Christian Wiman Interview
TO RELIGION, AND RESPONDING TO CONTROVERSY
It’s not an earth-shattering interview, but it has a few revealing moments worth the seven minutes it will take to read. I still maintain that Poetry is not a good journal (due not to their inclusions, but to their exclusions), but now that their circulation is up to 30,000 units, I think it can be said that they have a very big voice.
P&W: Let me ask you about that article by Dana Goodyear in the New Yorker, followed by David Orr’s sharp response to it in the New York Times. What was that all about?
CW: I can’t get my mind around it any more than you can. I thought it was unfortunate. Look, the New Yorker had a great occasion to focus on poetry and they didn’t—much.
P&W: The piece seemed to be harking back to the Keillor debate—the idea of popularizing poetry versus maintaining standards.
CW: It’s a very simplistic distinction. What I believe, and what we believe at the Poetry Foundation, is that there are a whole lot of Americans who are perfectly capable of reading serious poetry, complicated poetry, and what’s happened is that there’s been a breakdown between the poetry that gets written and the people who read it. Our argument is that there has to be some way of healing this rift. We believe that if we put good poems in front of people, they’ll want to read them. Some people interpret that as dumbing down poetry, that you have to put bad poems in front of people for them to read them. We just don’t feel that way.
He says the split between popularizing poetry and maintaining standards is a simplistic one. I agree. But then he says the Poetry Foundation believes that if they “put good poems in front of people, they’ll want to read them.” Indeed. But who gets to define “good”? And why should someone interpret that as “dumbing down poetry,” unless it’s a reflection on The Poetry Foundation’s notion of “good.”
Maybe, here and there, Christian Wiman could listen to some contemporary version of Ezra Pound, for a different version of “good.” Perhaps Poetry might someday be known for something other than how much money it has, or what it published nearly a century ago.
A “whole lot” of Americans find out what’s going on in American poetry from Poetry and the Poetry Foundation. There’s a wonderful world of poetry they’re not seeing. On the other side of that mountain range, is a great country, where they speak a language The Poetry Foundation doesn’t understand. I think a “whole lot” of Americans would like a tour. Some might even want to move there.
Here’s a poem from Christian Wiman:
Rhymes for a Watertower
A town so flat a grave’s a hill,
A dusk the color of beer.
A row of schooldesks shadows fill,
A row of houses near.
A courthouse spreading to its lawn,
A bank clock’s lingering heat.
A gleam of storefronts not quite gone,
A courthouse in the street.
A different element, almost,
A dry creek brimming black.
A light to lure the darkness close,
A light to keep it back.
A time so still a heart’s a sound,
A moon the color of skin.
A pumpjack bowing to the ground,
Again, again, again.