Case Study: Two Contemporary Poets expand the American Canon…………………….4-5
Quest to Unify the Person: Conversation between Clemente and Shakespeare………..9-13
When a Letter Gets Swept into the Labyrinth of Inside / Outside……………...……13-16
Lee’s Influences: Oracle of Family, Oracle of Memory
Oracle of Memory……………………………………………………………………18-20
The Pittsburgh Poet……………………………………………………………....20-24
The Father of Free Verse……………………..…………………………………...24-26
The Koheleth …………………………………………………………………..…26-28
Conclusion: Immigrant Poetry is American Poetry………………………………29-30
It could be said that poetry bridges the divide of culture and language by speaking to a place embedded in all humans. Through sound work, unfamiliar characteristics or fresh perspective, poetry of a host culture can be informed and shaped by the poetry of immigrants.
In the United States, long associated as “a melting pot”, the traditions of early North and South American poetics continue to inform contemporary authors.
In 1832, French nobleman and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed to the United States to learn and witness the implementation of democracy. He defined Americans as “a very old and enlightened people, who have fallen upon a new and unbounded country, where they may extend themselves at pleasure (158)…” De Tocqueville continued, “Amongst democratic nations, each new generation is a new people. Amongst such nations, then, literature will not easily be subjected to strict rules, and it is impossible that any such rules should ever be permanent (176).” His definition of America still pertains today. The entrepreneurial spirit of the business boardroom seeps into the possibility and expansion in poetics, paved by father of free verse, Walt Whitman. De Tocqueville claimed that the kind of literature developed by the American poet will have a character “different from that which marks the American literary productions” of his time “and that character will be peculiarly its own (174).”
Emma Lazarus detailed the flood of 19th century immigrants to the United States in her poem “The New Colossus”. Penned in 1903, this poem remains etched at the Statue of Liberty referencing Ellis Island, the passageway through which early immigrants made their way into this country. In it, she says, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Today, America continues to hold the allure for immigrants that anything is possible, from achieving riches to a clean start. From social to financial mobility, the liberty and equality established at the beginning of this country’s inception is evidenced in its poetics. De Tocqueville noted the confluence of cultures when he said, “The extreme fluctuations of men, and the impatience of their desires, keep them perpetually on the move; so that the inhabitants of different countries intermingle, see, listen to and borrow from each other. It is not only, then, the members of the same community who grow more alike; communities themselves are assimilated to one another, and the whole assemblage presents to the eye of the spectator one vast democracy, each citizen of which is a nation (181).”
Investigating the effects and additions of distinctly different cultures upon American poetics requires a microscope’s sense of vision and subject. We will evaluate these cultures’ influences and how they have shaped the writing style of the subject. In our discussion, we will consider the work of two contemporary American poets, Alberto Ríos and Li-Young Lee, two authors coming from different corners of cultural thought. We will look in detail at the examples of their craft and consider how the effects of the “melting pot” work in specific poems.
For most Latin Americans, family oozes with a pervasive sense of place. Alberto Ríos was born on the American side of the city of Nogales. This created a workable tension in Ríos of being Mexican-American, living on the border. He says of the border, “As a place, it's simply one more point of geography. But a border has many, many meanings as a symbol, and I base much of my writing on that edge (Whitaker, par 4).” For Ríos, the necessity and mandate of the Latin American experience and insight he craved and lacked by living on the English side of the border drew him into the poetry of South American poet Jorge Luis Borges. Ríos explores magical realism, the dualities of the human experience and importance of place.
For Li-Young Lee, being Chinese and on the run at an early age left an indelible impression. His parent’s marriage, frowned upon by his mother’s upper-crust family, caused them to flee from China to Indonesia. When the Indonesians began purging their land of the Chinese, Lee’s father’s interest in Western culture landed him for a short stint in jail. After his release the family headed to America. This chain of events highlights the allure of poets Walt Whitman and Gerald Stern, along with the influence of the King James Bible through the voice and strong person of his father, also an influence and often the shadow in his poems. In America, Lee and his family could start over. Yet in his first book “Rose” the themes of exile, love and mortality seem to stem from a place of being other. Borrowing the architecture of American poet Gerald Stern, the clash of cultures persists in his poetry, where his identity is in flux.
Ríos and Lee both share a tenable journey toward discovering their identities and the intersection between their cultural heritage and American experience. This journey impacts their incredibly rich work as good examples of melting pot poetics. They also allow the reader to encounter the division and multiplicity of self amid the tug of cultures. Through a comparative analysis of these two poets alongside several master influences, I intend to demonstrate how the immigrant poets’ experience expands American poetry. Using parts 1 and 2 of Ríos’ poem “Clemente’s Red Horse”, we will consider the influence and impact of Borges and borders of inside / outside on Ríos. In Lee’s poem “Always a Rose, part five” we will look at the interplay of influences Stern, Whitman and the King James Version of the Bible on his work.
Inside / Outside: An Inner Voyage to Community
People think I’m crazy-
Nobody else saw the red horse.
They saw only the same horse,
The same beast they had always seen
No matter how hard
I tried to explain.
This carving of a red horse
I hold in my hand,
I made it from memory,
I made it from having seen
A red horse one morning
Remarkable in the distance.
Red- the horse was this color of red,
Bright and near to fire,
Not the simple brown color
That can sometimes turn on itself,
The horse was red
Not before or after this moment,
But it was red at that moment I saw it.
The sun rising shone
A particular light on the horse.
It made a different horse in its place
As it stood and looked at me.
That light made the animal red,
Red on the inside and outside both.
