Online Conversation | Words Against Despair with Christian Wiman

“In my experience, the worst despair is meaninglessness,” says Christian Wiman. “It’s not necessarily thinking that you’re going to die. It’s the feeling that life has been leeched of meaning.”

In his new book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, the acclaimed poet chases meaning through words, including memoir and poetry. Wiman returned to Christian faith in part through a terminal cancer diagnosis–one that he has, to his astonishment, now lived with for over 18 years. He explores themes of illness, love, faith, and the “almost spiritual joy” of encountering a deadly coral snake. “His poetry and scholarship have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world,” writes Marilynne Robinson, enabling him to “say new things in timeless language.”

We hosted an Online Conversation with Christian Wiman on April 26 to explore questions of faith, language, suffering, and meaning.

Thank you to our co-host, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for their support of this event!



Online Conversation | Christian Wiman | April 26, 2024

Tom Walsh: Thank you, Campbell, and thanks to all of you for joining us today. On behalf of all of us here at the Trinity Forum, welcome to this Online Conversation with Christian Wiman on the theme “Words Against Despair.” We’re delighted that so many of you—approaching 1,200—have registered for this conversation, and would especially like to welcome our more than 140 first-time guests and our more than 120 international guests from at least 20 different countries that we know of, from Ireland to Australia and from Panama to the Philippines. Across many miles and many time zones, welcome.

If this is your first time joining us or you’re new to the Trinity Forum, I’ll note that we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. So we hope today’s conversation will provide a small taste of that.

Our guest today is Christian Wiman, a poet who’s pursuing meaning through words. As Marilynne Robinson has written of Christian, “He has been given the gift to say new things in timeless language.” Christian is the author, editor, or translator of more than a dozen books. He was the longtime editor of Poetry Magazine, the premier magazine for poetry in the English-speaking world, and he now teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. One part of Christian’s story is his childhood with a volatile family in volatile churches in West Texas; another part is his unexpected return to Christian faith in adulthood. And entwined with these is another story, that of a terminal cancer diagnosis, one that he has, against all expectations, now lived with for almost two decades. Christian is joining us today from Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, the poet and memoirist Danielle Chapman, and their twin daughters. And as we talk, I will say to Christian, we encourage you to read or recite a poem anywhere along the way that you’d like to.

Christian, welcome.

Christian Wiman: Thanks so much for having me, Tom. It’s great to be here.

Tom Walsh: Well, your latest book, Zero at the Bone, which you can see over my shoulder here, is subtitled “50 Entries Against Despair.” And you’ve included in it poems and prose written by you, but also written by many other people, living and dead, in all kinds of different forms, and all organized into 50 entries plus two bonus ones. So what exactly is this book? How does this form reflect who you are and why did it make sense as the vehicle for you to convey what you wanted to say?

Christian Wiman: Well, I’ve published a lot of books, and they come out one-by-one discreetly, but I always have thought of my work as being kind of seamless, as it’s all raveled together, and I haven’t felt the kind of distinctions that the publishing industry requires you to fall into. And I wanted to write a book that included everything that I did. And I write poetry, I write personal prose, I write critical prose, I translate. I also edit. And I wanted a book that did all of that. And so I found myself writing a bunch of things that seemed to constellate around forms of despair and ways out of that, ways of fighting despair. And once I had that—I was probably about midway through the book then; I’m always midway through a book before I have any idea what I’m doing—and then I had that, and I began to write towards it. I actually went and sold the book first, and that gave me some impetus, some confidence that it could work. And then I began to write towards it.

Tom Walsh: Putting yourself in the shoes of your readers, how would you read this book? I mean, how would you approach reading it?

Christian Wiman: Well, I guess there’s two ways. I mean, the book is very carefully arranged and is meant to be read from first to last. It has an arc. It’s arranged in groups of ten sections. And each section has a major essay and—I mean of ten chapters—and each section has a major essay and a group of quotes. And it moves in a way that I perceive, I hope others would perceive, if they go all the way through it to an end. And also some of the entries refer back to other entries. And so you kind of need them in order to be able to understand the later ones.

However, I do know people who simply open a book and read wherever, and I am one of those people myself. So if you want to read it that way, you can.

Tom Walsh: Okay, it’s a judgment-free zone. Thank you for that. So I noticed your opening line in the book is “To write a book against despair implies an intimate acquaintance with it. Otherwise, what would be the point?” So I’m wondering, as you delved into this theme, what are some of the varieties of despair that you have lived or seen in others? And what are some of the responses that you’ve explored in your life and now in this book?

