Ambition and Survival

Becoming a Poet

By Christian Wiman

Copper Canyon. 249 pp. $18

'Then I fell in love. I say it suddenly, and there was certainly an element of radical intrusion and transformation to it, but the sense I have is of color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly alive."

So Christian Wiman writes in "Love Bade Me Welcome," the essay that concludes this extraordinary collection, providing it with what few such gatherings can boast of: an unexpected ending that hits you like a hard and fast blow to the center of your chest, and that I will not say anything further about.

There is nothing flashy about Wiman's style, but the more you become familiar with it - his easy tone, his way with a phrase - the more you become fond of it, and of Wiman himself. One is reminded of Whitman: "Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man. . . . "

A fine poet as well as the editor of Poetry magazine, Wiman (pronounced WY-man) is from West Texas, and the details of his upbringing and background, recounted in the first five pieces here, read like something Faulkner made up. Take, for an instance, his mother:

My mother's abhorrence of guns was something more than the expression of a delicate feminine sensibility. Her own mother had been murdered in front of her and her two brothers when she was fourteen. The killer was her father. . . . He walked in the back door one evening and killed his wife as she was cooking dinner, waited while his children ran out into the fields, then lay down beside her in some simulacrum of spent desire and shot himself in the head.

Then there's his father:

During the fifteen years or so when our relationship consisted of little more than holiday exchanges of information, he endured a divorce, a bankruptcy, the loss of his medical practice, the death of his second wife, divorce again, back surgery, an almost fatal rattlesnake bite, a heart attack (from the volume of serum given to counter the snakebite), cancer, a plane crash, alcoholism, the estrangement and self-destruction of his children, and no doubt several other calamities that he's managed to keep secret. It was a run of luck that would have mellowed Caligula.

The phrase that serves as the book's title is also the title of one of the essays - and it recurs throughout. In Wiman's case, the ambition was twofold and grounded in conflict: "What interests me - haunts me even - is the almost absolute rift I maintained between these two ambitions, experience and poetry, and the extent to which I mostly missed both. . . . It was as if I didn't want my art and my life to have anything to do with each other. . . . " Bear in mind that this is a guy who chose the college he went to "entirely on the basis of its distance from Texas," and who had come to love poetry "most of all for the contained force of its forms, the release of its music, and for the fact that, as far as I could tell, it had absolutely nothing to do with the world I was from."

There is another rift as well, between memory and imagination, another pairing that occurs throughout the book. Wiman says that he finds "contemporary memoirs . . . almost impossible to read." The problem, he says, "has to do with [the] relationship between fact and feeling, memory and imagination, and some very particular way in which memoirs refuse or elide the hard distinctions that art requires. . . . [M]ost memoirs aim neither at art nor at history but at some simulacrum of both, wherein the strictures of both fact and form can be evaded."

It seems fair to say that, for Wiman, poetry was initially a means of surviving his childhood experiences. This is made palpable by the contrast between the essays bracketed by that first, autobiographical section of the book and the aforementioned essay that concludes the volume. Compared with the vivid immediacy of his recollections, his discussions of poetry seem distant and somewhat dry. But only by comparison. Sparkling phrases and sharp insights abound there as well ("Wielding power in the poetry world is roughly the equivalent of cutting a wide swath through your local PTA"). They're just placed in a less turbulent context.

Poetry turns out to be a better survival tool than you might think. And if you're one of the many people who take it for granted that poetry is an epicene enterprise fit only for the marginally robust, you may want to take a look at this book. Read the opening section - which starts in Philadelphia and quickly skips off to Guatemala, then to Africa - and the conclusion. Then mosey about the parts in between - start with the two sets of "Fugitive Pieces." You might just find yourself reading every last piece in the book, even those about poets you've never heard of. Most of all, you're likely to begin sensing that poetry is less a literary activity than a mode of being, and that you want the same thing Wiman does: a "complete saturation of the actual . . . not merely my imagination trying to attach itself to reality."

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/frankwilson

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