A Life in Literature

In May 2003, Christian Wiman was named the new editor of Poetry, the Chicago-based magazine that Harriet Monroe founded and made justly famous.  This appointment came a year after Ruth Lilly made a massive gift to the magazine that brought its endowment to nearly $200 million and attracted enormous media attention.  Wiman, born in 1966, was considered by many a surprising choice, being somewhat young and unseasoned; he had in print at the time only one collection of verse, The Long Home (1998; reprinted in 2007).  (A second, Hard Night, appeared in 2005.)  Among other merits of the book under review is that it demonstrates his abilities as a judge and critic of poetry—thus vindicating the appointment.  That Wiman is, at his best, also a very good stylist is equally clear.

This volume is conceptually flawed, however; as a collection of disparate magazine pieces, published in Poetry, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Sewanee Review, the American Scholar, and elsewhere, it is somewhat uneven—and, worse, bicephalic, one head being autobiographical, the other critical.  These two elements are not without vital connection, of course; the author acknowledges and tries to link them.  The title (echoed in the text from time to time) suggests the connection, since the phrase “ambition and survival,” which can be applied to the career of most persevering poets, implies aesthetic values...

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