Christian Wiman: Well, I think I’ve fought against existential despair my whole life. I write a chapter about a poet named William Bronk who says, “I deal with despair because I think it’s part of the human condition. I don’t know how not to.” And it would be an evasion not to. And I think if you don’t feel it, then you’re not paying attention. That said, we are also called to rejoice. And there is a way of treasuring despair, a “luxurious and treasured gloom of choice” is how the poet William Wordsworth defines it. “A luxurious and treasured gloom of choice.” And we all know what that looks like. And that’s a sin. And I can certainly fall into that in my life as well. So existential despair was the main thing I was fighting against.

But there are other forms of despair. I have suffered from cancer for 19 years now, and three times have been on what I thought was my deathbed. And that engenders a different kind of despair. It can be existential, but it can also simply be the despair of losing the people that you love and leaving your kids alone—that particular despair. There’s environmental despair in the book. I’m often in despair about what we’re doing to our world. There’s political despair. So, yeah, all different kinds. I have often found poetry to be a great source of relief from despair. Even poems that are about despair can free you from despair because they articulate the issue. They put it in front of you. They speak of it as a thing that can be spoken of, and often in despair we feel mute.

Tom Walsh: So to zero in on one episode of despair, you’ve explained that about two decades ago, you had kind of achieved renown in your profession as a poet and an editor, living art or pursuing art for art’s sake, and then found yourself in despair. So I’m wondering if you would tell the story of that and what transformed it and what your understanding now is of what was happening then.

Christian Wiman: Yeah. I wouldn’t say I ever pursued art for art’s sake. I’ve never really believed in that. I always thought art was a means to something, but it wasn’t clear to me what that was for a long time. But when I was 39 years old, and I had gone three years without being able to write a poem, and I’d spent my whole life, really, organizing my life so that I could write. And it’s hard to describe, if you are not familiar with poetry, it’s hard to describe exactly how much of an apprenticeship there is. It took me ten years to write a real poem, and it just took me forever to discover a voice that hadn’t been in existence before. Something that was truly mine. Anyway, I spent a long time in that, and then it dried up, and I was just in despair over not being able to write.

And a couple of things happened in quick succession. I met my wife and we began— we almost went into a church. I wrote about this in a book I published 12 years ago or so, but we almost went to church the day that we got engaged. We paused outside the doors and didn’t go in, even though neither of us had been to church in years and didn’t consider ourselves Christians. And then we began to say prayers, just sort of— it just happened one night. We just found ourselves praying before the meal, and then we would do it every night. And it started out like a joke. And then it wasn’t a joke. And then shortly after we got married—and we got married very quickly after we met—but shortly after we got married, I got diagnosed with this cancer, which they said was going to kill me. And it made both of us need some form for the faith that we felt. I never felt like I had a conversion. I felt like I assented to a faith that was latent within me already and had been expressed by poetry, but not expressed enough or had been halted somewhere. And so we went to church one day, right down at the end— we went to a UCC church. I didn’t even know what that was. It was just at the end of the street. And it turned out they had a great minister, a young guy who was just on fire. You don’t always find that in UCC churches, I’ve learned. But this one you did, and I came home that day and wrote a poem for the first time in three years. And the poem was complicated formally. And I can read it for you real quick. And that was a great— I mean, an incredible thing for me. Because I hadn’t written in all that time. And I came home and I wrote this in 45 minutes. It’s called “Every Riven Thing,” and it has a line that repeats but changes. The punctuation changes, so it changes the meaning. “Riven” means broken or torn.

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree, a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

And so I felt like I was given this great gift all of a sudden. And sort of everything I wrote flowed from that.

Tom Walsh: Thank you for sharing that. So focusing on your relationship with your wife, perhaps, you’ve written, “There is in human love both a plea for and a promise of the love of God.” And I imagine in your life, in the circles you’re in, and perhaps with us today on this discussion, we have folks who value human love, but perhaps have not made that further connection to the love of God. What do you say when this comes up in conversation with such folks?

Christian Wiman: Well, there’s a great line from the novelist Elizabeth Bowen: “to turn from everything to one face is to find oneself face to face with everything.” Beautiful line. So if you turn to a particular person, you find that everything else in your life has got more of your attention too. It’s not a zero-sum game. And my experience at that time was of a love that was very much directed towards Danielle, but everything else was lit up too. It went through her and lit up the world around me, and it seemed to be very much bound up with faith. It seemed to demand a love beyond this human love. It seemed to include and demand that. And yeah, so that’s what I mean by that quote. I think it’s important not to think of it merely as romantic love. I think that the love that can do that can be for our children, can be for the world, can be for our work. It can take all kinds of forms. It’s not merely romantic love. Some people aren’t good at that. Some people don’t get it. You know, they don’t get it in their lives. But we all, I think, are given some kind of chance at love and joy in our lives.

