Li-Young Lee’s books of poetry include Rose (1986), winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award; The City in Which I Love You (1990), which was a Lamont Poetry Selection; Book of My Nights (2001), which won the William Carlos Williams Award; From Blossoms: Selected Poems (2007), and Behind My Eyes (2008). His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar, a collection of twelve interviews edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, and The Winged Seed (1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Lee was born to Chinese parents in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957. In 1959, the family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese persecution and lived in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before settling in the United States in 1964. Lee attended the Universities of Pittsburgh and Arizona and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa. His awards include fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and Guggenheim Foundation, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I.B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Chicago. He was interviewed by Paul T. Corrigan.
Image: I want to ask you about the religious aspects of your work. But that doesn’t seem entirely accurate, because it would imply that there are nonreligious aspects. Your work is all religious or spiritual, isn’t it?
Li-Young Lee: I think so. The whole enterprise of writing absolutely seems to me like a spiritual practice. It’s a yoga. It’s definitely part of my prayer life, my meditation life, my contemplative life.
Image: What does that mean, “It’s a yoga”?
LYL: Well, you know the word religio. It comes from Latin, and it means yokedness, bondedness. The same word in Sanskrit is yoga. We get the word yoke from yoga. So yoga is any practice that reminds us of our original condition, our embeddedness in God, whether it’s breathing meditation or East Indian yogas or any art form. The ancients in India and China said that the practice of art was a royal yoga, the yoga of yogas. When you practice an art form, you realize that the poem is a descendent of your psyche, but your psyche, if you pay attention, is a descendent of something else, let’s say the cosmos. Then the cosmos is a descendent of something else, let’s say the mind of God. So ultimately you go from the mind of God to the cosmos to the psyche to the poem. Those are concentric circles of embeddedness. And the knowledge of our condition of deep embeddedness in a cosmic context, it seems to me, inculcates fearlessness, trust, love, openness, generosity—a more comprehensive, fuller human being. So it seems to me that’s a sacred practice.
Image: What is poetry, that it does this more than other forms of language?
LYL: I think the paradigm for a poem is DNA—that is, as much information as possible written into as little space as possible. It’s like writing code. There’s so much code in a tiny strand of DNA. And there should be tons of information in a poem. I don’t mean information from the phenomenal world alone. I mean spiritual information, emotional information, concrete information. I think that the more you practice that kind of work, the more you try to change your own thinking so that it is saturated with meaning and being, the more you see how thoroughly the world is encoded, that information is written into every single quantum quadrant of the universe. That God is everywhere, literally. Everything is saturated with God. So the sacred condition of meaning in a poem seems to me a perfect paradigm of mind and world. The saturation of meaning and being in a poem exactly mirrors the saturation of meaning and being in the cosmos. And I can only explain that kind of saturation of being and presence and meaning in everything, from my body to everything else, as a condition of embeddedness in God.
Image: So the world is packed with meaning and being—with God—which poems mirror through compression. Does this condition of poetry help us experience God or the sacred through poems?
LYL: Yes. That’s why I feel the reading of poetry is so important, because we need to be able to find authentic experience in poems. Somebody could deconstruct what I’m saying and say, “Finally, there is no real. We can’t arrive at authentic language for the experience of God.”
It’s possible to write a poem that falsely represents an experience of the sacred. Somebody told me that when iron workers, blacksmiths, say that a kettle or a skillet or a big pot is sincere, that means it holds water. If it’s insincere, then there’s a crack somewhere, but they’re going to go over it with wax and sell it anyway. But the minute you try to boil water in it, it will leak.
It seems to me as artists, we need to be able to tell if a poem imitates the experience of the sacred in language but is not real. That’s what I’m curious about. And I don’t have an answer. But I would say, yes, this condition of poetry helps us experience God or the sacred. In fact, I think that’s specifically what poetry is: the condition of language when it is influenced by the sacred experience.
Image: And this spiritual practice includes both reading and writing poetry?
