THR Web Features   /   May 22, 2024

Through the Rent, Eternity Enters

A Conversation with Marilyn Nelson and Christian Wiman.

Abram Van Engen, Christian Wiman, and Marilyn Nelson

( THR illustration; clockwise from top: T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Richard Wilbur, Osip Mandelstam, George Washington Carver, Norman MacCaig, Joy Harjo.)

In December 2023, The Carver Project—an organization of Christian faculty at Washington University in St. Louis—brought together award-winning poets Marilyn Nelson and Christian Wiman for a discussion of poetry, faith, ambition, humility, prayer, and grace. This interview has been edited for publication.


Abram Van Engen: I wanted to begin by asking you each about lives and life stories that have mattered to you. Marilyn, you have written several books that are biographies composed of individual poems, including one on George Washington Carver. I wonder if you could share how you came to write on Carver and what the writing of his life meant to you.

Marilyn Nelson: I had spent a year or two writing about evil and about how theology approaches it. I had consulted a couple of friends who were theology professors, and I was really deep into this issue which was incredibly depressing. I finally decided that I had to call an end to it because there is no absolute answer to the question of evil. It was clear to me that no matter what limitations we think we are imposing on human evil there is always some human being who is willing to go beyond that to the next phase. I wanted to write a saint’s life as an answer to this—as a way of finding my own center again and also as a way of exploring the question of whether there is a limit to our potential for good. Clearly, there seems no limit to our potential for evil: Is there a limit to our goodness? So, I wound up writing about George Washington Carver.

AVE: What does Carver have to teach us today?

MN: Carver lived—as I suppose we all do—surrounded by evil. But Carver’s approach was always to find the path of love. In some ways, he was a kind of a foretaste of the theology of Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders who teach love and pacifism instead of retaliation. There were several specific incidents in his life when he loved people who were blatantly racist. He offered them love as a way of conversion.

AVE: Chris, I was thinking of the poet Osip Mandelstam. I wonder if you could say a bit about who he was and what drew you to his life and work.

Christian Wiman: Osip Mandelstam was just this explosion in my life—this great gift of grace. He was a Jewish, Russian modernist who converted to Christianity when he was 17 or 18, but a lot of Jews converted to Christianity at that time because they couldn’t get jobs otherwise. They couldn’t attend university. They couldn’t get translation work, which is what he did. And so they would convert. It was just a paper thing. But for Mandelstam it seems to have been more serious. He became obsessed with Christ, who was clearly important to him his whole life, though I do not think that he was necessarily a Christian or remained one.

Mandelstam was part of the Russian intelligentsia that supported the revolution, but then quickly saw the terror that it had become and denounced it, and he got caught up in Joseph Stalin’s wrath. The last time he was seen, he was picking through a garbage dump on his way to a labor camp. One of the great minds of the twentieth century, picking through garbage in Siberia. I became obsessed with him for two reasons: One is that he’s a completely sonic poet. In his poetry, he’s compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins by Russians who know both English and Russian, and I was amazed by that. And two, I was drawn to his spiritual life, which as I say, I don’t think had a specific religious object but was incredibly intense.

AVE: I want to read a line that you write about him as a way to think about the place of poetry in society. This is from your book My Bright Abyss: “It was the pure lyric spirit of Mandelstam that Stalin couldn’t abide, the existential liberty and largesse, the free-singing soul that, Stalin seemed to sense, would always slip free of the state’s nets. People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means.” I want to think with you both about the power of poetry. Marilyn, you write about that power in a poem called “How I Discovered Poetry.” In that poem, a teacher sees your early love of poetry and asks you to read a poem to the class, but it turns out to be a very racist poem, and the whole rest of the class is white. The power of poetry comes through here in both its awe and its harm.

MN: Yes, I think some people misread that poem as being a description of a teacher doing something positive and sensitive. But she was choosing a poem from an earlier tradition, which was called the plantation tradition, and which tried to resurrect the glory of Southern culture and the Lost Cause. That’s what she asked me to read. 

AVE: I love the way that poem describes poetry’s possibilities and effects in two very different ways. Where it begins is with the words that have already transported you. The awe and wonder of poetry that moves you as a child. But the teacher’s poetry, which is Wordsworth or something like that, doesn’t really draw in the other students. They are itching for recess. Wordsworth doesn’t do it. Yet after the teacher asks you to read something very different, this racist poem from the plantation tradition, then suddenly they understand the power of words in a terrible way. They all fall silent. I think it’s a great poem for thinking about the different ways that poetry works in the world. 

