Christie Purifoy Reviews ‘He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art’ by Christian Wiman

If I could, I would give this review a flashing, neon title. I would aim on it a bright and roving spotlight. I would print it up like a recruitment poster, pointing finger and all, because I WANT YOU, yes you, to read this book.

You’re not that interested in art? Poetry isn’t really your thing? Your stack of books to read is already too high? Make those apologies, and I will only press my point harder. It is precisely because there are too many voices calling for our attention—too many books on our bedside tables, too many apps fired up on our screens—that we, as people of faith, should tune our ears to silence. Poets, in particular, help us do exactly that. Only when the “pandemonium of blab—ceases,” Christian Wiman writes, can we “hear—and what some of us hear … is a still, small voice.”

Poetry depends on silence. It depends on the word not written, the pause of line break or comma, the white space on the page. If you are intrigued by the silence that poems can open up in and around words when those words are placed with artful precision and concision, you could dive right in to the quiet rhythms of T. S. Eliot’s quartets, Seamus Heaney’s metaphors, or Mary Oliver’s epiphanies. I suggest beginning with He Held Radical Light, the latest offering from Wiman, a poet, editor, and, most recently, divinity school professor.

Pressing into the Silence

He Held Radical Light is a book-length essay woven of spiritual memoir, literary criticism, and lyric poetry. It demonstrates with intelligence, honesty, and humor how vital poetry can be for any exploration of faith, an argument the subtitle (“The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art”) makes succinctly, as if it, too, were a kind of poem. This is not a book about art and faith, as if one or the other could be peeled away and considered singly. Instead, this book suggests that the field of imagination is one of the most significant places where the divine and the mortal can meet. If that is true, who among us would refuse to travel there merely because we have always found poetry “difficult” or life has become “too busy” for the poetry we once loved?

Wiman is worth listening to because he is himself an accomplished poet and, thanks in part to a decade at the helm of Poetry magazine, he is intimately acquainted with the lives and the works of so many of the best poets of the last century. With Wiman as our guide, we witness his highly personal, sometimes surprising encounters with poets—among them Heaney and Oliver—and what those encounters reveal about the relationship between the life (and faith) of the artist and the art itself. We are also shown how Wiman reads poems, thus becoming more perceptive readers ourselves without any heavy-handed lessons in “how to read a poem.”

But Wiman is also worth listening to because he is a dying poet and a dying man. He is dying in the sense that we are, each of us, dying, but his dying has more urgency and more pain: In 2005, on his 39th birthday, Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer. Since then, as he has recounted in his earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss, he has undergone hospitalizations, chemotherapies, and even a bone marrow transplant. While neither of his unconventional memoirs offers much medical detail, they offer enough to understand that a poet who can feel his own cells wreaking havoc is a poet for whom the reality of death is more real than it is for most of us.

Why does this matter? It matters because, as Wiman writes, “Resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death.” I claimed this book could tune our ears to silence, but I might have said it could tune our ears to what Wiman calls the “final silence” of death. I’m sure you understand why I buried this analogy beneath five full paragraphs. Who among us is eager to confront the prospect of our own demise? The answer to this question goes far in explaining our collective addiction to the “pandemonium of blab.”

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Source: Christianity Today