Tom Walsh: And if I can then mention another part of your story that you alluded to, your cancer journey. How are you today from a health standpoint? Where are you on that on that journey now? And is it a surprising place to be?

Christian Wiman: Well, I mentioned three times I’d been close to death. The last one was exactly a year ago. I had what’s known as CAR T-cell therapy. And they take out your T-cells in your immune system and—in your bone marrow, I mean—and they genetically re-engineer them and then put them back into your body. And it’s an experimental treatment. I was the first person, I believe, in this country to have it with my disease, although people with other forms of cancer have had it. It was invented five years ago. And it worked on me. So it has worked completely. So yeah, I’m in great health today. I’m running and in really good health.

Tom Walsh: Wow, we’re all grateful. Grateful to know that, Christian. You mentioned your book My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, which is from 2013. And so I guess I’m interested in how that book and your life at that time relate to this book and your life at this time, although I realize when you’re writing even the current book, you were in a very different place than you are today based on what you just told us.

Christian Wiman: Mmm-hmm. Yeah. Well, let’s see, My Bright Abyss came out just as I was leaving Poetry Magazine. I edited Poetry Magazine in Chicago for ten years, and that’s the largest poetry magazine in the English-speaking world, the oldest and the largest, and it’s kind of a long story how I happened into that, but that was ten very important years and wonderful years in my life. And that’s where I met Danielle. And I decided I needed to make a change after those ten years. And so I did a lecture at Yale, at the Divinity School, and I really liked the students. I got to spend time with the students. And so I really wanted to do something where my faith was more forward, it was more involved with what I did. And the literary world is an absolutely secular world. And so I wrote them a letter and said they needed to hire a poet. And, I mean, it was a really strange thing to do. And now that I’m here, I can see exactly how strange it was because I don’t even have any graduate degrees or anything, but they eventually came around to the idea. So it worked out. And so I came here. I’ve been here 11 years now. And so that’s just a complete change in my life. Not only had— I never, I mean, I had taught before, but it had been in English departments and Creative Writing departments, and this is utterly different in the divinity school. So, yeah, that’s an enormous, enormous change.

Tom Walsh: And what were you with My Bright Abyss trying to explain to the world? It has a bit of that dimension to it, doesn’t it?

Christian Wiman: It does, I guess. I mean, there were two—. I mean, I’m always only writing because there’s something in me that is burning to get out. And, I mean, I’m a writer and you can’t go through a huge existential change in your life like that and then not want to articulate it, you know, not want to somehow figure out what’s happened to you. And so that’s what that book was, was an attempt to figure that out, to figure out what do I mean when I say “faith”? Faith in what? And what do I mean when I say God? What in the world do we mean when we say that? It’s not at all evident. People have been trying to answer those questions since the beginning of time. And, so, yeah, that’s what that book was.

At the same time, I began to be asked to speak around the country to a lot of different groups, and I just realized that I kept meeting people who— and this was actually before My Bright Abyss. I had published another a book of poems that led to this, and that poem was in it. And I kept meeting people who had a real hunger for God, but felt utterly disconnected from religion. And sometimes they had been raised religious and fallen away. Sometimes they hadn’t, but just had this hunger for a truer existence. And I wanted to say something to those people.

Tom Walsh: To focus in a bit on poetry and your vocation, I’d like to read a quote from you. I’ll preface it by saying we all use words all day, every day. But the world is pretty inhospitable for going deep. And it’s probably getting worse. And so poetry is not something that’s part of our lives for many of us. So you write in the book, “Sometimes the mystery of existence, that we exist at all, that we feel so homelessly at home in this place, gets embedded so deeply in life that we no longer feel it as mystery. Language too partakes of this sterilizing sameness, becomes, in fact, as solid and practical as a piece of wood or a pair of pliers, something we use during the course of interchangeable days. Poetry can reignite these dormancies of both language and life, send a charge through reality that makes it real again.” So I’m wondering, is there a poem you’d like to share and perhaps unpack a bit that sends a charge through reality in the way you’re talking about?

