Lieberman, Laurence (James)

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LIEBERMAN, Laurence (James)

Nationality: American. Born: Detroit, Michigan, 16 February 1935. Education: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Hopwood award, 1958), B.A. 1956, M.A. in English 1958; University of California, Berkeley. Family: Married Bernice Braun in 1956; one son and two daughters. Career: Former poetry editor, Orange County Illustrated and Orange County Sun, California. Taught at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California, 1960–64, and College of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, 1964–68. Associate professor of English, 1968–70, and since 1970 professor of English, University of Illinois, Urbana. Creative Writing Fellow, University of Illinois Center for Advanced Studies, Japan, 1971–72. Poetry reviewer, Yale Review, 1968–74. Since 1971 poetry editor, University of Illinois Press. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1963, 1967; Huntington Hartford Foundation fellowship, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1969, 1986; University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study grant, 1971, 1981; Illinois Arts Council fellowship, 1982, 1990–91, 1994; Jerome Shestack award, American Poetry Review, 1986; University of Illinois Center for Advanced Study grant, 1991, 2000; Arnold Beckman fellowship in creative writing, 1993. Address: Department of English, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, U.S.A.



The Unblinding. New York, Macmillan, 1968.

The Osprey Suicides. New York, Macmillan, and London, Collier Macmillan, 1973.

God's Measurements. New York, Macmillan, 1980.

Eros at the World Kite Pageant: Poems 1979–1982. New York, Macmillan, 1983.

The Mural of Wakeful Sleep. New York, Macmillan, 1985.

The Creole Mephistopheles. New York, Scribner, 1989.

New and Selected Poems: 1962–92. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

The St. Kitts Monkey Funds. Omaha, Nebraska, The Cummington Press, 1995.

Dark Songs: Slave House and Synagogue. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1996.

Compass of the Dying. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 1998.

The Regatta in the Skies: Selected Long Poems. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Flight from the Mother Stone. Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 2000.


Unassigned Frequencies: American Poetry in Review 1964–77. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Editor, The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction. Chicago, Scott Foresman, 1968.


Critical Studies: "Fool, Thou Poet" by Vernon Young, in Hudson Review (New York), winter 1973–74; "Tough Scarskins" by John R. Cooley, in Modern Poetry Studies (Buffalo), winter 1974; "All's a Mirroring," in Mississippi Valley Review (Macomb, Illinois), spring 1974, and "The Expansional Muse of Laurence Lieberman," in Chariton Review (Kirksville, Missouri), fall 1996, both by James Ballowe; "Generous Props," in Counter/Measures 3, 1974, and "Castles, Elephants, Budhas…," in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), May-June 1981, both by Dave Smith; "Actions Undone" by Richard Johnson, in Parnassus (New York), fall-winter 1974; "Poems and Pictures" by David Quemada, in New Letters (Kansas City), March 1975; "Bending and Unbending into Beatitudes" by Ronald Wallace, in Chowder Review (Amherst, Massachusetts), summer 1980; Leonard Neufeldt, in New England Review (Hanover, New Hampshire), summer 1980; "Radiance beyond Measure" by Peter Mackuck, in Tar River Poetry (Greenville, North Carolina), fall 1980; "Acts of Grace: About One of Laurence Lieberman's Poems," in Chariton Review (Kirksville, Missouri), fall 1980, "Convergences," in Sewanee Review (Tennessee), summer 1984, and "Another Life Lurking," Southern Review, 33(2), spring 1997, all by Thomas Swiss; "Dimensions of Reality" by Peter Stitt, in Georgia Review (Athens), winter 1980–81; "Confessions of Travelers and Pilgrims" by Peter Serchuk, in Sewanee Review (Tennessee), spring 1981; "Poets and Peddlers" by Harry Thomas, in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor), winter 1982; by G.E. Murray, in Quarterly West (Salt Lake City), fall-winter 1982–83; by Robert Hill, in South Carolina Review (Clemson), fall 1983; "Gaijin's Measurements," in Parnassus (New York), winter 1984–85; "Poetry Changes & Channels" by Robert McDowell, in The Hudson Review (New York), winter 1986; "Poetry Travels" by James Finn Cotter, in Hudson Review (New York), autumn 1989, "The Wider World Dimension: The Carib Chronicle of Laurence Lieberman" by Michael Bujega, in Chariton Review (Kirksville, Missouri), spring 1990; "Innocent Abroad" by Brendan Galvin, in Tar River Poetry (Greenville, North Carolina), fall 1990; "Poetry Preserves" by James Finn Cotter, in The Hudson Review (New York), summer 1994; "Travelogue Poetry: The Narrative Vision of Laurence Lieberman" by Samuel Maio, in Chariton Review (Kirksville, Missouri), spring 1994; "Who Can Resist the Stories? Narrative and Witness in the Cross-Cultural Poetry of Laurence Lieberman" by Sandra Meek, in Denver Quarterly, 31(3), winter 1997; "The Guest of History" by David Kirby, in Parnassus (New York),22, 1997.

