Wiman’s Rites

How one of America’s most prominent poets returned to the God of his West Texas youth.
Photograph by Jeff Sciortino

The entrance to the glass palace of poetry is tucked back in a serene courtyard, concealed from the slushy Chicago street, overseen by small, evenly spaced trees. Most monthlies dedicated to a noncommercial art form are not housed amid such tasteful grandeur—the abstract mural in the lobby, the two-story book wall, the acoustically ideal performance space—but Poetry magazine is special. Special because it has been around for a century and has published the likes of W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and T. S. Eliot. And special because in 2002, Ruth Lilly, the lone heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, donated a reported $185 million to the magazine’s foundation, dramatically upgrading what had been a modest operation. They have to buzz you in.

Christian Wiman is king here, though not for much longer. He’s been the magazine’s editor for a full decade and in that time has tripled the circulation to 30,000, picking up a couple of National Magazine Awards along the way. Each year he and his staff winnow down more than 100,000 hopeful submissions to the 300 or so worthy of Poetry’s pages. Lilly’s largesse allows the foundation to award generous fellowships to gifted young poets and neglected older ones and to send correspondents to far-flung locales. Right now, they’re compiling examples of a unique form of traditional, anonymous poetry written by women in Afghanistan. Such a project would not have been possible before.   

Wiman jokes that this was his first real job, the sweet spot he landed in after a peripatetic early adulthood that took him far from his West Texas childhood and saw him uprooted forty times in fifteen years. He absorbed new landscapes and languages,

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