Christian Wiman: Yeah. You know, the one that does it for me is the poem by Carol Ann Duffy. It’s called “Prayer.” And, I often, I mean, I think like a lot of people, I often find it difficult to pray. I do pray, but I often find it difficult to pray and feel at times as if there’s no point to it, as if I’m simply speaking into a void. And then there come magical moments when I feel something like a prayer released from me, or almost as if I’m praying without knowing it. I was praying without knowing it. I often feel like that writing. I’ll write something that turns out to be a prayer. But it can happen in the world, too. And Carol Ann Duffy has this poem called “Prayer” where the landscape seems almost to pray for us or with us. And the only thing you need to know is, if you’ve ever spent time in England, some people regulate their lives by the shipping forecast, which is on the radio. And you’ll simply hear the names of—it’s the weather forecast—and you’ll simply hear the names of these towns along the coast. And she ends the poem with those names of the shipping forecast.

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree. A sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand-stock, still hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer—
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

I find that just unutterably beautiful. And it has these perfect lines, like “hearing his youth in the distant Latin chanting of a train.” You can almost hear that train there, the distant Latin chanting of a train. And then that beautiful ending. “Finisterre” actually means Land’s End. So this prayer is coming from the very end of the land. It’s like, it’s a sort of the ultimate despair. This prayer is reaching into ultimate despair. It’s beautiful.

Tom Walsh: It is, and you’ve written how for you sound is really the beginning of encounter with poetry. So there’s a real blessing to us in hearing it aloud, I think.

Christian Wiman: Yeah. Well, you know, Christianity and poetry are very much linked. God speaks the world into being. And of course, at the beginning of the book of John, you know: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Language is bound up with Christian faith. And I read a wonderful book recently, actually wrote a review of it, by a scholar named Michael Edwards called The Bible and Poetry, which argues that Christianity has in some ways become distorted because it has lost its connection with poetry, because it hasn’t—. And he goes through and talks about the ways in which, if we read these things poetically, we’ll understand our own faith better. I’ve found it very convincing. But then I would.

Tom Walsh: In this book, you talk about the Bible’s poetic dimension as one that we often overlook. And some of the passages that you refer to are the Book of Job and also the story of Jesus writing in the sand. These are wide-ranging passages that I think most of us don’t— aren’t obviously poetry to us. So what difference do you think it makes if we can embrace this perspective that you’re describing?

Christian Wiman: Well, Job, I think, is obviously poetry because it begins in prose and then it ends in prose, and then the meat of Job, what we think of as the Book of Job, main part of the Book of Job, is all verse. And it’s a very clearly marked in most Bibles. So clearly the writer wanted to say something different there. And it’s interesting, when God speaks, he speaks in verse. In Job it comes to us in verse. I think the Book of Job is trying to get at a different order of experience there. When God finally appears to Job after all of his suffering, he doesn’t give him any answers. What he gives him is this blast of beauty and basically says, you know, where were you when I made the whale and the horse and the lion? You know, one thing after another. And part of the effect of the Book of Job is being overwhelmed by that sort of rhetoric there. And it has to happen in poetry, and it needs the poetry to have its effect.

And another part of the Book of Job and what makes it, I think, one of the greatest works in Western literature is that you can never pin down the meaning of the Book of Job. The minute you think that you’ve understood the Book of Job, you can read some other part of it that slips free. And you can argue that the devil wins the bet in the Book of Job. You can argue that God wins the bet. You can argue that Job was faithful; he’s unfaithful. The book contains it all, and it does it because of the way that it exists as poetry. There’s a wonderful— I mean, I find it very instructive.

You mentioned that passage of Jesus writing in the sand. I find it very instructive and maybe even a hermeneutical lesson, meaning a lesson for interpretation or how would you interpret the Bible. Jesus never writes anything down, and the one time he writes something—not only does he never write anything down, he seems not to care if anything is written down—and the one time that he writes something, he writes in the dust, and we have no idea what he wrote. Absolutely no idea. He could have been doodling. We have no idea. It seems almost triumphantly perishable. And it’s a kind of lesson, I think, for the imperishability of things, the transience of things and learning to be at ease with that, and to think of Jesus also as a way, perhaps—and of Christianity—not as a series of doctrines which are written down.

There’s a great— I was talking to a class the other day that at the end of the Psalm 148, I believe it is, that we are enjoined to praise God, which is familiar from the Psalms. But then the animals are enjoined to praise God, and rocks praise God, and rivers praise God, and so, you know, what is going on? I asked my class, you know, what’s going on there? Augustine thought that of course this couldn’t be right. And so what must be meant is that these things praise God when we see them with the right vision. Or they praise through us in some ways because, of course, they’re not conscious. But what if we simply read it as the poem it is? Because it sure looks like the world is praising God, like these things are sentient almost. And more and more of what we learn about reality is that consciousness is much more widespread than we thought, and the world is close to some kind of sentience.