Red was the only way I could see it
From then on.
The horse itself, which was brown,
Was lost to me soon thereafter.
But the red horse-of-the-moment
Where there had been one horse,
Suddenly for me there were two,
But in the same space.
The horse was unexpectedly bigger to me
Though it had not grown.
I hold some of that horse now in my hands.
People think I’m crazy-
Nobody else saw the red horse,
They say, and they don’t want to hear about it.
They think it has nothing to do with them.
They don’t have time.
They’re busy with something of their own, busy
Thinking about the yellow tree
They have inside themselves,
Even after all these years,
The tree that turned butter yellow,
Once, in their childhood,
Yellow altogether one moody dusk,
A sudden color they never forgot.
A yellow tree
Or a shimmering, old-orange hillside-
They each have something.
I have not seen their secrets,
The same way they have not seen the horse,
But I know they have them.
I carved the red horse
To show them what I know.
They only pretend not to recognize it.
Here, Ríos examines the dichotomy of inside / outside through the relationship of the speaker to the surrounding community in “Clemente’s Red Horse”(Ríos, 18-20). In part one of this poem, the speaker stands at odds with his surrounding community. They each see a plain brown horse that only appears red to the speaker. He is able to see something more in the horse than what the community can perceive. This “bright and near to fire” red is the shade of refining. This red horse marks him as one who has special sight, as different. To emphasize that it was in fact a red horse he saw from a distance, he goes so far as to say “Red on the inside and outside both.” This color comes courtesy of the sun shining down on it, transforming the commonplace into something magical. Since Ríos employs couplets, this cuts past the isolation of the speaker being apart from the community in part one to a more unified vision evidenced in part two. The couplets also address the dualities existing in the poem, such as inside / outside and “Where there had been one horse, / Suddenly for me there were two”. He is able to see both horses and the reader learns that the community could see the red horse if they wanted to. Instead, the speaker reveals “They don’t have time. / They’re busy with something of their own”. Here the speaker begins to call up a magical realism alive in the community surrounding them through the color “butter yellow”. He ties this color to their childhood, as “A sudden color they never forgot.” For the community this tie to yellow is only inside of them. The speaker brings what is inside to the outside and for that people think he is crazy. In part two, there is a kind sympathy for the community, where he recognizes in them that connection to a magical realm to which they cannot externally profess, lest they be perceived as crazy and separate from the community. The repetition of the red horse he has marveled at in part one bleeds into part two. He carves this horse as his way “To show them what I know. / They only pretend not to recognize it.” He can see that their insides are the same, even if their outsides differ. This spirit of equality is an important connection for Ríos with a vantage point garnered from living in the gap of the border. From there, both sides can be regarded and understood.
The recurring themes of inside / outside appear to be a struggle in Ríos’ poems, most notably in his collection “The Theater of Night”. He addresses these themes through the natural world, spatial relationships and the relationship to community. One way this shows itself is through the separation evidenced in the inside being cut off from the outside. There is a dichotomy of wanting what is other between the natural world, between man and woman. In the natural world, he describes the cinema of the human world from the vantage point of the bugs which long to be indoors. “Some small creatures have invented saw-teeth for their arms / To hang on more easily, more comfortably… rapt attention / In not wanting to miss a minute of us (Ríos, 111).” When he addresses inside / outside through spatial relationships, his tone is universal as if acknowledging his specific otherness can be appreciated on a macro level.
The world is curious that way.
Sometimes it’s inside out,
Like a pillowcase in the laundry.
Inside out- like how loud people are when they whisper-
That’s when you see all the stitching and the edges,
The things nobody wants to show you, (Ríos , 71).
There was no one in him: behind his face (even the poor
paintings of the epoch show it to be unlike any other) and
behind his words (which were copious, fantastic, and
agitated) there was nothing but a bit of cold, a dream not
dreamed by anyone. At first he thought that everyone was
like himself. But the dismay shown by a comrade to whom
he mentioned this vacuity revealed his error to him and
made him realize forever that an individual should not
differ from the species. At one time it occurred to him that
he might find a remedy for his difficulty in books, and so
he learned the “small Latin, and less Greek,” of which a
contemporary spoke. Later, he considered he might find
what he sought in carrying out one of the elemental rites
of humanity, and so he let himself be initiated by Anne
Hathaway in the long siesta hour of an afternoon in June.
In his twenties, he went to London. Instinctively, he had
already trained himself in the habit of pretending he was
someone, so it should not be discovered that he was no one.
In London, he found the profession to which he had been
predestined, that of an actor: someone who, on a stage, plays at
being someone else, before a concourse of people who
pretend to take him for that other one. His histrionic work
taught him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had
ever known. And yet, once the last line of verse had been
acclaimed and the last dead man dragged off the stage, he
tasted the hateful taste of unreality. He would leave off
being Ferrex or Tamburlaine and become no one again.
Thus beset, he took to imagining other heroes and other
tragic tales. And so, while his body complied with its bodily
destiny in London bawdyhouses and taverns, the soul in-
habiting that body was Caesar unheeding the augur’s warn-
ings, and Juliet detesting the lark, and Macbeth talking on
the heath with the witches who are also the Fates. No one
was ever so many men as that man: like the Egyptian
Proteus he was able to exhaust all the appearances of being.
From time to time, he left, in some obscure corner of his
work, a confession he was sure would never be deciphered:
Richard states that in his one person he plays many parts,
and Iago curiously says “I am not what I am.” The funda-
mental oneness of existing, dreaming, and acting inspired
in him several famous passages.
