#39: Li-Young Lee 2004

The Dying Breath, April 10, 2019

Nick Samaras and Li-Young Lee discuss the “demonization” of lyrical language and explore the meaning that pauses articulate in poems. Through the course of their conversation they also explore how “the meaning of our life gets disclosed” as we progress toward death, and how poetry mirrors this process.


  • Jim Morrison
  • Czesław Miłosz, “Ars poetica?”
  • T.S. Eliot, 
    • “Tradition and the Individual Talent”
    • Four Quartets




Otto Selles (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.

“The real subject of all poems is the dying breath,” says Li-Young Lee. Today on Rewrite Radio, the poet explains claim—and others—in conversation with his friend and fellow poet, Nick Samaras. This is Rewrite Radio.

[theme music]

My name is Otto Selles. I teach in the French department at Calvin College. I’m also a faculty fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

In this episode of Rewrite Radio, we bring you a session from Festival 2004. Listen in as two poets—Li-Young Lee and Nick Samaras—define the “demonization” of lyrical language and explore the meaning of pauses articulate in poems. Along the way, they reminisce about their lives as readers and writers, speaking about their own stories as pilgrimage.

Li-Young Lee has written five highly acclaimed volumes of poetry: Rose; The City in Which I Love You, which was named the Lamont Poetry Selection (now the Laughlin Award); Book of My Nights, which received the William Carlos Williams Award; Behind My Eyes; and, most recently, The Undressing. He is also the author of a memoir, The Winged Seed; this book takes up his parents’ political exile from China, which transported the Lee family first to Indonesia and then to Pennsylvania. Lee has received multiple additional honors, including fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment of the Arts, and a Guggenheim.

Nick Samaras is the author of two books of poetry. Hands of the Saddlemaker won the Yales Series of Younger Poets Award, followed by American Psalm, World Psalm. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, and The Kenyon Review, as well as elsewhere.

Nick Samaras and Li-Young Lee, from Festival 2004.




Nicholas Samaras: [00:02:53] In preparation for getting together to have a good conversation with you I had the nice practice of just reading all of your books again, from book one to the most recent book. One of the things that I was pleasantly struck by again is the whole idea of not finding poetry that has definitive answers, but finding poetry that has very clear, very genuine questions. So I thought that, in looking over the bulk of your writing thus far, if you might have some commentary on your ideas of questioning, and seeing what that pilgrimage might lead to.

Li-Young: Sure, yes. It’s great to be here with you. [pause] What was the . . . [laughter]

Nicholas: The idea of questions and not so much looking for definitive answers, but first of all coming to the right questions. And, perhaps, in your work have you been able to verbalize what some of the questions might be for you, in exploration of the self in poetry.

Li-Young: I can’t even tell if I’m asking the right questions, you know. I know that my . . . somehow my whole being is troubled all the time, and so I’m always asking questions. And that’s part of the . . . you know, I think a lot of it has to do with my own . . . I don’t know. [pause] Quite frankly, I don’t know how to respond. [laughs; laughter] I don’t know, I don’t know anything. Broadly speaking talked about being a fool; I guess I felt he was speaking for me too. These are just questions of a fool. I write like a fool, I live like a fool, I guess I am a fool [laughter]

You know, I never—I mean I have . . .  the foolish even more foolish than that. I suppose I’ve come up with all kinds of theories about writing and what it has to do with my life and none of them really . . . they don’t serve as a refuge for me or any, you know, any answers. I just keep asking questions. I don’t know if . . . it wasn’t very good answer, I guess.

Nicholas: No, it’s great to start with a question. And you know, in going back over some of the themes that you write about, it becomes clear that like perhaps all of us who write, we are working with the language, a set language, and trying to come to some sort of clarification. Whether—and what I see in your writing is really a clarification of the heart—relationships and how those relationships interact with our daily experiences. And I know you write a lot about your family. And the fact of your biography, coming to America, and the understanding and the sharing of different cultures and the sharing and understanding of all of the common imagery that we have in writing, an expression of that, and whether we are up to the task sometimes. So what I see and what I enjoy about your writing is that you take imagery germane to all of us and infuse it with a uniqueness, a genuineness of appreciation just by the noticing of it.

Li-Young: Thanks. And, you know, my sense is—you talked about the themes like my family and biography and things—I think ultimately, though, for me there is only one subject, and those themes or whatever are kind of—not to denigrate them, but they’re almost props. You know, it seems—let me back up try to talk about it this way. It seems to me that a poem is a score for human speech. It’s a musical score the same way, you know, you could write a musical score for violin or piano. So a poem is a score for the human voice and so it’s the human voice scored. It’s human speech. But when you think about the nature of speech, we notice—I mean, you mentioned exhalation when we were talking earlier—and you noticed that the majority of human speech is done with the exhaled breath—and it seems to me if we’re writing poems, we should think a little bit about the nature of what we’re doing. Or maybe not. I don’t know. It might actually get us in more trouble.

