Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Totality of Causes: Li-Young Lee and Tina Chang in Conversation

From The Academy of American Poets:

Chang: I read in an interview that you stopped using the word "God" and started using the word "Universe."

Lee: When I look at my shoe—or this cup, or this couch, or this jacket—if I think about how these things came to be, I'd have to account for the infinite net of circumstances, causes, and conditions that make each thing. We might as well say that each thing is a shape of the totality of causes. This is one shape of the totality of causes, that is another. But they look different.

And it seems to me that a poem is nothing less than that. It's not me who writes the poem, it's whether or not I had coffee that morning or did not, whether I ate red meat or did not, or whether I heard my sister singing in her room or did not. If you try to account for poem, you might think, it was that incident that I saw and that I wrote about, but it isn't. It's the temperature in the air, it's whether or not you had any sleep.

There's no way to account for any thing or any event. If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What's another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me—that I can't possibly fathom—but am embedded in.

I think, too, that this is why the language in poetry is much more dense than in other conditions. Because, I think, the poet is actually experiencing the totality of causes. The poem somehow seems to have a 360-degree or spherical view of things. I think that's what makes poetic consciousness. That is, the consciousness that a poem imparts differs from other forms of consciousness.

Chang: In regard to writing poetry, Stanley Kunitz, said, "You have to move into areas of the self that remain to be explored, and that's one of the problems in maturing as a poet. By the age of fifty, the chances are that you've explored all the obvious places. The poems that remain for you to write will have to come out of your wilderness." By wilderness, he means the untamed self, all the chaos behind the locked door. Do you feel that you've explored all the obvious places or that you have more to discover?

Lee: Well, I feel both. I do feel that, as a yoga that one practices, writing poems is like any meditative path. You move through your own psychology, and then you move beyond your psychology. At that point it gets a little rough, because you have to posit something beyond your own psychology toward that which your psyche is embedded in. That adventure is, I think, an infinite proposition. That, to me, is the real wilderness. Beyond species-specific, beyond gender-specific, beyond culture-specific, what kind of poems are your cells writing? What kinds of poems come out of the space that is our bodies?

Read the whole interview.

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