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Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  176 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
“Blazing high style” is how The New York Times describes the prose of Christian Wiman, the young editor who transformed Poetry, the country’s oldest literary magazine.Ambition and Survival is a collection of stirring personal essays and critical prose on a wide range of subjects: reading Milton in Guatemala, recalling violent episodes of his youth, and traveling in Africa ...more
Paperback, 248 pages
Published September 1st 2007 by Copper Canyon Press (first published November 1st 2004)
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Helen (Helena/Nell)
Jul 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is intensely quotable. I read it with a pencil in my hand, marking bits I knew I’d go back to. I could easily make up this entire review from quotations. Stuff like:

--- “Frost once remarked that poetry was a way of taking life by the throat, but for so many contemporary poets it seems a way of taking life by the hand.”

--- “I think Eliot was simply wrong when he asserted that the poetry of his own time had to be ‘difficult’, and I think poets of our own time often make the same mistake.
Brian Brodeur
Sep 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Any poet.
Shelves: non-fiction
Though I'm not the biggest fan of Wiman's poetry, this book blew me away. It's a compilation of personal essays, criticism, remembrances, fragments, etc. Wiman is nothing else if not tough-minded and exceedingly smart. His judgments of World Literature are discerning, expressed in a pithy yet anecdotal style. He has a probing, self-qualifying intelligence that comes off gracefully on the page.
Jan 08, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Caroline by: Brandtsk
This isn't a long book, but it's complicated. It was a lot of work for me, and I often felt kind of bogged down when reading it. It's split up into 5 sections--the 1st and 3rd I found to be especially chore-like to get through. The first section is compelling in its own right, but since I didn't expect to be reading Wiman's personal memoirs, I was sort of in this mindset of "ok, let's get to the good stuff--you know...about poetry." The 3rd section contains two "Fugitive Piece" sub-sections, whi ...more
Michelle Blake
Jul 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant book, and I don't say that lightly. Wiman's bright mind wanders through poems, poets and the challenging realities of being someone who writes poems, and writes about poems, for a living. The essays are small and intimate, not so much short as written in bursts. It's like sitting still next to someone who's read everything and thinks about it all the time. He comments on the failure of biographers' to capture the true life of the poet, the moments when she turns insight into ...more
Tamara Murphy
Jan 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
Continuing my education on Christian Wiman. I need to own this book so I can re-visit it. Very, very good.
Tracy Marks
Nov 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
As a poet and instructor of poetry writing, I was hoping for a book that spoke to me, inspired me, as so many books I've read about poetry have. But the entire first half of the book (mostly written 15-20 years ago) dragged, and it seemed to me that Wiman was speaking more from an academic intellect than a more whole and deeper self.

But in the last few chapters, I found some words of wisdom - and the final chapter was not only beautifully written, it was also deeply moving. So I have a mixed re
On the one hand I was predisposed to enjoy this book because I've been something of a fan of Christian Wiman for some years now. On the other hand, given the relatively shallow knowledge I had of him and his work, this was my opportunity to get to know him better at the risk of being disappointed. I was not disappointed. This is a wide ranging collection of reflections, essays, and reviews whose unifying theme is poetry. I'm glad he waited as long as he did to put these varying gems in one trove ...more
Jun 03, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I began to read this in a library copy, but found so many things I wanted to highlight that I bought the Kindle version. There are patches of great storytelling - his trip to South America in particular; a number of reviews of poets' books (some of the poets I don't know at all) and his incisive and insightful comments about their work; and the final chapter on his return to Christianity, his marriage and the discovery of cancer - all within a year.
Now that I have a Kindle version I'll go back
Apr 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I love reading books by talented writers who say things I agree with.
Feb 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Artists, Poets, Writers
T.S. Eliot published a string of “appreciations” for different poets throughout his career. The two appreciations that have lingered with me over the years concerned Tennyson and Yeats. Tennyson, the technical genius and keen virtuoso of promise, apparently blunted against the events of his life. According to Eliot, “Tennyson seems to have reached the end of his spiritual development with “In Memoriam”; there followed no reconciliation, no resolution.” The technical merits of his art became a su ...more
Jan 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I should probably give it 4.5 stars because it's not perfect, but I loved this book. I can definitely say it was amazing because of the clear yet complex examination of poetry that Wiman enacts here. It was a pleasure to read his prose, and it made me both think more deeply about how I read and write and want to do more critical thinking about poetry. It took me some time to read this book because I had to devote full attention to it, but I'm glad I took my time.

The biographical and anecdotal es
Nov 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2015, reviewed, essay
Eliot, indeed, Hardy, Heaney, Heaney, Paradise Lost, indeed, Eliot, Heaney, Paradise lost, not-a-formalist, Heaney, indeed, Eliot, Keats, Milton, not-a-formalist, Eliot, Hardy, Heaney, maybe-a-formalist, Paradise Lost, Lowell, Larkin, indeed, ok-so-I'm-a-formalist, inhere, inhere, inhere.

If you're an anti-formalist, as I tend to be, this may not be the book for you. And there's way too much talk about "major poets" and "important poetry", which I've always found obnoxious.

