Starman floats, beyond Earth and Moon, toward Mars. Some know the unseen worlds of code that land the boosters in reverse, and propel Starman to explore. We watch the rocket fly, cheer Starman from our screens, and yards, and office windows. There are those who know the code to spin the world, Musk, Mozart, Einstein, Dickinson, Tolkien.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Christian Wiman
In 1983, W.S. Merwin wrote a poem called “Late Wonders.” It's a poem I return to, especially when given to wonder myself, about why poetry matters.
Though the work's over three decades old, its import—in terms of what pollutes our air and discourse, the ways in which the realm of critical and compassionate imagination has been annexed by the overweening need to be entertained—remains potent.
In Los Angeles the cars are flowing through the white air and the news of bombings
you can ride through an avalanche if you have never ridden through an avalanche
with your ticket you can ride on a trolley before which the Red Sea parts just the way it did for Moses
you can see Los Angeles destroyed hourly you can watch the avenue named for somewhere else the one on which you know you are crumple and vanish incandescent with a terrible cry all around you rising from the houses and families of everyone you have seen all day driving shopping talking eating
it's only a movie it's only a beam of light
The poem is a dark appraisal of what happens when destruction is treated as an occasion for consumption, when what's considered real is only that which operates under our control, when our neighbors become figures in a spectacle we've worked to pay for, and when we are automated to pass, untroubled, through waves of air bearing knowledge that would move a mind to horror. When we lose compassion and awe, the very provinces of poetry, we lose what makes us human.
The indictment could not be more complete. And yet when I read it, I feel something more akin to invigoration than defeat. I want to read it again and again, and to teach it to whomever will listen, beginning with me.
I think I feel this way because the poem itself is an act of resolution. A living, present man set it down on paper. He wrote it, and then, by God, he rewrote it. He crafted of his outrage a poem, summoned on its behalf all of his meaning-deepening and connection-finding energies. And then he mailed it across an ocean from his home in Hawaii, asking that it be published, first in a periodical, and then in a collection he called Opening the Hand, and then in his latest volume of selected poems, Migration. He worked a poem awake and sent it into our lives because in poetry, there are no lost causes. Within the integrity of poetic vision, nothing is forgotten, nothing can be cast away. Even us. For our limitations are rendered in the means of our rehabilitation: paradox and metaphor and imagery, complex ironies and rich ambiguities—the means of acts of life-sustaining attention.
Merwin's poem shows us that to exist without poetic consciousness is to be a tourist in a given world; it is to believe that all was fashioned to bring pleasure, that people exist to facilitate the satisfaction of desire, and that what happens, even when it happens right before our eyes—especially then—is not real, because nowhere feels like home. And it is to pay no mind to the condition in which we leave it.
Outside the room in which I teach is a postcard holding this quote by Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry Magazine:
Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.
These are words I believe Merwin would affirm, for his work embodies them. They recall to me why poetry matters, why teaching poetry matters, and why writing and reading poems—even those that, in their subject matter, dispraise—is an act of urgency and hope.
I hadn’t read all of Wiman’s book when I assigned it, but I was pleased that the syllabus fairy saw fit to have me assign them together. Augustine’s book contains the meditations of an ancient church father; Wiman’s is subtitled “Meditations of a Modern Believer.” Augustine’s is addressed largely to God; Wiman’s is addressed mostly to us, and also to himself. When Augustine wrote his meditations, he was ill, run-down, beset by heresies, and in the midst of midlife turmoil, if not a crisis. Wiman’s book wraps around his own struggles with cancer and pain and belief. Augustine wrote to find, narrate, and uncover his faith — and Wiman did, too.
It’s beautiful, then, that two books by two men from opposite ends of history can speak to one another, and to us, so well, in so many ways. Wiman’s book, despite its subtitle, seems sometimes ancient; Augustine’s feels intriguingly modern.
One way they talk to their readers is this: we spend much time delighting in “the little things” these days. Cooking and design blogs and accessible digital photography and real-time updates let us revel out loud in the steam coming off a cup of coffee, a firefly spotted in a backyard, the smell of a new book, the feel of butter on your fingers when you’re making a pie crust.
There is a joy and beauty in the everyday, and yet, it can take over. We can feel not just deprived but despondent and despairing when they go away; we can fixate and acquire, needing more stuff, more experiences, to help us have that feeling. Augustine would say that these earthly pleasures are good, so long as they direct us toward love of God.
Exactly how that works, though, can still be a bit of a mystery. Wiman filled in part of that for me:
God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him — to find him — does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All to often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.
That is, the work of directing our experience of the everyday toward God is not just reveling in the coffee and giving thanks — though this is important — but noticing the duller, more tiresome bits, and changing how we respond as an act of worship. The backache. The mosquito bites. The long commute. It’s not just beauty: these small things, too, can be funnels for my attention toward a greater Giver.
(Photo by Fausto Podavini)