The Bigness of Small Poems – #30 in a Series – Christian Wiman’s Heart Cry

American poet Christian Wiman and former editor of Poetry Magazine. Photo Credit: Slate

American poet Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine. Photo Credit: Slate

Writing poetry is a much more powerful and destabilizing experience for me than is writing prose. The former plays hell and havoc with my life and mind. The latter is an exercise in sanity. That said, there are certainly areas of experience to which prose gives me access that poetry does not. I can plan on what I’m going to write about in prose. Poems aren’t real poems unless they shatter — there’s that word again! — all of your intentions.

Christian Wiman, from the New York Times, April 10th, 2013

This a quote to spend time with! It captures the wildness of making poetry.  And Wiman should know. He was editor of  Poetry magazine for ten years  and now teaches at Yale Divinity School.

It has been months since I last posted a blog post!  Swept away by life and preparation for ten day retreat in Italy from June 23rd to July 3rd! Now, I’m home and settling in. So many poems to share! And stories from Italy. Wiman’s quote was proved again and again as the retreatants with me in Italy allowed their poems to shatter their original intentions. Allowed themselves to be revealed by their poems! Both a scary and exhilarating journey.

Now for Wiman’s huge small poem! As an example of the art of the poem, simultaneously a beautiful and terrible showing, this poem is exemplary. I used this poem in Italy as a great example of a poem that shows, doesn’t tell! Also, as an example of delayed revelation, of surprise! So critical in poetry! As Osip Mandalstam says: The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise.

The images in this poem do all the work, build a metaphor of the narrator as abandoned house that comes achingly alive with the wind. This image of wind, pneuma, the breath of God, giving glorious voice to the wounds of the house, the narrator. And the surprise of the last line: Shatter me God into my thousand sounds.… A line made even more shattering knowing that Wiman has struggled with cancer for many years, sometimes in debilitating agony with it, but still Wiman survives and the thousand sounds of his poetry and prose are a life-giving gift to so many!

Small Prayer in a Hard Wind

As through a long-abandoned half-standing house
Only someone lost could find,

Which, with its paneless windows and sagging crossbeams,
Its hundred crevices in which a hundred creatures hoard and nest,

Seems both ghost of the life that happened there
And living spirit of this wasted place,

Wind seeks and sings every wound in the wood
That is open enough to receive it,

Shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .

Christian Wiman from Hammer is the Prayer: Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016

What this poem helps me see is how much our poems become that wind that blows through the wrecked places of our lives and creates a beautiful and sometimes terrible music. It Italy I was witness to this kind of music day after day. And wonderfully, out of this music came, not only tears, but laughter. Laughter that joined us to our common humanity, forged each poet into a community of poets! I miss that community!


  1. Mary nelson
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Welcome home sounds like Italy was wonderful. I like your posted poem. Mary

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Italy full of blessings and grace! Yes. See you soon!

  3. Posted July 17, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    What an evocative poem and so good to read your heartfelt comments once again. I love the way Wiman enters the poem, as through a held breath. His last line reminiscent of other powerful lines such as Wright’s “I want to be bruised by God…to be entered and picked clean.”

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Heidi, so true. Starting out right in the middle. Held breath such a great metaphor. It is held right to the end! And yes that great Charles Wright line! So happy to have spent such writing time with you a week ago!

  5. Donna Friesen
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Achingly beautiful poem Richard! I miss our community as well!
    Thanks for your blog and for the work you do in the world.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    And big thanks back to you! For all your support. What a time we had!

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