Reviews for Ambition and Survival : Becoming a Poet

Booklist Reviews 2007 September #1
Best known as the young editor of Poetry magazine and the author of two books of poems, Wiman has an obvious fallback position if this poetry thing doesn't pan out. He's a terrific personal essayist, as this new collection illustrates, with the command and instincts (if not the fully developed taste for dramatizing his memories) of the popular memoirist. In five opening essays, he tells gripping stories of his colorful, religion-soaked, sometimes violent family history in west Texas, and how they informed, or failed to inform, his art. Although recounted from a certain distance--perhaps out of contemporary poetry's backlash against "confessional" material--it's compelling stuff that he considered weaving into a full-blown memoir. Once these autobiographical pieces give way to literary criticism, a certain intensity goes out of the book, but it returns full-force in the searing final essay, "Love Bade Me Welcome," in which Wiman reveals his cancer diagnosis and his return to religious observance and writing poetry (both of which had stopped). This is a brave and bracing book, but he should still write that memoir. Copyright 2007 Booklist Reviews.

Library Journal Reviews 2007 September #1

In finely polished prose, Wiman (editor, Poetry magazine; The Long Home ) critiques several poets' work and details a poem's creation as well as offers personal memoir and insights into the world of poetry publication. Readers will find him reflected at the turn of a page or in the twist of a phrase: e.g., "reaching to remember as the god withdraws, doubt like silence seeping back in" (what poets endure between inspirations). Wiman's personal recollections, especially of his perplexing relationship with his father, portray an upbringing variously tragic, quirky, and mundane. In the section titled "In the Flux That Abolishes Me," Wiman casts light on how poetry editors--at least this poetry editor--treat "manuscripts from dead people," those desperate posthumous submissions from the family or friends of an unpublished poet. In other sections, he dissects selected poets' works with scalpel-like precision, speaking, e.g., to Thomas Hardy's "crocheted fatalism" and Edna St. Vincent Millay's compromised innocence. The last section, "Love Bade Me Welcome," sums up the trilogy of faith, love, and art that Wiman pursued all his life and reveals, ultimately, the mortal reason he shares his splendid thoughts with us. A beautiful, insightful work; highly recommended for both public and academic libraries and invaluable for poets.--Nedra Crowe-Evers, Sonoma Cty. Lib., CA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 July #3

Before assuming command of a revamped Poetry magazine in 2002, Wiman already wielded a reputation as a serious, outspoken poet-critic. This weighty first prose collection should inspire wide attention, partly because of Wiman's current job, partly because of his astute insights and partly because he mixes poetry criticism with sometimes shocking memoir. The first few essays describe Wiman's early life in a tough West Texas town, full of "nameless angers and solitudes" and "idealized, sometimes inexplicable violence." Later pieces examine his rough international travels, struggles with major illness and Christian belief. In between come pronouncements and propositions about poetry: it must consider lived experience and reflect both the tradition from which it comes and the poet's times. Hardy, Eliot, Heaney and Walcott merit high praise, as does the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown; Millay, Crane and Bunting get fascinatingly ambivalent appraisals. The collection's greatest strengths come in general ruminations on the writing, reading and judging of poetry, such as "[T]here is a direct correlation between the quality of the poem and the poet's capacity for suffering." Or "Most lasting art is made by people who believe with everything in them that art is for the sake of life, but who live otherwise." (Sept.)

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