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Li-Young Lee:
The Poem within the Poet

Li-Young Lee "Li-Young Lee has sold the most collections of poetry, even more so than Sylvia Plath in the last forty years. He's anthologized in every language there is. He's really a pure poet—he's trying to make the words evaporate on the page."
Thom Ward, Editor of BOA Editions

I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
Excerpt "The Gift" from Rose. BOA Editions

Her song ends, but she won't come, so he goes
in, to find
woman and child
asleep on the bed.
He lifts the small body
and lays him in his little bed by the wall.
He lies down by his wife.
Excerpt "The Waiting" from The City In Which I Love You. BOA Editions

And of all the rooms in my childhood,
God was the largest
and most empty.
Excerpt "Stations of the Sea" from The Book of My Nights. BOA Editions

What won't the night overthrow, the wind unwrite? Where is the road when the road is carried? What story do we need to hear, so late in childhood?
Excerpt "The Winged Seed". Simon & Schuster

Chicago-based poet Li-Young Lee considers his poetry and his world to be synonymous. In fact, the same thought process and tools Lee used throughout his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood to answer life's greatest dilemmas are the same processes and tools he utilizes to write poetry.

Poetry is spiritual and physical and deals with life and death. Lee believes that all human beings, non-poets and poets alike, have a natural need to "enact with a greater cathartic and apocalyptic revelation that can be experienced or reached." Through this revelation, Lee said we may open ourselves "to psychic, cosmic voices larger than your own." This process is spiritual, but to Lee it is also what defines a poem and what being a poet actually entails.

"It behooves us to think about the nature of speech," he said. "All speech is done with the exhale and inhale of a breath. We feed our body within. It is up to us whether we are to exhale poems or silence."

Through the exhaling of the poem, the individual is able to experience "disillusionment," which according to Lee is a positive cathartic experience because through this process one is "getting rid of illusions." As a result, better wisdom is gained and through this wisdom God or ecstasy is experienced. Lee does not limit poetry as the only art form with which this spirituality can be accomplished, for "all art exists in a state of how it suffers to justify its existence."

Lee's existence—or rather his history—is a fascinating one. His father, the former personal physician to Mao Tse-Tung, and his mother, a daughter of Chinese royalty, fled from China with their family. After five years of living in many different countries in southeast Asia, in 1964 the family settled in Pennsylvania. Lee's parents introduced him to poetry for the first time. His parents read to him the great Chinese poets (from the T'ang and Sung dynasties) and his father, now deceased and a former Presbyterian minister, read to him poems from the King James Bible. He originally planned to major in biochemistry and English, only to discover poetry was what he felt called to experience. The kind of poetry he wanted to write escaped him through his early adult life, when he made his living by owning a restaurant, working at a warehouse, making jewelry, and shipping books. "The whole time I knew I needed to write poetry," he said in a telephone interview.

Lee came to the point where he had no choice but to write poetry. He utilized his biochemistry knowledge to live tremendous poems—poems that are now in print and experienced by readers everywhere. His three poetry—book publications were released by BOA Editions, Rose, The City In Which I Love You, and The Book of My Nights. Simon and Schuster released his childhood memoir, The Winged Seed.

With many publications in periodicals and anthologies, Lee is now recognized as a poet, memoir writer, philosopher, and spiritualist. Perhaps all true poets are philosophers and spiritualists to some degree; at least to Lee there is no differentiation. "For me the path of poetry is a spiritual matter. When we speak we say birds. When God speaks you get a bluebird. The whole universe, the whole cosmos is made up of vibrations."

These vibrations are what make the language that creates a poem—or according to Lee, allows the exploration to come to the surface. Through this exploration a poem is created.

Lee described this process of creating as "the daemonization of a poet," meaning the poet is in a state of awareness of experiencing the divine or god. Thus the poet is not writing a poem to his audience but rather conversing with someone greater than himself. The audience or readers are simply witnesses to this very intimate communication. Lee insists he does not research nor study in order to write his poems; he writes from experience. This experience is what brings the creation, the poem, to actual being.

To Lee, the process of creation is a process that never stops. "I am on the job twenty-four hours a day. My family members are always asking why I am so distracted. I'm absorbing it. I just absorb it."

Lee described the process of absorption of poetry inseparable from the absorption of life—from the most mundane detail such as a watchband to the most mysterious facet of life such as the cosmos. "I am looking at the watchband. How did this watchband come to be on my wrist? What about the watch itself? I have to account for the person at the jewelry store. How did I come to be? All the food I ate—all the air I breathed. Everything is made from everything else. Everything exists at the totality of causes—it isn't one thing that causes something to be. So many things happen to make us continue to exist. Anything we look at—the cosmos conspires to make things happen. Everything conspires to make this watch."

And just as everything is conspiring within everything else, there is the poem—a poem that is made up of everything—in the form of vibrations, which Lee described as that which is "written for the human voice." And to Lee, the greatest poet of all is God. "I would love to read my poems to God. God is immense—in every nook or cranny—in the whole cosmos. All energy comes from God."

From this energy great poems are written, and despite Lee's poetry awards, he believes he has not accomplished the goal of writing that "great poem." Lee characterized a great poem as being exploratory and accessible to both reader and creator. "My hope is that in my poem the person has somehow gotten access (and is) suddenly living at the center of the totality of causes, which is the poem itself—the locally inflective voice of The All."

Perhaps what makes a great poem is the attitude and the motivation of the poet. Why does the poet create? Along with the attitude comes the actual process of writing the poem—first within one's mind and then on paper, where Lee prefers to write in longhand at his kitchen table. "The right motive is exploration—discover the unknown—go right there to live—where the human mind is born. Each person discovers his or her own process."

Lee's books of poetry have been described as mystical, full of cultivated rage, lyrical, metaphorical, spiritual, and metaphysical. His poems are experiences of relationships, the search and meaning of life, the importance of silence, the dominant figure of a father, tormented childhoods, and the meaning of the cosmos, as well as the experience of ecstasy or God. Lee's poems, based on these universal themes, have been received and favorably recognized by readers and scholarly poets everywhere.

Lee has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants: the Lannan Foundation Literary Award, the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, the Whiting Award, the Guggenheim Award, the I.B. Lavan Award, Illinois Arts Council Grant, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Grant, William Carlos Williams Award, and the National Endowment for the Arts Grant.

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