But the nature of speech, most human speech, is that it’s done with the exhaled breath. There is a kind of speech called the ingressive speech, I’m told that certain cultures practice, but I’m told that it’s mostly practiced by grandmothers who relay secrets to other grandmothers, and that’s what I’m told. [laughter] But the kind of speech that I’m doing right now is done with the exhaled breath. And so if you think about the nature of breath, it complicates things, too, because . . . when we breathe in, our bodies are filled with life. Our blood is filled with oxygen. Our skin, in fact, gets very flush. There’s proof, scientific proof, in fact, that our bones get very hard and compacted, and our muscles get very toned. When we breathe in we’re very comfortable. The body is very happy. It could breathe in to capacity without much trouble through training and the body feels very affirmed. When we breathe out the exhaled breath nutrients leave the bloodstream, our skin becomes flaccid, our muscles get flaccid, and our bones actually soften. I mean that’s scientific. Our bodies get very relaxed.

But if you breathe out to maximum capacity, you’ll notice that you begin to struggle for the intake, you know. The body isn’t as comfortable on the exhalation as it is on the inhalation. That’s because the exhaled breath is the dying breath. The inhalation is the feeding breath. The complication comes, I think, almost the tragic or the anxiety-making circumstance for me, is that verbal meaning is only possible with the exhaled breath.

And so if you notice the more I say the more my meaning gets disclosed, right? So as you say a sentence, the more you divulge, the more the meaning gets revealed, but the less breath you have. Does that make sense?

So meaning increases in opposite ratio to vitality. That’s a small paradigm for human living, it seems to me, so speech itself is a paradigm for human living. That is, as we die, as we expire, the meaning of our lives gets disclosed. So it’s a tragic thing for me, and it seems to me that ultimately a poem is not only a score for human speech but it’s a score for our dying breath. Or if you see it as a paradigm for living and dying, it’s a score for our dying. I don’t know why that fills me with elation and terror at the same time, you know [laughter] and it seems to me that it’s possible that somebody writes poems because they can’t stand that situation and they try to ransom the dying breath by packing as much content into the utterance as possible, as much psychic, emotional, erotic, spiritual, intellectual content as possible into the exhalation. And I think that accounts for why poetry is more dense than prose, you know, because we’re trying to pack so much into it. And so that is anxiety-making, but I think ultimately what that means is that the real subject of all poems is the dying breath.

It’s . . . you basically . . . a poem is the figuration of the dying breath. And so aside from a poem being about my friend or my father, you know, my children, lover, eating fruit, or whatever, ultimately the hidden subject is the dying breath. And so there is only one subject, I guess, or maybe the hidden subject was dying and what dying means and what we make of our dying here, you know.

Nicholas: I think that’s also what we do with the whole process of writing. We had talked—right before we came in—we had talked about the phrase ekphrasis, which I’m happy to say I know what it actually means because it’s Greek—that you know, we take our phrases and we exhale them outwardly. It makes me think of the human nature, the human tendency to want to place profundity upon dying last words. We’re always fascinated, everybody has those fascinations with what are the famous last words of famous people. The only one I could think of was Oscar Wilde, who—his last words were actually, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” [laughter] But the tendency is to look for that measure of profundity, that measure of wisdom, in perhaps even last words. So perhaps, you know, you’re exactly on target with this thought that what we’re looking for is a measure of the profound and our lives, you know to make our lives more meaningful.

Li-Young: And you know, Nick, there’s another thing I’ve been wondering about since we walked in here too. Now, it seems to me that when we breathe in, the body feels affirmed, you know, it feels very comfortable. When we breathe out, less so. But if meaning is only—verbal meaning is only possible with the exhaled breath, what we notice is when we breathe in, the body is affirmed, the body-mind, if you want to call it the ego. Nick and I were talking about ego and what is ego on our way over here. 

But let’s just say for the sake of this discussion that ego is body-mind, the mind that associates itself with this body, right? The the mind that says “I” and “this.” When we breathe in, that “I” feels very affirmed. But when we breathe out and talk, that “I” gets displaced, right? So verbal meaning is only possible at the displacement of the ego. That sounds nice. It’s like well, okay everybody get rid of your ego, you know, but . . . of course ultimately poetry is demonized speech, you know, and it makes sense to me now because the evacuation of the ego is on the positive side it’s an enhancement and enlargement or an expansion of what we narrowly define as the “I.”

