Christian Wiman

Award Winning Poet & Memoirist
Essayist, Editor, Critic, Translator

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Hammer is the Prayer: On Artistic Inspiration and the Limits of Devotion
  • Rethinking the Language of Faith
  • Ten Demented Chickens: Poems, Prayers, and other Expostulations
  • Anti-Devotional Devotional Poetry
  • Facing God in the Face of Death
  • On Translating Osip Mandelstam
  • Robert Frost and Religious Belief
  • What “Form” Means in the Wake of Modernism

“The best thing to say about Wiman is not that he reminds you of previous poets: it’s that he makes you forget them.” —Clive James

“[Wiman’s] poetry and his scholarship have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world. This puts him at the very source of theology, and enables him to say new things in timeless language, so that the reader’s surprise and assent are one and the same.” —Marilynne Robinson

“Christian Wiman is fiercely dedicated to describing experiences for which there are no words. Few contemporary poets invite us to consider new ways of looking at those experiences as openly, intensely, and originally as he does.” —TriQuarterly

Christian Wiman is Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, teaches at the Yale Divinity School, and was editor of Poetry Magazine from 2003 to 2013.  He has published four books of poetry: Once In the West (FSG, 2014), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Every Riven Thing; Hard Night; and The Long Home (Nicholas Roerich Prize); a collection of essays, Ambition and Survival: On Becoming a Poet; and a memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (FSG, 2013). Wiman’s translations of Osip Mendelstam are collected in the volume Stolen Air (Ecco, 2012). His next poetry collection Hammer is the Prayer will be published in Fall 2016.

My Bright Abyss was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Religion Books of 2013. Every Riven Thing won the Ambassador Book Award in poetry and was chosen in The New Yorker by poet and critic Dan Chiasson as one of the 11 best poetry collections of 2010. About Once in the West, Publishers Weekly wrote: “These poems of anger and devotion…[are] part of a serious poet’s lifelong thought about life and death, about body and soul, about memory and family, about this world and what is beyond.”

A native of West Texas, Wiman graduated from Washington and Lee University and later taught at Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, and the Prague School of Economics. During his editorship of Poetry, the magazine’s circulation tripled and its influence widened around the world. A strong believer in the magazine’s famous, 100-year-old “Open Door” policy, Wiman consistently published formalists alongside experimentalists, as well as greatly expanding the range of prose in the back of the magazine. In 2011 Poetry won two prestigious awards—for general excellence and for best podcast—from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

Wiman is a recipient of both the Ruth Lilly and Wallace Stegner fellowships and he has also been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, the NY Times Book Review, and the New Yorker, among others.

Editor of Poetry Magazine from 2003 to 2013, Christian Wiman is the author of five books of poetry and two collections of essays. In the New Yorker, poet and critic Dan Chiasson chose Wiman’s Every Riven Thing as one of the eleven best poetry collections of the year. Wiman’s other collections include Once In the WestThe Long Home, which won the Nicholas Roerich Prize; Hard NightStolen Air, translations of Osip Mendelstam; and the nonfiction collections Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet; and My Bright Abyss. He has been the recipient of both the Ruth Lilly and Wallace Stegner fellowships and was recently appointed to the faculty of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music as Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature. His poems and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, the NY Times Book Review, and the New Yorker, among others. 

One of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American poetry, Christian Wiman has forged a singular style that fuses a vivid and propulsive music with clear-eyed realism, wry humor, and visionary lament. In his “daring and urgent” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir, My Bright Abyss, he asks, “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?” Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems might be read as an answer to that question.

From the taut forms of his first book to the darker, more jagged fluencies of his second, into the bold and pathbreaking poems of his last two collections, Hammer Is the Prayer bears the reckless, restless interrogations and the slashing lyric intensity that distinguish Wiman’s verse. But it also reveals the dramatic and narrative abilities for which he has been widely praised–the junkyard man in “Five Houses Down” with his “wonder-cluttered porch” and “the eyesore opulence / of his five partial cars,” or the tragicomic character in “Being Serious” who suffers “the world’s idiocy / like a saint its pains.” Wiman’s work makes reality more available to us, so that we might more readily salvage it and ourselves.

