Saturday, June 23, 2012

Li-Young Lee -- notes from 2004 Indiana University Summer Writers' Conference

In the summer of 2004, I went through many changes, and this IU conference seemed like freedom!

Here are the notes I took in Li-Young Lee's poetry workshop:

Poetry is the highest form of mathematics. It is the mother of mathematics. It is about counting, timing at a deep level.

Poetic mind is the mother of all minds.

Poems try to get to the great "don't know." You dismantle the last poem to get to the next one.


5 parts to a poem: lineation, syntax, diction, argument, and figuration/trope

Poems are the displaced speech of people. Implied by a speaker.

Poetry exists at the limits of the will. Poems are needed when the will breaks down.

Poetry is daemonized (divine) speech. Psyche repressed.

Poetic knowledge is intuitive knowledge of the self's origins.

Poetry enacts the history of speech.

Poetry's language is a model of cognition. Communication is a by-product.
Exploration and cognition. Poetry is saturated in its own source--a double medium. The medium in poetry is also silence, not just language.

Poetry enacts a personal will and is daemonized--the divinization of the will.
You give up a personal will to give in to a greater will. It's like riding a horse that is out of control.

Dickinson--shattered. Leda and the swan--the swan is divine. Sing, muses--the
muses are singing. the human does not speak.
The poet goes to the edge of the mortal will to find the immortal will--it's not theirs.

More consciousness is found in poetry.

List of poets to examine: Frost, Dickinson, Neruda, Lorca, Plath, Ruekyser.


The subvocal range--murmur. Figure and ground give figuration. When the voice speaks, it's conscious of its own ground, which is silence. It is difficult to maintain. Figuration is utterance.

An end stopped line is highly resoled. Enjambment created contradiction, jeopardy, and violence. In Roethke, the contradiction is within the end-stopped line. In Frost, we like to see legitimate danger with rescue.
Roethke: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see." It is end-stopped, but tension is in the middle.

The voice before society is innocence. The voice after society is wisdom. They
meet at the same place (like New Year's Eve).

Every poem claims scriptural authority. Scripture claims its existence from reality itself. Since reality and speech come from the same source, the poem should enact so the reader comes to the conclusion.

Representation is repressing one thing to show another. The best poems also show the oppressed thing. The beauty, with a tinge--to show the whole reality.

The mission is disillusionment--free of illusion. To show primordial reality.

There's only one subject in poetry: death. When we breathe in, our body's filled with life/nutrients, firm. The feeding--the "I" affirmed in silence.
The dying breath, all human speech. The poem is a musical score for speech.
The more I talk, the more meaning gets divulged. Meaning increases in opposite ratio to vitality; meaning increases as life decreases. Speech is a paradigm for living. Our medium is the dying breath. What does it mean? I don't know. But it puts us in jeopardy. The more our work gets heft.

The sense of an "I" has to be undermined to make meaning. The ego must be displaced. Ego = "I" that affirms the body. For meaning, the ego must be lost.
How do we ransom the dying breath? Through different contents in the poem. How
do we get daemonism? By displacing "me"--presence for presence. Disillusioned,
uncovering, apocalyptic--apocalypt--to reveal.

Poetry is daemonized speech. Whitman--America and God. Dickinson--Death, God.

The problem is, it enhances the human figure. Daemonized, divine, but there is
the displacement of the "I."

Jacob and the angel: he leaves everything for solitude. He wrestles the angel
to get a blessing. Jacob becomes Israel--from one to many beings. But he is
crippled by the angel.

Plath--the psyche is manifold. Deep with terror. The human figure is shattered.

The oral is the proving ground for poems, or else it is just writing.

A poem has three bodies:
stressed syllables--heard
unstressed--barely heard
silence--the real body

Like architecture, it's easy to say the materials, but the real medium is space. Vertical infinitude--gothic cathedrals. The mystery is why we don't have the same awe outside. It takes the architect to say "this is your primordial condition."

So the true medium for a poem is silence--we write for the silence at the end.

The psyche has three bodies:
--manifest body
--barely manifest body
--unmanifest body--the real one

Poetry has to be metaphysical--the approach to reality. The poet and audience
are on the horizontal; the daemon is on the vertical. We have gotten rid of daemons, so if we are only social people, where are we? No hope; no equality.
So writing must turn transcendent. Down (Rilke) or up (Dickinson). We need the
daemonized, the spiritual. He works in a warehouse--he has no social attachment, or wants it.


A poet's development crystalizes human development. The cultural dialogue is all horizontal. The canon is horizontal. We need to get past that, to a vertical. The dialogue with death and eternity, not culture.