So that speech again enacts that very thing, you know. That verbal meaning is only possible at the displacement of the ego, right? Because as I breathe out, the ego gets less and less space, and the meaning takes up more room. Is this making any sense?  

Nicholas: Yeah, exactly, very much so.

Li-Young: So that whole—the demonization issue is something that really troubles me too, because it seems to me that poetry is ultimately demonized speech. That’s what it is, you know. But as we know in the story, for instance Jacob in the Old Testament, demonization comes at a risk, right? I mean you wrestle God, you get your name changed from the name of a person, Jacob, to the name of a multitude, right, Israel, right? You get enhanced, you get expanded, but you walk away crippled. So it seems to me that this kind of shattering of the human countenance, the human figure, is part of the work of poetry.  

So what does that mean, that on the one hand, you know, it’s nice. I mean, we love it. It affirms human value within God, but at the same time there’s this other aspect to it. [suddenly] There are Chinese words up there. [laughter] This is why we’re here. Oh, okay. And so it’s this demonization that sometimes troubles me, too.

Nicholas: That is also one word that’s troubled me a lot. The word daimonos . . . when we discuss language, when we read poetry, when we read literature, one of the things we have to be very careful about is to have a common agreement as to what these words mean, you know, so that we can have “Okay, we both agree. We understand what the word blue is. So when we say this is blue, okay, we’re cool. We both understand what we’re saying.” So we have to be careful of common language. That word, “demonized,” daimonion in the ancient Greek, is a tricky word.

To give an illustration, I once, when I was young, I went on a pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave. [laughter] And when I went there . . . they always have a bust of his head, and then somebody steals it, and then a couple of years goes by, and somebody replaces it, and recently I was stunned to see that somebody had put another bust of Jim Morrison’s head on his grave, but they had put a phrase in Greek there. And so I’m looking at this phrase in Greek and because I understand it, I’m just going like, what’s this, and and the phrase was “kata don damonium afto,” which was—I’m looking at, I’m translating it, and I’m just going, “kata don,” which, from the gospels, means “according to.” And “don damonion afto” means “according to his own demon,” and I had this huge disagreement with that and wrote something about it with that as an epigraph.

And then I had a conversation with a good friend of mine, and he said, “No, you know the ancient Greek language of that word doesn’t necessarily mean demon. It means spirit.” I happen to disagree with that very much. I’m a modernist. But you know, he says “according to his own spirit,” which, you know, it’s a nice thought for Jim Morrison, but it also runs at risk of when you take your own spirit without regard to anybody else or everybody else or society, you know, you run that risk of being demonized as well as being spiritualized. Czesław Miłosz has a very well-known poem called “Ars poetica?”—with a question mark—and his big point on that poem is that he’s always felt that it . . . there was [loud cough] a daimonion writing through him and he always prayed that it was a good one rather than a bad one. And I also didn’t like that. But I think that’s one of the reasons . . .  

Li-Young: How does one tell whether it’s a good or a bad one?

Nicholas: Well as we were talking earlier as we are walking over, we were talking a little bit about this and just saying, “Well, isn’t ego, isn’t writing wrapped up in motivation? What is our motive for expressing ourselves? What is our motive for writing something?” So in a sense an ego can be a good thing if you’re using the right motive and it could be a negative thing if you are writing or making a choice based upon your self needs or needs of the community. 

So that’s what I’m saying: it’s, how do you know whether it’s good or bad? I would say that we investigate our motivation, you know. Do we seek to do good? Do we seek to serve ourselves or do we seek to serve the community? And that’s one thing I appreciate in your writing, is that even when you ask questions for yourself, you’re also asking questions for all of us. I think that’s that’s a wonderful thing about pilgrimage that is shared. Before I met Scott, I didn’t know any of you people existed, you know, I thought I was alone and seriously, you know you write an isolation. I didn’t think anybody else was interested in spirituality or pilgrimage. I thought it was just me and my father, because I went to church with my father [laughter] and your father. And, you know, getting you to read as a child.  

Li-Young: I think it’s complicated though, Nick, because part of it for me, the process of writing, a lot of it is giving up motivation, you know, so that’s a complicated issue for me. And the the issue of community is complicated for me too, because my sense is that writing poems is a kind of triaxial condition, you know. There’s the poet, then there’s their demon, and there’s the audience, the community or whatever. And part of the service of poetry is to enact that demonization so that the audience or the community gets to witness a fuller definition of the human. So a lot of times—I mean one could err in so many ways, given that, you know . . . but I mean, ideally speaking, for instance, in the case of somebody like Jesus or Buddha or Lao Tzu or something, I think what they did was they enacted the reality of an enhanced, expanded version of the human, that is, a human embedded in God.

