Faith, in poetry
Christian Wiman lost his faith in God, fell in love with poetry, edited a prestigious magazine, got married, got sick, and found God again. Now he’s teaching at Yale.
Mark Oppenheimer ’96, ’03PhD, writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times and directs the Yale Journalism Initiative.
The poet and editor Christian Wiman, who this fall joins the faculty of the Yale Divinity School and its affiliated Institute of Sacred Music, is a surprising hire. To begin, he is a poet who wants to teach at a divinity school. Although some of the greatest poets in English, like Milton and Donne, have been Christians, the relationship between poetics and piety—so obvious from biblical times through the Victorian era—now seems sundered; poets are a very secular bunch, and Wiman is that rare Christian writing good poetry.
What’s more, it is curious that the editor of the prestigious magazine Poetry would leave his enviable job to teach aspiring ministers, of no necessary literary gifts. And it is nearly unprecedented that a top divinity school would create a position for a man with no doctorate, no scholarly publications, and no ordination—for a layman who writes poetry, loves theology, and decided in his thirties that he was a Christian again.
When we meet in early March at New Haven’s Anchor Bar, Wiman, 46, explains how he got here. He grew up in Snyder, in west Texas, the middle of three children. His father, a small-town doctor, left when Wiman was a teenager. After high school, he attended Washington and Lee University. “Honestly,” he says, “it was the only school that sent me information in the mail.” His freshman year, Wiman was broke and nearly dropped out. Tennis saved him. Wiman’s team made a season-end tournament, and the university president came to watch. “Somebody told him during the tournament what was happening with me, that I was leaving,” Wiman remembers. “The next day, after the tournament was over, I got a big scholarship to stay there.”
During college, Jesus left and Yeats entered. Wiman had grown up in a Southern Baptist church, in a town dominated by evangelicals, and he didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a believer. “They read the Bible all the time,” he says. “They read for literal truths. But also, God was—and Jesus was—right there in your life. If you had a problem, go in the room and just go pray to Jesus, and He would give you the answer.” Wiman says that Scripture had never given him that kind of automatic assurance, but he had never questioned the foundational idea that the Bible was true—until Washington and Lee, when he began to meet atheists. Once unbelief became a possibility, he found that it suited him.
“It just ended,” he says. “I read a few books, and put it all behind me.” Asked what books helped unravel his Christian worldview, he mentions Nietzsche, but also “poets, all kind of things.” His junior year, he took a semester at Oxford, where he bought a collection that included William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot. And that was it. “I remember sitting out there and reading those poems and thinking, ‘This is it. I need to write something that sounds like this.’ Just the sound.” He didn’t understand all the poems, but he didn’t care. “I just wanted the sound of it, you know?”
I do know. Lots of people have felt that pull. But few of us commit to the life of lyric poetry and spend decades trying to pack as much meaning and as much beauty into as few lines as possible. That work of gorgeous terseness, reducing and reducing until the words are just so, is brutal, and the people who succeed can be monomaniacal, treating every failure as provocation to redouble one’s obsession. In his essay collection Ambition and Survival, from 2007, Wiman writes: “When I read Samuel Johnson’s comment that any young man could compensate for his poor education by reading five hours a day for five years, that’s exactly what I tried to do, practically setting a timer every afternoon to let me know when the little egg of my brain was boiled.”
After college, Wiman traveled incessantly—Guatemala, Mexico, Prague. He ran out of money in Morocco; on Long Island, he taught tennis. He wrote poems, and a few got published. In 1998, he published his first collection, The Long Home. He taught at Stanford, he taught for a time at Lynchburg College, in Virginia, but he stayed on the move, making poems out of experience. Between the ages of 21 and 36, Wiman moved 40 times.
In 2002, the peripateticism ended. He arrived in Chicago, to teach at Northwestern, and a year later was appointed editor of Poetry, which had its headquarters in town. In 2002, just before Wiman took over, Ruth Lilly, the pharmaceuticals heiress, had given the small, esteemed magazine nearly $200 million—a totally ridiculous sum for a magazine, let alone a magazine of poems. Wiman, who has written of his general aversion to money and to accumulating things, was all of a sudden the Croesus of verse. He used the magazine’s share of the money shrewdly: building out the magazine’s website, commissioning essays by good writers, paying more than poets were used to getting, finding new readers, tripling the circulation.
Anyone who wields that kind of checkbook is bound to attract critics. In 2007, New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear ’98 dedicated a long article to attacking the Poetry Foundation, which administers the Lilly grant, for having been captured by middlebrow capitalists with dismal taste in poetry. She largely spared Wiman, although when she wrote that he wanted “the poems in his first book, often rhymed and metered, to be accessible to his family,” one does not get the sense she meant it as a compliment. (Goodyear declined to be interviewed.)
