Poet and professor of divinity Christian Wiman says that there are all kinds of poems he’s turned to during this pandemic. He especially enjoys poems that are joyful and have helped him perceive the world and in ways forgotten how to do it.
Wiman recounts one of his happier moments as former editor of Poetry Magazine, awarding the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement. One year it went to the African-American poet Lucille Clifton, the only poet to let out a “whoop” when she won.
Her poem “Hag Riding” was about being ready for joy:
is what I ask myself
maybe it is the African in me
still trying to get home
after all these years
but when I awake to the heat of the morning
galloping down the highway of my life
something hopeful rises in me
rises and runs me out into the road
and I lob my fierce thigh high
over the rump of the day and honey
I ride I ride
While battling cancer, Wiman describes how poetry has consoled and rescued him through his most difficult times. He tells KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian, “I don't know how people live without it.”
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Have you felt any changes in your own relationship with God or your spiritual journey during this time?
Christian Wiman: I have found it a relief to not be talking about God and found it helpful to take that word out of circulation for a bit. I almost feel like it would be helpful for us as a culture if we could learn to live toward God without needing to name it. And poetry, poetry for me is one of the best ways of helping yourself do that.
The minute we start using words like God and religion, we separate ourselves from those things, we objectify them. And there's something idolatrous seeking to limit what God can be in our lives and in existence. I’ve got to use language and words when I talk to you, but built into that is the knowledge that that expression is always insufficient. I find that in poetry all poets know that they are falling far short of the ideal. It's in their head all the time and that is itself a creative memory of meaning.
I have talked to so many people right now which for many has been a pause, a moment of self-reflection. A lot of people are wondering about their own faith. Do you have any advice for people at this moment?
I guess the two things that have been most helpful to me are poetry and fellowship with others, whether they were Christians or not. It's a paradox now that the pandemic has made it difficult to have relationships in the way that we're used to, but they are forming in other ways.
I've had all kinds of Zoom meetings with people that I never would have barely had phone conversations with before. Suddenly we're getting together and talking about things that matter to us most. There's no way around the difficulty of finding out what faith is going to mean in your life. And yet there's no way that that difficulty should be a heavy burden on you. If those two things can exist at the same time, that is I find that my greatest moments with God or when I let go of the need for God and I'm able just to experience reality in increments or moments. When I don't try to put those together, I feel like God does it for me. And then you're freed in some ways from the need to name these things and freed to praise.