A Note on Christian Wiman's Reading of Basil Bunting
After more or less admitting that I think exhortations to political poetry are essentially religious, I finally get my hands on a copy of Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. There, in a brief on poetry and religion, Wiman writes, citing Tillich, “Art needs some ultimate concern.” At every turn, it seems, poetry is turned into a vehicle: for the avant-garde, for political engagement, for meaning against the Void. All these different appeals have one thing in common: they are teleological.
Noun ( pl. -gies) Philosophy
The explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.
Theology The doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.
ORIGIN mid 18th cent.(denoting the branch of philosophy that deals with ends or final causes): from modern Latin teleologia, from Greek telos ‘end’ + -logia (see -logy ).
The great thing about Ambition and Survival, though, is that Wiman can’t quite get with the program. He trusts his nonteleological ear too much.
Wiman is susceptible to “the absolute truth of technique” and to the unexpected passion, so he can be unpredictable even to himself:
The only antidote to contingency is an addiction to it. This is how I explain to myself my love for a poet like James Schuyler, who fulfills none of the formal expectations I have for poetry.
Wiman’s first sentence tries to save the appearances (we all do this, we who speak in prose about poems) but the second sentence owns up to the irrationality of it all: This is how I explain to myself my love ... who fulfills none of the formal expectations I have.
You can see this conflict at work most dramatically in “Free of Our Humbug: Basil Bunting.” Wiman begins, “All through my twenties I read Basil Bunting with a kind of avid awe.” Years later he goes back to Bunting and realizes it’s a slog. What happened? One of the things that happened is that Wiman got tired of Modernist technique. “Art is about more than form in the end. It is also about life, about truth….” He thinks he can detect the places where Bunting’s feeling failed him and technique rushed in to fill the vacuum.
And yet!: “I don’t know of anyone who could more utterly fuse sight and sound …. Or carve language so closely to what Bunting called ‘the structure of event’ that to read the lines aloud is to feel the physical fact of what they describe…. Or make a music that so steadfastly refuses to rise above physical facs, refuses to be separate from things…. Or so often simply take your breath away with the beauty of individual passages….”
It seems that the ear has reasons of which the reason knows not. Wiman concludes by confessing:
Articulating my own objections to Bunting’s work mostly dissolved them. You can’t read poetry with some ideal conception of it in mind any more than you can live that way. I am not moved by the ostensible subjects of Bunting’s poetry and find myself frustrated if I attend too closely to the poetms at basic levels of narrative and psychology. The way to read Bunting, I think, is to trust him utterly at the level of music, and little at the level of subject matter.
Read this way, the poems can be quite moving …
Thus we have journeyed to the opposite pole from “Art needs some ultimate concern.” Hopkins coined the term inscape as shorthand for what Wiman describes as “carv[ing] language so closely … that to read the lines aloud is to feel the physical fact of what they describe….” It’s the very definition of poetic transcendence, and a perfectly material one.
It can’t be a coincidence that “Free of Our Humbug” is the penultimate essay in Ambition and Survival, coming before the (by now famous) confessional finale. It too confesses: What is is not what ought to be. Poetry of genius confounds our expectations. It’s not an easy paradox. I sympathize with it because I suspect my own version of Ambition and Survival would be a neat mirror image of Wiman’s: the poet who was not tired of Modernist technique, but who found herself sometimes wondering if material transcendence is wholly material.
Postscript It's a pity that those who think Wiman is a kind of rhyme-and-meter fundamentalist are least likely to read the book, which makes it abundantly clear that he isn't. I spent the better part of Sunday night reading the book for the pleasure of its prose (I had a copy of Kenneth Cox's criticism too, but suffice to say it languished by my elbow). I've heard that poets can't always write prose. I confess I'm prejudiced toward strong prose styles, and I don't quite understand how one could write good poetry but not good sentences.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...