That could be very troubling to the community. It was in Jesus’ time. It was in Socrates’ time. You know, Lao Tzu’s time. I mean, so that could be very troubling. So if . . . I don’t know . . . so in a way the poet isn’t . . . I don’t feel the poet is necessarily even talking to the audience. You know, they may be—they might write with knowledge that the audience is a witness—but I think that the audience is a witness to the demonization, and that’s the service of poetry, in fact, you know. And the other thing that I notice is that my sense is that a million things going on . . .  and my feeling is that . . . how do I say this? It seems to me that a poem can be broken down into like three bodies. 

You know, there’s the heard body of the poem and it’s mostly made up of the stressed syllables, and when we think we understand something we’re mostly looking at the stressed syllables, it seems to me, of a poem. Then there’s the barely heard body of the poem, that is, the body of the poem that’s made up of the unstressed syllables. And in fact, you can have a lot—that body can be very big and we’re not even aware of it, you know. And then there’s even a larger body, I think it’s the actual body of the poem. That is the body that’s unheard. So there’s the heard, there’s the barely heard, and there’s the completely unheard body of the poem that would be made up completely of pauses. 

I used to think that the word was the smallest unit of meaning in a poem. I think the pause is even the—you know, my aunt is a physicist, and we’ve talked about this, you know, physicists are so . . . they’re looking for the smallest unit of materiality. It seems to me that that’s the pause. I mean, when you get past materiality, and you know, physicists are all saying, “Well wait a minute. How come when we look way down into materiality, there is no materiality to apparent materiality,” you know, because the smallest unit of meaning is a pause, I would say.

So I would say that when you write a poem, you are working at the quantum level, and in fact, when you look at pauses in a poems, they’re made up of commas, periods, or stanza breaks, or line breaks, and I think the line break is the most mysterious human pause there is. I mean, I won’t even say it’s human. I think it’s full of God, you know; but most of our meaning, I think, is packed into those pauses, you know, even in a regular sentence those pauses are everything. They’re like the hinge on which everything turns, you know. A sentence and go one way or the other depending on what you do with that at that juncture of the pause.

So it seems to me if that’s the case, then—and if a poem is a model of psyche—I think every poem is made in the image of the maker, like we are made in the image of our maker—I think that that then the poem is made in the image of psyche, and it seems to me that there must be those three bodies to psyche, too, right? Now, the question is the unheard body of psyche: when that . . . you know . . . Luther was demonized by the duende . . . Whitman by America . . . Emerson by God, death, whatever . . . Dickinson by the void, you know, so it seems to me that it’s built into the work that we’re demonized by something bigger, you know?

Nicholas: And also we could—I mean hinging on that word—we can also say that we’re spiritualized by all of those things as well.

Li-Young: Right.

Nicholas: So it just strikes me, as you know, looking at all of us who are interested in language, that fundamentally what we do wrestle with is expressing ourselves, expressing our breaths, expressing our thoughts, you know, inbreath. And that just becomes a wonderful opportunity. One of the things that I was saying earlier to Scott was when I first met Li-Young—I’ve never done this before in my life—he was reading with Cyrus Cassells in New York City, and I was either living in Colorado or Florida at the time, I can’t remember which one, but I actually got on an airplane and flew out to New York for this reading.

And because—I was in Colorado, because Jerry Stern had said, “Yeah, you guys are alike you got to [loud cough] meet each other”. So I saw his reading and flew out, and that’s where we first met. And the one thing that I thought was revelatory about the reading—and I especially encourage you to come to Li-Young’s reading later, this afternoon? yes—is every time I’ve heard Li-Young read, I learned something different. And what I appreciate about your reading is in a sense the way you breathe during the reading. I’ve really learned how to read slower, how to slow down and listen equally for the pauses in your reading. I think what we find in the silent bits, those low, extended pauses you had mentioned, is the domain of God. I think there’s an accuracy to that, because I’ve been sitting here for the past 30 seconds trying to think of this famous name—the young man who was liberated from Auschwitz who survived and went on to become—[audience calls out] Elie Wiesel—one of his quotes that I value a lot is, “And the silence of God is God.” And I return to that an awful lot.

And when you read, I have learned to be equally attendant to the pauses as well as to what’s being said. So I think one of the things that we find in a poem that is disseminated, whether visually, by reading, or auditorily, you know, by being spoken and by hearing, is nuance, is more of the identity than the exclamation of the identity. I think that’s a large part of it.

One of the things that I like in reading your poetry, and in struggling with my own ekphrasis, is the idea of pilgrimage. Now, it’s a journey, it’s a search, and perhaps we’re not sure what we are expressing. Sometimes we only come to that understanding during the expression or even after the expression. So I was going to ask you—one of my questions is—would you be able to give commentary on your own sense of pilgrimage and what you might be journeying towards, because I’ve seen a progression from the first book to the third book and to some of the other poems I’ve seen that are not in books, and encouraging.