MN: Yes, and I loved them for that. I loved my classmates. They saw exactly what was happening, and they were ashamed. That was the power of poetry, too. That community built in silence around the reading of that poem.

AVE: Chris, how did you discover poetry?

CW: Well, I grew up in a house without books, and I certainly had no sense that there was a living poet. But I grew up in the church, and so I grew up with hymns and scripture and the Bible. The Hebrew Bible is one-third poetry. So you get it there. But I didn’t come across poetry as poetry until I was in college. I was an economics major, but I was bored out of my mind. I read Yeats and Eliot, and one night those sounds just got in my head. I was a very volatile person and the formal control and the locked volatility of poetry was very appealing to me. So I became obsessed with it, and that was it. My life was dictated by poetry from then on, for better or worse.

AVE: One of the powers of poetry that you have both discussed is its ability to perceive reality in ways we all-too-easily miss. Marilyn, you depict Carver teaching others, for example, and the poem ends on these lines: “where he pointed was only a white flower /  until I saw him seeing it.” Carver’s perception spreads to others. He reveals what is really there to be seen. And I think of that not just as a great teacher’s gift, but as a particular gift of poetry. Chris, you’ve said that great poems “are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.” I wonder if you could both say a word about the relationship between poetry and perception.

CW: I guess I have different ways of thinking about that. I mean I like Keats’s phrase of “a fine remembrance,” where you read a poem and it awakens you to something that you already knew; you just had forgotten or you weren’t paying attention. There’s a famous critic, R.P. Blackmore, who said that a good poem “enlarges the scope of available reality.” Doesn’t add to reality, it enlarges the amount of reality that we are able to perceive. I find that very helpful as a way of thinking about poetry.

MN: I remember reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Renascence” when I was in sixth grade and these lines in particular: “The world stands out on either side / No wider than the heart is wide; / Above the world is stretched the sky, — / No higher than the soul is high.” I remember the experience of reading this poem and having it open my eyes to the world around me. It was just the ordinary world: the earth, the sky, that I see every day. But her poem gave it to me in a larger way—in a way that I’ve carried with me all these years since. I was only twelve years old.

CW: There’s a great poet I love, a Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, and the poem starts: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass / And hang zigzag on hedges.” “Straws like tame lightnings.” The image shocked me. You see those straws hang zigzag on hedges suddenly. So it can freshen reality in that way. The reason I don’t like that cliché of discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary is because I think it diminishes the actual effect. Given all we know of contemporary physics—the way that the world is colliding, merging—these metaphorical leaps are not just fantastic embellishments of reality. They’re actually showing something of what reality really is. So in that instance: colliding the sky, the lightning, and the straw—it has this amazing scope. It connects the land to the earth, humans to the gods, and all in a single image.

AVE: I want to transition now and ask how you both think about ambition. Ambition is a part of life, and poetry has its own particular ambitions. You have both written about this. Marilyn, in The Cachoeira Tales, you write: “My poems: a handful of dust / trying to get back to supernova. / Like every longing, everything alive.” And you say of ambition that it “wants the immortality / of a members-only country club Valhalla, / an eternal summit meeting of great names.” The poem goes back and forth about wanting long life for its songs and hushing the sense that immortality could be achieved through poetry.

And Chris, you have said in He Held Radical Light, “I think it’s dangerous to think of art—or anything, actually—as a personally redemptive activity, at least in any ultimate sense. For one thing, it leads to overproduction: If it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it, even if the well seems to have run dry.” But more importantly: “Art is not enough. Those spots of time are not enough to hang a life on. At some point you need a universally redemptive activity. You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point—whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss—you will have no efforts left to make.” It reminds me of that great poem by Milton, which ends: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I wonder if you could each speak to the drive that keeps you returning to your writing, but also how you balance that drive with the humility that keeps your writing in perspective.

MN: It’s hard in any endeavor, I think, to set aside one’s ambition. We all hope to be remembered. We hope that in three generations something about us will be carried on by our descendants. It’s a way of trying to fool death, I suppose, and it’s possibly our most difficult struggle to outsmart our end, to not end, to stick around in some way. I love your question, but I have no real answer to it because that longing for remembrance runs so deep.

