The Course of Memory:
Li-Young Lee and The American Tradition
Karl Thomas Rees
Submitted to Brigham Young University in partial fulfillment
of graduation requirements for University Honors
Advisor: Keith Lawrence
Honors Dean: Scott Miller
Thank you, all the minds that shaped mine these last three years. A special thanks to the faculty of the BYU English Department: my advisor, Dr. Keith Lawrence, in whose Asian American literature class I wrote the first version of this essay, and who has been invaluable to the revision process; Dr. Lance Larsen, who has also helped a great deal in the revision process; and Dr. Edward Cutler, whose modern American literature class pointed me in what may or may not have been the right direction for my Eliot research. Also, thanks to the editors of BYU’s Insight magazine, who helped revise the second version of this essay and whose decision to publish it suggested to me that it might make a good thesis; to BYU’s Office of Research and Creative Activities, whose grant made it much easier (albeit not necessarily easy) to find the time to work on this thesis; and to the people in the BYU Honors office for understanding the remarkable lateness of both the proposal for and final draft of this thesis. And, of course, many thanks to Mr. Li-Young Lee for finding the time to answer my questions.
Table of Contents iii
Misinterpreting Asian American Literature 4
Defining the American Tradition 11
Lee and the Search for Origins 21
Lee’s “Furious Versions” and Eliot’s Four Quartets 33
Conclusions: Beyond the Mind of Europe 46
Works Cited 52
Appendix A: Transcript of Interview With Li-Young Lee 54
The Course of Memory: Li-Young Lee
and the American Tradition
Often labeled a poet of memory, Li-Young Lee utilizes both the power and insufficiency of memory to discover his origins. Lee’s reliance on memory illustrates its capacity to achieve the mythic depth necessary to define both himself and the individual reader. But does Lee, as an Asian American, function within the Euro-centric American tradition, helping to define the American people, or does he instead function exclusively outside of it, reflecting only Asian American culture? I contend that Li-Young Lee not only belongs to the American tradition, but that his poetry, in its preoccupation with memory and the loss of origin, epitomizes it. Critics often limit Lee’s poetry to a purely Asian American reading, a reading that is understandable, as Lee’s poetry often attempts to recover his Chinese heritage. Yet critics fail to realize that Lee’s heritage is redefined or even lost in his status as second-generation Asian American. This redefinition and loss are symptoms of American culture, which is predominately immigrant. Immigration, in fact, led to the possibility of America’s finding its origins in a collective and somewhat invented European mind in the first place. It is in this manner that Lee, as an immigrant, can similarly participate in the American tradition. In fact, because of its shared interest in the condition that informed Eliot’s “The Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Lee’s poetry actually adheres to the essay’s theories. But the key factor in Lee’s capacity to be traditional is the way in which he utilizes memory to combat the nihilistic threat present in memory’s own potential to be lost. In his poetry, Lee sorts through the confusion of memory and arrives at a divine sense of origin that restores his faith in an underlying meaning to his existence. This restoration is especially apparent in the poems “With Ruins” and “Furious Version.” That these poems compare well in purpose and effect with Robert Frost’s “Directive” and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, respectively, further evidences how Lee operates within the American tradition. Indeed, Lee’s poetry suggests that the American tradition is not bound to any single originating cultures. Instead, this tradition is a search for origin that arrives at the conclusion that all Americans, and in fact all people, share a universal and divine origin.
It all depends
on the course of your memory.
It’s a place
for those who own no place
to correspond to ruins in the soul.
It’s all yours. (Lee The City in Which I Love You 44-45)
“Who will remember the great work of memory itself, that basic task?” This question concludes Robert Pinsky’s 1999 essay “Poetry and the American Memory,” in which he explores how the “fragile heroic enterprise of remembering” defines the American people. The question is neither trivial nor academic; for, as Pinsky declares, “Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are” (70). Perhaps no poet writing in America today answers Pinsky’s question more emphatically than does Li-Young Lee. Often labeled a poet of memory, Lee utilizes both the power and insufficiency of memory to rediscover his origins. “Memory revises me,” he declares in “Furious Versions” (The City in Which I Love You 14), at once describing his need for regular nourishment from its regenerative power and its god-like influence over the direction of his life. In short, Lee’s reliance on memory illustrates its mythic depth: memory is used by Lee to define not only himself but also the individual reader.
But is Lee the solution that Pinsky seeks? After all, Pinsky concentrates his discussion of “the American Memory” around a more traditional canon of American poetry, founded upon the likes of Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Frost. Lee, meanwhile, as an Asian American poet, does not obviously share this same Eurocentric heritage. It is not my intent to question Pinsky’s omission of Lee and other representatives of minority literatures—after all, Bishop is the most contemporary of the poets that Pinsky discusses. Rather, I ask if Lee functions within the American tradition Pinsky describes, or if he instead functions exclusively outside of it, reflecting only Asian American culture. In other words, can Lee’s poetry be considered traditionally American? If so, what does that say about—or do to—the American tradition? I contend that Li-Young Lee not only belongs to the American tradition, but that his poetry, in its preoccupation with memory and the loss of origin, epitomizes it. Furthermore, Lee’s poetry sorts through the confusion of memory resulting from this loss of origin, eventually arriving at a divine and universally applicable sense of origin that restores faith in an underlying meaning to his existence.
I divide my argument into four parts: 1) a brief survey of various viewpoints on Asian America’s role in the American tradition; 2) a definition of what I mean by “the American tradition” and how memory relates to it; 3) a general discussion of how Lee is traditional in this sense, relying primarily on a simultaneous reading of Lee’s “With Ruins” and Frost’s “Directive”; and 4) an in-depth comparison of Lee’s “Furious Versions” to Eliot’s Four Quartets, revealing how Lee’s approach to memory is both similar to and a departure from the approach employed by one of the Western tradition’s most “traditional” poets. Finally, I conclude with some thoughts regarding the contribution Lee’s poetry makes to this tradition, particularly in regards to its arrival at the divine.