He persisted in this directed hallucination for twenty
years. But one morning he was overcome by a surfeit and
horror of being all those kings who die by the sword and all
those unfortunate lovers who converge, diverge, and melo-
diously expire. That same day he settled on the sale of his
theater. Before a week was out he had gone back to his
native village, where he recuperated the trees and the
river of his boyhood, without relating them at all to the
trees and rivers- illustrious with mythological allusion and
Latin phrase- which his Muse had celebrated. He had to be
Someone: he became a retired impresario who has made
his fortune and who is interested in making loans, in law-
suits, and in petty usury. It was in character, then, in this
character, that he dictated the arid last will and testament
we know, from which he deliberately excluded any note of
pathos or trace of literature. Friends from London used to
visit him in his retreat, and for them he would once more
play the part of poet.
History adds that before or after his death he found
himself facing God and said: I, who have been so many
men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From out
of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not, either.
I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my
Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dream was you, who,
like me, are many and no one.
Ríos states, “I have always felt that the world—particularly my world—was my ‘literary influence.’ I have always written, essentially, about what I know… I have found a particular affinity with Latin American writers, which is no surprise. Some of these would include Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges (Perlman, par. 1).” In the above poem, “Everything and Nothing” by Borges, his speaker, William Shakespeare also struggles with the lobotomy of inside / outside just as Clemente does in Ríos’ poem “Clemente’s Red Horse”. In the beginning of the poem, Shakespeare knows internally there is something different inside of him but also believes that all men are like him. When his friend points out that he is different from the community, Shakespeare asserts, “an individual should not differ from the species.” He then proceeds to war with himself, wanting to be just like everyone else but allowing himself to be someone different when he steps into the characters he plays. This is why when the play had come to its conclusion “he tasted the hateful taste of unreality. He would leave off / being Ferrex or Tamburlaine and become no one again.” What this says is that he continued to recognize the difference in himself from the community but did not feel at leisure to be distinct in his personal life and felt as though, being at one in the community meant being no one. The dichotomy of inside / outside is revealed “while his body complied with its bodily / destiny in London bawdyhouses and taverns, the soul in- / habiting that body was Caesar unheeding the augur’s warnings” Only through his plays and the characters he could step into did he feel liberty to be someone. This pull drew from him so many different facets of men that of him it was said, “No one / was ever so many men as that man”.
While Clemente pushed against the societal standards that rally against difference, Shakespeare funneled his difference into his work from the vantage point of being part of the community. The fusion of inside / outside that Shakespeare craved and inquired of God was the high price Clemente had carved into his hand. His red horse burnished so brightly that it dispelled the fear of being the outsider, giving him a position of power. This power emanated from his ability to see truth and live within it regardless of the consequences. He could see how the individuals in the community also had this capacity to translate the inner world into the outer through the discussion of the yellow tree from childhood. Interestingly, Shakespeare grew tired of throwing on the guise of difference only in his performances and decided on a new path, which led back to childhood. It was here in his native village, “where he recuperated the trees and the / river of his boyhood, without relating them at all to the / trees and rivers- illustrious with mythological allusion”. The ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary lay deep within him, stemming from childhood. This ability to create magical realism, served as a mantle only thrown off once he became an adult and had to put childish things aside. He could only tap into this side of himself without being suspect, through the roles he would write and play for the entertainment of the community. It would be interesting to see if he could have found the resolution he yearned for in conversing with Clemente at the end of “Everything and Nothing” instead of God.
Ríos’ fascination and analysis of inside / outside in “Clemente’s Red Horse” finds correlation with Borges’ “Everything and Nothing”. In both poems, the speakers convey a sense of never being fully understood. Everything and nothing is to inside / outside where both convey a parallelism of negation. A trademark Borges style element includes using mirror as craft device and the use of labyrinth. Borges says, “That labyrinth was, besides, a symbol of bewilderment, a symbol of being lost in life. I believe that all of us, at one time or another, have felt that we are lost, and I saw in the labyrinth the symbol of that condition (Alifano, 23).” In Borges’ depiction, Shakespeare is always an outsider who can play at being an insider. For Ríos, his speaker could traverse both streams, yet chooses to remain an outsider because to become a community insider requires less authenticity to the person locked inside. No wholeness exists where inside and outside cannot be fused into one mode or thought for Borges’ Shakespeare who “tasted the hateful taste of unreality”. Like the community whom Ríos’ speaker addresses, Borges’ Shakespeare’s inside is separated from his outside. Unlike the community in Ríos’ poem, Shakespeare wants and wars against the fusion of inside and outside. Akin to Ríos’ speaker, in Shakespeare’s head dwelled “a dream not / dreamed by anyone.” The specific usage of “anyone” implies that this dream is exclusive to him, but also connotes a sense of vacuity, negating the self in which the dream is rooted. The speakers of both poems are caught in a labyrinth spanning the inside and outside realms. Ríos’ speaker absorbs the role of outsider but with a sage ability to see past what the eye can only perceive and that life holds more than meets the eye. Shakespeare’s duality of person is absorbed into God’s similar presence of being. The gravity of this personal lobotomy of inside / outside is severe at times in Ríos’ poetry, but in “Clemente’s Red Horse”, the outsider is shown to be more powerful than the community.
