How Christian Wiman made poetry matter

Jason Guriel in Slate:

ScreenHunter_2462 Dec. 20 18.23“I don’t really believe in Collected Poems,” the American poet and critic Christian Wiman has said. “They’re almost always bad.” Wiman has long believed that real poetry is rare. As editor of the prestigious magazine Poetry, a position he held for 10 years, he faced a slush pile so big it had slopes, a base camp. But he still struggled to source print-worthy poems. “If poetry is so rare in the world, if so much of it is dross, just think how much rarer it must surely be in your (our!) own work,” he writes in a provocative editorial called “In Praise of Rareness.” Wiman’s argument—that a person who truly respects poetry will find most of it lacking—is the sort of good sense that nevertheless triggers some poetry readers, who tend to be aspiring poets themselves. People don’t prefer to acknowledge that the art they dabble in is probably beyond them. (Full disclosure: Wiman took some of my poems for his magazine. But he rejected many, many more.)

Unsurprisingly, Wiman’s high-profile editorship came to overshadow his own poems. So, too, did an essay he wrote about his incurable form of blood cancer and his rediscovery of faith. (The piece went viral in 2007, and led to other essays about God, opening up a new readership for Wiman.) But Wiman’s poems, which have been gathered in his new book Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems, deserve our attention, too. By striving to be clear and memorable, they dare to address the needs of that mythical unicorn, the general reader. They prove, as Wiman’s editorship did, that poetry doesn’t have to be a coterie concern.

More here.