When they asked the poet how he became one, he said, I’ve been wondering.
The assembly waited for more. There were follow-up questions, a discussion about certain ineffable qualities: a sense of life brought to bear in language. A sense that the density of life’s layers may be represented with a clarity of expression. The importance of having a capacity to suffer; to know and express grief without making a shrine to wonder.
Then the poet asked, what do you believe? If you don’t believe in poetry, you can’t write it. He tried to explain what happens when suddenly everything learned will no longer do; how over time, an original wound may become the site of roots for a larger life.
But how? They pressed, and he repeated, I wonder.
Notes while reading Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2004, Copper Canyon Press).
Of embodied contradictions.
Maybe we were drawn to him because he was so forthcoming about the way he didn’t understand anything and still couldn’t keep from trying. Whether to understand or to look like he did, we never knew. He was a walking battlefield of embodied contradictions: formal order vs. experience, enthusiasm vs. despair, devotional intensity vs earthbound affections.
Some suggested his greatness was the locus of his damnation, and they called him a saint, but of the wrong religion. Enthralled, we couldn’t help ourselves, leaning into listen to the strain in the language he almost broke, to get to the place beyond it.
Someone said, of his early work, that it read like period pieces from a period that never existed. But even his baroques seemed to always hide a stillness. It was refuge he wanted, after all. He didn’t know the way there, not exactly, but he had a knack for jostling us toward––something. It wasn’t safety, but something else and we were drawn to the drum of its pulse, like dancers unable to stop.
Inspired by Christian Wiman’s essay, “A New Mode of Damnation? On Hart Crane” in The Hudson Review, summer 2000 (accessed on JSTOR). Italicized phrases are Wiman’s.