Notes on Poetry and Religion
If we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually.
By Christian Wiman
Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine—not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature—and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the sorrow; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art—its “sumptuous destitution,” in Emily Dickinson’s phrase—can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding: George Herbert, Marilynne Robinson, T. S. Eliot. . . .
Language can create faith but can’t sustain it. This is true of all human instruments, which can only gesture toward divinity, never apprehend it. This is why reading the Bible is so often a frustrating, even spiritually estranging, experience. Though you can feel sometimes (particularly in the Gospels) the spark that started the fire of faith in the world—and in your heart—the bulk of the book is cold ash. Thus we are by our own best creations confounded, that Creation, in which our part is integral but infinitesimal, and which we enact by imagination but cannot hold in imagination’s products, may live in us. God is not the things whereby we imagine him.
You cannot really know a religion from the outside. That is to say, you can know everything about a religion—its history, iconography, scripture, etc.—but all of that will remain inert, mere information, so long as it is, to you, myth. To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that “you can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general” (George Lindbeck), and that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion. Lindbeck would go so far as to say your religion of origin has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it’s your only hope for true religious fluency. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. This is true of poetry, too: I do not think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent.
I think it is a grave mistake for a writer to rely on the language of a religion in which he himself does not believe. You can sense the staleness and futility of an art that seeks energy in gestures and language that are, in the artist’s life, inert. It feels like a failure of imagination, a shortcut to a transcendence that he either doesn’t really buy, or has not earned in his work. Of course, exactly what constitutes “belief ” for a person is a difficult question. One man’s anguished atheism may get him closer to God than another man’s mild piety. There is more genuine religious feeling in Philip Larkin’s godless despair and terror than there is anywhere in late Wordsworth.
I don’t mean to suggest that Larkin was a Christian without knowing it. Czeslaw Milosz does something along these lines with Albert Camus (“if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him”), and it seems awfully close to spiritual condescension. Similarly, I once heard someone respond to Larkin’s “Aubade” by saying that, while undeniably beautiful and moving, the poem illustrated perfectly the condition of any person who did not accept Christ. This just won’t do. It’s not sufficient for Christianity to stand outside of the highest achievements of secular art and offer a kind of pitying, distancing admiration. If Christianity is to have any contemporary meaning at all, it must contain, be adequate to, and inextricable from modern consciousness, rather than simply retreating into antiquated beliefs and rituals. And modern consciousness is marked by nothing so much as consciousness of death. Can one believe in Christ and death in equal measure? Is this degree of negative capability possible?1 Paul Tillich pushes toward it in theology, as do, in very different ways, Jürgen Moltmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I can’t think of any English-language poets after Eliot who have achieved this (or even tried).
Poetry is not written out of despair, which in its pure form is absolutely mute. The poetry that seems to come out of despair—Larkin’s “Aubade,” for instance, or late Sylvia Plath—is actually a means of staving it off. A negative charge, simply by virtue of realizing itself, of coming into existence, becomes a positive charge. Whole lives happen this way, sustained by art in which, at some deep level, life is denied. There can be real courage in such lives and art, though it is very easy to move from engaging despair to treasuring it, to slip from necessity into addiction. This is when poetry’s powers begin to fail.
Art needs some ultimate concern, to use tillich’s phrase. As belief in God waned among late-nineteenth- and earlytwentieth- century artists, death became their ultimate concern. Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, Camus—these are the great devotional poets of death. Postmodernism sought to eliminate death in the frenzy of the instant, to deflect it with irony and hard-edged surfaces in which, because nothing was valued more than anything else, nothing was subject to ultimate confirmation or denial. This was a retreat from the cold eye cast on death by the modernists, and the art of postmodernism is, as a direct consequence, vastly inferior. I suspect that the only possible development now is to begin finding a way to once more imagine ourselves into and out of death, though I also feel quite certain that the old religious palliatives, at least those related to the Christian idea of heaven, are inadequate.
“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. That’s not really a critique of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. Death is an abstraction for all of us, until it isn’t. But for the person whose death is imminent and inescapable, nothing is more offensive, useless, or wrongheaded than phrases like “Death is the mother of beauty.”
Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.” In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.
Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives—indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time—then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?
Death is the mother of beauty? No, better to say that beauty is the mother of death, for it is the splendor of existence that so fires the imagination forward and backward into our own unbeing. 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.
I always find it a little strange to meet a poet for whom religion holds no instinctive resonance whatsoever. Most poets are sympathetic to the miraculous in all its forms, though they are also usually quite promiscuous with their sympathies. Still, there are exceptions. Thom Gunn used to say that there wasn’t a religious bone in his body, and I can’t recall a single instance from his work that uses religious language as a shortcut to the ineffable. (For an absolutely scrupulous use of religious language and imagery by an unbeliever, look at his “In Santa Maria del Popolo.”) On the other hand, Gunn’s work is virtually devoid of mystery (again, look at “In Santa Maria del Popolo”). It does not contain (or aim for) moments of lyric transcendence; it offers no ontological surprises. This is not necessarily a specifically religious distinction. Larkin, though his work is absolutely rooted in reality, and though it seems quite clear he didn’t believe there was anything beyond it, could never completely repress that part of himself that yearned for transcendence, and his work is full of moments in which clarity of vision and spiritual occlusion combine to mysterious lyric effect. In Gunn’s work, by contrast, you sense that there was no hunger which the world could not satisfy.
Some of the saddest words I know are those Keats is reputed to have uttered just before he died: “I feel the terrible want of some faith, something to believe in now. There must be such a book.” Part of the pathos here is simply the fear and hunger; it is horrible to watch someone die in a rage of unbelief, and there is every reason to think that, had he lived a normal life, Keats would have come to a different accommodation with death, either with or without religious faith. Another part of the pathos, though, is in the fact that even here, even on his deathbed, Keats can only imagine deliverance as a book, as literature. Keats was a large-souled, warm-hearted, altogether companionable person, but the tragedy of his death was that he did not have a chance to outgrow his youthful devotion to “poetry”—to the idea of it, I mean. You cannot devote your life to an abstraction. Indeed, life shatters all abstractions in one way or another, including words like “faith” or “belief.” If God is not in the very fabric of existence for you, if you do not find him (or miss him!) in the details of your daily life, then religion is just one more way to commit spiritual suicide.
It is common for people to regret or even renounce their earlier lives. It is common for poets to use language like “I had to forget everything I ever learned to make way for new work” or “You must learn all the rules so that you can break them.” This is, paradoxically, clichéd thinking, a symptom of our fragmented existences rather than a useful ingenuousness or regenerative naïveté. Art—including our own, perhaps especially our own— should help us to integrate existence rather than mark it off. We should learn to see our lives as one time rather than a series of separate times. I find it difficult to believe in radical conversion stories— Saul on the road to Damascus and all that. I think you can test the truth of a man’s present against his past; indeed, I think you have to. Our most transfiguring spiritual experiences are merely the experiences we were trying to have all our lives, which is to say that we are not so much transfigured as completed.
Christian Wiman’s most recent book of poetry is Hard Night (Copper Canyon Press). This essay is excerpted from Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, which will appear later this year. He is the editor of Poetry.