My dear Woodhouse,
Your letter gave me a great satisfaction; more on account of its friendliness, than any relish of that matter in it which is accounted so acceptable in the ‘genus irritable’. The best answer I can give you is in a clerklike manner to make some observations on two principle points, which seem to point like indices into the midst of the whole pro and con, about genius, and views and achievements and ambitions and cetera. 1st as to the poetical Character itself, (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself- it has no self- it is everything and nothing- It has no character- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, right or poor, mean or elevated- It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the chamelion Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity- he is continually in for- and filling some other Body- The Sun, the moon, the Sea, and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute- the poet has none; no identity- he is certainly the most unpoetical of all of God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and if I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say I would write no more? Might I not at that very instant [have] been cogitating on the Characters of Saturn and Ops? It is a wretched thing to confess: but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature- how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time an[ni]hilated- not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children: I know not whether I make myself wholly understood: I hope enough so to let you see that no dependence is to be placed on what I said that day.
In the second place I will speak of my views, and of the life I purpose to myself- I am ambitious of doing the world some good: if I should be spared that may be the work of maturer years- in the interval I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer. The faint conceptions I have of Poems to come brings the blood frequently into my forehead- All I hope is that I may not lose all interest in human affairs- that the solitary indifference I feel for applause even from the finest Spirits, will not blunt any acuteness of vision I may have. I do not think it will- I feel assured I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them. But even now I am perhaps not speaking from myself; but from some other character in whose soul I now live. I am sure however that this next sentence is myself. I feel your anxiety, good opinions and friendliness in the highest degree, and am
Yours most sincerely
Borrowing actually is a way of conversing. By utilizing a form, phrase, or image, the poet interacts with his or her influence bringing fresh insight and new direction on the previous strand of conversation. For Borges, the Keats letter provided impetus and foundation upon which “Everything and Nothing” is built. In a letter written by Keats to his friend Richard Woodhouse, dated October 27, 1818, Keats writes about the almost transparent persona of the poet. Borges’ poem addresses the life and person of Shakespeare though he is not named until late in the poem. This confirms what Keats writes Woodhouse when he says, “A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity (Keats).” The poetical character Keats describes possesses “no self- it is every thing and nothing- it has no character- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, right or poor, mean or elevated.” In the end the character and the poet dwell in the gray places showing their chameleon coats when opportunity presents itself. The idea of being every thing and nothing transfixed Borges enough to consider the life of Shakespeare, master poet of dramatic intrigue who might have “as much delight in conceiving an Iago or an Imogen” as Keats postulates.
In the role of actor, a freedom covers Shakespeare until he steps off the stage and the audience has emptied the auditorium. He is no one again and to escape this fate searches for other roles that will give him the grounded certainty that seems to always elude him in “Everything and Nothing.” He has practiced “the habit of pretending he was / someone, so it should not be discovered that he was no one.” Even after he retires from the city and the characters concocted in his imagination, in favor of the country, when friends come to visit, “for them he would once more / play the part of poet.” The reader again perceives the penetrating loneliness of Shakespeare where even in “the profession to which he had been predestined” he is left alone with himself. Of whom it is said, “[n]o one was ever so many men as that man”. Borges’ Shakespeare in the end converses with God, saying “I, who have been so many / men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone.” After a life of costume changes, the artifice has fallen off. Before God, he no longer has to pretend to be Someone and can actually vocalize his life’s struggle of being no one without reservation. God’s response does little to assuage his consternation as God says, “you, who, / like me, are many and no one.” The voice of Shakespeare could be in tandem with the voice of the koheleth in Ecclesiastes when he says, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2).”
Commencing the poem, “Everything and Nothing,” the reader learns that “[t]here was no one in him”. As Shakespeare considers how to be no different from anyone else, he learns that no one is like him. This repetition of “no one” comes from outside of self, as if while he is trying to discern self-awareness, those around him perceive how other he is from them, allowing comprehension of the isolation that Borges’ Shakespeare encounters on a recurring basis. Instead of embracing this otherness, what he takes away is a sense of never wanting to be different and thus throws off the cloak of being Someone for the chance to be anyone resulting in the overarching sense of being no one. By being no one, and an erudite writer, he is able to step into the shoes of anyone, writing characters with multi-dimensionality on stage and lyrics that surpass him for generations.
Borges employs the use of a mirror casting sidelong glances within “Everything and Nothing”. These mirrors give the inside a voice. Borges implements the mirror to show the human condition through Shakespeare, using it as a craft device and a way for Shakespeare to define himself by comparison and contrast. He aims to be reflected in the visage of people he encounters but as he seeks to find himself in them, he finds himself as no one by being everyone.
Viewing the border of inside / outside through these specific pieces from Borges and Keats references back to Ríos’ Clemente. All share the struggle of what it means to be an outsider and what it takes to become an insider. In melting pot poetics, each of these voices informs the others in an act of solidarity. Being an immigrant adds in another layer contributing to otherness that would easily keep someone physically on the outside. That is, they would be kept on the outside until that solidarity emerges cognizant that an otherness exists in each of us and can supersede the differences, instead unifying in this one common element.
Let us now consider our second case, another immigrant poet who came to the United States from a cultural setting in a part of the world with influences so different from our first case. As a young boy, Li-Young Lee’s main influence showered down from his father. While classically trained in Chinese poetry, his father’s love of the Bible resulted in “sweet learning”. This consisted of sitting on his father’s lap as his father would break a butterscotch disk on the nearby table, allowing him to suck on it while drinking in lessons from the Bible. Lee cites the importance of the King James Bible as an influence on his work. “My father would recite Chinese poems, and when he would turn away, I would notice that he was weeping. He was a minister, so he would read from the King James Bible on Sunday mornings. I loved that, too. It never occurred to me that there was any difference between the poetry he was reciting and the poetry in the King James Bible (Chang, 2).” It is not surprising that he felt such a connection between both Chinese classical poetry and that found in the King James Bible, since both are rife with parallelism. He also connects elements of Chinese culture with images of his personal history and the music of the Bible to give a blended style that is American and multi-cultural.
