Quaker Universalist Voice

Speaking truth in the global public square…

The Tools of Poetry for Understanding the Universal Human Death Experience

A Book Review of Christian Wiman, He held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art (2018)

The new book by Christian Wiman, He held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art is a frustrating love letter in search of understanding of the reality of death with the use of the tools of poetry. 

The author served as head of Poetry magazine and now teaches religion and literature at Yale Divinity School. His tradition and context is exclusively in the Western Christian tradition. Wiman sees poetry is a tool for addressing issues of Christian faith, particularly death. Wiman himself faced a serious health condition, which, for some time brought him close to an abrupt and unpleasant death. His poetry tools and personal health focused his attention on death. He is particularly fascinated with the metaphor of light.

The book consists of 11 untitled essays or reflections. The book provides no index and no table of contents. The book particularly embraces the testimony of the poets Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, and A.R. Ammons. It does provide a list of the quoted poems. The book’s dust jacket is simple, bright, and beautiful.  The physical book is a pleasure to hold.  It is somewhat difficult to distinguish among the essays. There is no introduction or conclusion. The general theme is death and the contribution to understanding death provided by the tools of poetry.

The book offers no confident understanding of the reality of death and of any existence beyond death, but the author provides artful language for exploring the limits of current human understanding of death. 

The author clearly rejects the idea that writing in general and poetry in particular, is some kind of legacy that permits writers to escape from the otherwise clear oblivion following death. For the author, poetry is a gift and welcome tool, but poetry is not prayer and poetry is not a substitute for prayer. The author uses poems to clarify the reality about death and beyond and finds the inadequacies of most uses of literature to provide comfort when facing death.

Following Wiman’s understanding of the limitation and trap of poetry, Quakers need be warned against allowing the “flashes of insight,” which we feel when we are in our silent meetings, to determine our decisions. We must be careful when those flashes ever harden into confident knowledge. Like poetry, Quaker silence is a utilitarian act of duty and discernment.  To define how we are faring in propositional form is a form of distortion of reality.

According to Wiman, we need the foundation of faith and we need the language expressions of that faith, even through poetry, but these are not enough to clarify reality during life or at the end of life.

Those spots of poetic language, and silence, are not enough to hang a life on and we need to recognize that we are a part of a universally redemptive activity. We all need something, some resource that has nothing to do with our own efforts or, at some point in our lives, we will have no efforts to make.

By believing within the Christian religious tradition, Wiman means showing a form of attentiveness closely connected and linked to modern consciousness.  He testifies that the object of that attention is both distant and related to personal lives.

For Wiman, we must recognize that the heaven in ourChristian  tradition is the same as oblivion and should have the same name.  This reality, to which great poetry points, is perpetual and benign.  Our spiritual language, language we use to point to the ultimate reality of which we are a part, is stale.  It helps us to see reality at a slant, to take us to the edge of reality, and points beyond to the unity that is in the heart of the matter of life.

For Wiman, poetry, like Quaker silence, is the connection between faith and practice. The open and practical make for a powerful mixture for understanding reality and making the link between that faith in daily practice. Poetry matters as natural and necessary as a reality that ramifies into the lives of people, but it is not sufficient for the death experience.

Like all humans, we all wait for those moments of mysterious intrusion that touch eternity and practical living and those moments can be expressed in language to aid our understanding and discernment.

Quakers:  The author does not address Quakers or the Quaker tradition particularly.  There is an implicit view expressed that is  supporting the universality of his exploration of death with poetry tools, a far as they go. But, the author’s conclusion is that, ultimately, poetry tools may help some understanding, but they do not help a person to name an answer.

Questions:  In your experience, …:

  • Do Quakers deal with death in any manner contrasting with the customs of their residential culture?
  • Do Quakers have anything distinctive to say about death beyond its mystery and the benign quality of conditions going forward after death?
  • From a practical view, do Quakers use poetry to examine and deal with death and other universal fundamental issues in human life?


Add a Comment