And so that’s what I mean by reading these things as the poetry they are. I think the Bible is just much wilder and more multivalent than we allow it to be. And that’s the poetry of it.

Tom Walsh: Let me mention to our audience, we’ll turn to some audience questions in a few moments. Thanks for sending them. I see we have some good ones coming through. So let me ask one more and then we’ll turn to those. One of the poets that you—a Christian poet, actually—that you reference quite a bit is George Herbert. You reference, for example, a poem of his called “Bittersweet.” And your book reminded me of that in the sense that it is full of both praise and lament, sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. So it seems to stem from a view that despair and joy are really inseparable. Am I getting that right? Is that how you experience things? And does one find that in your work?

Christian Wiman: I think they often are inseparable. I think even joy is shadowed with sorrow in this life. C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, says that it makes us homesick, makes us feel homesick for a home we didn’t realize we had, which I think is a great way of putting it. There’s a poet I love, Richard Wilbur, and he looks at a brook, and at the end of the brook, he describes it perfectly all the way through, and at the end he says, “Joy’s trick is to supply / dry lips with what can cool and slake, / leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache / nothing can satisfy.” So that feeling of being absolutely fulfilled all of a sudden and yet also, not destitute, but there’s a lack, there’s some lack that you’re aware of, which I think is God. I think what we feel in a moment of joy is the call of God. And it can be a destabilizing and troubling thing if we don’t know what to do with the moment of joy. Jürgen Moltmann says it’s that “compassion is the other side of a living joy.” So that a moment of joy should make us wonder why other people don’t have joy, or why don’t I have joy in my life more often? Yes.

And I also think that, in the midst of great despair, it is still possible to feel joy and— not happiness. Happiness is a temporal quality, whereas joy is an eternal quality, cutting in like this from vertically, kairological. But we can feel joy in the midst of great suffering. You know, I remember my kids coming into a hospital room when they were three years old, and it was when we first moved to New Haven. This was the second time that I thought I was at the end of my rope. And we’re in this hospital room, and, first of all, they were just thrilled that I had ordered an extra pudding. And I gave them my two puddings. I have twins. And then they were just amazed at the machinery, some of which I was hooked up to. And not just amazed, but amazed to the point of joy. You know, it just seemed to them— they didn’t realize why I was there, you know. They couldn’t take that in at three years old. But they felt joy, and their joy gave us joy. I mean, for a minute, you know, the way that you respond to kids. It’s like joy is the default setting of existence for them because they just feel it over nothing. And I think it’s quite possible to feel joy in the midst of great suffering. It’s a great gift of God.

Tom Walsh: Well, let me turn to some of the questions from our guests. One of them comes from Sarah Pickle, and she asks, “It seems the great poets and other artists exemplify a particular form of attention which stretches us out—attendre—toward the world itself. How do you think about the relationship between attention and hope, or at least enduring despair?”

Christian Wiman: That’s a great question. I mean, the question almost answers itself. Simone Weil said that, you know, any absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. And you could quibble with that, but I find it a helpful notion to think of prayer as being us giving our whole attention to something, no matter what that is. That could look like poetry for one person. It could look like carpentry for another. It could look like this. It could look like paying as much attention as you can to these questions, or to what they are doing in your life.

I had not thought to connect that with hope, I don’t think, and that’s what I really like about the question. Because it’s true that—and I’m going to read a poem at the end of this for the last word, which is about this—it’s true that often hope—and faith, too—is a matter of simply turning your attention in the right direction. That is, you feel like you’re not believing maybe, or—I don’t really ever not believe in God, but I often feel like I can’t feel God—and if I am able to turn my attention in the right way, I find that reality gets activated, and that is hope. Yeah.

Tom Walsh: So we got an interesting question—and I’m going to combine it with something you’ve written that I thought was interesting—that an anonymous attendee asked: “Not too many people read poetry nowadays. How might we encourage more poetry reading and make it as accessible as possible for an average reader?” Now, something you’ve written, I’ll quote here, is “institutionalized efforts at actually encouraging the over-consumption of poetry always seem a bit freakish, ill-conceived, and peculiarly American, like those mythic truck stops where anyone who can eat his own weight in rump roast doesn’t have to pay for it.” I’m very grateful to this questioner for giving me an opportunity to read that quote, which I think is a great one, but how do we get it right?

