The poetics of belief – absolute truth and absolute contingency – the poetry of faith and the faith in poetry
…Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death. In his desire to “speak more clearly what it is that I believe,” he recounts how, after long wandering, he sought to reclaim his religious faith. He understands that he is not recapturing the faith he had as a child, noting that “if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.” With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks “a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.” This is a very tall order, and Wiman is a brave writer to take it on.
Drawing on his position as someone facing a diminished life span, Wiman mounts a welcome, insightful and bracing assault on both the complacent pieties of many Christians and the thoughtless bigotry of intellectuals who regard Christian faith as suitable only for idiots or fools…He comments: “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”
Wiman is adept at making connections between the religious impulse and the need to create art. Like many artists, after shedding his early religious faith, he transferred “that entire searching intensity” into his work. But eventually Wiman sensed that all those hours of reading, thinking and writing were leading him back into faith. He began to feel that “human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”
Wiman finds that the integrity of a poem, which is “its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity,” is similar to that of a God who lives “not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.” Both require the use of metaphor, “which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths.” Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to “stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”
…And in accepting that the words and symbols of Christianity say something true about reality but are also necessarily limited in their scope, he sees an analogue with poetry. “You can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality,” he writes. “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”
…The idea of the artist as heroic loner, he decides, is for him merely an anxiety that has become dangerously useful. Coping with his cancer has drawn him closer to other people, and also to the Jesus who suffered on the cross. “The point,” he writes, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”
… “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”Advertisements