LYL: Yes. I do think there’s such a thing as bad reading. I know this sounds really dogmatic. A friend of mine uses the example of a scene in Titus Andronicus where somebody tells the Greek myth of Philomela, whose tongue is cut out by her rapist so she can’t identify him. A bad guy in the play hears it and realizes, “That’s how I can pull off this crime I’m going to do.” That’s a wrong reading. Somebody else hears the story and says, “That’s what my suffering means.” You can take the wrong thing from this story.
Image: You have said that “the purpose of poetry is to propose a vision of the well-formed human.” You could propose a vision of something in an essay. What’s different about the way a poem does it?
LYL: Take a person like Jesus, for instance. If you erase all the stories we have about him and we only have his words, they still give you a portrait of the speaker. You could hear them and take a guess at what kind of psyche could say these things. You have to ask yourself, “Who would I have to be to say those beatitudes? What depth of wisdom, spiritual awakening, would I have to have to create the Lord’s Prayer?” You’d have to conclude that he was a profoundly enlightened human being. His words give you an image of a well-formed human being. I think an essay can point to it, but a poem enacts the very voice of that human being in the same way that Jesus’s words do.
T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are problematic for me. It’s long; it’s beautiful; it’s ambitious. I can see he’s encoded a lot of the Christian myths in there, and myths from other cultures. But, ultimately, when I ask myself who I would have to be in order to say these words and mean them, I think, “I’d have to be a really smart Christian, Anglican, but I wouldn’t necessarily have had to experience God. I’d just have to be a really well-read guy who believes in God.” Even that poem doesn’t quite do it. It’s one step lower.
But when I read Rainer Maria Rilke and ask who I would have to be in order to say those words as authentically as he said them, I think Rilke had to have experienced God or cosmos or greater mind or whatever it is he calls it. I’d have to be a really enlightened, supremely spiritually awake human being to say those words. There’s nothing in Rilke that makes me think he read a lot of theology, whereas with Eliot I feel like I’d have to be a really well-read theologian who has a poetic gift to write those poems. Then I get troubled. I love the Four Quartets, but why does he have to propose that image, like the highest thing I could be is a professor at Yale teaching divinity? That’s what comes through in those poems.
I feel when I read Emerson’s essays that he’s proposing the image of a well-formed human being. And it happens to be a very spiritual being he’s proposing. Maybe I only said poetry proposes that vision because I don’t want to make claims for fiction and prose, because I don’t feel I have any authority there. Maybe ultimately all art is sacred.
Do you know the work of René Guénon? In his books The Triumph of Quantity and The Crisis in the Modern World he talks about how all art forms, all sciences, used to be considered sacred. And the minute they are not, we’re in trouble. Right now, he points out, a scientist can’t get a grant to do his science unless he can prove that the end result will have an effect on the profit economy, will make money for somebody. So science isn’t practiced as pure wonderment anymore, as pure wanting to know our place in the universe. That’s because it’s lost its sacred roots. Science used to be practiced as a way to understand why we are here, who we are, whether we are alone.
And now, when art is practiced with no other intention than to create commodities for the profit economy, that’s a problem, because the profit economy is founded on a paradigm of scarcity and violence. Isn’t poetry a mode of valuation that is other than that? Isn’t there a paradigm of abundance and love that undergirds poetry? What is that paradigm? The kingdom of God?
Image: In your memoir, The Winged Seed, you write about how you were raised in church, reading the Bible, praying Christian prayers. The son of a minister, you helped your father with his sermons and visited the sick with him to give communion. When I hear you talk and I read your poems, you’re not there anymore. You’re not Christian in the traditional sense, certainly. I’m curious about that journey.
LYL: Ever since I was little, I’ve had spiritual experiences. I always felt that the world was haunted by God—the jungles of Indonesia, the ocean in Hong Kong. I experienced it; I didn’t believe it. It was deeper than belief. If someone asked me, “Do you believe in light?” I’d say, “What do you mean? I’m sitting in the light. I’m seeing by the light.” I had this feeling that the world was saturated. I felt embedded in a larger intelligence than my own.
