Sunday, March 30, 2008

Li-Young Lee

Yesterday at 6 p.m., J and I went to hear Li-Young Lee, who spoke at the University of South Carolina in connection with Asian Arts Week. He conducted a master class the day before (which I now wish I had attended). This evening session was supposed to be a sort of preliminary to the later Gamilan Concert, and he had been asked to talk about connections between music and poetry. Fortunately, he didn't adhere to that charge too closely. Instead, he talked about synchonicity and its relation to poetry.

He told a couple good stories of synchronous events and then built a connection between that sort of happening (which we all experience on occasion) and what happens or should happen in a poem. He described the best poems as striking a balance between probability and randomness. That is, a successful poem relies on the reader's perception of the probability of certain patterns or forms or themes--some regularity. But the poet must introduce some random, or seemingly random, elements that violate the regularity. A poem can't be too regular (too reliant on probability) or too random. It's the balance that we seek. A good poem gives the feeling of synchronicity, sort of like what we experience when two complementary events come together surprisingly in our lives.

When, after his 30-minute talk he asked for questions, I asked him to read one or two poems and talk about how those principles were evident in the poem(s). He read "The Hammock," from his collection, Book of My Nights. The poem begins:

When I lay my head in my mother’s lap
I think how day hides the stars,
the way I lay hidden once, waiting
inside may mother’s singing to herself. And I remember
how she carried me on her back
between home and the kindergarten,
once each morning and once each afternoon.

He speaks genuinely and thoughtfully in a quiet voice, and his assertions about poetry are utterly convincing. I only wish there had been time for him to read more poems. We bought two books, including his newest, Behind My Eyes. I heard him read several years ago in Daytona Beach, and yesterday's session was equally as rewarding, though much briefer because of the constraints of the schedule.

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