Not every poet comes before the world announced by the herald of his ambition. There are rare poets, like Emily Dickinson or George Herbert, who seem content to let posterity unbury their talents, not even taking much care to make sure their manuscripts survive. But these are the exceptions — and who knows whether their diffidence is not itself one of the subtle disguises worn by ambition? Much more often, however, the poet's desire for fame and mastery is explicit, at once the fuel of his writing and its theme. Horace boasted of his odes, "I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze"; Shakespeare promised, "Not marble nor the gilded monuments / Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme." In these brags we see the nobility of the poet's desire for fame, but also its Luciferian element. To defy death, to turn nature upside down, all by the power of one's own mind — there is something questionable about that kind of ambition, which seems to invite nemesis. No wonder Milton, in whom poetic ambition and Christian piety were each a passion, called fame "the last infirmity of noble minds."
That glorious infirmity, however, looks like strength itself compared to the worldly self-seeking that passes for ambition in contemporary American poetry. With its workshops and graduate programs and endowed chairs and lecture series and annual prizes, the poetry world resembles nothing so much as the Church of England in the 18th-century — an ostensibly spiritual institution grown torpid with respectability. To say of an American poet today that she is ambitious usually means nothing more than that she wants to get into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, have her book published by a trade press, and eventually reach the Parnassian heights of a professorship of creative writing. This kind of ambition resembles the sacred rage of the poet about as much as the curate dreaming of a benefice resembles Saint Paul.
As the editor of Poetry magazine, Christian Wiman occupies the equivalent of a bishopric in the American poetry world. The wonderful thing about "Ambition and Survival" (Copper Canyon Press, 248 pages, $18), his new book of essays and autobiographical prose, is that it shows how completely that position fails to satisfy his own ambition. Not that he disdains the job — as readers of the magazine know, it has enjoyed a critical and creative renaissance under Mr. Wiman's editorship, and he will certainly be remembered as one of the best editors in its long history. But listen to the way Mr. Wiman talks about the job, in the book's terrible and moving concluding essay, "Love Bade Me Welcome."
I finally found a reliable publisher for my work...moved into a good teaching job, and then quickly left that for the editorship of Poetry. But there wasn't a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.
The reason these worldly achievements palled, Mr. Wiman says, is that they came at a moment when he had stopped writing poetry. "Whatever connection I had long experienced between word and world, whatever charge in the former I had relied on to let me feel the latter, went dead," he explains. His even tone makes it possible to pass lightly over this sentence, which crystallizes a genuine poet's whole experience of life. For such a poet, the "charge" of art does not run from the world to the word — he does not treat his life as material to be funneled onto the page. Rather, the enlivening potential runs the other way, from wordtoworld:onlybyandthrough writing about it does experience become comprehensible, meaningful, bearable. Poetic ambition is ferocious, Mr. Wiman suggests, because it is a matter, if not of life and death, at least of happiness or misery. Without the ability to shape experience into artistic form, the poet suffers.
It is for this reason, and only this reason, that Mr. Wiman leads off "Ambition and Survival" with a series of essays about his own life, which reveal and meditate on the particular kinds of suffering he has known. His goal is not to titillate the reader with scandals, in the style of the ordinary memoirist. On the contrary, his prose is tightly controlled, in an effort to keep the vision lucid and the emotional temperature low. We learn that Mr. Wiman grew up in Texas, in a "tiny, parched, purgatorial town" whose Southern Baptist piety was both an oppression and a consolation. His family history was full of ghosts: his mother had seen her own mother murdered by her father when she was 14 years old; his aunt committed suicide before he was born; his father, a psychiatrist, was prone to depression and once refused to come out of his room for months at a time.
It is no wonder that, with such an upbringing, Mr. Wiman understands torment and redemption as more than just metaphors. He is no longer exactly a believing Christian: "I can't say exactly when my faith fell away. Perhaps it is — I am — still falling," he writes. But he makes clear that the existential demand he brings to poetry, the awe and urgent need, are his equivalents for what the believer finds in religion. "There are even moments," he admits, "always when writing a poem, always when I am suspended between what feels like real imaginative rapture and being absolutely lost, that I experience something akin to faith, though I have no idea what that faith is for."
Here Mr. Wiman's exploration of the spirituality of art evolves naturally into an argument about aesthetics. The quality he values most in poetry, he writes, is "some sense that a fully inhabited life — be it brief, or narrow, or in some fundamental way thwarted — has been suffered into form." That resonant phrase contains a very elusive experience, which perhaps only a poet or a devoted reader of poetry can fully understand — just as, perhaps, only the person who has received grace can know what grace is.
But Mr. Wiman comes as close as any writer I know to explaining it, in the book's title essay, "Finishes: On Ambition and Survival." The "wrongness" that hurts poets into poetry, he writes, "is an abstraction, a conviction, in both senses of that word, deep-held and never quite definable." Crucially, Mr. Wiman insists, it has nothing to do with the vividness of one's traumas: "It isn't somehow added to or replenished by the experience of actual suffering." It is more like the fate that Philip Larkin was talking about when he wrote, "Isolate rather this element/That spreads through other lives like a tree/ And sways them on in a sort of sense/And say why it never worked for me."
It is in response to that wrongness that the poet seeks the rightness of formal language. Mr. Wiman reminds us of the vital truth that the critic Yvor Winters taught, and that most contemporary poets refuse to hear: that form, in a good poem, does not stem from a deficiency of feeling, but from its painful excess. "Art — or, to be more precise, form — is not only what enables artists to experience this sense of wrongness at all ... it is their only hope of wholeness and release."
This ethical and spiritual understanding underlies Mr. Wiman's acute critical remarks on a wide range of poets, from Donne and Milton to Lowell and Heaney. Mr. Wiman identifies strongly with poems like "Lycidas" and "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket," whose formal energy is so great that they seem like incantations against reality: they "don't enact feeling so much as withstand it." Yet he also recognizes the limitations of such an art, and knows that the best poetry can be more open and humane than those virtuoso poems. "More and more what I want is some complete saturation of the actual, to feel some part of the real world wanting me to make it into words," he writes in "Fugitive Pieces II." That calling, at once religious, ethical, and aesthetic, is one that only a genuine poet can hear — and very few poets can explain it as compellingly as Mr. Wiman does. That gift is what makes "Ambition and Survival," not just one of the best books of poetry criticism in a generation, but a spiritual memoir of the first order.