The link between art and faith, as seen by a noted poet.
When Wiman (Religion and Literature/Yale Univ.; Once in the West, 2014, etc.), a former editor of Poetry magazine, was 38, he had lunch with poet Donald Hall. During the meal, Hall “turned his Camel-blasted eighty-year-old Yeti decrepitude to me” and made a startling admission. “I was thirty-eight when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last,” Hall said. That’s a shocking thing for any young writer to hear, but Hall’s statement would take on greater resonance when, a few years later, Wiman received a cancer diagnosis. In this memoir, the author considers the question, “What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” For Wiman, one answer is faith, but as he puts it, spiritual hunger is like poetry in that it “thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.” Throughout this volume, the author explores the relationship between poetry and faith and the lessons each has taught him. He references many poems, most notably Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” in which Larkin laments “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now” and “The good not done, the love not given, time / Torn off unused.” Wiman also writes of the poets he has known, among them A.R. Ammons, who, during a reading when Wiman was an undergraduate, said to the crowd, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this,” and sat down; and Mary Oliver, who, after Wiman picked her up for Chicago’s annual Poetry Day, examined with wonder a dead half-pigeon they found on the ground, stuffed it into her jacket, and gave her reading with the half-pigeon still in her pocket.
“It is hard learning to live ‘one hour higher than the torments,’ ” Wiman writes, quoting Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. This moving book explores not only those torments, but also the understanding that art can provide.