Devoted to “public religion” or “religion-in-public,” Sightings surveys public arenas that are not confined to the political world. Education, commerce, entertainment and the arts represent spheres where publics encounter religion.
The arts, which deserve more attention than Sightings gives them, have an important place in the Marty household. A favorite topic at home at the moment is Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. Wife, Harriet, prepped for a recent broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of the Dialogues by spending months studying George Bernanos’ French-language text (which Poulenc set to music).
The April issue of Opera News was much devoted to this religion-themed opera. When Harriet and I read this issue, we were struck there by “Coda: Grace Notes” a surprisingly personal column written by Brian Kellow. He tells the story of his almost life-long atheism or religious indifference and his lack of preparation for the profound “Grace” themes in Poulenc’ work.
Unexpectedly, in the penultimate paragraph of his Opera News column, Kellow writes: “When I turned fifty, I became a Catholic, something that stunned several friends and family members.” More: “Perhaps because I do not find getting older a place of refuge or peace, I still view the promise of grace…as an immensely powerful idea.” This month Kellow will attend a performance of Carmelites for the first time as a Catholic and wonders: “Will this make any difference in how I respond?”
Equally unexpected is the more deliberative attention that the media has given to religious poetry, especially its recent focus on the work and life of a Christian poet named Christian Wiman. I have read his poetry in magazines and books and have known of him as editor of Poetry, a post from which he is currently resigning. Any time a poet gets long and generally favorable attention in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and other very public outlets, as well in The American Scholar and other notable journals, this is cause to sit up and pay attention.
More typical of the media are the cynical prose lines that exemplify so much of our popular culture. For example, in the May 6, 2013, New Yorker profile by Emily Nussbaum of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the lead actor in television’s “Veep,” Nussbaum quotes an “acrid zinger” which “could come in handy in real-life Washington: “I’m about to enter a national ass-kicking context. With no legs. And a massive ass.”
And yet, eight pages past Nussbaum’s profile with its “zinger,” we find an unexpected and generous review by Adam Kirsch, Faith Healing: A Poet Confronts Illness and God.Kirsch comments on the work of Christian Wiman. What interests him is the explicitness of Wimans’ theological or confessional expressions.
Because of lack of space and so as not to over-compress quotes of Wiman’s, I won’t begin to quote. Today’s is the longest list of sources and references Sightings has ever provided. I hope it will inspire readers to range among them.
Wiman left the church of his childhood but came back, during or, some will say, because of great changes in his life. He retired from Poetry and will now be in residence at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music. He married, and that changes everything. And—critics may now leap—he is living with the diagnosis of incurable cancer.
So? More poetry than not has been about love and death. Here are two samples from opera and poetry. We could cite others, but these samples, exceptions in our profane culture, for a moment, bid for equal time for love and grace and life.
“Metropolitan Opera Broadcast: Dialogues des Carmelites.” Opera News 77:10 (2013).
Kellow, Brian. “Coda: Grace Notes.” Opera News 77:10 (2013).
Kirsch, Adam. “Faith Healing: A Poet Confronts Illness and God.” Review of Poetic Faithby Christian Wiman. The New Yorker, May 6, 2013.
Moyers & Company. “Biography of Christian Wiman.” Accessed May 5, 2013.
“Christian Wiman: Two Poems.” Moyers & Company, February 24, 2012.
“Christian Wiman on Living with Cancer and Finding Faith.” Moyers & Company, February 23, 2012.
Muyumba, Walton. “A Poet Grapples With Faith And Death In The ‘Abyss’.” NPR Books, April 11, 2013.
Nussbaum, Emily. “Crass Roots: ‘Veep’ grows up.” The New Yorker, May 6, 2013.
Sitman, Matthew. “On Christian Wiman’s ‘My Bright Abyss’.” The Dish Blog, April 7, 2013.
Stevens, Heidi. “Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, changes his meter.” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2013.