Li-Young: Well, I don’t know if I have an answer for that. My sense is that the work, the opus isn’t a poem or book of poems or anything like that, but it’s something like self-knowledge, and now I’m of the feeling that that’s impossible, that self-knowledge is somehow impossible because I don’t seem to be able to get a handle on who I am and what I am, you know, so that’s that’s a real problem for me. You know it dawns on me: I have no clue as to what I’m doing. [laughter] You know? I should have been like the . . . what do they call it . . . the visual aid when Lot was talking about fools. [laughter] I should be standing up there . . . he should have had a pointer and said . . . because I have no clue as to what I’m doing, you know. I don’t know when poems come, I don’t know where they come from, I don’t know why I write them, I don’t know why I’m obsessed by them. I don’t know, you know, I don’t know what my . . . you know . . . the only thing is, I long for a demonized life, a life that is completely embedded in, well, our lives are embedded in God, but we don’t always feel it. I mean your last letter, you talked about that, and and it seems to me that poetry is a possible . . . a yoga that we can do, our art, it seems to me, is a supreme form of yoga. The word yoga means link or connection, you know, it’s a way to bind us or to remind us so that we live in remembrance of our constant, our original condition, that is, our sacred condition, our embeddedness in nature and nature’s embeddedness in God.

Nicholas: Well, I think you’ve really hit on something that is very fundamental to . . . there’s a phrase in The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom—and Scott and I attend a Greek Orthodox church—and there’s this one phrase which is never translated correctly, and what I think you’ve really hit upon it is [Russian] “In peace, let us attend.” Or they say [Russian] which means “attend.” And sometimes you see translations where it says, “Let us be attentive.” 

And I really radicalize the church I attend because I’m always telling people, now that’s not what you should be saying. What you should be saying is “pay attention.” And I think that maybe that’s our sacred nature—is when we are focused, when we are paying attention—and so it’s a wonderful phrase, to be able to pay attention to the world, to each other, and that’s where the ego comes in—whether we’re focused purely on the self or on other people and ourselves in relationship to other people.

I find that maybe when we write poetry we’re focused and when we express ourselves, we’re really focused on what we’re saying. And I think that’s the one thing that, you know, can ultimately give us glimpses of divinity, is when we are paying attention. And so I’m always saying, you know, I want it on my tombstone from that poem that I read, the Philip, you know, a writer of silence. I paid attention to the world. If we pay attention to our lives, our existence, our God, our relationship with God, then we become more aware of it actually being there. Much of our lives are spent in distraction. And maybe creative writing is a way we can sort of like stop the world, stop the distraction and really focus and sort of pay attention to the world and return. So I think your commentary on that is right on target. 


Li-Young: Should we take some questions?

Nicholas: Yeah. I was about to say yes, please. We have microphones here, too. Good! Eli!

Audience Member 1: Well, I love that idea that when you said that . . . when you alluded to the impossibility of self-knowledge, I said, “Yes, exactly,” because it occurred to me that . . . isn’t that . . . I mean, that seems to me so reassuring, that the self is not eclipsed by our knowledge of the self, and that being in the image of God, for instance, isn’t that as it should be? That the self is unknowable.

Just as God is finally unknowable and cannot be reduced to any paraphrase of who God is. And, similarly, the self: constructed in, offered in that image is . . .  so I find, you know, that was . . . all this has been interesting, but that was the part where I went all “Oh yes! I want to go steal that and write something about that right now!” [laughter] But I love that idea, and it must have been some sense of reassurance to know that the self isn’t finally reducible to some rational attempted packaging.

Li-Young: Yeah, and the difficult part for me is when we work on the poem, how to impart that unknown, the mystery to the reader, not talk about it. You can talk about the mystery. [laughter] You know, I mean to enact that mystery.

Audience Member 1: Ergo the line break that you alluded to as well. I mean that’s the opportunity for the syntax itself to open and to slip and to suggest more. You know, it’s how you work the line, and you do work the line in, you know, in a way that pulls out of your working lines. And so that we have that particular silence at the end of the line is an opportunity . . . certainly the syntax sustains itself as one moves through that, but at that opening, you know so many other ideas can occur, which I think is somehow analogous to this business of the enormity that we wanted.

Audience Member 2: Doesn’t the poem be an embodiment of your demon, that you were describing earlier? The poet, the demon, the triaxis. But later on, when you started to describe the poem, isn’t that what it does? That it becomes the embodiment of that demon, good or bad?