Christian Wiman: Well, you know, I wrote that when I was in the midst of working for the Poetry Foundation—they’re the publisher of Poetry Magazine—and that’s a big institution. They got a grant of $200 million, and now it’s grown to—I don’t know what—some huge amount. And so the foundation exists to get poetry in front of people, to make it more present in American life. And I was originally very much at the forefront of that and helped to create like the National Recitation Project with Dana Gioia that has well over a million people, million kids, doing it now, where they recite poems at every state level, and it ends up in D.C. for a national competition. And I’m proud of that. I think that was a great thing.

But some of the efforts at getting poetry in front of people, I think, involve dumbing it down. And I don’t like that. I think it’s better to lift people up, to teach people that the difficulty that they think they’re experiencing in poetry is often not there. A lot of times I will read a poem and I don’t understand it, but I love it. And there are poems that I have listened to, I’ve had in my head now, for 30 years, that I still don’t fully understand. In the second chapter of my book, I quote Wallace Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” which is a difficult, quote, difficult poem. I don’t fully understand it, and I talk about that in that chapter. But it’s a very great poem and it operates like a kind of spell or a charm, as some of the Bible does too, actually, which is the reason you cannot reduce it to some sort of message. If you can learn to let poetry happen to you like music happens—not all poetry, but some—and not think that it is simply rational discourse prettied up, you know, made sort of prettier, that can free you. That can free you a lot.

I find that there are a lot more people in this country who read poetry than you think. I mean, I just went to a conference where, I don’t know, a thousand people were there to hear poems. And there were a lot more than that at the conference, but this was just at the one event. So that’s the first thing, I think, learning not to be thwarted by the ways that poetry has been taught, which is often teasing out these tiny meanings from lines rather than simply listening to it, appreciating the whole thing. Take what you can from it. Sometimes a poem is just a feeling or a sensation that you take away and not some articulatable message, you know? So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is that I think there are tons of poets out there who are perfectly clear. That poem by Carol Ann Duffy, there are lines there that you might pause and think about, but the poem itself is just not that difficult. It’s pretty clear, you know, and there’s a lot of that out there for people who are interested.

Tom Walsh: Another question comes to us from John Barber, and John says, “We all have those comfort TV shows, movies, albums, etc., the things we repeatedly turn to at our lowest. What are some poems that you keep coming back to when despair is at the door?”

Christian Wiman: Well, I do read George Herbert quite a bit. He’s somebody that I’ve been reading most of my life, and I find he really articulated some things that helped me over and over and over. “Sorrow was all my soul. I scarce believed till grief did tell me roundly that I lived.” I mean, this is back in the 16th century. Somebody saying that they’re so sorrowful that only their grief could keep him alive. So that’s one. Honestly, there are so many. I’m reading a poet, David Ferry, right now. He died at the age of 100, I think a year ago, maybe two years ago. And he wrote a handful of just absolutely beautiful poems that I return to over and over. My wife and I did an event to inaugurate the Robert Frost Room at Yale two nights ago. And so we were both rereading Frost together. And we realized how much those poems have been with both of us for all these years. So that’s something I return to. I mean, Shakespeare is always something we’re always talking about.

When you’re young, you know, if you’re a poet, there can be something predatory in how you read. You want to get something from it, and you’re often competitive with it. As you get older, you read to make connections. And I found I’ve become a much more sympathetic reader as I get older, and I read to make connections with people. And so my wife will read something, and I will definitely go read it so that we can have a conversation. Or, you mentioned Miroslav. Miroslav Volf and I are always passing things back and forth. So yeah, there are a lot of poets that I keep returning to.

Tom Walsh: Just since you mentioned it, what’s life like in a two-poet family?

Christian Wiman: Well, I have heard some bad stories and people certainly gave me warnings, but it’s always been great for us, in all honesty. We share poems. Not often, but she’s basically the only person I show my poems to before I publish them. And it’s hard for me to imagine living with someone who didn’t understand the exigencies of making poems, the loneliness of it, and also the raptures of it. And so I’ve always found it great. You know, I’ve always found— I have no bad things to say about that, but I’ve heard some terrible stories.

Tom Walsh: I guess I’m also curious, you talk a lot about your childhood in the books, and clearly there were some difficult things. And now you have children. How do they engage with your poetry, or are they aware of it? And if so, how does it affect their consciousness?