CW: You mentioned Milton, Abram. He said, “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise / (That last infirmity of noble mind) / To scorn delights and live laborious days.” So it is a clear spirit in that poem. He thinks of fame as a kind of noble ambition. But it is also an infirmity—the last infirmity of a noble mind. It’s both. I always wanted for the dead to make a place for me. It’s not necessarily projecting forward. Instead, I want to be recognized by the dead. I want Yeats and Eliot and Milton to scoot over a little bit on the bench and make a place for me. And that seems okay. I mean, it’s good to have a noble ambition. It’s always seemed to me the greatest compliment for a poet is if someone would come up to you and have your poem memorized but not know who you were—not know who wrote it. They just had the poem itself. That seems to me the greatest honor. And freedom. Because the poem has done it. You’re not involved. You’re gone. So I think there’s always this tug between the ambition for the work and the need for humility in the world. But it’s ambition for the work. The kind of ambition that wants to win the Pulitzer Prize—that is not a noble ambition. We all have it, but it’s not noble. That’s more than an infirmity. That’ll kill you. Because you’re feeding a hunger that is not finally able to be filled. You get one thing, and you want the next. It’s just endless.

AVE: You both have spent a great deal of time writing and thinking about faith. I want to think about that aspect of your work, beginning with how you define the sacred. Chris, in He Held Radical Light, you write: “I hear people complain about the loss of any sense of the sacred in contemporary culture, but, as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has underlined, the real danger (and loss) lies not in the fact that secular culture denies sacred experience, but that we discover it everywhere.” I’m wondering if you could explain how you see that relationship between secular culture and the sacred.

CW: I think Kolakowski’s point is that if it’s everywhere, then it’s nowhere. If everything has the same value, then there is no value. Madeleine L’Engle says, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred.” Those aren’t actually contradictory statements. She’s not saying that everything is sacred. She’s saying that the Incarnation enables a kind of sacredness to happen to anything when seen in the right light – in the light of Christ. But what makes an experience sacred is not just how it is perceived; it’s also about what comes next. Richard Wilbur has a wonderful poem about St Teresa where he talks about her mystic visions and then says proof proceeded in action: “Visions were true which quickened her to run / God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain.” The poem ends with St. Teresa in “the tempered consonant of discipline.” So what’s a true vision? It’s one that leads to action. Jürgen Moltmann, the theologian, says, “Compassion is the other side of joy.” After an experience of joy, it should increase our compassion. So yes, all of these experiences can be sacred, but you can sort of tell whether or not they are by what happens next: How do they play out in a life?

AVE: Marilyn, you write about this figure Abba Jacob, who is a mystic, a hermit, and a friend of yours. What struck me reading your poems is just how funny he is. Sometimes we think the sacred has to be serious; it’s all ponderous and weighty. But Abba Jacob is so lighthearted. What do you see as the relation between humor and the holy life?

MN: I think one of the things Abba Jacob does with his life is to try to be the holy fool—to not take himself seriously. He’s celebrated masses wearing a clown nose, for example. Choosing to serve or to see the absolute doesn’t necessarily require one to turn away from the ordinary. What is the distinction between the sacred and the secular? I find it very interesting to read Joy Harjo’s poetry, for example, because she’s very conscious of the indigenous way of seeing the sacred in everything. Everything has a life. I had a group of Native American poets at my home who went for a walk and noticed this big stone lying next to the road. They said to me, “You have a Buffalo Stone on your street and you should not pass it without greeting it as your brother.” It takes something of a holy fool to say, all right, let’s talk to this stone and recognize it as my brother. But if we can do that, then maybe we can better recognize other human beings as our brothers and sisters. Everyone has the capacity of going beyond what we think of as ordinary experience and to see the absolute in the everyday.

AVE: One of the ways of approaching God, of course, is through prayer. You both have done a lot of thinking and writing about prayers, not to mention your own praying. What is the relationship, if any, between poetry and prayer?

