cover image Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

Christian Wiman, . . Copper Canyon, $18 (249pp) ISBN 978-1-55659-260-7

Before assuming command of a revamped Poetry magazine in 2002, Wiman already wielded a reputation as a serious, outspoken poet-critic. This weighty first prose collection should inspire wide attention, partly because of Wiman's current job, partly because of his astute insights and partly because he mixes poetry criticism with sometimes shocking memoir. The first few essays describe Wiman's early life in a tough West Texas town, full of “nameless angers and solitudes” and “idealized, sometimes inexplicable violence.” Later pieces examine his rough international travels, struggles with major illness and Christian belief. In between come pronouncements and propositions about poetry: it must consider lived experience and reflect both the tradition from which it comes and the poet's times. Hardy, Eliot, Heaney and Walcott merit high praise, as does the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown; Millay, Crane and Bunting get fascinatingly ambivalent appraisals. The collection's greatest strengths come in general ruminations on the writing, reading and judging of poetry, such as “[T]here is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the poet's capacity for suffering.” Or “Most lasting art is made by people who believe with everything in them that art is for the sake of life, but who live otherwise.” (Sept.)