Li-Young: I would hope that, you know. My feeling is sometimes I notice that in my own work, and maybe in some work in general, that we . . . there’s a kind of over privileging of, like, rational, the rational. And when I notice that, I’m rational about 10% of my life, you know. That somehow . . .  that I have to account for that 90%, and how do I account for that? I think Lorca did that, I think Frost did it occasionally. And I think that the irrationality—yeah, because poetry is the speech of our complete psychic inheritance, which is God, you know, ultimately. So I would say . . . well, let me just say that poetry is God’s speech, not mine.

But how do I how do I learn to displace myself? So that it isn’t me talking? I’m not interested in talking. I want God to talk, and it seems to me at this point I’ve got it narrowed down at least to the pauses that somehow God is more there [laughter] than when I’m talking, you know.

Audience Member 2: I mean, you want to communicate that as well, and to do that through an encounter or voice, or something like that.

Li-Young: Right, right. Yeah. So I think that the highest service a poem can do is to literally impart God to the reader so that when the reader reads it, they’re not . . . they’re not getting a person talking about God, you know. It is God speaking through the human being, through the human being’s dying breath, you know, God revealing its godself. And so that’s the hardest part, you know, because then when we come to that thing again, about shattering the human countenance. How it on the one hand enhances and on the other hand, you know . . . I think you have somebody like Dickinson whose syntax itself is shattered, you know, and I think that’s . . . I don’t think that was a literary device. I don’t, you know. And for instance, Neruda and Residence on Earth, especially in the first and second volumes, I think there’s a kind of shattering of syntax of even what we understand by meaning and sense, you know, and I don’t think one does . . . I don’t think that’s a literary activity. I think that’s a . . . I think you go there, you risk a lot, you know, and yeah, so it is an embodiment of that. That’s what it is. Yeah.

Nicholas: The one good thing about writing is that there is displacement and shattering, but there’s also a reassembly, you know, in all of us, all of us who read, all of us who hear: we reassemble that message into ourselves. So we get the intake of somebody else’s exhalation. Yeah.

Li-Young: Sure.

Nicholas: Yeah, go ahead.

Audience Member 3: [indistinct]

Nicholas: Microphones, microphones are good.

Audience Member 3: I think that that whole image of shattering has something to do with, like, an alternate freedom of immersion, has kind of a . . . I don’t know what other term to use, but kind of like a collective unconscious element to it, so that—let me make it concrete—if I’m in a church and I have an image of the stained glass shattering then I’m no longer contained within that. Then I’m—my, whatever my spirit is is actually merging into all of what’s there and not contained within the concept of having a sacred experience, then I just become the sacred experience. And I think that the poem tries to do that, and I think that’s why the demons come and why they’re important, but I do think it’s very hard to keep balance. And I think that’s why we do so much revision, because we’re trying to get our balance.

Audience Member 4: Thank you. Li-Young, I saw you profiled in Poets & Writers magazine a while ago, and you talked about—actually I loved how you said that you preferred the old kung fu movies and Jackie Chan to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because Ang Lee was all about beauty, but it was surface beauty, and that you preferred the visceral effect that you get from that. I know that seems off topic, but I think it’s so much about not being rational, about transcending the rational, and I wondered—that word “visceral” stuck with me—I wondered, how do you, I mean, you’ve just said you’re a fool and maybe you don’t know, but how do you stay visceral or out of head, out of reason, out of rational? Do you have ways in your life that you work at that, to stay there?

Li-Young: Yeah. I do. I have many . . . you know, I was raised practicing breathing—meditation. So I think that really puts you into your body, because you’re paying attention to two inches below your navel moving in and out, you know, and you try to keep that throughout the day. But you know, I have to admit to you sometimes, I mean, there are fast ways to getting out of your head, you know, and they’re not always wonderful, you know. But I would say breathing, writing poems. And the thing, Nick, when you say “pay attention,” you know, the word attention to me is so layered, too, you know. What, pay attention with what? Our eyes, the soles of our feet, the hair on the back of my knuckles? I mean, it seems to me that when we’re breathing we’re paying attention with everything, you know. Everything comes to pay attention and you start to recognize that everything is . . . that your paying attention isn’t just looking at something, or, you know, even smelling or whatever, it’s . . . your whole body is breathing. So you recognize the fact that your body itself is breathing. Actually your body’s being breathed.

Nicholas: Exactly.

Li-Young: So that kind of thing really helps, you know. Of course writing poems, I think, is a way to get me out of my head because when I look at a poem, for my own sake, I recognize that there’s a lot of mentality in this poem. I don’t like that, you know. Then the poem to me is a form of divination. When I write a poem it’s a form of divination for me. When I write something, I think, “Wow, I’m really in my head this morning, a lot.” You know, so it tells me I better get back, you know.

Audience Member 5: So that’s your marker to say, okay . . .

Li-Young: Yeah.

