BELIEF: A Noble Ambition by Christian Wiman

Meditation of a Modern Believer

A Noble Ambition by Christian Wiman

From My Bright Abyss

I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself.  But now?  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.  (Souls are what those moments reveal, which are both inside and outside, both us and other.)  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.  Inspiration is when these three things collide – or collude.  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.

The truth places the artist under the most severe pressure: 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 approval 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.

These days I am impatient with poetry that is not steeped in, marred and transfigured by, the world.  By that I don’t necessarily mean poetry that has some obvious social concern or is meticulous with its descriptions, but a poetry in which you can feel that the imagination of the poet has been both charged and chastened by a full encounter with the world and other lives.  A poet like Robert Lowell, who had such a tremendous imagination for language but so little for other people, means less and less to me as the years pass.  On the other hand, a poet like Gwendolyn Brooks, with her saturation of rough, real Bronzeville, or Lorine Niedecker, with her “full foamy folk” of eastern Wisconsin –

I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else

– these poets seem to be throwing me lifelines from their graves.


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