On the poetry of Christian Wiman

Philip Larkin’s poem “High Windows” ends with one of modern poetry’s indelible images. Brooding on how familiar “Bonds and gestures” have been “pushed to one side” by postwar society, leaving nothing to hold people together except a vague promise of happiness, Larkin points to the flash of light on “sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” The sun on those high windows (do they belong to corporate offices or to a 1960s tower block?) is an image of perfect emptiness. This is what heaven looks like without God in it.

Think of Christian Wiman’s poem “Joy” as a reply to Larkin’s image and the sublime desolation it evokes. His deep blue air is crossed by a contrail and rocked by a boom box. The sunlight, momentarily concentrated on “the roofer’s tool,” is suddenly “more itself” as it flashes back, like a coded message, into the “everywhere” around it. Larkin’s poem is concerned with absence, Wiman’s with presence. The sun here is an image of perfect fullness, a spiritual whole glimpsed by way of the brief, bright particular. The roofer’s tool is to the sun what the little poem is to joy.

Wiman recently edited an anthology called Joy: 100 Poems. In his introduction to the book, he notes that joy is not a prime theme of modern literature, which foregrounds irony, absence, lack, suffering, and protest.  And no wonder, when Joy is a brand name, and bumper stickers tell us not to “postpone” it. Wiman wants to reclaim joy and the affirmation of life it expresses. Joy, he says, has “revolutionary force.” With joy, there is “always an element of having been seized” and a liberating “loss of self.”

Wiman keeps coming back to images of people locked inside themselves. In “Land’s End” he studies a tanker at anchor on the horizon, wondering what awful contents might be inside “that iron integument / mute and immured as any one man’s heart.” In “A McDonald’s in Middle America,” he sees a boy with a grotesque nose (he is “all proboscis”). His ugliness sets the boy apart even as he orders and eats like everyone else. Feeling for him, and sensing that the other customers feel for him too, Wiman sees the encounter as a lesson in “the many ways of grace / for which we’ve been, till now, remiss.” It’s a consoling conclusion. Then Wiman asks, “Or am I alone in this?” The rhyme (remiss/this) makes the self-critical question seem like its own answer.

But the mood in these poems is far from despairing. Wiman’s comic touch with the people he depicts seems to suggest that, if nothing else, we have separateness in common. As the father in “Spirits” slides deeper into himself with dementia, he reaches a randy hand out for his nurse and orders “buttered cunt” for breakfast. Is he losing his mind or revealing it?  Does the spirit survive the body?  Who’s to say?  Clinking glasses, his son and the poet savor their own spirits (“whiskey, neat”), experiencing—“each in his own way,” Wiman is careful to specify—“the tiny, divine starburst in the brain / by the gray, gray lake.”

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Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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