My father raised us doing Taoist meditation and practices. When he converted to Christianity and started talking about the Bible, I kept wondering, “What’s that got to do with this feeling?” I started thinking God and the feeling were separate things. As I got older, I realized, “No, this is God that I’m experiencing.” I just never gave it that name. The mystical Christian idea of God, the view of Meister Eckhart or Jakob Böhme, those German Christians, feels true to me. When I read Meister Eckhart, he blew my mind. I thought, that’s how I experience God.
Jesus continues to be a really important figure to me. I love the stories in the Bible. They are psychologically and even spiritually true. But I think they’re misunderstood.
Image: Your parents figure into your poetry often, especially your father. Were they aware of this realization you were having? How did they respond to it?
LYL: They always thought it was just me being me, being weird and strange and dreamy. When I was a child in western Pennsylvania, I would take long walks in the woods. The whole world, the forest, the danger of being in the woods, the beauty of it, felt to me like that phrase, “Be still and know that I am God.” Be still. There’s something bigger going on. This bigger intelligence is moving around you.
I never articulated it to my parents, but I asked my father what these experiences had to do with God. He always just said, “Keep practicing. Keep praying. Keep meditating. Don’t cling to those feelings but don’t push them away.” He allowed me to be really open. But he also said, “These stories from the Bible are deeply teaching, so keep reading them.”
Image: So in some ways the Christianity your father taught you allowed you to end up in a different place than where he was.
LYL: Yes. In the Chinese tradition, they always say the best teacher points the student not toward the teacher but toward the depth of his own mind and his relationship to his own soul. The measure of the success of that teacher is whether or not the student can find his own path in the world. They say the worst teachers are the ones where the students come to them in chains and the teacher gives the student one more chain. “Be like me” is another chain.
My father was a good teacher, a profound teacher, a hard teacher.
Image: Often in traditional religion, conformity is very important, and not to hold orthodox views is seen as a sort of betrayal or apostasy. Did you struggle with that at any point?
LYL: No. I think because my father was very clear about that. Later on when I was old enough to understand, he kind of hinted that the church does that in order to perpetuate its own institution. It’s an institutional decision, not about wanting to free the person. He was convinced that if you actually met Jesus, Jesus would try to free you from your church, from your family, from your ego, in order to become this massive love. He would not tell you to give your house, your money to the church, one more institution. Jesus came to fight principalities and powers, and I’m sorry to say this, but the church is just one more principality anymore.
The academy, too. They’re churning out people who toe the line. They all share the same critical views. Even in the secular world, students come to a school in chains, and instead of saying, “No, we are here to free you,” the professor gives them one more chain.
Boy, I didn’t think I was so ornery. I seem to have it out for everybody.
Image: I suspect that you desire nothing less than all for yourself and those you care about, and that you’re not going to settle for anything less.
LYL: Yeah. I want that for all of us. Wouldn’t it be a better culture, a better society, if we had people who are truly free? I don’t mean free to indulge every base desire. That’s not freedom. That’s just being a puppet of your desires. I mean spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom leads to fearlessness and fearlessness leads to love. The most loving people I know are the most fearless, and the most unloving people are the most fearful. It’s love, Paul. Maybe I’m just like a stupid idealist, but I really believe in all that agape stuff. I believe it’s possible.
Image: Who do you read? What religious texts?
LYL: Eckhart is just brilliant. His German sermons are great. His Latin sermons I find unreadable.
Image: The German ones got him accused of heresy.
LYL: Wow. No kidding. Those are the ones I love.
Image: For good reason, apparently, because you would be accused of heresy too.
LYL: Yeah, I know!
Image: What other writers do you draw on?
