Reality Revealed through Oblique Ways

Goodale Park, April 15, 2012

Excerpts from Christian Wiman's On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, "Remembering God," April 12, 2012: 

I've been sick lately and I actually had a bone marrow transplant back in October and was in the hospital for quite a long time. And one of the things, poetry died for me for a while. I found that it just wasn't speaking to me. I think I had certain expectations that took me awhile to realize were false expectations. I think we often talk about poetry getting us beyond the world, taking us to the very edge of experience and then getting us into the ineffable. I have to say, when I was faced with the actual ineffable, I didn't want poetry that gave me more of the ineffable. What I wanted was some way of apprehending the world that was right in front of me that was slipping away.

I wanted the world in front of my eyes, and the poems that I found useful were absolutely concrete, sometimes not at all about religious things and not at all about spiritual things, but simply reality and reality rendered in such a way that you could see it again. There's a great quote from the mid-20th-century literary critic R.P. Blackmur. He was talking about John Berryman. He said that his work, you know, "adds to the stock of available reality." It added to the stock of available reality, and that's a good way to think about what a real poem can do. It suddenly makes the amount of reality that you have in your life greater. You're able to apprehend more of it.

...Physics is so fascinating to so many of the contemporary poets. [mabye because] there is some kind of reality that's being revealed that we can only reach through oblique ways. You know, I think it reaches way back. It's why I'm drawn to mystics like Meister Eckhart and more contemporary ones like Simone Weil and language of Apple Faces, where you state something, but the statement sort of unstates itself. So that Meister Eckhart said, you know, "We pray to God to be free of God." We ask God to be free of God. And I don't think he wanted to, you know, give up his religion. The idea wouldn't have occurred to him, but he wanted to give up that idea of God as being this thing outside of our consciousness.

I think one thing poetry can do is take us to those places where reality slips a bit. You know, what we think of as reality slips a bit, like those equations in physics and suddenly we're perceiving something differently than before. And it's not — it's not all airy-fairy mysticism either. It's quite angular and hard-edged and that's what I think the analogy is with physics and with physical science.

...We tend to think of love as closing out the world and we can only see the face of the beloved. Everything else goes quiet or goes numb, but actually what I experienced was that — and I've experienced it again with my children — is that the loved demanded to be something else. It demanded to be expressed beyond the expression of the participants. You know, it kept demanding more. That excess energy, I think, is God and I think it's God in us trying to return to its source. I think it's — I don't know how else to understand it, but if I think of myself as having returned to faith, and I do think of that, although I feel like I'm a desperately confused person and when people look to me for advice or direction on faith, I just feel sometimes like it's hilarious.

But I think we have these experiences and they are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But, uh, I don't know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences. And then religion comes after that. Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it's whatever practice we have, whether it's going to church, it's how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you're not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I have had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me, and the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people.

...The way I've defined it to myself is I think of belief as having objects. Faith doesn't have objects. Faith is an orientation of your life or it's an energy of your life or however you want to define it. But I think it is objectless.

That has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses, if I let them be solitary as I am comfortable in being, I'm comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating, inevitably if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I'm in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.