Photo by Andrew Shiau // Unsplash

A Consciousness Awake to Reality

The poet Christian Wiman opened the New York Encounter highlighting this year’s theme: “Tearing Open the Sleeping Soul.” The following morning we sat down for a conversation with him.
Hannah Keegan

“It's been a long time since the beat of my heart was a friend.” Following a performance of Home From Home by Roo Panes, poet Christian Wiman opened the 2024 New York Encounter with this lyric and asked, “How do we befriend the beating of our hearts if we can’t even hear it?”

I first met Wiman last December through a New Yorker article. The title compelled me to click: “How the Poet Christian Wiman Keeps His Faith.” I learned that Wiman has lived an exceptionally intense life. From a childhood history of “aggression and dysfunction” as characterized by the New Yorker article, Wiman studied English and then taught before becoming editor of Poetry magazine in 2003. Shortly after getting married, Wiman was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. These dramatic life instances made up the flesh of his encounter with Christ and the flowering of a life-long experience of (sometimes unrecognized) faith. I began to read his most recent book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, and discovered that what makes him extraordinary as a poet and as a man are not the extraordinary circumstances of his life, but his poverty in the midst of these circumstances. His capacity to receive and to respond to what he has received – even the brokenness and wretchedness and bleakness of it all – is striking. Wiman is a witness to what blossoms in the encounter with the Word made flesh.

“You can’t hear the word of God until you’ve heard the Word,” said Wiman in the NYE opening – and this Word is manifest in the dailiness of life, the rustling of leaves, in the embrace of a friend, or, as you’ll read in the conversation I had with him, in a small moth.

You write, “Faith is a grace, not an achievement.” What was that first encounter of faith for you?
I've encountered faith all my life, but maybe didn't recognize exactly what it was. It was always through poetry. But I had an experience when I was a little younger than 40 and I met my wife and I got sick, and a lot of things happened together. I went to church one morning – I hadn't been in 20 years – and came home and wrote a poem, and that was the first poem I'd written in three years. It’s called “Every Riven Thing.” That day, and then for weeks afterwards, the world was lighting up.

In Zero at the Bone you wrote, “it was after I had knelt down one day and assented to the faith that had always been latent within me.” What do you mean that it was ‘latent’ in you?
Because God is real, and there's not anybody who isn't given a chance to have faith. We just don't recognize the promptings that we are given. Or, we refuse them. All of us are given moments of joy in our life, but we don't always know what to do with them. I read an essay by Zadie Smith years ago where she talked about having five or six experiences of true joy in her life that she would distinguish from pleasure. She wrote that if an angel came down right now and asked her if she would like another experience of joy right now she might say ‘no,’ because those experiences were so destabilizing that they also made the rest of her life pale in comparison. I think that's what happens if you don't know what to do with joy – if it doesn't have an object, it becomes destabilizing.

At another point you write that in human love there's “both a plea for and a promise of the love of God.” You have experienced an abundance of suffering. How do you perceive that plea and promise in those really dark places?
It’s easier to see it in those dark places if you're given an instance of love. It's almost easier when we're suffering to perceive love in its intensity. But, the reality of life can slip away and become lost in the dailiness. There is a wonderful poem that illustrates this called Small Moth:

She's slicing ripe white peaches
into the Tony the Tiger bowl
and dropping slivers for the dog
poised vibrating by her foot to stop their fall
when she spots it, camouflaged,
a glimmer and then full on—
happiness, plashing blunt soft wings
inside her as if it wants
to escape again.

Now, you’re a mother, you've got little kids, you know what taking care of them is like.

Right, a lot of it's chaos. You're going through your day and you're thinking, man, I don't have a second to think. She's doing that, and suddenly she sees this small moth, which she names happiness, and she realizes that she's happy. I would call that a moment of joy that cuts into her life from above and lets her see happiness, which is a temporal quality. A moment of eternity cuts into her temporal moment and lets her see it. And that's what we refuse to recognize. Now, the question is, what happens after this? You have this moment – Sarah Lindsay has this moment – what happens then? Do you recognize that happiness? Does it call you to do something? Does it call you to live differently? That's where faith emerges.

That reminds me of Simone Weil, and how often you quote her throughout your book.
She's probably the most important writer in my life.

I first read her when I was 21. She gave me a language for things that I was experiencing and feeling. She was the first person, and then Marilynne Robinson was the other in her book, Housekeeping. Both of them gave me a language for absence as presence, for a kind of lack leading to fulfillment.

But in your book I noticed a theme that is almost opposite to this idea of absence. At one point you write, “reality is catalyzed by engagement, not by detachment.” How does that discovery fit in with what Weil is saying?
It doesn't fit in. I think that Weil stopped. I think there's another step beyond what she articulated.