LYL: I’ll give you a list, but I’m going to leave people out. At the moment, I am rereading all of Gerald Stern’s work. My God, if you do that you get a feeling of someone grappling his whole life with these very questions we’ve been talking about. You feel what it was like to be alive from the 1920s till the early twenty-first century, struggling with divinity and humanity and what it means to be more alive; with whether there is a God, and the nature of God and humanity and passion, and where the line is between our mind and God’s. He’s trying to redeem more and more of the mundane, and he sees more and more of the world as a completely sacred experience.
I’m reading Shakespeare again, all the great plays, Hamlet and Macbeth.
I’m reading Hilda Morley right now. I’m enjoying her a lot, though she seems artistically pretty good but metaphysically really ignorant. I wonder about artists who seem unaware of the interpenetrating quality of all things, that all things depend on all things to be alive. They don’t allow these metaphysical truths into their work, so they keep arriving at temporal truths, which are beautiful, but temporal. If the practice of poetry is a practice of valuation and measure, and not just measuring stressed and unstressed syllables, but measuring the very world, and to measure is to compare something against a standard, and a standard, in order to remain a standard, must not vary, never change, be immune to the violence of death, destruction, becoming and unbecoming, and if the sacred is that standard, if the sacred is the value of values, a value beyond whatever value we may derive from race, gender, family, wealth, titles, etc., what happens if we ignore that value of values, the sacred? Is true valuation beyond the ego’s preferences even possible without the sacred? Can we even establish laws, government, civil society without a view of the value of values? Morley’s work keeps sending me down that rabbit hole.
My study is a mess of books all over the floor. My reading is all over the place. The Tao Te Ching, all the old Taoists, help me more and more. I’m reading a lot of tai chi manuals. I’ve been studying tai chi all my life, and I really want to get to the bottom of that.
I’ve been reading Robert Duncan, who’s just blowing me away. He’s so beautiful. I’m rereading Czeslaw Milosz. Guénon, he’s beautiful. Rilke, over and over again. I’m rereading Plath, and she seems a lot more playful and loving and tender and kind than I remembered. I remember thinking she was kind of shrill, and she seems different to me now. I don’t know why I missed it before. Maybe I read her with projections everyone had given me.
But you asked about influences. That’s very different. The Bible. The Bible seems stranger to me every time I read it. The more I read it over time, the more I feel like it’s not the book most formal Christians think it is. It’s almost a handbook for individuation if read a certain way. If read another way, it becomes this shrill, race-mongering thing. But recently I’ve been reading it as a handbook for individuation. It’s brilliant.
Image: Introducing a poem once, you said that it was a “love poem to God.” Then you immediately said you had no idea what that meant, “G-O-D.” On the one hand, that strikes me as not at all in line with traditional religious views. But on the other hand, that’s exactly what the mystics would say.
LYL: I once told a friend, a translator of Rumi, Coleman Barks, “I feel this love for God and I don’t even know what I mean by that.” And he said, “Well, objectless love, Li-Young, is ecstasy. It’s the ecstatic tradition. You’re obviously either on your way to becoming ecstatic or you are ecstatic and you need to realize it.” It’s not a love for a being. It’s like a love of an intelligence. It’s like love for…I don’t know. Love for the world? It includes the world, but it goes beyond the world. So that’s why I say “God.”
Image: I want to ask you about some of the poems in your most recent book, Behind My Eyes. First, “Virtues of a Boring Husband.” There are two strands through that poem. Your wife can’t sleep and your voice helps her sleep, so you talk. There are lines describing her breathing, her body, her falling asleep, and this act of kindness between two friends, two lovers. Then there are the words that you say, which are speculations about God and love. What is the relationship between the content of what you’re saying and this domestic act of kindness?