Oracle of Family
The simplicity and power pervasive in Lee’s poem “Rose” also make reference to classical Chinese poetry through the depiction of the family. In his poem “Eating Together”, he constructs a vignette that sets the mood for an indirect truth to be revealed. He gives just enough detail to entice the reader with the smell and taste of the meal being eaten by the family. What is left out is as important as what he says, “my mother who will / taste the sweetest meat of the head, / holding it between her fingers / deftly, the way my father did weeks ago.” His mother has replaced the father and she bears the authority and expertise shared by the husband who has died several weeks past. She also eats the head of the fish, considered in Chinese culture to be the best part of the fish. This meal is inherently Chinese, but in today’s growing culture, these ingredients could be found in any American kitchen. The whole family gathers for the meal and in this ritual resides a silent memorial to the father. In “I Ask My Mother to Sing”, he resembles the new generation, the outsider to his mother and grandmother’s recollections of their homeland. Though he has never visited Peking, their song transports him into his own depiction of place. Where his father might have “swayed like a boat” or his mother and grandmother have “stood on the great Stone Boat to watch / the rain begin” he is able to float above the water. In the vantage point of imagination, he watches “how the waterlilies fill with rain until / they overturn” like small boats releasing the rain and rocking back and forth. He is part of their history, and though his participation may not incorporate the same memories, he adds to their memories by expanding them beyond the personal into the universal. This is the apex of the immigrant poet.
To understand further the position of an immigrant poet in a literary culture of melting pot poetics, it is necessary now to quote in full part 5 from Li-Young Lee’s poem “Always a Rose,” and also “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees”, a poem by Gerald Stern, whose poetry has greatly influenced Li-Young Lee.
Listen now to something human.
I know moments measured
by a kiss, or a tear, a pass of the hand along a loved one’s face.
I know lips that love me,
that return my kisses
by leaving on my cheek their salt.
And there is one I love, who hid her heart behind a stone.
Let there be a rose for her, who was poor,
who lived through ten bad years, and then ten more,
who took a lifetime to drain her bitter cup.
And there is one I love, smallest among us-
let there be a rose for him-
who was driven from the foreign schoolyards
by fists and yelling, who trembled in anger in each re-telling,
who played alone all the days,
though the afternoon trees were full of children.
And there is one I love who limps over this planet,
dragging her steel hip.
Always a rose for her.
And always a rose for one I love, lost
in another country from whom I get year-old letters.
And always a rose for one I love
exiled from one republic and daily defeated in another,
who was shunned by brothers and stunned by God,
who couldn’t sleep because of voices,
who raised his voice, then his hand
against his children, against his children
going. For him a rose, my lover of roses and of God,
who taught me to love the rose, and fed me roses, under whose windows
I planted roses, for whose tables I harvested roses,
who put his hand on my crown and purified me
in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,
who said, Get out! You’re no longer my son!
who never said, Forgive me. Why do I die? Hold me, hold me.
My father the Godly, he was the chosen.
My father almighty, full of good fear.
My father exhausted, my beloved.
among the roses and thorns.
My father rose, my father thorn.
Compare the above cadences and rhythms of Li-Young Lee’s lyric to this poem by Gerald Stern:
What I took to be a man in a white beard
turned out to be a woman in a silk babushka
weeping in the front seat of her car;
and what I took to be a seven-branched candelabrum
With the wax dripping over the edges
turned out to be a horse’s skull
with its teeth sticking out of the sockets.
It was my brain fooling me,
sending me false images,
turning crows into leaves
and corpses into bottles,
and it was my brain that betrayed me completely,
sending me entirely uncoded material,
for what I thought was a soggy newspaper
turned out to be the first Book of Concealment, written in English,
and what I thought was a grasshopper on the windshield
turned out to be the Faithful Shepherd chewing blood,
and what I thought was, finally, the real hand of God
turned out to be only a guy wire and a
pair of broken sunglasses.
I used to believe the brain did its work
through faithful charges and I lived in sweet surroundings for the brain.
I thought it needed blue skies, white breasts, green trees,
to excite and absorb it,
and I wandered through the golf courses, dreaming of pleasure
and struggled through the pool dreaming of happiness.
Now if I close my eyes I can see the uncontrolled waves
closing and opening of their own accord
and I can see the pins sticking out in unbelievable places,
and I can see the two lobes floating like two old barrels on the Hudson.
I am ready to reverse everything now
for the sake of the brain.
I am ready to take the woman with the white scarf
in my arms and stop her moaning
and I am ready to light the horse’s teeth,
and I am ready to stroke the dry leaves.
For it was kisses, and only kisses,
and not a stone knife in the neck that ruined me,
and it was my right arm, full of power and judgment,
and not my left arm twisted backwards to express vagrancy,
and it was the separation that I made,
and not the rain on the window
or the pubic hairs sticking out of my mouth,
and it was not really New York falling into the sea,
and it was not Nietzsche choking on an ice-cream cone,
and it was not the president lying dead again on the floor,
and it was not the sand covering me up to my chin,
and it was not my thick arms ripping apart an old floor,
and it was not my charm, breaking up an entire room.
It was my delicacy, my stupid delicacy,
and my sorrow.
It was my ghost, my old exhausted ghost,
that I dressed in white, and sent across the river,
weeping and weeping and weeping
inside his torn sheet.
