Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Limits of Modern Poetry and the Spiritual Search: On Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss



America is not a land brimming with prominent Christian spiritual autobiographers. Thomas Merton comes to mind, as does Dorothy Day and, more recently, Kathleen Norris. But we don’t have our Lewis and Chesterton, our Teresa of Avila or Augustine of Hippo. And so it was with great anticipation that I read My Bright Abyss, the much-lauded meditation on faith and suffering by Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine and one of America’s most respected poets. Published two years ago, Wiman’s book is a collection of his reflections written in the years since his diagnosis with a rare form of cancer, a time period during which Wiman has also returned to Christianity. Critics compared it favorably to A Grief Observed and Seven Storey Mountain, and hailed it as an instant classic.

I was not disappointed. Wiman proves to be a first-rate intellectual and humble spiritual seeker, a rarity in his circles. He understands his cancer to be a grotesque form of the universal human condition. As he sees it, his illness has brought him face-to-face with questions that remain subcurrents in the rest of our lives: the nature of suffering, the reality of death, our relationship to the divine. He approaches these questions with an ardent searching but also a keen wariness of easy answers. The result is that we see the poet at his highest and lowest moments, often contradicting himself, as we all would do, were we to reflect on our daily struggles and joys. Wiman does not allow himself to rest easily on a conclusion. He is deeply honest, at times waxing mystical, other times chiding himself for being narcissistic. Countless poets and thinkers make cameos in his meditations, as Wiman brings their ideas into conversation with his, and our, search for God.

Wiman is not only a brilliant poet but a brilliant reader of poetry. Poetry, to him, is the lens through which he views the world, and therefore is inseparable from his search. He cites, frequently at length, the best modern poets as a way of amplifying his own questions. Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens, Rene Char, Geoffrey Hill, and Patrick Kavanagh all figure prominently, not to mention many others. In giving us a tour of his own soul in crisis, Wiman opens it to reveal that he thinks through these poets and thinkers, that his inner life is replete with the most eloquent seekers of the modern age.

All of this got me thinking more deeply about the nature of poetry, especially modern poetry, as a vehicle for the spiritual search. Like all art forms, modern poetry arises from a specific tradition and carries with it certain notions about our relationship with the world.

As a contemporary poet, Wiman is a direct descendant of the modern poets, who remade the genre in the early decades of the twentieth century. Modern poetry, like other modern arts (painting, music, etc) starts from the premise that the individual self is isolated from the surrounding world. It has familiar forerunners in Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who, though they were writing half a century before those poets whom we can safely label “modern,” are an essential link between the Romantic celebration of the individual—think Wordsworth, Keats, later Emerson—and the birth of the modern spirit, the seismic shift in the zeitgeist brought upon by the acceleration of life in the early 1900s that, for artists, ripped the individual from any inherently meaningful relationship with the world.

The roots of this individual search for meaning in poetry extend back further, to the Renaissance sonnet, which, with its formal precision, its exacting art and scope, attempted to present issues of the inner life in the same way that the burgeoning sciences examined the natural world. This new kind of poetry involved a speaker that operated at a remove from the very thing he was writing about, just as a naturalist assumed a necessary distance from his object of study. The world, in other words, became a kind of puzzle to be solved by the workings of the individual mind, which resided at the center of this new genre. Renaissance sonnets (to distinguish from odes, lyrics, and other genres popular during the time) start from the premise that there exists a yawning gulf, an abyss, if you will, between speaker and reality, and over the span of fourteen carefully composed lines, attempt to bridge it. The Metaphysical poets (John Donne, George Herbert) got away from the sonnet form but continued in the same ideological vein, often using complex metaphors centered on scientific tools (think of Donne’s famous conceit about the drawing compass in “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”) to plumb the spiritual world. The speakers of these early modern poems are identified entirely with mind, with the intellect. Like Archimedes, their goal is to perch themselves on a fixed point from which they try to move the earth, situated outside the world but looking in with the intent to decipher.