LYL: My sense is that poem meditates on paired-ness, the dyad, two-ness. When the speaker is talking about God, he’s also talking about the two-ness of the mind and God. And there’s the lover and the beloved. It’s that two-ness I’m curious about, where the mind meets its source, which is God. That between-ness—between mind and God, between lover and beloved—somehow gets enacted in the material world in that love, that act of kindness. Maybe the love experienced in the spiritual realm between the little self and the big self, God, makes everything else possible. Maybe everything is a projection of that. Ultimately my relationship to God is what I project out into the world. My relationship to the world is kind of the shadow of my relationship to God.
The speaker says that lovers are “an instance / of a primary simultaneity.” That’s the way it gets manifested, but the inner truth is that it’s the mind’s relationship to God that’s getting enacted, which I happen to believe.
Tai chi means “the ultimate polarity.” Hard and soft. Right and wrong. Material, spiritual. It seems to me that the ultimate tai chi is human and God. Out of that polarity the whole world is made.
Image: Your poem “God Seeks a Destiny” starts with a child climbing a tree. He can see into the house where his family members are doing different activities. His father is playing “hide and seek” with God among God’s names, studying, praying. Then you say, “But wasn’t it God who lured the child / ever higher into the tree with glimpses / of God’s own ripening body?” So we’ve got lines evoking traditional religion and then: “But…” What’s happening there?
LYL: That actually happened to me. I think about what it meant. We had an apple tree, and I remember in season those apples and how I wanted to get them. I saw a particular apple, and I had to climb up to get it. And when I got up to it I saw another one that was even better. So I kept climbing. Then I saw another one, a group of them, even better. And I climbed up. I was so focused on them, I didn’t realize how high I had climbed. I could see into the house, and I thought, “What a weird wonderful view this is.” I could see into the back windows, and I saw everybody doing things. And then I looked down and realized I was frozen. I couldn’t climb down. And then, after a long time—I was too scared to cry out—my mind came back to me and I climbed down.
I look back a lot on that terror of being up that high, suspended between heaven and earth, and I think that’s what my relationship with God has been. God is like a lure. God keeps saying, “Over here,” and I follow. And there’s something even better around the corner. I follow that. The next thing I know, I might be in a place where I’m terrified. But then God also gave me, suddenly, the knowledge and the confidence to climb back down.
That view of the human world, what was going on in the house, I got from following the lure, this redder, redder, redder apple. I feel sometimes God is a lure. That’s not an original idea, but I experienced it.
You know, these aren’t ideas. They’re experiences. When I was young, the lure might have been sexual desire. You follow this desire; you follow that desire. The next thing you know, all that desire falls away and you realize, I’m not after apples. I’m not after sex. I’m after a connection with something profound. And you realize, it’s God. I’m after God. I’ve been after God. God has been luring me. When I was a child, it was through apples. When I was a little older, it was through the bodies of girls. But it’s God.
Image: “A Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics” is a poem that’s funny and also serious. Can you talk to me about it?
LYL: “A lamp, so you can read the words on the tablet.” I’m glad you thought it was funny and serious. I think so. I feel silly about that poem. I guess I’m kind of tickled by it too.
Image: So is it this? We need things, and we need people. And we need seriousness of purpose, and we need to not take ourselves so seriously.
LYL: Yes. And we need to cross out our ego. “Cross out your name.” Get rid of that.
Image: Tell me about the title. What do “standard checklist” and “amateur mystic” mean? I tend to think of standardization, checklists, and amateurism in very different terms than I think of mysticism or spirituality.
LYL: I am very moved that this poem comes up. Maybe I’m trying to be comical by saying “standard.” I didn’t want to claim too much. Well, I’m an amateur mystic. I’m no Eckhart. I’m no Lao Tze. I’m no Buddha. I’ve meditated all my life. I was raised doing that. I’ve prayed, and I continue to pray. But I don’t consider myself a mature mystic. I feel I’m an amateur, a fledgling. Maybe there’s some sort of interesting tension between what I call standard and what doesn’t sound that standard.
And I guess I was trying to be humble: “This is standard. Everybody knows this.” I get that feeling a lot about everything I’m saying in my work. Everybody knows this. It’s just I guess somebody has to say it.
