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Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet Paperback – September 11, 2007

4.5 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
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From Booklist

Best known as the young editor of Poetry magazine and the author of two books of poems, Wiman has an obvious fallback position if this poetry thing doesn't pan out. He's a terrific personal essayist, as this new collection illustrates, with the command and instincts (if not the fully developed taste for dramatizing his memories) of the popular memoirist. In five opening essays, he tells gripping stories of his colorful, religion-soaked, sometimes violent family history in west Texas, and how they informed, or failed to inform, his art. Although recounted from a certain distance—perhaps out of contemporary poetry's backlash against "confessional" material—it's compelling stuff that he considered weaving into a full-blown memoir. Once these autobiographical pieces give way to literary criticism, a certain intensity goes out of the book, but it returns full-force in the searing final essay, "Love Bade Me Welcome," in which Wiman reveals his cancer diagnosis and his return to religious observance and writing poetry (both of which had stopped). This is a brave and bracing book, but he should still write that memoir. Nance, Kevin
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Copper Canyon Press; First Edition edition (September 11, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556592604
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556592607
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet By Christian Wiman

Are you someone who aspires to be a poet, or a poet who wants to grow in your craft? Then you might consider Christian Wiman's Ambition and Survival. It's not easy reading; in fact it can be downright discouraging in places. Don't get me wrong, Wiman is brilliant, his writing is elegant, and his use of humor is well-placed. His standards are stupendous, and oh yes, I must say, he's arrogant.

You could say he has cause. He's editor of Poetry Magazine, a publication that has grown mightily under his direction and with the help of a two million dollar grant. Many knowing people claim this magazine publishes the best poetry of our time.

Wiman seems to be saying that the greats have their time, but it passes and their work degenerates. Virtually none escapes his judgment, except perhaps Emily Dickinson. He's most fond of Thomas Hardy, which pleases me because Hardy didn't start writing poetry until he was sixty. His praise of Hardy is that he is clear, wise and balanced. On top of it, he's other-centered. Wiman lumps one of my favorites, William Carlos Williams, in with him, for the same reasons.

I've been hard on Wiman, in a way, but he has my utmost respect, partially because he himself has suffered and overcome a bizarre and difficult background. It's all explained in the book.

I give it my highest recommendation and urge you to take it slowly.

Allan Cox, author of "WHOA! Are They Glad You're In Their Lives?" to be published June 5, 2012
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At first I thought Wiman was being too tough on some poets, but then he is an accomplished poet in his own right, and some of what he says is refreshing to hear. I appreciate his honesty and believe much of it due to his facing a rare cancer and the restoration of his lost faith. He hits on some very profound subjects, such as the difference between imagination and memory. This is a book to be read slowly, and savored as you encounter lines like, "you know you're not in any real danger so long as what's happening to you still seems to be 'experience.'" He talks about how he needs "dead time" to write poetry and what the time between poems can be like. He concludes that we have to have the patience to wait and we have to know when not to write. He talks about how style should not become completely conscious and why. He says that poetry is lonely and how there are poems possible for us at only particular moments. He believes poetry is mysterious, and prose less mysterious, but also less rewarding. So how do poets survive the silent periods? He agrees with Wilbur that poets need to encounter chaos to write poetry. Read his essays on individual poets and poetry and on our visual culture. This is a book I will return to again and again because it is so thought-provoking. It will also make you want to read more of Wiman's own poetry.
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After reading "Once in the West" by Christian Wiman, I concluded that he is a poet worth reading more of and about. I turned to this, a collection of his essays. Ten of them are about poetry, there are about a dozen reviews of books of poetry, and there are six personal essays. The personal essays certainly belong, inasmuch as for Wiman poetry has been his life.

Indeed, he begins the book as follows: "When I was twenty years old I set out to be a poet. That sounds like I was a sort of frigate raising anchor, and in a way I guess I was, though susceptible to the lightest of winds. * * * I still believe that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything -- including, it has turned out for me, the belief that a life in poetry demands absolutely everything." That speaks to the "ambition" of the book's title. The "survival" aspect takes on new urgency and poignancy in the last essay, in which Wiman discloses that he had recently been diagnosed with a rare incurable blood cancer. (That was nine years ago, and thankfully Wiman is still with us, teaching literature and religion at Yale Divinity School.)

From 2003 to 2013 Wiman was editor of "Poetry" magazine. It can be safely assumed, then, that he is more knowledgeable about poetry than the average Joe. Most relevantly, he is much more knowledgeable about poetry than I am. Reading AMBITION AND SURVIVAL broadened and deepened my understanding of poetry and honed my "feel" for good poetry considerably.

Two recurring points or themes stood out for me. One has to do with faith and belief. A poet, to be good, must have "faith in the mind's ability to find meaning in a world that exists independently of itself, and a concomitant faith in language to serve as a means of doing so.
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Christian Wiman is a very insightful writer. I bought this book after reading another essay of his entitled "Hive of Nerves" subtitled: To be alive spiritually is to feel the ultimate anxiety of existence within the trivial anxieties of everyday life. This book was no disappointment with each essay bringing in a time of reflection. I surely recommend this book to anyone who wants to have their way of thinking challenged.
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