Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

December 8, 2020
Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

"That calling, at once religious, ethical, and aesthetic, is onethat only a genuine poet can hear—and very few poets can explain itas compellingly as Mr. Wiman does. That gift is what makesAmbition and Survival, not just one of the best books ofpoetry criticism in a generation, but a spiritual memoir of thefirst order."—New York Sun"This weighty first prose collection should inspire wideattention, partly because of Wiman's current job, partly because ofhis astute insights and partly because he mixes poetry criticismwith sometimes shocking memoir ... The collection's greateststrength comes in general ruminations on the writing, reading andjudging poetry." —Publishers Weekly"[Wiman is] a terrific personal essayist, as this new collectionillustrates, with the command and instincts of the popularmemoirist ... This is a brave and bracing book."—Booklist"Blazing high style" is how The New York Timesdescribes the prose of Christian Wiman, the young editortransforming Poetry, the country's oldest literarymagazine.Ambition and Survival is a collection of stirringpersonal essays and critical prose on a wide range of subjects:reading Milton in Guatemala, recalling violent episodes of hisyouth, and traveling in Africa with his eccentric father, as wellas a series of penetrating essays on writers as diverse as ThomasHardy and Janet Lewis. The book concludes with a portrait ofWiman's diagnosis of a rare form of incurable and lethal cancer,and how mortality reignited his religious passions.When I was twenty years old I set out to be a poet. Thatsounds like I was a sort of frigate raising anchor, and in a way Iguess I was, though susceptible to the lightest of winds. . . .When I read Samuel Johnson's comment that any young man couldcompensate for his poor education by reading five hours a day forfive years, that's exactly what I tried to do, practically settinga timer every afternoon to let me know when the little egg of mybrain was boiled. It's a small miracle that I didn't take towearing a cape.Christian Wiman is the editor ofPoetry magazine. His poems and essays appear regularly inThe New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly,Harper's, and The New York Times Book Review.