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Years ago, I read in Film Comment about filmmaker Paul Schrader’s first meeting with his most influential mentor, the towering critic Pauline Kael. A wet-behind-the-ears Calvin College undergrad, Schrader had fled his restrictive home environment for summer film studies in New York. A West End bar buddy whose father was a film critic offered to introduce Schrader to Kael. The next thing Schrader knew, he was having dinner with the formidable Kael in her apartment:
I remember that first evening as vividly as a first date. Sitting around an oak table, beneath a spider-patterned Tiffany lamp, we ate and drank and argued: the quintessential Kael experience. I had seen only a couple dozen films but had strong opinions. I couldn’t understand how she could champion L’Avventura but not La Notte. She found my advocacy of Bunuel and Bergman quaint.
From that evening on, the film critic’s passionate, voluble views helped set a lifelong artistic bar for Schrader.
I hadn’t remembered this anecdote in years, yet it immediately came to mind in 2007, when I read Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. I don’t remember where I first heard about this collection of poetry essays; I do remember, however, recalling Schrader’s awe of Kael’s critical prowess on my “first date” with Wiman: Here is bracing thought, with backbone. Here is a mind that is not afraid to say, I love this, I hate this—here’s why. And here is writing that makes me want to—dare I say it?—throw things across the room and yell, “Are you serious? You really believe this, Wiman? You’ve got to be freaking kidding me.”
Good, solid, substantial poetry criticism is hard to write. Mainly, you run the risk of being a tedious, self-important bore. But when it’s done well, the critic reveals surprising ways of being in the world, making for poetry that transcends the dull drone of predictable literary chatter. Most of all, a true critic cares. Deeply.
The good critic also provides a fixed point from which the working artist can either nod in aesthetic companionship or sharpen her own views, challenges that help hone and shape her voice. (Indeed, that’s just what I did when Wiman dismissed Edna St. Vincent Millay as a poet who “could have used an editor with less of a sweet tooth.” “Holy cow,” I wrote in the margin. “That takes hubris, eh?”)
Yet there was far more to agree with. And oh, how Wiman cared. The editor of Poetry magazine from 2003-2013, Wiman was one of the first I’d read who helped me both understand and articulate to others that a life of poetry was different from, say, a life spent merely reading and writing poems.
“The inability to write poems is one thing,” Wiman says. “The inability to maintain faith in poetry as a life’s work is quite another. Someone experiencing the former is like a thirsty man in sight of water. Someone experiencing the latter is like a man whose thirst water has ceased to slake. It’s easy to mistake one condition for the other.”
Those who take the life calling of poetry seriously know what temptations drought brings. At the time I first read Wiman, I was in the midst of such a wilderness, ready to bag poetry altogether. But those few words, copied carefully in my journal, gave me clarity, hope. I waited expectantly for the poems to return. They did.
“I still believe that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything,” writes Wiman in the preface to Ambition and Survival, “—including, it has turned out for me, the belief that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything.”
It’s a conviction I’m grateful to learn anew every day, thanks to him. And Pauline Kael.
Joy Roulier Sawyer has poems forthcoming in The Bacon Review and Torrid Literature. Her Lighthouse Reading as a Writer class on Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet begins February 15.