Christian Wiman: Oh, well, they came to that conference with us a few days ago. They were bored out of their skulls. That’s how they engage with it. They don’t like it at all. They’re 14. They used to memorize poems, and they still have some poems memorized. And they are both probably, I mean, they’re so intelligent both of them. I expect poetry will be a large part of their lives. But when you’re 14, you turn away from what your parents do, you know. So it’s as if, I mean, I could be a stockbroker or something, anything. It doesn’t register with them really. And they’re so accustomed to being around people who write books because everybody they know writes books and it’s just nothing to them. They just think that’s the most normal thing in the world that people have published all these books.

Tom Walsh: We actually got a question on the theme of children from Mike Ford, who just mentions, throughout the book, the anecdotes regarding your children and the way in which they saw or see or inhabit the world—for example, and something you mentioned, was a butterfly stuck versus clinging to a door, I think—often touched him. Why is it that children can often reorient us in our despair?

Christian Wiman: I think it might have something to do with what I said earlier. It’s like joy is the default setting for a child. I mean, what’s so amazing is that, even if a child becomes disturbed when they’re older, there is a time when they’re young, for almost all children, when joy is just, like I say, it’s just there. I mean, of course they cry all the time and all that. But if you think of the times that you experienced joy in your life, like if you go through a day today, you know, have you had a moment of rapturous joy? Maybe not, probably not. But if you’re a little kid, you don’t go through a day without that. There’s always something that is just so shocking that it just—. You know, I was reading this book the other day, and this woman was describing her little kid, and he was in their yard, and he found an earthworm, and the earthworm was crawling over his hand, and all of a sudden he shouted, “I can’t believe this is happening to me!” And it’s just wonderful, you know. And so I think that’s why, that they are not occluded yet by all of the nets and veils and traps that fall around us as we get older. I mean, what if we could retain that? There’s something in every poet— that is what being a poet is in some ways, is retaining some element of that vision. A friend of mine once said he’d never met a decent poet who wasn’t just an adult child. He was saying that negatively, actually. He was saying it negatively. But I think there’s a positive side as well, that there is something that you retain that enables you to see the world as children do.

Tom Walsh: Does your own poetic practice give you access to those elements of your childhood, even to moments of beauty in your childhood, that maybe you wouldn’t be accessing if you weren’t digging in so deep?

Christian Wiman: Definitely. Yeah. I would say that I remember almost nothing of my childhood, but then what I do remember has come up through poems, that the language releases it in some way. Yeah.

Tom Walsh: Another question that raised something that you refer to quite a bit is—this comes from Kendra Thompson who asks, “Can you talk about the theological notion of the apophatic? How is this not despairing?” I’ll say ‘apophatic’ was a word I wasn’t super familiar with until reading your book. And I think there’s a lot there, so I’d love to hear you unpack it a bit.

Christian Wiman: Well, apophatic just means thinking about God in terms of what we can’t say about God. It’s the notion that we can’t ever say anything positive about God because we don’t know anything about God. We don’t even know what it means for God to exist. We don’t know what existence means for God. And so apophatic theology tries to go at the problem of God by un-saying or negatively saying things. So it’s an attempt to, Meister Eckhart says, “we pray God to be free of God.” We pray God to be free of God. So we pray to God, most of all, to free us from that word “God,” to free us from the notion of God and to somehow get beyond that. That’s what apophatic theology is.

Simone Weil is perhaps the greatest modern expositor of it, though she wasn’t really aiming at that. But her work has been really important to me. I find it very useful. I don’t find it a place to rest in. That is, I don’t think of myself as having an apophatic faith, but it is— I find it very helpful in thinking about God.

Tom Walsh: Another interesting question comes to us from Esther Kim, who asks a question that I don’t think you should take personally, but, “How does writing poetry walk the line between glorification of the self—navel-gazing, desire to express oneself—and glorification of God, which might be more like being forced to look outside the self?”

Christian Wiman: Yeah. Great question, I think. There’s a feeling that a lot of poets have—Keats once articulated this very beautifully—that when he was writing, he was the least poetical thing in existence, because he felt like he took on the existence of things outside of him. I think it’s a real misunderstanding of poetry to think that what you’re doing is articulating yourself. You may be dealing with autobiographical elements, but often you’re not. I wasn’t in that poem I read, didn’t have anything, nor in Carol Ann Duffy’s. They didn’t have any autobiographical elements in those. But often the feeling, what poetry does is actually erases the self. You feel like, if you’re going to write a real poem, you’ve got to get yourself out of the way and let that move through you, that energy move through you, and be what it will be. And the feeling is of yourself being obliterated. And the weird thing is that, like that poem I wrote that I read, I don’t really feel like I wrote it. I don’t have a memory of writing it, and I don’t take any pride in it. Like if you told me you hate it, I don’t care. It was just a huge moment in my life and very important, and I felt like myself was obliterated. And there was the poem.

