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Poetry as a Mode of Being: The Theology of Li-Young Lee


Poetry as a Mode of Being: The Theology of Li-Young Lee

Aaron Brown


In the rush of mid-semester teaching, between the piles of papers, the emails trickling in and out every hour, I find myself losing focus, losing the big picture and the small—finding it increasingly difficult to hone in my devoted attention on a single thing, a person, an object, an idea. In conversations, I feel my mind rush out of itself, standing apart, speaking to me of something I need to do, some other place I need to be rather than with this person, listening and receiving and giving in return. My struggle to shut out both the world’s noise and my own has festered and persisted for years now, with only a few half-hearted checks here and there.

And it is in this distracted, self-frustrated state that I encountered the poet Li-Young Lee. His ability to focus on the minutely beautiful, the time-stoppingly sublime—his mastery of thrusting chronos out the window for the kairos moment of fulfillment—this proved a balm to my senses, a comfort that there was someone who’s “figured it out.” After all, he’s a poet on his own kind of poetic pilgrimage, a man whose life’s work has been to explore the depths of love in family and in the frustratingly supernatural:

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth, 
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.   
His love for me feels like fire, 
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

                        —from “This Hour and What is Dead” 

I had read through his work last summer in preparation to attend a workshop taught by Li-Young Lee himself, in the beautiful Sangre de Christo Mountains at Image’s Glen Workshops. I was beginning—in my haltingly distracted way—to understand the person, the mind, the soul behind the poems. First, Lee’s poetry collection Beyond My Eyes arrested me with its restraint and erotic elegance, then his debut Rose with its intense grief and spiritual departure, and finally The Winged Seed, Lee’s memoir, which places in the background his own fascinating biography and replaces it with a longing to understand his father, to understand exactly what his father left behind in the world, in him.

When I arrived at the campus of St. John’s College for the workshop, I was excited, ready to sink into the depths of myself. But I was certainly not ready for the soul-stretching that would occur. The first surprise came when Lee would begin our workshops with intense periods of meditation and prayer, supplicating God that we might be properly directed in our writing, our critiquing, in our very being—Orient us, Father...God, our true guide. It was a workshop ritual unlike any I’d seen.

Observing such a great poet so humbled with the weight of words, the weight of the Word as he might put it, I found myself experiencing a pruning, a necessary if painful self-effacing change. Poetry is prayer to Li-Young Lee just as much as prayer is poetry. He casually mentioned that six hours went by one day in meditation before he could even write, or was granted the words to write. In the space of creating poetry through spiritual experience, there is no room for ego, no room even for the poet. This was an entirely different death of an author that I had been conditioned to believe in through the boot camp that is graduate school. Instead, Lee spoke of a willing, sacrificial vocation—poetry—that required one to daily die while getting caught up in a greater cloud of unknowing. Losing oneself yet becoming more of oneself than you ever were—Herbert’s world transposing not in an hour but in a never-ending second. Breaking down that “sinner’s tow’r” so as to join in with the music of the spheres.

I wanted to resist this inclination. I found myself wrestling within, in the late hours as the dusty thunderstorms poured rain out on the stones outside my window. I found myself avoiding meal-time conversations, even readings at the festival. After all, just like Prufrock, how could I prepare a face for others, if I hadn’t properly thought through what it means to be an artist and a believer? If I didn’t even know what I was writing from and what I was writing toward? I felt like an imposter, though I knew everyone there was thinking through the same questions just like me.

It was a theology that didn’t have answers, after all, a poetical journey thoroughly different than the publication and prize-ridden rat-race that is the poetry industry itself. The more I resisted this letting go—and this taking on so much—the more I felt extremely humbled, rebuked even. “I’m interested in poetry as a mode of being,” Lee would say. “The poem as a manifestation of God’s order.” As I felt my idea of the poet evaporate, I realized the corresponding seriousness—sacredness—I was taking on. The poet not as the unacknowledged legislator but the poet neatly nestled deep within the Augustinian conception of divine order. Firmly aware of his or her place. The poet as pilgrim, the poet as sackcloth-ragged priest. This was surely weighty stuff.

When I heard my name again, it sounded far,
like the name of the child next door,
or a favorite cousin visiting for the summer,

while the quiet seemed my true name,
a near and inaudible singing
born of hidden ground.

Quiet to quiet, I called back.

                         —from “Out of Hiding”

“We have to account for all we know in each poem,” said Lee as he repeatedly interrogated—with an intense spiritual hunger—each poem we submitted for workshop. No words, no ideas, no inaccuracies, no misrepresentations of spiritual experience, no sacrificing of imagination for cliché self-gratification could stand. It was as if poets were a special kind of mediating priest, and through this lens—Lee believes it’s just so—some of the great poets like Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Plath have chipped away at the door of God, calling on his attention, his salvation of the earth, whether explicitly or implicitly through the beauty of their verse. Even Lee demonstrated this during the festival when he read from a long poem he’s been working on for nine years, a poem contemplating suffering and meaning, the divine’s relationship with the human. He considers his work such a journey of precision—and failure, for every poem he says is a failure to reach this mark, to find the ultimate answer that would heal the world’s wounds.

From the very first day, Lee enacted this priestliness by making us go out in the day whispering to ourselves the phrases O my Love; O my God; Holy, Holy, Holy—to the point where the words became a kind of incantation: whispered secretly over lunchtime conversation, hummed against the backdrop of summer monsoon and thirsting arroyo. I found that these phrases worked against the natural inclinations of my mind, that these simultaneous prayers infused ordinary conversations with a kind of time-defying significance. Lee’s “homework” assignment made us feel as if the weight of judgment, comparison, posturing was all found to be meaningless—indeed, the weight had been lifted. I could pursue the word out of love for my fellow human being and for God. I could pursue the word not out of a self-serving desire for fame or authority, but out of an iconoclasm that bids me to come and die and be remade.

I’d heard of someone describing Lee as a poet with a kind of “holy madness.” If all these sacrifices, these intensities, are necessary to becoming a poet devoted to the spiritual, devoted to mediating the divine into human words, then by God, give me madness, give me this self-effacing humility.

aaron brown.jpg

Aaron Brown’s prose and poetry have appeared in Transition, Tupelo Quarterly, Portland Review, Relief, Ruminate, Windhover, and Cimarron Review, among others. He is the author of Winnower (Wipf & Stock, 2013), has been anthologized in Best New African Poets 2015, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Aaron grew up in Chad, Africa, and now lives with his wife Melinda in Hutchinson, Kansas, the birthplace of William Stafford. An MFA graduate from the University of Maryland, he is assistant professor of writing and editing at Sterling College.