Language is horizontal. Lineage. Every poem is a form of scripture.
Speech whose origin coincides with the origin of reality. The cosmos is speech.
Vibration is speech.

Precision isn't one-to-one, it's one-to-all. A poem is the locally-inflected voice of the "all." Anything resides in the center of a mandala of a totality, of causes.

Who knows the things that brought the poem? Dickinson--inflects the awe with a
series of words. Not naming everything. Whitman: his math was off. An aesthetic error--he can't count the grass blades. He should have realized "There's a lot of grass here!"

We enact the deepening of the psyche. The audience can experience it.

Interested in being whole vs. being good. We want all three bodies of the poem there. We need a new hierarchy:
psyche -- daemonized and conscious of its source

A poem that discloses this experience. It's not our job to copy the culture--it's to propose a deeper personhood. The interior. The daemonized voice.

If you can see something, it is already past. Like light, words, the immediate past. The night is the deep past. We are falling back at 3 million cells a minute. Breathe in--"thank you." Breathe out--"good bye." So we shouldn't copy the culture. Culture is infinite inwardness with ruthlessness--forget it.


As poets, we belong to the cult of words. The five parts of the poem (line, syntax/sentence, diction, argument, figuration/texture)--our interest depends on these. Interest--inner being.

Reading is a form of libido.

Poem = cosmos
Ground = chaos

We privilege a certain thing. Why do we privilege certain words? Higher figure ratio. The ratio between figure vs. ground is higher in a poem. The blank page is a symbol of pure potential. The poem starts to pull material out of the psyche (psyche = world). There is an integration. There is also a high level of differentiation. It takes on a singularity--"this poem" vs. all other poems. Poems we remember have high figurative ratios. The poem is the figure. The page is the ground.

Poems are paradigms of the psyche. Matches how the mind works.

Language works in relation. A poem is a relationship between daemon/passion and the audience. Not to the audience, but overheard by. The author is a trustee, unnamed. Aware of, but not to.

Genuine mystery is not vague.

Poems bring issues of being and non-being.

To represent something, we oppress another. The crisis is enacted by society. You can't leave out the perceiver.

Writing poems is the supreme form of yoga. Find the center and the poem is the
reverberation. Hard hits equal longer poems. The mandala is a paradigm
of the totality of the poem.

Yoga, from yoke (sanskrit): link, connection, remembrance, bond. Same as religio (Latin). Link to what? Our original condition, sacred, saturated presence. Everything is alive, holy, linked with life, cosmos, cosmic presence. Whatever we do in emembrance is religious. We could sit in a church without yogic condition, without the sacred. Yogic condition is complete presence, openness, gratitude. We use language in its most saturated condition. Poetry is the act of that condition. When we make art, it's yoga.


Three pleasures of poetry:
--felt changes in consciousness (volta)
--archaism, priority, privilege

The difference is figurative ground--post-catastrophic. Poetic speech differentiates itself from other speech. Priority, because it has sources older than itself. All words reference to the absolute word, which is a mystery.

Poetry is a picture of the impeded will. Is there enough impediment? The will has to come up with strategies to say what it has to say: "Sing, muse..." A mortal human cannot speak immortal words. It's an exchange of presence.

Every poem is the first and last poem you will ever write. Every poem has totalization: this is it!

There is a beloved in Western poetry. How does the beloved come off: enhanced, deepened, enlarged? The total beloved should be accounted for.

Music/song is an ordering principle of the universe.

When we are writing a poem, we should never want to write another poem--this is it! A great poem is world-destroying and world-creating. The world before is gone; the world in the poem is what we have. Of course, this is impossible, but it doesn't stop us. The poem will change the whole universe! "Where does the threshold lead you?"

Stanza enacts continuity and discontinuity with breaks.

Intuitive knowledge is the deepest form of knowledge we have.

When something seems red, it is actually everything but red--it absorbs everything except red, which bounces off. Am I representing the thing in the poem? Am I projecting or am I letting the poem talk to me? We participate in re-presentation. We get in a predictiment. Is there any way to represent free of the observation?

The fallacy: all logic is tautological. Rational thinking leads to proof.

Relating to someone:
--purely horizontal (culture), there is no relationship with them
--purely vertical, a mutual divinity, is the only possible relationship

Past the pentameter, something happens. While still breathing out, the "I" gets woozy. The loss of "I" is undermined. Prophets use long lines, past the pentameter. Prophetic poetry uses long lines. The human figure is the count to ten.

The mind works with integrating and differentiating. Ambiguity integrates. Differentiating categorizes.

Poetry is a vocation. We are called to be poets by a shadowy voice.

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