Christian Wiman on Art and Self-Transcendence

No one writes about the interplay of poetry and faith better than Christian Wiman, the editor of the acclaimed literary journal Poetry. In this essay from Image #60, “God’s Truth Is Life“, he explores the similarities between the devotion of the artist and that of the believer, and how they both point beyond the self, paradoxically through the act of expressing a vision that is unique to that person.

It was hard choosing just one passage to quote from his Image essay, since the whole piece is as rich and compact as a poem. Here are two samples to pique your interest:

…I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself, but I’m not sure I believe in that anymore. If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self—except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition. But all that comes after—the need for approval, publication, self-promotion: isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t. (What could be more desperate, more anxiously vain, than the ever-increasing tendency to Google oneself?) So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.

Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one’s being, one’s material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names.

This is why, ultimately, only the person who has made the work can judge it, which is liberating in one sense, because it frees an artist from the obsessive need for the world’s approval. In another sense, though, this truth places the artist under the most severe pressure, because if that original call, that crisis of consciousness, either has not been truly heard, or has not been answered with everything that is in you, then even the loudest clamors of acclaim will be tainted, and the wounds of rejection salted with your implacable self-knowledge. An artist who loses this internal arbiter is an artist who can no longer hear the call that first came to him. Better to be silent then. Better to go into the world and do good work, rather than to lick and cosset a canker of resentment or bask your vanity in hollow acclaim….


…The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it seems. There is clearly something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes dangerous intrusions into, and extensions of, reality. But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God—our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us. It follows that any notion of God that is static is not simply sterile but, since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge, blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.”

Wiman is currently working on a nonfiction book titled My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. Visit his Artist-of-the-Month page at Image here.