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Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet Paperback – September 11, 2007
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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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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 distanceperhaps out of contemporary poetry's backlash against "confessional" materialit'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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But in the last few chapters, I found some words of wisdom - and the final chapter was not only beautifully written, it was also deeply moving. So I have a mixed reaction to the book. With most books about poetry, I take 3-5 pages of notes. I was 2/3 of the way through this book before I wrote down a word. But then I filled up two pages.
The beginning of the book is about Wiman's own life - mildly interesting, but forgettable. In much of the middle section, he discusses individual poets. Unless you have read these poets (I was quite familiar with Millay, Eliot and Walcott and only a few of the others), the pages about them may not hold your interest. I only read the first sentence of each paragraph about some of them.
The power of the last chapter for me was in the lyricism of Wiman's prose as related to his rediscovery of faith and connection to his spiritual self. My guess is that his style and tone throughout most of the book would have been different if he had started it in 2005-2006, which is when he wrote the last chapter. I give 5 stars to the last chapter, but really only 3 1/2 to the rest of the book.
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." Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised to find that so much good poetry is suffused with religious faith and belief.
The other theme relates to the importance of form in poetry. Personally, I much prefer poetry grounded in a formal structure of some sort. So, too, does Wiman ("I am more drawn to poetry of contained formal expressiveness * * * than to the sort of loose, discursive, anecdotal verse that has dominated contemporary poetry for decades"). In his essays, Wiman analyzes this preference and advances various reasons why poetry with at least a modicum of formal structure is more meaningful.
To be sure, there were a few stretches of writing that bored me as well as passages that were beyond me. But they were fewer and farther between than was the case in the several other works of "poetry criticism" that I have sampled. And scattered throughout the book are observations worth noting, such as the following:
* Irish Murdoch said "that there is no such thing as a bad poem because bad poetry simply wasn't poetry." (That is my attitude towards much of the schlock that's on the shelves of the poetry sections in many book stores.)
* "It is the beauty of the world that makes us more conscious of death, not the consciousness of death that makes the world more beautiful."
* "Great poetry is first of all sound. If a poet has no sense of cadence and form as expressions of feeling, then the limits of his or her accomplishment are quite small."
because I wasn't sure what I would do when I finished it. All my life, I've bee reading prose books by poets about poetry,
but I have often found the writing too self-conscious and labored. Wiman's prose is clear, thoughtful, surprising, illuminating.
He doesn't shy away from his own opinions, and he's very funny. I found myself laughing out loud more than once. But the greatest
gift I've received is a reawakening of the impulse to take literature seriously. Fine books are one of our surest paths into what
matters, and we should read them and think about them and write about them, regardless of how small the audience or how
tepid the applause. I knew this once, but I forgot it. Wiman has reminded me in the most convincing way.
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