The Pittsburgh Poet
Upon reading these two poems together, one thinks that an act of inheritance in poetry comes through the dynamic moment of recognizing something that resonates. In “Always a Rose”, Lee’s long poem of 10 parts, the reader can discern the influence of Pittsburgh poet Gerald Stern and also Walt Whitman. Comparing part five of Lee’s “Always a Rose” with Stern’s “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees”, certain similarities arise showing the indelible impression Stern has made on Lee’s work where these two poems incorporate humanity, defining, and elements of form.
It is tempting to say that poet Gerald Stern attempts to bring all of his humanity to his poems in a way not unlike poetic pioneer Walt Whitman; Stern’s compassion for the human condition transcribes itself into his poems’ personality, anecdotes and asides viewable in “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees.” The humanity Stern proffers is not always kind, which actually shows the depth of his attachment to humanity by caring enough to criticize and admonish it when it has gone awry. Therein lies the profundity of his work. In Lee’s poem “Always a Rose, part 5” he begins by saying, “Listen now to something human.” This address perks up the ears of the readers because what will unfold will have universal application. His personal narrative becomes absorbed into the larger story of humanity. What is revealed is a glimpse at a life history that builds toward revealing a complicated relationship between father and son. The depth of love that tethers son to father builds toward the end of this section. It is as if the entire poem is leading to this pinnacle moment where he is able to say, “My father rose, my father thorn.” A trademark theme of Stern’s is remembrance. As he remembers, this also connects with his Judaism, a culture steeped in rich history and terrific loss, where remembering is both legacy and mandate. In his foreword to Lee’s collection, “Rose”, Stern defines “The rose, which is history, the past, a ‘doomed profane flower’ to be adored and destroyed (Lee 10).” Lee is able to write the past because it no longer has the bite of the present.
Stern uses the act of defining in many of his poems and often a tone of authority, but brings himself down to the level of the everyday person in “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees. An example of his defining is “For it was kisses, and only kisses, / and not a stone knife in the neck that ruined me,” where he is re-emphasizing for himself “what is” from what “is not.” These lines of parallelism suit his purpose of definition through a built-in mode of comparison. Additionally, Stern indicates how defining “my brain that betrayed me completely,” provided the context for the renewal of his life taking him from “dreaming” to “I can see.” By the end of the poem, the reader is underneath a sheet that is torn “weeping” with the ghost of the man who in the beginning seemed so certain even in his uncertainty. Defining what “it was” from what “it was not” continues to the end of the poem craning his proximity closer to the woman in the babushka at the beginning. In so doing, he casts himself down with a woman whose piteous persona he initially mistakes for a man. Lee establishes defining and tone of authority of his subject through what he knows and how he describes the ones to whom he wants to give roses. He dismantles and deconstructs the rose several different ways, playing with its meaning, at times referring to the flower and other times referring to the past tense of “rise.” For this reason, there is a hopefulness in the hard imagery he provides of the woman “who lived through ten bad years, and then ten more, who took a lifetime to drain her bitter cup.” In fact, the people to whom he wants to give roses each have something difficult through which they have lived. He describes his brother “who played alone all the days, / though the afternoon trees were full of children.” The rose becomes an acknowledgement of those hard moments. It takes on the image of death, where it is placed graveside, as an act of remembrance. It incites each person to whom it’s given that they have risen above their situation. This poem is an anthem of life and its strength lies in the juxtaposition of hard and soft. Lee’s definition of rose transcends the flat terrain, showing the multi-dimensionality of life.
ELEMENTS OF FORM
The liberation of unrhymed lines gives way to play of sound within lines, separate from the traditional forms. Although Stern’s poem is by no means in a traditional form, it does stay within its own self-imposed confines. Sections one and two both consist of seven statements of inequality: “What I took to be” ends up “turned out to be”, then they are separated by six lines of discursive thought on the antics being played by the brain. These sections are followed by four lines which stipulate what the poet “can see”, building up to the six lines of “I am ready” statements. Then comes the turn, hearkening back to seven more parallel statements of inequality, before heading into a list of six lines. In these last six lines, he winnows down to the truth achieved through his meandering. Stern sets up two sections of biblical parallelism both encapsulating seven lines each. The first section evaluates the narrator’s vantage point of “what I took to be” and finds it wanting. The second section considers the narrator’s knowledge of the world around him and as he processes it in physical terms, what is revealed to be real consists of abstract and spiritual elements, to which he is blind. In biblical terms, seven is considered the most complete and holy number. It bears much significance. In contrast, the section bridging the two sections of seven and following the last section of seven both consist of six lines. This number in biblical terms typically is identified with that which is against God, the most incomplete number. In both sections of six lines, the brain’s fallacy is addressed directly as the narrator states, “it was my brain that betrayed me completely” and then later thinking it needed certain positive stimuli to engage it. In the second dream section an unspoken acknowledgement reveals that all these things he believed are a mirage. Lee’s poem relies strongly upon anaphora, something of which Stern is also fond. Lees’ anaphora occur in duets, stealthily enough perhaps as a way to kick-start the associations in the eye and brain as well as keeping the cadence in check. The duets include “I know”, “Let there be a rose”, “[a]nd there is one I love”, [a]nd always a rose” The repetition of rose almost becomes incantatory. The sound work of the anaphora ground the poem before the upcoming repetitions and descriptions bring a little air underneath it, revealing a kite ready to alight. The back-to-back repetition “against his children, against his children” forces the eye to stop and go back to reading the last phrase in the line above because of the urgency of the repetition. The second repetition becomes enjambed into the next line. This gives both a sense of outrage at the person who raised both voice and hand “against his children” as well as a quickly revealed consequence of this action. Another repetition “Hold me, hold me” is inserted at the end of a phrase almost as an afterthought. This comes shortly after pushing the son away, then bemoans the lasting and eternal separation that will split them. The poem ends on a vulnerable note, completing the cycle and is almost a talisman against death. Spoken aloud, it is almost as if his reversing his relationship with his son can keep death at bay. Instead, to this reader’s ears it sounds like an insertion by the poet- hand of the son and not the actual father’s response, which is totally legitimate in poetry. The final repetitions at the end of the poem, “My father” address his father, but also carry a religious overtone, sounding like the beginning of a prayer to God the father. These repetitions take on a canonical prayer of benediction laced with scorn. Memories lay entrenched in the anaphora present in this poem that bear the heaviness of loss and gravitas of life with the possibility of resurrection. The last five lines exhibit brevity in contrast with the preceding lines. Situated in the middle of “Always a Rose”, part 5 is the hinge from which the poem swings.