ONCE IN THE WEST (Poetry, 2014)

“Once in the West is Mr. Wiman’s fourth book of poems, and his best.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Once in the West, Christian Wiman’s fourth collection of poetry, is as intense and intimate as poetry gets—from the “suffering of primal silence” that it plumbs to the “rockshriek of joy” that it achieves and enables. Readers of Wiman’s earlier books will recognize the sharp characterization and humor—”From her I learned the earthworm’s exemplary open-mindedness, / its engine of discriminate shit”—as well as his particular brand of reverent rage: “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?” But there is something new here, too: moving love poems to Wiman’s wife, tender glimpses of the poet’s children, and, amid the onslaughts of illness and fear and failures, “a trace / of peace.”

MY BRIGHT ABYSS (Memoir, 2013)

“Forged from pain, like most masterpieces, My Bright Abyss provides an advanced course in applied mysticism for the twenty-first century.” —Eliza Griswold, The Tenth Parallel 

Christian Wiman, an award-winning poet and former editor of Poetry Magazine, has had two constants in his life, two things that have defined him and given him solace in his times of need: faith and poetry. But when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, he began to question what his Christian beliefs and his love of poetry could really do—not only to save him from death but also to give him comfort in his pain. Completed in the wake of a bone marrow transplant, during a time when Wiman was convinced he was going to die, My Bright Abyss radiates with the intensity of a man attempting to confront his feelings and doubts while he still has time. It is a powerful meditation on what it means—for an artist and a person—to have faith not just in God but in anything in the face of death.

EVERY RIVEN THING (Poetry, 2011)

“One of the preeminent devotional poets of any faith now writing in English.” —David Rothman

Rarely has a book of poetry so borne the stamp of necessity. Whether in stark, haiku-like descriptions of a cancer ward; surrealistic depictions of a social order coming apart; or fluent, defiant outpourings of praise, Wiman pushes his language and forms until they break open, revealing startling new truths within. The poems are joyful and sorrowful at the same time, abrasive and beautiful, densely physical and credibly mystical. They attest to the human hunger to feel existence, even at its most harrowing, and the power of art to make our most intense experiences not only apprehensible but transfiguring.

In her Booklist review, Donna Seaman wrote, “To rive is to wrench apart, shatter, split, crack, or fracture. In Wiman’s poetic cosmos, to be riven is to be spun around, driven to the ground, and transformed. In his hammered-on-the-anvil third collection, Wiman…brings fire and gravity to poems forged in a battle, as he signals in ‘After the Diagnosis,’ with a daunting disease, and a renewed connection with God. Exquisitely aware that every thing on earth, no matter how hard used, channels the mysterious force that makes atoms dance and hearts beat, Wiman, in the spirit of Hopkins, infuses molten life into every word as he contemplates searing spareness, most emblematically, a lone, wind-ravaged, stubbornly standing tree. Wiman also writes of bittersweet abundance, with edgy wit in a visit to Wal-Mart, and in bittersweet tributes to love, which range from a resounding portrait of a redeemer of ‘riven things’ who lives in ‘eyesore opulence’ to a delicate evocation of mayflies. Wiman’s credo: ‘For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things / and I will ride this tantrum back to God.'”


It takes a real cow
to bite beyond
the prickly pear’s
sharp spokes.

It takes a brain
of stone
or canny man
to coax

from thorn and husk
sustaining fruit.
It takes hunger,
it takes thirst

to taste
all the tender
of hell—

upon which,
it is said,
even the Demon

—from Once in the West


There is no consolation in the thought of God,
he said, slamming another nail

in another house another havoc had half-taken.
Grace is not consciousness, nor is it beyond.

To hell with remembrance, to hell with heaven,
hammer is the prayer of the poor and the dying.

And as wind in some lordless random comes to rest,
and all the disquieted dust within,

peace came to the hinterlands of our minds,
too remote to know, but peace nonetheless.

—from Every Riven Thing


I’ve heard him coughing hard since four.
Sometime later he’s dragged his chair
across the floor to sit and watch
the sunrise, a half-filled cup of pitch-
thick coffee steadied on his thigh.
He doesn’t say the light is gathering
in the eyes of children not yet born,
that dawn’s the time to call the Lord,
before the whole world wants to. I’ve heard
both before. In the space he makes
for me against his chest I drift away
for what seems like years to me. I wake
into the life another day brings
and the heartbeat in my ears is deafening.