Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics ) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 10, which was published circa April 2007.
Christian Wiman’s voice is strong & powerful in Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Copper Canyon Press), and if I were younger, before I knew who I was, before I knew my writing ways & its limits & its strengths, this book would have influenced my writing, as much as Ezra Pound’s essays did. Instead, Wiman is just influencing my thinking.
An early challenge of this book, a challenge that is discussed throughout the book in various ways, is a response to form. Wiman notes the argument of the critics that since:
our experience of the world is chaotic and fragmented, and because we’ve lost our faith not only in those abstractions by means of which men and women of the past ordered their lives but also in language itself, it would be naive to think that we could have such order in our art. (p 94-5)
Wiman responds to this argument:
What I am interested in, and what I want to focus on here, is a kind of closure that compromises itself, a poetry whose order is contested, even undermined, by its consciousness of the disorder that it at once repels and recognizes. (p 95)
And what underlies Wiman’s response are two thoughts. One, Wiman wants us to confront our conventions & forms. From that I extrapolate, we are the new generation, and this is our obligation. Wiman is shouting for my generation.
The second thought and what underlies much the book is the conflict that many poets/artists have – the separation of art and life. Should there be a split? Wiman thinks not. He wants more life in poetry. More experience in poetry. But he doesn’t want a life that is lived for an experience to put into poetry. He realizes that we live in a universe of a large-order through which we flounder in our own chaos and there is an inability to express that perfectly. So, is the poem “more authentic if rough and unfinished,” as critics would suggest? It’s a theme that keeps me thinking throughout the book.
Another theme is silence – the silence between the finished poem & the beginning of writing the next poem, and how the poet handles that silence. Wiman is quick to realize that all of us poets don’t write a poem a day (& I wonder how many of us younger poets actually do write a poem a day). For those who don’t write every day, there is much silence to fill. Wiman tells us why some poets drink – drinking fills the horrible silence (or perhaps quiets the screaming anxieties of not writing, either way there is silence that needs to be dealt with). Wiman, however, suggests writing prose, which is not the same as writing poetry, but it does rid the silence and the prose will have lots of attachments to the poet’s poetry. This theme of silence is explored with more intimacy and details throughout the book, though not directly.
Now, I want to talk about that Poundian voice I mentioned earlier. It comes through loud and clear in “Fourteen Fragments in Lieu of a Review.” Here’s the opening fragment from what was supposed to be a review of an anthology of sonnets.
There isn’t much literature there couldn’t well be less of. A four-hundred-page anthology of sonnets? It takes a real aberration of will to read straight through such a thing. Another man might win an egg eating contest, with similar feelings, I would imagine, of mild shock, equivocal accomplishment obliterated taste.
Before I get further into the Pound voice, I need to side track for a moment. Anyone who wants to learn about sonnets, what sonnets should do, how they should behave, and how they work in larger view than iambic pentameter, voltas, etc., needs to read this essay. It’s a damn fine discussion that won’t be heard in the classroom, and he presents arguments/ideas, again, that make me think. New arguments and ideas. Now, returning to the Pound voice. Yes, Wiman is like my generation’s Pound. Both worked for Poetry magazine. Pound as Poetry’s foreign correspondent and Wiman as Poetry’s editor. Both are smart & influential. However, Wiman doesn’t come across as authoritative as Pound, in tone that is. Wiman is authoritative, but his authority comes across different. His tone is like what Pascal says and that Wiman quotes, though not in reference to himself. “One must have deeper motives and judge everything accordingly, but go on talking like an ordinary person.” This is what I like about Wiman. He talks smart, but he also talks ordinary. Yeah, I could have drink in a bar with this guy and have a good time chatting, whether it be about poetry or something else.
There’s much more to be said about this book, but not the room to do it. So now I must end this celebratory review, and I have three ways to end it, but I don’t know which way to choose, so here are my three endings.
One. I’ll leave you with these three out-of-context quotes that underscore the themes of Ambition and Survival.
[A] poem that is not in some inexplicable way beyond the will of the poet, is not a poem. (p 123)
There are varying depths of this internalization, though varying degrees to which a poet will inhabit, bridge, endure, ignore, enact (the verb will vary depending on the poet) the separation between experience and form, process and product, life and art, and one can see a sort of rift in literary history between what I’ll call, for simplicity’s sake, poets of observation and poets of culmination. (p 134).
I’m increasingly convinced that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the the poet’s capacity for suffering. (p 136)
Two. Ambition and Survival is really a search for this: how “[m]ore and more I want an art that is tied to life more directly” (p 23).
Three. I recommend Ambition and Survival to two types of people. One, those who write poetry. Two, those who write poetry & who are two to three years out of college & who now have to create their own writing energies in the absence of the energies a college created and radiated out, & who, in the absence of energy, are starting to question the significance of poetry in their life or the need to write it.//