This early modern poetry, especially the sonnet, contains the germ of the modern poetic spirit, predicated as it is on the distance between mind (the speaker) and reality. For all its revolutionary breaks with the past, modern poetry—I’m talking specifically of the movement that occurred a hundred years ago—did not question the notion inherited from the Rennaissance that existence is a riddle to be solved. Modern poets certainly lack the optimism of their predecessors—for who is bleaker than the moderns?—but their poetry still rests on the optimistic, even hubristic, assumption that if we could only analyze reality closely enough the answers might be discovered, the abyss negated. In emphasizing the obscurity of these answers, the moderns drew our attention to the abyss itself. In short, in the face of this obscurity, they sighed and resigned themselves to pursuing the riddle of existence. One can see how it was not a far leap for the post-moderns to give up on the pursuit altogether.

This is not to say that modern poetry has anything to apologize for. Any art that emerged from, as Eliot said, “the years l’entre deux guerres” would be dishonest if it did not start from the premise that existence is deeply broken. Yet acknowledging that modern poetry is limited in scope means acknowledging that its imagination is also restricted. And here is my point: to use modern poetry as a lens for spiritual seeking is to use a map that contains restricted areas.

Situated as he is as a poet, Wiman nonetheless recognizes this, as he bumps up against these areas throughout the book. His life's work consists of wresting meaning from isolated moments through language, yet his thoughts constantly turn to moments of transcendence that ultimately prove apophatic, unable to be captured by language. Turning to Eliot again, a poet’s work is tantamount to “a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating.” What is a poet to do when words fail? What is a painter to do if, in his attempts to capture the peculiar pinkish hue of the sunset, his colors always run too red?

Contrasted to the work of poetry is the work of telling stories, of creating narrative movement so that any moment in a story never stands in isolation but rather finds meaning in relation to other moments in it. Identity, in this light, is not found inside the self but outside of it, not in one thing but in many things. The modern poetic imagination (at least as I’ve tried to describe it) cannot account for it, descended as the moderns are from scientific analysis. To use an inadequate analogy, the modern poets study the world through the lens of a camera, whereas the kind of identity found in narrative is like the wind. It cannot be captured by the modern imagination, and is largely incompatible with the modern vision. 

Constantly running into limits of this imagination, Wiman himself seems convinced that narrative, not poetry, is the perspective he needs. Consider this:
Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers 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.
These lines imply that we can only achieve meaning—that Wiman can only bridge his abyss—by understanding our lives as unfinished stories. The notion of a purposeful journey is also implied here. To take one of the oldest narratives, during Odysseus’ journey home from Ithaca, his past and his anticipated present give shape to his identity. His wife and son and kingdom, which he left nearly two decades before, inform his every decision, and one could argue that the essential thrust of The Odyssey pits Odysseus’ temptation to lose himself in the despair or fear or lust of isolated encounters against his larger narrative identity as a father, husband, and subject of the gods. Odysseus doesn’t always succeed along the way, but only reclaims his family and land by understanding himself first as a story, as an individual that is the living link between remembered past and unseen future.

Narrative identity is essentially allegorical, and most certainly pre-modern in nature. Though it predates Christianity, I would also argue that it’s essentially Catholic, rooted in communion, whereas modern verse is essentially Protestant, rooted in mind. (To digress for a moment and reference examples of two prominent religious fiction writers of the last half-century, I'd argue that Flannery O’Connor’s imagination is ultimately narrative, while Marilynne Robinson’s, anchored in language and the individual mind, is more poetic. I hope to complete Robinson’s trilogy in the near future and expand on this idea in a more complete post).

Understanding Christ as a story means recognizing that he is not contained in instances, to be rooted out like a pheasant in the high grass of our lives, but rather as someone ever-present but inherently un-pinnable, a companion on the journey who recedes into the edges of our field of vision when looked at directly. Eliot, the most narrative of the modern poets, from “The Waste Land,” referencing the encounter on the road to Emmaus:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
Or as Paul says, Christ is someone in whom we “live and move and have our being.” Or Wiman himself: “Christ is not an answer to existence, but a means of existing.” Can modern poetry ever capture this kind of Christ?