Father of Free Verse
At this point, it is necessary to ask ourselves about Gerald Stern’s own master influence, Walt Whitman, and his influence on Stern’s student Li-Young Lee. The first line of Lee’s “Always a Rose, part five” seems to echo Walt Whitman, when he says, “Listen now to something human.” It would have been interesting to see Lee finish the first line of part five with a colon instead of a period. Lee explains what he calls the “tri-axial relationship” in poems he cherishes as having an “audience, the poet, and this third party… Whitman’s America… Then there’s the poet; then there’s the audience. If any of that relationship is missing, it seems to me that the poems are less rich. I don’t know who’s talking to whom (Chang 3).” When Whitman first wrote “Song of Myself” he walked so far outside of what poetry had ever achieved that he established a path for future generations of poets. This foundation of free verse opened up a berth of expression ushered in through the newfound freedom of verse unfettered. An ambitious poem celebrating humanity, “Song of Myself” seeks to address every human in an overarching address of leveling humanity. His free verse is crucial to communicating the breadth of his point of equality and his love of humanity through elements of form. The sensuality and earthiness of Walt Whitman intrigued Li-Young Lee through his influence upon former teacher Gerald Stern.
Throughout “Song of Myself”, Whitman gives many examples of how he is like the people of whom he writes. By scripting his verse in the new form of free verse, he demonstrates that there is room for all kinds of people in the world he describes. No boundaries or meter exist to separate or keep humanity bound. He often adopts a lofty tone and view of self, as noted, “I know I am august (Whitman 46).” While he demonstrates a high view of himself, sometimes equal to God, at other moments he is on par with the common people mentioned in the poem. Equality with a God promoted during his lifespan as far removed from the human situation, Whitman proclaims, “[d]ivine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from (Whitman 51).” Through Whitman’s act of defiance in assuming the lofty position of being on level with God, he also invites the fellows spoken about in the poem into this reality as well, since his first stanza asserts, “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you (Whitman 27).” Stern captures the reader’s attention by speaking in a tone that directly addresses the reader and establishes moments of equality. Stern’s poem “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees” speaks to the human condition of needing to get back to the simple things to really appreciate the fullness and beauty of life. Whitman describes a few examples of humans remembering their previous suffering, in saying, “[t]hese become mine and me every one, and they are but little, / I become as much more as I like (Whitman 70).” He calls out to the silversmith, the opium eater and the clean-haired Yankee girl as a way to acknowledge they are alike. They are a thread in the fabric that weaves America together into a rich quilt. He razes class to unify a nation. “Democratic poetry happens every time a reader takes up Whitman’s invitation to be his equal (Sommer 38).”
ELEMENTS OF FORM
In “Blue Skies, White Breasts, Green Trees”, Whitman’s influence upon Stern is seen in a modern sensibility of craft elements borrowed and reinterpreted. Whitman uses the biblical parallelism found in Ecclesiastes to set a structure for his message of equality and praise of life, as herald ushering in the vast riches and beauty of America. He establishes himself as speaker by using parallelism, “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise (Whitman 42).” He uses parallelism throughout sections of “Song of Myself” finding the weight of two statements greater in merit when positioned in his list poem. He underscores his persona of narrator through parallelism, “I am the poet of the body, / And I am the poet of the soul. / The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell / are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself… the latter I / translate into a new tongue (Whitman 46).”
Having considered the question of influences between the work of Li-Young Lee, Gerald Stern and Walt Whitman, one is tempted to ask a reasonable question: who influenced Walt Whitman? This question leads us to the meat of the book of Ecclesiastes, which aims to convey the importance of embracing life to the hilt. The writer is referred to as the koheleth, Hebrew for teacher or preacher. Thus he measures and examines life to impart a great truth. Life possesses a rhythm unto which there is a time for everything. Once acknowledged, the striving can cease, giving way to an almost Buddhist sensibility. Historically, the writer of Ecclesiastes has been attributed as Solomon, considered to be the wisest man alive during his time and abundant in personal wealth. He spent his life looking for the answer to the purpose of life and turns up empty. Though he possessed much, he sought to understand and digest the situation of humanity.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the koheleth, seeks to advise on how to live a good life. Hard times are juxtaposed with the good through biblical parallelism used in the early part of chapter three. In the end, the koheleth cannot be persuaded that anything exists in life, little more than vanity. Ecclesiastes speaks of shared humanity among beast and humans, positing, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast (Ecclesiastes 3:19).” In this way Whitman and the koheleth agree that all of humanity is in the same boat. In “Always a Rose”, Lee interweaves the intent of Ecclesiastes 3:1 that states, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” There is a sense of timeliness to the struggles in the poem and to their end, as well as the possibility of redemption.
