116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

 “Theophanic Honey”: Spiritual Melodies in the Poetry of Li-Young Lee and Theodore Roethke 

Marc Malandra, Biola University

Li-Young Lee and Theodore Roethke have consistently shown in their work an interest in the transcendent. Looking at some of their shared influences, I will draw out Li-Young Lee and Theodore Roethke’s shared belief in poetry as a spiritual or sacred practice, and as a means of confronting spiritual realities.

 

Proposal: 

Poets Li-Young Lee and Theodore Roethke have numerous points of contact between them; pairing them together began as early as the “Preface” to the contemporary poet’s first book, Rose. Gerald Sterns notes in Lee’s work a “debt” to both Theodore Roethke, and to one of his foundational predecessors, Walt Whitman. Links between Lee and Roethke stretch from the topical, for example, the preponderance of poems addressing a father who is both literal and genealogical and spiritual and transcendent, while simultaneously sharing an overall appeal to the spiritual through means of the physical. Lee and Roethke are both poets of a profound and sensual earthiness, as well as pronounced attempts to approach the numinous. Each poet has expressed interest in poets who belong to the seventeenth-century metaphysical tradition, as well as in later poets who have attempted to convey faith in the numinous through poetry.  Writers such as George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman bear an influence on the work of my two poets of focus. In a broader sense, their own work can be seen as extending an American preoccupation with spiritual writing.[i]

            Roethke and Lee have consistently shown in their own work an interest in the transcendent and mystical; the affirmations of preternatural means of knowing are acute in both poets work.  “I practice at walking the void,” Roethke has written (Straw 31), and Lee’s conception of “writing silence” speaks to a shared urge to explore the unknown or unknowable.  Neal Bowers, in Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise, argues, “Mysticism was one of Roethke’s abiding interests, from the beginning to the end of his poetic career” (4).  Roethke once said poets, “must scorn being ‘mysterious’ or loosely oracular, but be willing to face genuine mystery” (Craft 42).  Lee says in a conversation with Eileen Tabios that “the poet’s role is to ‘write silence. . .  the poet is imparting the reader’s true identity.  Poetry enacts our true identity’” (Black Lightning 116).  Worth noting here is Lee’s concept of a “double wakefulness” life in Indonesia first brought to his consciousness, a concept related to his belief in a non-material, non-rational level of experience that limned daily life: “Our lives began to grow into a double wakefulness, for even as we went casually about the diurnal activities which adhered to an adult world, something, or else someone, in each of us was continually poised, expectant and ready, in case something beyond that world should suddenly make itself evident” (Seed 122).  This awareness of being in two worlds simultaneously affects the poetic practice of both poets. In each poets’ work one finds that flowers, birds, fauna and people have an intrinsic sacral dimension. In this talk, I will draw out Li-Young Lee and Theodore Roethke’s shared belief in poetry as a spiritual or sacred practice, and as a means of confronting spiritual realities.