Saying the Unsayable—Li-Young Lee’s Poetry

When I’m asked to define poetry, I like to say that poetry is the use of language to express experiences beyond the ordinary scope of language. This way of thinking about poetry, it seems to me, includes the widest possible range of styles and schools of poetry. And this definition is especially relevant when we think about poets who focus on spiritual or mystical experiences, the way Li-Young Lee often does in his writing.

In the Valparaiso Review, Hila Ratzabi comments that Li-Young Lee “is not only one of our best contemporary poets of the sacred; he is an authentic mystic, in the classical sense of the mystic who uses language to access a realm beyond language.” When reading Lee’s books for our Book Club for Poets discussion, I remembered a wonderful class I took with Mary Johnson, author of An Unquenchable Thirst; her Writing Beyond the Senses class was offered during the New Hampshire Writers’ Project’s 2011 Writers’ Day conference. It occurred to me that many of the techniques Johnson discussed for “expressing transcendent experiences” are illustrated beautifully in Lee’s poems.

Among the techniques that Johnson mentioned in our class were paradox, metaphor, and “wisdom’s voice,” which (for our Book Club for Poets discussion) I called “rhetoric”—the skillful use of word choice and syntax for artistic effect, especially when the effects resemble those of the Bible and other spiritual texts. For today, I’ll be focusing on rhetoric and paradox.

Let’s look at rhetoric first. In “Persimmons,” a poem in Rose, Lee’s first book, the poet concludes the poem with elements of what Johnson calls “wisdom’s voice”:

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

The Oh recalls other poems and spiritual texts, like the Bible. (A quick online search in the King James Bible shows that “oh” is used ten times in the Book of Job alone, and in eleven of the Psalms, among many other passages.) And, as the Bible often does, this final stanza of the poem uses listing—or “litany,” as Johnson puts it—as a rhetorical device, in this case, a list of noun phrases: the strength, the tense / precision; scent of the hair, texture of persimmons, the weight. The last line also shows how effective variation within repetition can be. Hear what would be lost if Lee had too strictly followed the noun–prepositional phrase pattern in the last thee lines:

scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
the ripe weight in your palm.

This isn’t bad, but the inversion of the phrases in the last line, as Lee wrote it, keeps the pattern from sounding too predictable and also puts the emphasis on the physical sensation of the persimmon in the palm—ending the poem with the ripe weight. This is the phrase and the image that lingers in our minds.

Another poem that the Book Club discussed, “Become Becoming,” also uses repetition and variation very successfully. Many of the lines have similar beginnings:

Wait for evening.
Then you’ll be alone.

Wait for the playground to empty.
Then call out those companions from childhood:

The one who closed his eyes
and pretended to be invisible.
The one to whom you told every secret.
The one who made a world of any hiding place.

And don’t forget the one who listened in silence …

In teaching poetry workshops, I’ve often been surprised by how powerful simple anaphora can be. I’ve asked participants to write five or six short, related sentences—and to then experiment by writing “And” before each one. The pattern, with its echoes of Whitman and the Bible, almost always gives a text gravitas and makes it sound like a poem. The effect is so immediate that it almost seems like cheating. What Lee does here is more complicated than simple anaphora. He repeats syntactical structures (clauses in imperative mood starting with wait; clauses that begin with then; noun phrases starting with the one) but alternates between them. The last line quoted above—“And don’t forget the one who listened in silence”—combines two forms that appear above it: the imperative command in “And don’t forget” echoes the “wait” clauses while the line also includes another “the one who” phrase. Some readers have interpreted the imperative mode and use of lists as Lee’s use of the language of self-help books, and passages in poems like “Immigrant Blues” certainly borrow phrases typical of self-help texts. But the imperative is also the language of prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. / And forgive us our trespasses …

The final lines of “Become Becoming” create a startling metaphor that is also paradoxical:

Then you’ll remember your life
as a book of candles,
each page read by the light of its own burning.

The book is simultaneously read and destroyed—the way our lives are most fully fixed in our minds, that is, comprehended, when we also understand that they are fleeting. Another poem that concludes with paradox is “Falling: The Code”:

… and dream I know

the meaning of what I hear, each dull
thud of unseen apple-

body, the earth
falling to earth

once and forever, over
and over.

How can “the earth fall to earth”? How can something that occurs “once and forever” also occur “over and over”? And yet, if we see the apple as a product of the earth, this falling makes perfect sense. And if we imagine multiple apples falling, what happens “once” in a single apple’s existence occurs “over and over” as each individual apple joins its mates in falling. Earlier in the poem, the narrator has invited us to compare the apples to “bruised bodies,” who, like humans, can feel “the terror of diving through the air” and yet, in daylight, “all look alike.” It’s not much of a leap to imagine individual human lives “falling to earth / once and forever, over / and over.” It’s to Lee’s credit that he allows his readers have this recognition on our own. We get to interpret the imagery instead of having the poet do it for us.

When I read Lee’s poetry, it strikes me afresh that poetry in general—not just mystic poetry—uses language to create experiences beyond the scope of ordinary language. It is through the structures and patterns of language, not just imagery, not just ideas, that we create experiences for our readers.

Poems Cited

Li-Young Lee. “Become Becoming.”  Behind My Eyes (New York: Norton, 2008), 21–22.

———. “Falling: The Code.” Rose (Brockport, N.Y.: 1986), 28–29.

———. “Persimmons.” Rose (Brockport, N.Y.: 1986), 17–19.

© 2012 Martha Carlson-Bradley

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2 thoughts on “Saying the Unsayable—Li-Young Lee’s Poetry

  1. My 15-year-old son chose Falling: The Code to recite to his class. He blew us away with his beautiful reading but was marked down for not saying “1” and “2” as written. He didn’t think those numbers were to be read aloud. any thoughts?

    • In my experience, poets tend to read the numbers of poems that they write in sections. If they don’t want numbers to be read, they’ll often use an asterisk or other “nonreadable” marker instead to separate the sections. You could try to find a video of Li-Young Lee reading the poem to see what his own preference is. You have a pretty sophisticated fifteen-year-old!

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