CW: I can really only speak to my own life, but I find them very distinct. I’m not very convinced when people say that every poem is a prayer because it’s a kind of attention. But maybe it’s just the way I experience prayer. My prayers are not… interesting. I mean, they’re very important to me. I pray every night. But it almost feels rudimentary. I talk to God, or I try to achieve some kind of silence, or maybe I’ll feel the presence of God, but it’s just so different from poetry, where I’m making something. God doesn’t care if my prayer is well spoken. All I’m trying to do in that instance is align my heart and mind with God in some way, and it varies, but it feels utterly different than making art. I think of prayer not as speaking to God, but as listening to God. Sometimes that listening leads me to a kind of clarity or a kind of perception, and sometimes it leads to a sense of being held. I have a friend who once told me about a retreat he attended on prayer. He left the discussion, went to his room, laid on the bed, and tried to pray. Nothing. And suddenly he heard the words, “Be quiet and let me love you.” I think we need more and more just to listen.

MN: I spent one summer of my youth in Chicago when Dr. King brought the movement north, and we were marching for open housing. And I remember walking with a young white man. People were spitting at us. Gray-haired ladies would walk out of a beautiful church and spit at us. They said the most vile, ugly things at us. And I asked this young man what it was in his life that brought him here. He said, “When I was a child, my mother made a point of teaching us empathy. If there was something on television about children starving, we would ask her what it meant to starve, and she would say, ‘I’ll show you tomorrow.’ And then in the morning there was no breakfast. Well, okay, you don’t worry about it. But then there is no lunch. We’re hungry. And then no dinner. And she sends us to bed hungry. Then she says, ‘The difference between hunger and starvation is that you know you’re going to eat tomorrow; these children don’t know that.’”  That lesson, that empathy, put this man out on the sidewalk marching with me. Teachings like that. And I think that’s a kind of prayer. I think being aware of the world, having one’s eyes open to it, to its history, to the moment we’re living in, that’s prayer. It’s an acceptance of our responsibility and the teachings all around us.

AVE: Both of you in your work wrestle with serious wounds in the world, but also a real sense of joy, of grace. Chris, in My Bright Abyss, you write: “To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another.” I wonder if you could each share how you integrate grace into your lives and work?

CW: For me, I think of a poem to my wife. There’s a tree caught in another tree and it ends: “A cellular stillness, as of some huge attention / bearing down. May I hold your hand? // A clutch of mayflies banqueting on oblivion / writhes above the water like visible light.” That’s a poem about suffering, but also grace—as is the one before, which ends: “wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood / that is open enough to receive it.” Simone Weil said famously, “Time rends the soul. Through the rent, eternity enters.” Both poems are about trying to find a way to make your wounds sing. When I met my wife, it transformed me. Elizabeth Bowen said, “To turn from everything to one face is to find oneself face-to-face with everything.” That’s what it was like for me. You turn in one direction, and it opens up everything else. It looks singular, but it’s really universal. And part of my life has been integrating that moment of grace into the all the life that came after. How do you make a rapturous experience of God part of daily life?

It seems to me faith is partly a matter of memory. As Abraham Heschel said, “being faithful to the times when we had faith.” But it’s been a part of my poetry as well. For a long time, the energy of my poems was downward. The energy was loss. You know there’s a famous modernist phrase: “light writes white.” If everything’s okay in your life, if it’s all light, then you have a blank page and nothing to say: Light writes white. There’s got to be some tension, some agony, something to get the words on the page. I was obsessed with that idea, and I believed it. But I don’t believe it anymore. I think it’s perfectly possible to write out of joy and elation and happiness. But I had to learn that, be taught it, and meeting my wife was a big part of that. My poems changed about twenty years ago and instead of closing off at the end and having their energy be loss, it started taking a different direction. At the end, they started swerving toward light. And it was not me doing it. It was not willful. In fact, I resisted it. So, part of maturing as a writer has been learning to let that happen in my work. I think that’s enabling grace to have a life outside of those moments when you know you’re getting grace and somehow letting it travel in the rest of your life.

MN: I don’t know how to talk about grace because my church history has been very much formed by the American Lutheran Church and Luther is just all about grace. I can only say that what I understand of grace is that God chooses us. What an incredible decision that is for the Almighty. I keep thinking of where we are on this tiny planet in this humongous universe. We are infinitesimally small, and yet God loves us. We have been created. We have been given existence. It’s so impossibly miraculous that it’s hard to imagine being able to walk around without feeling deeply grateful. How do we deserve this? How do we deserve this breath? This is a miracle. We Christians believe that God gave Jesus to us out of grace—out of sheer grace—out of generosity, out of love. How great is that! That’s grace.