Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

New Wine in Old Wineskins

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
Christian Wiman.
Copper Canyon Press. 2007. 249 pp.
ISBN 1-55659-260-7.

In 2003, when Christian Wiman was named the editor of Poetry, perhaps historically the most prestigious poetry journal to publish in the English language, he was not particularly well known. As for the journal, it is arguable that its elite status was almost solely based on the enormous cultural capital it accrued prior to World War II.

Wiman was hired by the Poetry Foundation, the non-profit entity established to manage a $100 million endowment bestowed upon Poetry by Ruth Lilly, heiress to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, in 2002. While far less astonishing than Lilly's largesse, the choice of Wiman as editor was itself a surprise.

With the new found wealth of the Foundation behind him, he was in a position to make creative decisions not available to most editors. The journal, for years a thin, humble, buff production, was redesigned. Semi-gloss covers began to feature art work (one even done by Ralph Steadman, famed illustrator for Hunter Thompson's schtick). Pages were added.

More important, however, was the question as to just what those pages were to be filled with. The Foundation, it turned out, had chosen well. Its new editor would use the journal's (and his own) greatly enhanced position to challenge the orthodoxy of contemporary poetry.

The Poetry Foundation now with its $100 million endowment, and Wiman, from his prestigious editor's chair, could afford to transgress boundaries that might daunt mere mortals… and transgress they did. Wiman responded to Poetry Month with a column which asked the question: "Should poetry survive?" He encouraged rhyme and meter as viable options. As editor, he hosted book reviews that have been described as "pugnacious" (by the Boston Globe), a change which so angered the "professional" poetry world that he has since felt it wise to dial back a bit.

Wiman is something of a minor enigma. He is not a revolutionary, neither the new Ezra Pound nor Allen Ginsberg nor even Kenneth Rexroth. The changes he has instituted have shocked not because they are another death defying continuation of some trend toward the deconstruction of western mores but because they take back ground that yesterday's revolutionaries thought they had irretrievably sown with salt. It is a fair guess that this is, in considerable part, what has made him an exceptional editor and Poetry a better journal. It is also what makes his most recent book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, an unusually engaging read.

Ambition and Survival is a selection of Christian Wiman's prose from 1993 to present. In the preface, however, he offers it up as more than a collection:

The essays could not be more different, but they are so intimately related that I think of them as parts of a single work. Indeed, I have had this book in mind for a long time, have for so many years meant it to be a book rather than simply a collection of miscellaneous prose pieces, that I am relieved now not to have published a selection of exclusively critical work or woven the personal pieces into a memoir...

While this is true only in the sense that the autobiography and lit. crit. emerge from a single life and mind — that is to say, in the most general sense — it is enough to hang a book on. Quite a good one as it turns out.

Ambition and Survival is divided into five sections. The first contains most of the autobiographical pieces; the second, general literary essays. The third is essentially a selection of aphorisms gleaned from various prose pieces that did not otherwise make their way into the book. The fourth is a selection of short reviews and the fifth returns to biography with a single essay that set the poetry world aflutter when it first appeared in American Scholar last year.

The autobiographical pieces are poignant without being sentimental but more importantly, they are interesting. Wiman's father was a character as uniquely human as any in fiction. Wiman himself has traveled (on one occasion with his father) at length specializing, it seems, in off-the-beaten-path destinations.

The longer pieces tend to be ruminant, the shorter incisive. A sense of the richness of literary tradition and the chaotic and deracinated quality of contemporary life imbues the whole. Small details are frequently explored at gratifying length:

We often simply won't ask each other where we're from, skirting the question as if it were either too intimate, or, more likely, too involved to broach. When the question is asked, though, it invariably elicits a perceptible pause and narrowing of the eyes while the person who has been asked tries to figure out exactly which version of the question they're meant to answer. Where have they lived longest? Where did they most recently leave? Or is this the earliest version of all, seeking the one place that, though they may never return to it, inevitably returns to them?

As this passage might suggest, Wiman has an easy familiarity with the craft of the general essay. Literary context is thrown off altogether for long stretches, in opening section of the book, in favor of it.

The author also displays an epigrammatical bent throughout. This means, of course, that his book is highly quotable:

— Wielding power in the poetry world is roughly the equivalent of cutting a wide swath through your local PTA.

— You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.

— Lowell's fourteen-liners have a Promethean reach to them (but a pygmy's grasp).

— You're not a man at sixteen, you're a gland.

Limited though epigram may be, who can help but love it? It is a trait that delights both readers and book reviewers when done so well.

The literary essays, in the second section, taken together, may remind some readers of W. H. Auden's "Making, Knowing and Judging" (from The Dyer's Hand). The old craggy-faced don was an expert at the comfortably discursive at-large literary essay and the author of Ambition and Survival approaches his level. The trade-off for dread near-linearity is a solidity that is no longer common in the contemporary, popular literary essay (inasmuch as it continues to exist). These are essays with something meaningful to say to us and that say it well.

The aphorisms of the third section are every bit as good, more concise and likely to be more to the taste of the prosaically-challenged poet and reader endowed with the prevailing attention span. In fact, the danger here, as well as in the epigrammatical matter scattered throughout the book, is that such readers may be unable to avoid judging the substance by the style. Amongst the proverbial nuggets of gold are some few of pyrite and the latter need to be sifted out and examined in order to separate them from their glister. Because so much is left unsaid in the aphorism and the epigram the reader is required to bring more to her or his reading, not less.

The reviews gathered together in the fourth section do not fare as well. Republishing short reviews from magazines and journals is the type of thing that rarely works well in book form. It would have been better perhaps to select one or two which still piqued the author's interest and to have expanded them into essays. As it is, the section reads like an auto mechanic discussing why this car doesn't corner well and that one is experiencing uneven tread wear. None of the author's better qualities have room to move around, and, as a result, the pieces are generic.

The fifth section consists alone of the essay "Love Bade Me Welcome." In it, Wiman informs his readers that he has a rare and incurable blood disease (Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia). Soon after his diagnosis, he returned both to writing poetry (something he had not felt able to do for years) and attending church (he and his wife attend the "liberal United Church of Christ" according to the Chicago Sun-Times). The latter he had not done since he was a teenager in a dedicated evangelical family.

Again, the piece is not at all sentimental, nor is it self-pitying. And again, he is able to draw upon resources uniquely available to him in order to turn his personal experience into a potentially liberating act for his craft. On this occasion, his position with the now heavily resourced Poetry Foundation, together with the revelation that he is mortally ill, has allowed him to reintroduce the word "God" (note the uppercase "G") into the poetic vocabulary without eliciting more than low grumbling from the poetry world. The standard approach, these days, of collectively ignoring the heretic (the populist version of excommunication) is impossible when he's the publishing equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Christian Wiman has been expanding the territory of poetry after an ironic fashion for some five years now. While his Savior warns him that one can not put new wine in old wineskins, he seems supremely aware that literature has historically done so time and again, often with exceptional results. Even Biblical metaphors have their context. Even the church of poetry may profit from a counter-reformation.

In Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet we learn a bit about the seed ground from which Wiman's ideas have sprung and see them cultivated. To borrow yet another of our collective metaphors: may he continue to tend his little garden for many years to come.


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