“A flower is one station between earth’s wish and earth’s rapture…it’s just me in the gowns of the wind.” Li-Young Lee, fr. ‘Have You Prayed’
It may have seemed de rigeur to hear Li-Young Lee advise a host of young prize-winning Long Island schoolkids at the Walt Whitman Birthplace to emulate the Good Gray Poet’s capacity to ‘see the all’ and communicate that vision through poetry.
But the life trajectory by which Lee has found himself in the position to offer that bit of advice to would-be next generation bards, at the annual Whitman birthday celebration in West Hills, LI has not been de rigeur at all. In fact, it’s been decidedly un-Whitmanlike.
“I struggled with Whitman at first,” said Lee, a man whose family story in China – unlike Whitman and his 19th century Dutch-English yeoman farmer origins -- is peppered with warlords, generals, gangsters and a short-lived 20th century emperor. “But I grew up practicing Taoism, and was blown away by how Eastern Walt sounded to me -- his expansiveness, his largeness, his vision of the multitudity of the human soul. I wanted that in my work but I didn’t know how he pulled it off. “
Struggle no more. Reconciling Whitman’s ‘shirtsleeve transcendentalist’ conception to his own world view, emergent from cultural traditions to which Whitman and other American romantics could only allude, is well within the cognizance of this year’s poet in residence at the Whitman birthplace.
Particularly when it comes to yin and yang -- the concept of duality forming a whole.
“Whitman’s expansive voice is part of his picture – that’s his yang,” said Lee. “But to understand Whitman is to understand that real power doesn’t come from expanding your ego, it comes from practicing great emptiness, great isolation. That’s what Whitman did – his expansive voice, his yang, exists in the context of his yin. You have to shave your ego to do that. That’s what makes his work different from a slam poet.”
And that’s what makes it possible for a writer like Lee, known for his capacity to ‘craft the atmosphere of silence,’ to find common ground with Walt Whitman and his nominative penchant for exhaustive cataloguing of particularities.
“I’ve thought a lot about how Taoist Whitman really is,” said Lee. “In a sense, many of the Taoist classics, translated into English, sound like Whitman. They’re concerned about the all, the inflected all.”
“Lee reminds me of the saying ‘walking into the river we turn not one ripple; walking into a forest we turn not one leaf,’” noted Gladys Henderson, 2010 Long Island Poet of the Year honoree at the Whitman Birthplace.
Ripples and leaves aside, Lee’s voice has been turning heads, hearts and minds since he emerged in the world of American poetry in the 1980s.
Li-Young Lee is the 34th poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, a list of distinguished figures that includes William Heyen, Billy Collins, William Stafford, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Espada, Sharon Olds and Robert Bly. Influenced by the classical Chinese poets Li Bo and Tu Fu, his poetry is noted for its use of silence and, according to Alex Lemon in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, its “near mysticism” which is nonetheless “fully engaged in life and memory while building and shaping the self from words.”
“When I write, I’m trying to make that which is visible—this face, this body, this person—invisible, and at the same time, make what is invisible—that which exists at the level of pure being—completely visible,” Lee explained at a recorded lecture and reading at UC Berkeley.
The goal? To be one with the cosmos. “I want to get there for real -- not just as a literary experience, but a personal one.”
In a sense, everything a person does can be a way to that goal, from sweeping a floor to mending a shirt.
“But poetry is a way,” he added quickly. “What you feel in a great poem is this pressure to see the all. If you do your homework as a poet, if you try to account for things rigorously, you will be practicing this vision.”
Those who would see the American poetic voice incorporate the ‘great emptiness of yin’ into its well-known capacity for big, expansive utterance may well hope that a few students at this year’s Walt Whitman birthday celebration in West Hills LI were paying attention to the advice of Li-Young Lee – and are doing their homework.