Image: This poem speaks of reading “words on a tablet,” copying “the sentences you find,” and falling asleep and being woken while “at your opus.” What is the poem saying about poetry’s relationship to the spiritual?
LYL: I think if we write poems, we belong to the cult of the word. And every word is a name. So we belong to the cult of the name, because every word names something, even the world the. The word the names the condition of the-ness, as opposed to a-ness or any-ness, like “go get a car” as opposed to “go get the car.” So every word names a condition, and the world is apprehendable. We can receive the world if we have this language. But it does seem to me that it can get dysfunctional when language becomes not a way to receive the world but a way to dominate the world, to manipulate the world. That happens too often.
But I think that ultimately the gift of language is the gift of a whole set of names. We belong to a cult of the name, and I want to hear the big name that this whole thing is saying. I keep sensing, maybe as an amateur mystic, that the whole world is every moment saying the name of God. I’m not saying that’s an idea. I’m saying I experience that. My own experience is that there’s a word that this entire planet, cosmos, everything—is saying. We hear that name in various refractions: The is ultimately a condition of God. A is another condition of God.
I feel that even the mystery of first person, second person, third person—that those are all finally the mysteries of God. But it gets projected into the temporal, into time-space, and we mistake it, we get conceited. We think, “Oh, we just made up this condition, this feeling of first person, the feeling of second person, the feeling of third person.” I think those are all great mysteries. We can stand in relationship to God where God is the first person and we are the second person. But too often we stand in relationship to God where we’re the first person and God is the second person. Sometimes God is the third person. God is an it, a he, or a she. And so these conditions name our condition. They’re not only to be used as naming conditions among human beings, but even the conditions among human beings are conditions of God. I’m not saying this very well. I guess what I’m saying is that ultimately the vertical reality gets played out in a horizontal time-space dimension. In the vertical reality, all of that stuff is simultaneous.
When we name things in poetry, we name the world. I feel as if we’re trying to name it in a deeper way than other forms of language can achieve. And my sense is that language has this double function, if we can call it that. Its original function is a way for us to shelter the world, to receive the world. In tai chi they talk a lot about that. They say that fledgling students want to learn tai chi so they can encroach on other people’s territory and dominate others. But originally, tai chi was taught as a way to receive, to host, even to host an enemy, and to host that enemy in a way that the enemy gets transformed and becomes a friend. Language can host the world and can be a place where the world is apprehendable to us and we can receive the world.
I remember when I first was learning English, when I found the word forsythia and what it meant, I saw forsythia everywhere. Everybody has their own version of this. Once you learn the word for something, suddenly you see that thing everywhere and your relationship to that thing becomes different. Once you learn the name for certain birds, suddenly you see those birds. They’re different from other birds. Language differentiates. It makes the world more apprehendable. But I’m aware also that language can be used as a way to dominate.
Image: Your poems are full of questions. The poems themselves might be questions. I think your memoir The Winged Seed has something like five hundred questions in it. Have your questions changed over the years? Are you closer to an answer? Do you understand the questions more profoundly?
LYL: The word quest is in that word question. I feel as if I’m going to live my life as a giant question mark. I’m just going to live open, ready to encounter whatever God puts in front of me next. I have fewer and fewer answers. I feel like I know less and less.
Last year my son told my wife, “When we were younger, Baba had a lot of ideas he would talk to us about. As time has gone on, he talks to us less. And he’s become a lot warmer and seems more mellow.” I wanted to give them a lot of ideas. But the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know anything. There are no ideas to give. If I can just love them straight from my soul…. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know why they’re here. I don’t know why any of us are here. I’ll just live that question. My whole life will be a question. I will be a question mark.
Image: And poetry helps you do this?
LYL: I think so. When I come to the page to write the poem, I have to surrender everything. You have to accomplish a kind of deep yin quality—openness, yielding, getting out of the way so that the poem can come in. And that is a way to practice my life.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.