Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman (Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune)

In the first chapter of "My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer," a book Christian Wiman wrote in the wake of a bone marrow transplant to treat his incurable blood cancer, he introduces us to his longings.

"What I crave at this point in my life," he writes, "is to speak more clearly what it is that I believe."


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It's a prelude to the coming chapters, in both his book and his life. "My Bright Abyss" is a collection of essays that explore Wiman's spiritual journey, from a child raised Southern Baptist in West Texas to a young adult who rejected the trappings of religion to a man who, now, contemplating a life likely to be cut far too short, is filled with an all-consuming belief in the God he says he always sensed, even during the years he spent doubting.

"Whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it," Wiman writes. "For faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life — which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change."

Wiman's book, released this month, is reaching readers just as word spreads of great change set in motion by his pending departure from Poetry, the Chicago-based magazine that he has helmed since 2003, and, by all accounts, elevated to its finest hour. The magazine, founded in 1912, garnered two National Magazine Awards and more than doubled its circulation during his leadership.

"Poetry magazine became the primary place I would like for my work to be published while he was editor," says Kay Ryan, the U.S. poet laureate from 2008 to 2010, whose 2010 book "The Best of It: New and Selected Poems" won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Poetry Foundation, established in 2003 after philanthropist Ruth Lilly bestowed a $200 million gift to the magazine, operates as an independent literary organization whose mission is to cultivate and celebrate poetry. The foundation used the money to establish an endowment to fund Poetry magazine in perpetuity.

"Poetry is our oldest and most deeply respected poetry magazine in the country, and it's always meant a great deal to me," Ryan says. "But it became what it is today because of the direction of (Wiman's) editorial hand."

"He complete revitalized it," says Poetry senior editor Don Share. "He put it right back into the conversation that it was designed to be a part of and managed to make it into the most successful version of itself in its 100-year history."

Wiman, who remains in the editor's post until June 30, will join the faculty at the Yale Divinity School in July. Yale approached him about teaching for a semester after he delivered a lecture there in 2011. But complications from the cancer with which he was diagnosed on his 39th birthday in 2005 prevented him from accepting the offer.

He remained in contact with the school and eventually worked with the administration to create a new position within the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

"I'll be teaching poetry and faith this fall," he says. "Using poems to look at issues of faith through all centuries, in all countries, looking at all kinds of faith. And then next semester I'll be teaching on accidental theologians; people doing theology through other means — novels or poems or journals or essays or nonfiction."

Speaking more clearly, that is, about what it is that he believes.

"I'm tremendously excited about the prospect of being able to talk about poetry and faith," he says. "I find I have to squelch that side of the poem in order to get people to listen if I'm at decidedly secular institutions. They're not used to talking about poems as expressions of faith, even when you're talking about devotional poems. You can talk about any kind of meaning in a poem. You can talk about cross-dressing in Hamlet. But if you want to talk about the Christian implications in Hamlet, you're screwed. You lose half your audience."

"In the final analysis," he says, "it was very obvious what the right choice was, which was to take this job. There's a kind of fatedness to it, like my whole life has been aiming at this job."

Share senses the same such fatedeness for his longtime colleague and friend. "He'll get to think and study and meditate on things that are important to him and communicate with a different group of people, rather than being surrounded by poets all the time — which, after 10 years, might make somebody quite crazy," Share says.

"He brings a kind of energy to these conversations and these questions of faith that are quite unusual," he says. "Usually you find someone who sticks to one end of that conversation or the other, but he fuses them together so naturally that it makes a perfect kind of emotional sense."

Nonetheless, Share feels Wiman's departure as a deeply personal loss. "I'm very sad," Share says. "It has been a profound experience to know him and work with him. It's almost impossible to explain how much he means to me. My life would never have been the same if I hadn't met him, and it was an inspiration every day to think about the work we did together and the way he made it happen.