It’s hard to swing an iamb without hitting someone who disdains Wiman’s tenure. The poet John Casteen says that one specialty of Poetry under Wiman has been “second-rate work by poets of first-rate reputation.” In 2007, Casteen wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review that the critics Wiman published practice “the arrogant, masturbatory, spiteful, bombastic, and mean-spirited hatchet job.”
One critic Wiman has published is David Orr ’00JD, who offers another common view of Wiman. (The man seems to inspire very little neutrality.) “He’s a very good poet, a very good critic, and a superb editor,” Orr writes in an e-mail. “He’s one of the only genuine triple threats that I can think of in American poetry. The really interesting thing about Wiman is that he’s not a joiner (the opposite, if anything), yet he’s done a terrific job with the only journal that almost all American poets have some stake in. Imagine if you put, say, Christopher Hitchens in charge of the New York Times—and he succeeded. It’s that strange.”
The waves of conflict crashing all around Wiman would be energizing to some editors or writers—the late Christopher Hitchens, to take Orr’s example, enjoyed controversy the way the rest of us enjoy oxygen. But not Wiman. “I adapted,” he says. “I hated it at first.” But he soon realized that a powerful editor has a terrific opportunity to help people. “Poetry is so lonely. People get no response to what they’re doing, and at the magazine we can give them a lot of response.”
And fairly soon, Wiman had other matters to distract him. He was married in 2005, to Danielle Chapman, a coworker at the foundation. Seven months after his wedding, he was diagnosed with Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, an incurable blood cancer, which is now in remission. And in 2006, he became a Christian again, after wandering into Epiphany United Church of Christ, down the block from his house in Chicago. He liked the pastor, Matt Fitzgerald ’97MAR, and they soon became close friends, as did their wives.
Wiman and Fitzgerald would talk about God, and Wiman did what writers do when they get interested in something: he found stuff to read. In this case, theology—difficult theology, of diverse kinds. He has read the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, an anti-liberal, and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a hero to liberals. He has read the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart; the French leftist philosopher Simone Weil, who was born Jewish in France and became a follower of Christianity in her adulthood, but was never baptized; and the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. The contemporary German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, which discusses God as a being who suffered on the cross, “was devastating to me,” Wiman says.
In other words, Wiman has given himself, perhaps in Johnson’s five hours a day for five years, an education not unlike the one given students at Yale Divinity School. During that time, he was also twice a guest of the Divinity School, where he impressed students and faculty with his poetry as well as his theological literacy. Nobody seems to remember who came up with the idea—was it Wiman? was it Martin Jean, the director of the Institute of Sacred Music?—but soon there was talk of a hire.
The Institute of Sacred Music, which in 1972 moved from Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, to the Divinity School, was founded to train musicians and choral conductors. But it offers courses in literature and visual arts, too. “Why have a creative writer on the faculty as opposed to a scholar?” Peter Hawkins, a literature professor at ISM who teaches a course on Dante, asks rhetorically. “Isn’t it about time?”
Wiman’s writing since his diagnosis has shown the searing experience of his disease. “No telling how, / with all the other trees around / it alone was struck,” he writes in “After the Diagnosis,” from his 2010 collection Every Riven Thing. In April, Wiman published a spiritual memoir, My Bright Abyss, which discusses his assent “to the faith that was latent within me”—but also his gout, his bladder stones, and the “dull, devouring pain, as if the earth were already—but slowly—eating me.” He writes of his prayers to his pain: “That it not—but I know it will—get worse.”
Wiman is not a lugubrious presence, nor the cause of lugubriousness in others. Fitzgerald sounds perky when talking about his friend. He is awed by Wiman’s eagerness to read theology, which Fitzgerald confesses even he, a minister, can find “very dry.” He says that Wiman “is a wonderful preacher,” too, and has preached at several churches, including St. Pauls in Chicago, where Fitzgerald is now the pastor. And Fitzgerald says that reading poems with Wiman—he mentions Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”—has made him think about his own use of language, and has made his own sermons both shorter and better.
At the Institute and the Divinity School, Wiman will eventually teach four classes a year, including a poetry workshop, a class on spiritual memoir, and a class on accidental theologians: writers who are theologically profound in spite of themselves. “You think of devotional poetry as always being turned toward God,” Wiman says, “and I think there’s a lot of poetry that is not, that pulls away, that looks like it’s turning away from God,” but in so doing “calls into being that presence.” Larkin is one example, but so too are the Psalms. Asked if he believed in the Resurrection, Wiman told a reporter for Texas Monthly that he did, but not the way he believed that the earth revolves around the sun. “I try to live toward it,” Wiman finally said of this other, perhaps metaphorical kind of belief.
Wiman, his wife, his twin 3-year-old daughters, and his two dogs will move to New Haven in June. “It feels like my whole life has been heading in this direction,” Wiman says. He comes close to saying there has been something providential about the last decade. What if he had not married, gotten sick, found God again? “I probably would have floated,” he says. “I think it took a jolt, really. I wish it wouldn’t have. I think I would still be in a kind of agony tending toward despair. Right now I’m in an agony tending toward joy.”