Li-Young Lee   Leave a comment

Check out this excerpt from an interview with poet Li-Young Lee at


Since my father died, it seems that I see his entire life disclosed in a different way than I could before and with more clarity on the meaning of that life.

Lee: I had a teacher who early on tried to convince me that writing poems was akin to practicing meditation, or taking up a path like that. And I didn’t understand that, and he kept saying how language is a form of presence. And somehow language is infinitely referential. Which is exactly the opposite of certain schools of thought which say that language doesn’t refer to anything. So the practice of any linguistic art is basically the practice of a certain kind of presence—being present to language in a particular way. I didn’t quite understand it until after he died.

Chang: In “Black Petal,” you write of your brother’s absence, “He died too young to learn his name. / Now he answers to Vacant Boat, / Burning Wing, My Black Petal.” Do you think that absence has a presence, too?

Lee: I love that question. I’ve been thinking about something for a long time, and I keep noticing that most human speech—if not all human speech—is made with the outgoing breath. This is the strange thing about presence and absence. When we breath in, our bodies are filled with nutrients and nourishment. Our blood is filled with oxygen, our skin gets flush; our bones get harder—they get compacted. Our muscles get toned and we feel very present when we’re breathing in. The problem is, that when we’re breathing in, we can’t speak. So presence and silence have something to do with each other.

The minute we start breathing out, we can talk; speech is made with the outgoing, exhaled breath. The problem that is poses, though, is that as we exhale, nutrients are leaving our bodies; our bones get softer, our muscles get flaccid, our skin starts to loosen. You could think of that as the dying breath. So as we breath out, we have less and less presence.

When we make verbal meaning, we use the dying breath. In fact, the more I say, the more my meaning is disclosed. Meaning grows in opposite ratio to presence or vitality. That’s a weird thing. I don’t know why God made us that way.

It’s a kind of paradigm for life, right? As we die, the meaning of our life gets disclosed. Maybe the paradigm for living is encoded or embedded in speech itself, and every time we speak we’re enacting on a small-scale, microcosmic level the bigger scale of our lives. So that the less vitality we have, the more the meaning of our lives get disclosed.


Posted February 18, 2011 by strongjacksonpoet54 in Uncategorized

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