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My First Date With Christian Wiman

by Joy Roulier Sawyer

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.”

wiman ambition

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.     

3 comments on “My First Date With Christian Wiman

  1. andreadupree
    January 11, 2016

    I love this, Joy. I first read Christian Wiman in an issue of Threepenny Review that Mike was published in–and I was hooked. I think it was his essay “Reading Milton in Guatemala” or maybe it was “The Limit.” But I started using those essays in my classes (back in the loft!) and wanted so badly to follow his work from then on out. He’s a writer’s writer, and I’d recommend him to anyone who’s serious about making a life out of art. So glad you’re teaching a RAW class on him!

  2. Patricia Sawyer
    March 1, 2016

    I remember reading someone once asked Eugene O’Neill’s wife what her husband was like. Her response:” Read his works. The man and his works are the same.” And that is the same response I would offer if someone were to ask, ” What is Joy R. Sawyer, my daughter-in-law, really like?” Reading from her essay on Wiman, Joy writes, “Wiman 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.” And that, in essence, is Joy, who has LIVED “a life of poetry”..not only by reading it, writing it, performing it, sharing it, teaching it, reciting it, ever searching for MORE of it and pulling others INTO it, but by truly LIVING it. Joy and poetry? ….one in the same.

  3. cetak buku murah jakarta
    March 3, 2016

    I read this piece of writing completely regarding the
    resemblance of most recent and previous technologies,
    it’s awesme article.

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This entry was posted on January 11, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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