Which is what?
Which is relationship. I think the truth of God is in relationship. That's why I take the Trinity very seriously. God is relationship. And if we think of our lives, we emulate or go through that relationship in our own lives all the time. God is absolute otherness beyond what we can know but then God has permeated reality like that small moth, which is the life of Christ. And the Holy Spirit is the power of imagination that lets us see these things.

What is this relationship between your experience of creating and your relationship to God?

I don't understand poetry. I don't understand where it comes from. I don't understand how a poem gets written. I sometimes write poems that I don't understand until years later. But there is something in that experience that I'm convinced is divine or sacred, and that is the most powerful way in which I’ve felt the presence of God in my life. The danger of that is when you can't write, and I go through long periods of not being able to write. For me creating seems wrapped up with my life in God and it’s sometimes bliss and sometimes torment.

You wrote that to ask if a sentence is ‘true’ is the wrong question – that instead we should ask if it creates spaces in which truth can move. How does poetry let you into that space more than other things?
Well it perhaps doesn't more than other kinds of art, but for me it does. For a lot of people that space is created through music or visual art. I don't think poetry is necessarily more powerful, although it is interesting that poetry is often used in the Bible. If you think of faith in Fr. Giussani's terms – as an event – the event is not something that you can articulate or describe. It's something that you can only be in wonder before. I write a lot of prose which is always ex post facto. It's after the fact of discoveries I've made in poetry, trying to figure out what the poem has shown me. But we have to maintain faith with that original event, which cannot be reduced to something. I think art does that. That's why I think faith is being sustained by artists, even when they're not religious.

I’m thinking about the moth in the poem you just read. When we’re in the slog of normal life, and maybe not in the midst of a dramatic question or problem, how can we be helped to stay in a position of wonder, helped to sustain faith?
There are as many answers to that as there are people. It means something different for every single person. I think what I was trying to say last night at the opening for the Encounter is that each of us is called to protect our own consciousness. We each have to figure out how to do that. And for me that means continuing to create and not giving in to despair. But it might look different for another person.

How do you educate that consciousness with your students?
I teach literature, so I see my goal as teaching them first what literature can do and how to recognize it. But also how it can help to maintain faith in these spaces in your life, this consciousness. So that's where I see my role. It's limited. My responsibility is to the work of art, and I see my job as showing them this work of art, illuminating it, trying to teach what it can do in their lives, but beyond that, I have no power with how they use it, how they might misunderstand it.

The subtitle of your book is “fifty entries against despair.” I realize that each entry in its own way communicates what gives you hope, but can you distill for us what gives you hope?
It’s bound up with faith. I think hope is really a condition of the soul and not a response to circumstance. And I think when we have faith, we have hope. That's why maintaining consciousness is so important, because it's bound up with having faith and hope. When I have hope, I am able to feel that I'm conscious of reality in the way that I'm supposed to be, whether it's working, interacting with my students, interacting with my kids, etc. Sometimes just perceiving reality as it is can give you hope.

In your experience, what is the relationship between faith and hope?
There’s another writer that I love named Fanny Howe. She wrote a fantastic novel called Indivisible where she describes the experience of faith as a feeling that we are safe. There's this momentary, instantaneous sense that no matter what, we are safe. I think that true faith gives you a sense that no matter what, there is some ultimate arbiter, some ultimate reality playing out that is meant to be, and as bad as it seems, you can rely on that.

And hope?
And hope is what grows out of that. Out of that experience where you can't make a poem happen, no matter what. You can sit down with all the will in the world and you can't make it happen – it has to come to you from outside in some way. Even the most secular poet says that. But what you can do is learn to preserve and protect the state of readiness. And I think there's an analog there in terms of faith: you cannot make those moments of faith happen to you – those moments of grace – but you can be ready for them. Instead of being ready, we often shut them out of our lives and become hopeless and overwhelmed by all that's going on. The power against this shutting down is often the tiniest thing, like that small moth.

Is risking to have faith reasonable?
Yes. I just read a book by Emmanuel Carrere, a French novelist who was very devout for a while in his thirties and then fell away and he wrote a book called The Kingdom in which he talks about his experience of faith. He's clearly someone who decided that he took a risk and it was wrong, and now he's trying to exercise it with this book. I found it very powerful because it's very familiar to me. But I do feel in the end that even if he's honest with himself, it was a bit of a flinch. A bit of not facing up to what he'd been granted. Any direction you go is a risk, because you may be wrong. And if you've been given these powerful moments, as I have, then it would be quite a sin to turn away from that.

Why is it a sin to turn away?
If I were to give up on faith, the world would be ashen to me. Just ashen. There would be nothing but what you can get out of it – what pleasure you can get out of it before you die. And that life seems to me barren. I'm always quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel that faith is mostly faithfulness to the times that we had faith. And I think that's a very hopeful notion, that you have to be faithful to the moments when reality did make sense to you, when you did burn with the life of God.