilyn Nelson, Sydney Lea, Robert McDowell, and Christian Wiman. All explored the Frostian narrative tradition—often in strikingly different ways. Some of their poems, set in rural locations, such as Lea’s “The Feud,” McDowell’s “The Pact,” and Wiman’s “The Long Home,” pay deliberate homage to their master. Others set in urban or suburban milieu adopt Frost’s techniques to new subject matter. His approach proved both fresh and flexible—​a rich vein of Modernism that had remained untouched.

Previous Dish on Frost here, here and here.

(Video: Robert Frost reads “Birches“)

A Poem For Sunday


“2047 Grace Street” by Christian Wiman:

But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. I say God and mean more
than the bright abyss that opens in that word.
I say world and mean less
than the abstract oblivion of atoms
out of which every intact thing finally goes.
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. 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 live
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes,
crying not as if there had been no night
but as if there were no night in which it had not been.

(From Every Riven Thing © 2011 by Christian Wiman. Reprinted with kind permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Photo by Flickr user jimw)