Wiman claims that he's
Mar 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
After reading WIman's My Bright Abyss and now this, consider me a fan. I've yet to dig deeply into his poetry, but that will come soon enough. I appreciate the care Wiman takes in observing the world, in stretching for just the right word to describe the thoughts or experiences on his mind in each essay. In this he brings a poet's sensibility to his writing, one concerned with meaning, but also with sound and rhythm as well. In other words, Wiman's simply a fantastic writer, and reading his pros ...more
Dec 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Wow! Christian-ity! Wiman-ity! I've been rereading Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet for over a year now. The bookend essays "On Being Nowhere" and "Love Bade Me Welcome" (titled earlier as "Gazing into the Abyss") were what first caught my attention that fateful, final walk-around the shelves in St. John's College Bookstore, Sante Fe. Meanwhile, I've been rewarded with beautiful and brazen words that bleed onto paper; and, for me, Wiman's words have remained earthbound by the very living b ...more
LeeAnn Derdeyn
Jul 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is an amazing set of essays that were, except for the ending essay, written during Wiman's self-professed disbelief in the Christian faith of his West Texas upbringing. Yet thruout, one can hear and feel his struggle and discern God's outreach even when Wiman hasn't yet done so. "The Limit" is amazing and amazingly written; I read it to my college freshman English classes. There are numerous insights into our modern world. He is also one of my very favorite poets and his new collection, Eve ...more
Feb 17, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
I read this book for two reasons. First the author is related to my wife and I have heard about him at family reunions. Secondly I am about as ignorant of poetry as anyone, despite significant education.
I understood very little of the middle of the book, but gathered some knowledge of this eclectic writer from the beginning and the end. I did learn a tiny bit about poetry and less about Modernism in poetry. The book also was a nice expansion of my vocabulary-having a copy of Oxford English Dict
Sep 18, 2010 rated it liked it
Some of the essays were completely approachable, some way over my head.

Some of the sections are critiques of poets works, and some are about his personal life and approach to poetry.

I'm glad I read it, but it also felt a little too rich in content. If I were flush with cash I would consider buying it for some of the critiques on "important poets" so that I could read those specific works and see how his perspective might help my own understanding.

This book feels like an independent study textb
Jul 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: recommended
Wiman's essays up until "Fugitive" pieces are simply brilliant. From there, they become more fragmentary, like journal notes and reviews more fit for other purposes, more full of opinion than revelation--until the final piece, "Love Bade Me Welcome," which is again stunning. I wish I could give four-and-three-quarter stars to this near-perfect collection, which I still highly recommend to anyone seeking solace in the reading and writing of poetry.
Jan 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
I told myself beforehand that I would skim all of Wiman's essays on other poets, but they were so interesting I read them all the way through. I can see why he is the editor of Poetry magazine. His criticism has a way of uncovering strengths as well as weaknesses others have not grasped. His life story is uncovered here and hints of tragedies in his poems are given fuller background.
Nov 25, 2008 added it
This really is an impressive book of essays. I enjoyed the mix of autobiography and literary criticism. Wiman has a clear and thoughtful voice on the page. His mind is critical, doubtful, arrogant, and humble in all the right ways for me as a reader. Plus, anyone who can write so beautifully about suicide is doing something write in my mind.
May 11, 2012 rated it liked it
Fascinating essays on both his approach to life and to literature. Just discovering Wiman as a poet and the essays were an excellent opening to his thought/creative processes. Much of the focus was on the teacher/academic side of his work, could be used as a poet's guide. Enjoyed both the writing and the new information I gained.
Apr 27, 2008 rated it really liked it
I'm always interested in poets' prose, poets who write about poetry, etc., and this book is filled with delightful moments dealing with the writing life, the role that reading and writing poetry can play in our lives, the tension between received poetic forms and poetic inspiration, etc.
Aug 05, 2008 marked it as to-read
i don't normally read essays but i've been spending a lot of time in the nonfiction section lately.
James Smith
Aug 03, 2010 marked it as to-read
Just rediscovered this under the two stacks of books tottering beside my bed. Moved to the top.
Nov 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A refreshing emphasis on experience and real life in poetry. The last essay, "Love Bade Me Welcome," is dynamite.
Mar 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
Very good book of criticism. Wiman is particularly strong on the subject of the creative process.
Ann Michael
Jun 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
My favorite essays are the title essay and "The Idea of Order." I appreciated his insights on the values and hazards of writing both poetry and prose.
Craig Morgan Teicher
Dec 18, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Wiman is a conservative reader, but his opinions are fierce, as fun to disagree with as to agree with. And the memoir sections are riveting.
Dec 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Excellent, excellent book. A must read for poets. I think Wiman will best be remembered as an essayist.
Jun 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is a book I will want to return to over and over. He really takes one into the writing process and the profoundly holy aspect of genuine creation.
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  • Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected
  • This Great Unknowing: Last Poems
  • Pity the Beautiful: Poems
  • The Art of the Lathe
  • Sinners Welcome
  • Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee
  • Selected Poems
  • Astonishments: Selected Poems
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  • Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
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  • The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany
  • Standing by Words
  • Eternal Enemies: Poems
  • Hopkins: Poems (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets)
  • In the Shadow of Memory
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  • Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
Christian Wiman is an American poet and editor born in 1966 and raised in West Texas. He graduated from Washington and Lee University and has taught at Northwestern University, Stanford University, Lynchburg College in Virginia, and the Prague School of Economics. In 2003 he became editor of the oldest American magazine of verse, Poetry.

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“You cannot devote your life to an abstraction. Indeed, life shatters all abstractions in one way or another, including words such as "faith" or "belief". If God is not in the very fabric of existence for you, if you do not find Him (or miss Him!) in the details of your daily life, then religion is just one more way to commit spiritual suicide.” 17 likes
“I've never been able to write poetry without having vast tracts of dead time. Poetry requires a certain kind of disciplined indolence that the world, including many prose writers, doesn't recognize as discipline. It is, though. It's the discipline to endure hours that you refuse to fill with anything but the possibility of poetry, though you may in fact not be able to write a word of it just then, and though it may be playing practical havoc with your life. It's the discipline of preparedness.” 8 likes
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