Audience Member 5: Thank you.

Nicholas: Do we have a question here?

Audience Member 6: There’s a couple things. There’s so much richness floating around the room. But you were talking about the audience being the third component in this, and I think about Emily Dickinson whose audience didn’t come to her until three or four or five decades after her death.

Li-Young: [softly] Right. Yeah.

Audience Member 6: And also the sense of uncertainty as to where that daimon comes from. What . . . the trickiness of that language.

Li-Young: Yeah.

Audience member 6: I’ve been trying to do some writing about Luther and Luther’s own theological reflection with the significance for poetry. As a theologian he was terrified that he might be way off on the wrong track. I mean it is a question that had been put to him by his father at the time of his ordination into the priesthood: you know, “Are you sure it was God that took you, that moved you in this direction?” And that’s . . . it seems that that’s one of the terrors of the sense of fracturing. I mean you talk so nicely. It was so nice that you brought Jim Morrison into the conversation because there are . . . I think that here’s a person who is fractured by the daimon, and it’s still fascinating but it’s still frightening.

Li-Young: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s what creates all the anxiety in me. I mean, somebody like Sylvia Plath—

Audience Member 6: Yes.

Li-Young: She was obviously demonized, you know, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “Well, those were the lower demons, we shouldn’t pay attention to that.” There’s a richness there. See, the problem comes when I think . . . let me put it this way. Poetic consciousness is the most complete form of human consciousness we’ve accomplished so far. And let me define that. I define poetic consciousness in the same way Blake maybe thought about it, you know, that is, a psyche well informed of its own parts. That is, our intellectual functions aware of our spiritual functions, both of those in communication, aware of our erotic functions, and all three of those in communication, aware of our, you know, emotional. So there’s you know, all of the functions of human beings are communicating and aware, and whatever repression is going on isn’t going on unconsciously. 

Because it seems to me that for us to function sometimes, we have to repress huge parts of our personality, our psyche, ourself. Even sometimes we . . . I hate to say it, but I think we repress God, the God in us in order to function in the world, in the secular world, you know. That seems to me an impoverishment, you know. But then how do you integrate all that stuff? I don’t mean just integrate like a big soup. I mean, I think it’s . . . psyche that’s highly differentiated has a lot to do with the making of great art, you know. But the danger I think does come from integrating materials at, for instance, Plath was integrating really dark material. Quite frankly, I think Lorca was integrating really dark material too, you know.

Audience Member 6: And I think what you just said reminded me of something that you said a minute ago, about the poet’s identity not being defined by one fragment of the psyche, because I think that we’re living in a culture that wants us to be defined by one fragment of the psyche. Whereas you suggested, you know, we’re much more complicated than that.

Li-Young: And usually that fragment is the ego fragment, right? That’s the one we identify with. Now, what I guess what I’m trying to say is—maybe I’m just in a dark mood or something, I don’t know. [laughter] The radical decentering from ego-centered to God-centered isn’t . . . my experience is, it doesn’t come without real challenges to our own concept of who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing in the world. It isn’t like, “Yeah, wow, you know, this is so happy.” You know, I mean, it could, I suppose, you know. At the moment it doesn’t seem that way to me. It seems like a real challenge to who I think I am or what I think I am.

Audience Member 7: Have you been reading Lorca?

Li-Young: Well, yeah. Yeah. [laughter] That’s true, yeah. A bit dark.  

Nicholas: Question over here.

Audience Member 8: Much of what you’ve been saying is reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and I was just wondering how you personally sort of unify those two paradoxical concepts of more universal traditional ideas with personal style, or evacuating the ego but still having style.

Li-Young: Well, I love that question. You know, I’m going to have to really show you how ignorant I am, because my sense is . . . there’s a dialogue, I think, that an artist can—any artist in any medium—carries on with the culture, with the canon, the tradition, that to me feels like a horizontal dialogue. My dialogue with the canon, right, other books and so on, that’s good. It can be very fruitful, I think. But if the work doesn’t mature and become a dialogue that is completely vertical, it is no longer a dialogue with the canon.