By virtue of being a poet, Wiman has plumbed the recesses of the modern view in which we are all embedded by historical accident, and so understands its strengths and weaknesses better than most. One of his strongest, and most trenchant points, is his disdain for the hubristic, “overweening self,” and throughout the book, he associates this with the modern thinker, rooted as he is in mind:
Consciousness among contemporary Western intellectuals is an “apprehensive” quality: that is to say, we become conscious by taking hold of, or appending, our selves and reality, by standing apart from them—and, not at all coincidentally (for where, exactly, are we standing?) we grow apprehensive as we do so.
Attempting to grasp the solutions to our fears, “standing apart” like Archimedes, reinforces the gulf we are trying to cross and results in deeper anxieties. Wiman wants to slough off this “grasping,” and in several of his meditations turns to his Grandmother as a model of one who did so. The poet, who accompanied her during her slow death in a hospital, praises her as a quiet, instinctively pious woman from West Texas, who possessed a “habit of mind too attentive to be called passive, too intuitive to be called thought.” Is her simple life what transcendence looks like? Wiman, ever seeking to avoid cliché, resists an answer, but her life clearly serves as a source of inspiration on his journey.

At the end of his meditations (I hesitate to call it a story) Wiman turns to a poem by the Victorian poet Robert Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” The rest of the book is studded primarily with excerpts from late-20th century poets, and Browning’s poem, written in 1855, is an odd choice for the thoroughly modern Wiman. Perhaps more significantly, Browning’s poem is a narrative. It tells the story of a knight who is tasked with journeying a dark, horrifying wilderness to an uncertain goal that will probably end in his death. The knight’s journey is more medieval than modern, and reminds one of Dante’s journey into the wilderness of the human spirit. 

Browning’s poem marks a radical departure from Wiman’s poetic milieu. As an allegory, “Childe Roland” seeks to unveil the mystery of the human condition through a story, rather than attempting to pin it wriggling on the wall through descriptive language. As a poem whose form (and content) finds its roots in pre-modern verse, it traces a different lineage than the poetic imagination that emerges from the Renaissance sonnet. As the story of a journey, it posits a narrative understanding of the self, an identity which is revealed not in an instance of time but which rests both in memory of the past and hope for what is to come. In closing his book with it, Wiman perhaps suggests that allegory, not poetry, better serves him as he finds his way through his own wilderness of suffering, headed to whatever “dark tower” awaits him.

The tension between poetic and narrative imaginations certifies Wiman’s meditations as written by a first-rate mind and honest searcher. He wrestles throughout with this tension, intent on understanding his own suffering through poetry and seeking deeper answers in story. Near the beginning of the book, Wiman brings this conflict to God in prayer:
Lord, I cannot approach you only by means of my consciousness, but consciousness can only approach you as an object, which you are not. I have no hope of experiencing you as I experience the world—directly, immediately—yet I want nothing more.
Think about the title. It’s his bright abyss, which is the only honest way a modern poet could put it. The abyss is there, it belongs to me, Wiman seems to suggest, and in some ways it’s created in the very act of attempting to cross it.

In all of this, I don’t meant to suggest that the Dark Night of the Soul is a modern phenomenon, somehow generated by our individualistic society. Far from it. Wiman’s struggles, as recorded in My Bright Abyss, are significant precisely because they are not modern problems. They are as old as the spiritual journey itself. Yet the modern vision, boiled to its essentials in the modern poetic imagination, can only take him so far. So much of what is beautiful about Wiman’s book is found in his desire to transcend the limits of language grasping at the inarticulate. After all, as he writes, “faith has so little to do with belief and so much to do with acceptance…of grace.” His book was a grace for me, and will continue to be so for a long time. Thanks to him for his honest and beautiful meditations.

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