In the poems profiled here, Lee, Stern and Whitman join the koheleth in tones of authority as they define the context for the reader. The Ecclesiastical writer proclaims, “I said to myself, ‘Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them (Ecclesiastes 1:16).’” What the imperative, direct tense does for Lee, Stern, Whitman and the koheleth of Ecclesiastes is to confer upon them authority, as if they will impart a great truth and beseech those within earshot to heed their truth. By varying and overlapping his anaphora in several moments, Stern lays the form in which the poem flows. The phrases “What I took to be” and “what I thought was” guide Stern into a deeper sense of knowledge born from perceiving one thing and discovering in fact an entire other in its place. In this way, the poem also hearkens back to Ecclesiastes, where the koheleth attempts to define all the things that “are meaningless” or “vanity”. They both speak with knowledge born through experience, sharing what they know so the reader will not have to personally set out on that path.
ELEMENTS OF FORM
The influence of Ecclesiastes also appears in the lines of biblical parallelism to which three parts of the Stern poem find their form. The last element of convergence for these poets is parallelism. Ecclesiastes employs it through the comparison / contrast list of life activities. Even though most of the book dwells on the vanity of life, chapter three’s parallel statements reinforce the predominant message of enjoying life while it is around to be lived. People can expect “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace (Ecclesiastes 3:8).” These four poems converse with each other and learn from each other as they guide their readers to what is shared by all humans, through the use of humanity, defining and elements of form.
By exploring Stern, Whitman and Ecclesiastes, the reader can perceive their master influences in Li-Young Lee’s “Always a Rose, part 5”. Through Lee, the commonalities shared by such varied perspectives are melded together. Connecting with humanity on a basic level seeks to bring resolution and fusion to the inside and outside of all peoples. This leveling effect brings the immigrant into the folds of the pivotally essential American experience laid as a foundation by Whitman where all men are equal and necessary.
Coming from a Latin American and Chinese perspective is not enough for Ríos and Lee to penetrate American poetics with their contribution. Their knowledge and execution of craft remains paramount to ushering in elements from their parents’ cultures. Without wanting to purely read or discuss their work from an ethnocentric stance, both poets incorporate their cultural heritage in contextual instances. Context makes room for the new perspectives. As each poem does not hinge upon the cultural, the cultural often quietly informs the shaping of the poem as well as the silent voice of influence. To be influenced is to have the ghostwriter manipulate the mind or curve the pen in a particular slant. It is to be infected with language, form and a sense of rightness shared between mentor and student. Influences can be both living and dead, but this does not change the importance they bring to new poetics. A string binds past, present and future into a family tree rooted in influence.
For Ríos and Lee, they write accounts of insider/outsider. While their particular shared vantage point speaks to other immigrant experiences, it can also be understood by non-immigrant Americans who feel isolated and on a quest of self-discovery. As immigrants in America, they bring voices that are distinctly first generation in their multi-cultural scope. Lee and Ríos both share a struggle with self-identification where their parents’ culture is the phantom limb dangling from their bodies, making them grotesquely beautiful. They dwell in the middle land of never being fully “American” and never fully “Chinese” or “Latin American”. This third culture that hovers over them, creates opportunity for expansion, and a duality of being able to toggle two cultures simultaneously that expands American poetics by shuttling it into another realm not arrived at except through the struggle of cultures rubbing against one another. This is melting pot poetics at its finest. The great crush of immigrants in this era keeps immigration policy a forefront issue with which current presidential candidates must contend. The American experience is stretched through the poetry and storytelling of Ríos in “Clemente’s Red Horse,” and Lee’s acute sense of loss in “Always a Rose, part 5”. They show the broad parameters of what the American experience looks like. The elasticity of America is evidenced in their work.
Whitman admonished poets of his present and unseen future in “Song of Myself”, “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand / … nor look through the eyes of the dead… nor / feed on the specters in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself (Whitman 28).” Immigrant poets bring their unique perspective, voice and ear to the blank page. Though Lee and Ríos are from very different cultural backgrounds, they both grapple with what it means to be an immigrant in America who is also American. While Ríos lived in a border town, Lee spent his childhood between the borders, as he mentions in one poem, “from Oligarchy to republic”. They bring the flavors of their backgrounds to American poetry in a way that is similar. This similarity endows American culture and literature by adding new ingredients to a melting pot poetic that only becomes more delicious and rich by expanding what can be done with the English language.
Lee’s brother playing alone near where “trees were full of children” could be in cahoots and conversation with Ríos’ grandfather Clemente, when he says in “Clemente’s Red Horse”, “People think I’m crazy- / nobody else saw the red horse, / They say, and they don’t want to hear about it. / They think it has nothing to do with them (Ríos 19).” The isolation spoken aloud by both poets is something from which Americans choose to turn away. This then further creates divide in America instead of dialogue and opens the door to fear of the unknown. In order to fight terrorism in America, first, the inner terror of the other that plagues Americans today needs to be dealt with or at least acknowledged. To allow disconnection to persist is to have strangers living in a strange land, with loyalties that are divided. Poetry gives latitude for personal expression and opportunity for peace, through seeking to understand and spend time with the different perspectives that walk along American sidewalks daily. In the re-creation and re-definition of strong ties to culture, it is America that is strengthened through the diversity of voices joining Whitman singing through melting pot poetics.
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