So I think I think poetry is often not about the expression of the self. The modernists were very adamant that it was about the extinction of personality, and they went too far in that direction. But you’re not pouring your feelings on the page, necessarily.

Tom Walsh: Somebody has asked about Miroslav Volf, whom you mentioned, and whom we had on an Online Conversation a few weeks ago. And just a simple question: “Do you think you and Miroslav are working on the same question, how to live well?”

Christian Wiman: Well, we’re writing a book together actually. We’ve been exchanging these letters for the last year and a half, and it’s just about done. Maybe. We certainly talk about these things a lot. Miroslav is much more socially focused than I am. He thinks of social things in the world and problems in the world. And my mind doesn’t go there, to tell you the truth. I mean, I am an artist, and I feel very much committed to, honestly, just language at the most primary level. And I find that if I do that, sometimes these questions get answered, but I don’t aim to answer them in the way that Miroslav does. But it’s possible. It’s certainly possible. I know he’s helped me. He’s helped me enormously. Miroslav is a wise man.

Tom Walsh: I’ll ask one more question, then I’ll have a few announcements and then the last word. This one comes from Kathryn Helmers, she’s quotes you, “‘Often in despair, we feel mute,’ you said, citing that poems about despair can mitigate it by naming it as a thing that can be talked about. How would you encourage a ‘mute’ person, in this sense, to break their silence of speechlessness in dealing with the overwhelming weight of life?”

Christian Wiman: Well, I’m not quite clear if that question has to do with poetry or not. You know, one thing I have done throughout my life when I was in despair is memorize poems, and I found that they gave me a voice and they gave me this kind of ballast for my emotions. And so I had them there, and they gave me speech when I didn’t have speech. And so that’s one thing I encourage my students to do, and I’ve done it very deliberately when I’ve been depressed or in despair. And those are different things. But if the question is, you know, you feel mute, how do you get out of that? I’m not the best person to answer, I don’t think. I don’t know.

Tom Walsh: Okay. Well, thank you, Christian. A few brief comments, and then, as I said, we’ll go to you for the last word. And thanks to everyone who’s been participating with us today. For our guests, immediately after we conclude, on your screen, you’ll see an online feedback form. And we’re very grateful for your thoughts on how we can make these conversations even more valuable to you. And as a small token of our appreciation to you for participating, we’ll give all of you who participate a gift of a free digital download of one of our Trinity Forum Readings. Some of the ones we particularly recommend that relate to today’s conversation include people like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, and there’s another one that you mentioned, Simone Weil. We have something featuring her. We’ll also send you tomorrow a video link to this conversation that you can share with friends, and we’d love for you to do that. And we’ll include recommendations on some related readings.

We’d love for you to get involved with us and become a member of the Trinity Forum Society. By doing that, you help us put on events like this. You can join today online at our website, which is And as a special incentive, we are offering a free signed copy of Christian’s latest book, Zero at the Bone, when you join the Society, or with a gift of $100 or more. And if you’d like to sponsor a future Online Conversation, we would love to hear from you about that.

We have a few exciting events coming up we would like to mention. One is next Friday. Please join our discussion with John Mark Comer. You may know him from his previous book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. He’s got a new one called Practicing the Way. And we’ll be delving into that. For those of you in Nashville, we’ll be having an Evening Conversation there, a live event with John Inazu on May 8th on his book Learning to Disagree. And then looking ahead to June, we’ll have some Online Conversations with people like Amy Lowe, Elizabeth Oldfield, and David Bailey with Mia Chung Yi, and you can register for all of them on our website now. You can also find all our past ones on our website or our YouTube page. And for those of you who are podcast fans, you can find our Trinity Forum Conversations podcast at your favorite podcast platform.

Okay, that said, over to you, Christian, for the last word.

Christian Wiman: So this is a short poem about those moments when we do feel in despair or overwhelmed by the kind of despair of the world and what happens if we can turn that into a tension. It’s called “When the Times Toxins.”

When the times toxins
have seeped into every cell

and like a salted plot
from which all rain, all green, are gone,

I and life are leached
of meaning.

somehow a seed
of belief

sprouts the instant
I acknowledge it:

little weedy hardy would-be

tugged upward
by light

while deep within
roots like talons

are taking hold again
of this our only earth.

Thank you all very much.

Tom Walsh: Thank you, Christian. Thanks to all of you. Have a great weekend.