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, went broke, passed in and out of relationships, and became a much-praised and widely published poet. One critic ranked his last collection, Every Riven Thing, among the best of the past twenty years. Another said his poems don’t so much remind you of other poets as make you forget them. 

Wiman is serious in person and on the page, though you get the sense he doesn’t take himself that seriously. On this day, he’s dressed casually in an unzipped black vest over an untucked blue shirt. On his desk is a book of criticism by the British poet Geoffrey Hill and a box of Grape-Nuts. Showing a visitor around the impressive Poetry headquarters, he worries that the tour is dull: “You don’t want to see this, do you?” he asks. Wiman hasn’t written a poem in five months and wonders if, at age 46, he’s already written too much. He also wonders whether his work will last. “If you think of all the poets writing, almost none of them get remembered,” he says. “There’s a good chance I won’t be. That’s one of the agonies of poetry.”

These days he seems more inclined to give sermons than readings. An essay he wrote in 2007 for the American Scholar about his return to church after a long absence struck a chord with thoughtful believers, including the influential blogger Andrew Sullivan, and inspired more letters than his critically lauded poems ever had. He expands on his reconversion in his new book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a collection of mini-essays about searching for God in, to use his phrase, “a discount shopping mall of myth.” He’s not abandoning poetry—he’s not sure he could ever do that—but the book signals a shift from, in a sense, verse to verses. This June he’s leaving his plum poetry gig to become a senior lecturer of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the Yale Divinity School, a job that was offered to him a couple of years after he lectured at the institute. “My life has been aiming at this,” he says. “It seems to me incredibly exciting but also a necessary thing for me to put my faith more on the line on a daily basis.” As for why a divinity school would hire a guy with no graduate degree in theology—or indeed in anything—Martin Jean, the director of the institute, says it’s because of the “careening roller-coaster ride of imagination and perception” that Wiman brings to his lectures and writing. “You’re a different person walking out of the room after hearing him speak,” Jean says. 

To understand why Wiman would make such an odd mid-career switch, you have to begin in Snyder, that “flat little sandblasted town in West Texas,” as he puts it in My Bright Abyss, where he came of age. It’s a landscape, he says, that still figures heavily in his imagination, even though he rarely returns. Growing up in Snyder, Wiman believed in Jesus. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t. At around twelve he had a Holy Spirit–infused awakening, or possibly a breakdown, weeping and shaking and generally causing a scene in a church basement. As a teenager, he did drugs, took a powerful liking to the fairer sex, and got into fights over nothing and everything. He remembers furrowed-brow Baptist folk showing up at his house to chew over his worrisome slide into sin. He was rebelling for sure, but not against God, not yet. “I was chafing against the limits of that whole world,” he says. “I had no idea that there was a world outside of it.” In college, at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia, some hip atheist undergrad floated the exotic notion that God might not actually exist. “Holy shit,” Wiman thought. “You’re gonna get struck by lightning, man.” When no heaven-sent bolt was forthcoming, his own faith fell away so gently he hardly noticed it was gone. 

That was one revelation. Another came when an English professor encouraged him to sign up for a summer program at the University of Oxford. England was a long way from Snyder, which was what Wiman wanted. He studied Renaissance literature and history and discovered a love for travel that would turn him into a vagabond. He also

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