No more allusions to the canon . . . somehow all of that material is truly assimilated, and the stuff that isn’t true just falls off like caked mud, you know, that you can brush off, and you go on. But if the work, it seems to me, doesn’t reach a kind of dialogue with our eternity on the one hand and our death on the other, that’s a vertical proposition, seems to me, then the work never matures. So you have a really well-made graduate-student-level . . . and you want to call it, you know, like really good work, but it’s still a dialogue with the canon. The equivalent would be a child who grows up and the shoes they wear, the clothes, the hair, and everything is a dialogue with the canon, right? With what other people are wearing, with what the TV says, and if that child never becomes mature and said, “No, no, no, I’m doing this because of some inner edict, not because of a dialogue with the canon,” you know, not even a dialogue with the community, if that person doesn’t ever become that, it seems to me a completely vertical state of affairs. It seems to me pointless. I don’t think that a dialogue with the canon, with this horizontal dialogue as the last place, with the tradition, is the most fruitful thing. And I might . . . that’s my big problem with Eliot, too, that a lot of times when I’m reading him I feel as if he has taken theology and all that stuff that he read, you know, and turned it into really good poetry. I sometimes am curious about, like, where is the person who . . . [pause] I don’t want to bash only. I love Elliot, you know, I love Elliot. But you know, there are large parts of the Four Quartets that are prose, you know. I mean, that bothers me. But I don’t, [laughter] I don’t know. What was your question?

Audience Member 8: Oh, yeah. My question was about your statement about . . . that poetry is, you know, triaxial with the demon, the poet, and the audience. I couldn’t help but just kind of get the image in my mind as the poet being sort of an intermediary between the demon—his own, his or her own demon—and the audience, and kind of about the motivation where the poet feels motivated to try to connect the audience to something bigger than himself, his demon; or the demon itself driving him or her to do it, where that comes from; and I kind of got this image of the demon—if it’s a source of the poetry, being kind of like a god figure, like God, where the poetry, you know should be, whereas the poet is kind of like, almost, a Jesus figure trying to form a bridge between the audience and something bigger than the audience. And I guess my question was is, do you feel that poetry is really kind of a like spring out of oneself, that the motivation comes from within? Or does the motivation come from without, like you feel almost forced to do it, that you have no choice, like it’s your demon or whatever?

Li-Young: Both. I would say that it’s, you know—a poem comes from both realms, the outside and the inside. But . . . you know, in Taoism there’s this phrase—it could be translated as “the totality of causes,” and what the Taoist meant by that, is if you look at any thing in the world—I mean, any specific thing, you know, these pants, my shoes, this microphone, Nick’s red shirt, or this event, you know—if you look at any thing or any event carefully, if you pay attention, you’ll see that the whole universe conspired to make it happen. You know, I mean, if you think about how this event happened, well, first of all, everybody had to come here, right? How about all the people who set it up? How about the people who designed this college? How about all the people who flew the airplanes that brought us here, or that drove to the cars, and then how about the people who made the cars? How about the people—how about the inventor of airplanes? How about—you know what I mean?

When you break any event or thing, that—a physicist will tell you a thing is event. That’s all it is. It’s time and space and that’s what this is. Right? So if you break anything down, you recognize that a totality of causes brought about everything, anything, anything. You can look at anything and you’ll have to break it down into, like, who made the rubber, who invented rubber for this cord, who . . . and so on and so forth, you know. It seems to me that that condition of the totality of causes, that saturated condition of meaning, of reference, of presence, the mouth of that condition is a poem.

So that a poem is the voice of that saturated condition, the totality of causes. So it would be very hard to say, “Well, I wrote this poem because of that.” I mean, I don’t even know what it was, you know. It could be the caffeine I drank, the caffeine I didn’t have, the dream I had last night or the dream I didn’t have last night, or the phone call I had with my wife this morning. Who knows what makes the poem. Yeah, maybe I picked up a leaf yesterday and the smell of the leaf mold is still on my hands this morning, you know. You know, maybe it’s because I got too much sleep, maybe because I didn’t get enough sleep. Who can actually say where the poem comes from. It’s a totality of causes and it seems to me that ideally the the poem is a condition, is a mouthpiece of that condition. And if that condition is our condition 24 hours a day—I mean think about it: we’re always at the center of the mandala—the totality of causes. But everything is its own center of that mandala, the totality of causes.

And so it seems to me that poetry, ultimately, is the language of that condition, and that we recognize a poem by the density of references, right, density of language, and how a poem seems to irradiate meaning as opposed to having a linear meaning, you know, all of that. It seems to me that those are just definitions of the totality of causes. So it would be very hard to say what comes from the outside, comes from the inside. I would say it comes from it all. Poetry is the locally inflected voice of the all. It’s the locally inflected voice of God. You know, it’s Nick inflected, Scott inflected, I inflected, Dickinson inflected, but it’s the . . . ultimately, hopefully, to be the voice of God. Otherwise, we’re living in a rumor, right, that there’s, you know, there’s a God in us, you know. I mean, it would be a rumor if we couldn’t manifest it.

Nicholas: And on that note, because of time limitations. Thank you Li-Young. 




Otto: [00:57:35] Our thanks to Li-Young Lee and Nick Samaras for this thoughtful conversation and for their written words, too.

Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.

You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at ccfw.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes—and leave us a review to help others find this podcast. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from the Festival archives.