“Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and expression of this insufficiency,” Wiman writes in his essay “A Piece of Prose.” Indeed, if poets long for the companionship of the dead, it is because they very often have trouble feeling at home in the company of the living. Today it is unfashionable to insist that being a poet is a kind of fate, and an ambiguous one at that, a fate that involves separation and suffering as well as lucidity and achievement. For a fate is something given, not chosen—as the Romans said long ago, poeta nascitur, non fit: a poet is born, not made. In America today, of course, we tend to take the opposite view: the idea that you have to be born with a gift sounds undemocratic, elitist, contrary to our ideal of openness.
One reason why I admire Christian Wiman is that he managed to maintain his conviction of the rareness of poetry even while editing America’s leading poetry magazine. He must be the only editor of a poetry magazine who was brave enough to write that he preferred not to publish too much poetry. “I think a strong case can be made,” Wiman editorialized, “that the more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs.” He adds, “we shouldn’t lose sight of one of poetry’s chief strengths: how little of it there is.”
That editorial was titled “In Praise of Rareness,” and the rareness of poetry is a fact that most people involved in the poetry world are naturally reluctant to recognize. Yet one sign of a genuine poet is that he or she is aware of how hard it is to earn that title. In his first book of prose, Ambition and Survival, Wiman talks wryly about his own early aspirations. In his essay “Milton in Guatemala,” he writes, “I was in Guatemala because I thought a writer needed a store of EXPERIENCE, and I was reading Milton because I thought that the only way to write GREAT POEMS, which is all I wanted to do, was to come to terms with the GREAT POEMS of the past. I haven’t altogether outgrown those ideas and impulses, though I am less inclined now to go around in my daily life talking in capital letters.” He is poking gentle fun at his younger self, but not disavowing him: to this day, while enduring enormous changes in his art and his life, Wiman still aims to write great poems. He does write them, at least, and surely it’s not possible to write them by accident. But his idea of what that entails has evolved in profound ways.