Laurence Lieberman comments:

(1975) My first and second volumes of poetry, The Unblinding and The Osprey Suicides, dealt principally with the four years I spent in St. Thomas (1964–68), exploring life in the Caribbean and the underwater world of the coral reefs as their primary subject. The underwater cycle of poems spanned two books, much as I expect my cycle of poems in progress about Japan to span the next two books. God's Measurements was completed this year, and it contains roughly half of the poems I plan to write about Japan, where I spent a year on a traveling fellowship (1971–72).

*  *  *

For more than three decades Laurence Lieberman has been creating his own brand of poetry. His effort to create a world of discovered beauty based almost entirely on travel to rich and exotic lands and to the bottom of the sea is unique. Since his first book, published in 1968, he has taken us with him on journeys to southern California, Hawaii, Japan, and various islands in the Caribbean. At first the poetry was a kind of novelty, a unique excursion of a talented poet into the exquisite moments of discovery of the relationship of being and things. The poems in The Unblinding, The Osprey Suicides, and God's Measurements tend to be wonderful epiphanies of inspired moments of relatedness with nature. In two later volumes, The Mural of Wakeful Sleep and The Creole Mephistopheles, however, he repeats the pattern of the long free verse narrative travelogue but without the same intensity of the earlier verse. Too frequently poems bog down in banalities such as "flippered feet," "rubbery ice skates," "the adjacent cow's wriggly orbit," "the one six letter verb which best expresses the freakish displacement of liquid and solid bodies in air—SPLASH."

Nonetheless, when Lieberman makes the best use of language, he achieves a kind of baroque or Elizabethan eloquence that transforms his experience into art. Lieberman's first volume, The Unblinding, reveals his attempt to find his subject and medium. In the remarkable poem "The Family Tree" he finds it; he discovers a felt—not thought—relationship between his life and the life of things, which grow together as one. The development of his work over the years may be seen as a continual effort to capture this fundamental oneness of inner and outer. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who deal with the problems of self in a decadent modern world, he discovers a world he can embrace that secures him from the sickness of the age.

In the title poem of The Unblinding Lieberman speaks of the "tough, unknown, real images that burn his senses and mind," "incandescent moments that fall into his hands unsought, undeservedly given or lent … visions … that can—and do on occasion—sweep me off into their own orbits." No alienated poet here, but rather a voice, a vehicle through which the power of "incandescent moments" sing. His travels to Japan, Hawaii, and the Caribbean provide him a locale and subject matter for the force that illuminates his imaginative life. In The Unblinding he had already discovered the stark and beautiful power of the sea as a medium for his poetic exploration, but in The Osprey Suicides, God's Measurements, and Eros at the World Kite Pageant he reaches out to this world with the poise and dexterity of a poet who has found his voice and subject. So committed to this world is Lieberman that The Osprey Suicides might be subtitled "the underwater world of Laurence Lieberman." No poet before him has written so devotedly and with such knowledge of this world. In these poems he searches the depths of faraway oceans, tides, and bays, seeking in coral and sea creatures a vision of an ultimate truth. Lurking in underwater caverns, in subterranean darkness, strange life-forms challenge his senses, confound his mind. Lieberman, however, is not merely a spectator in this underwater world but also often an intruder. He hunts with a spear gun and kills for sport. Although such a relationship with this world suggests a fundamental alienation, the events of the poems are much like a Faulkner or Hemingway encounter with nature. Not only is there the moment of self-discovery and affirmation in the act of the hunt but also an experience of ultimate power; the hunt becomes a search for God. In the final section of The Osprey Suicides Lieberman describes the danger of the hunt: the predator may become victim, may in fact become his own death wish.

In Eros at the World Kite Pageant Lieberman breaks new metaphysical ground. The poem "Psychodrama: Tokyo Mime Film" pushes his quasi-mystical passion for relationship or quest for life to new heights. In this poem the poet provides us with a vision of a profound psychic energy that pushes outward into the vacancy of the nonself to embrace and incorporate it as part of the oneness that he has sought throughout his work. This oneness is like that of the Buber I-Thou relationship: being is achieved only through a relationship that allows each partner to be both itself and affirmed. Such is Lieberman's relationship with the world. Sometimes fraught with violence, sometimes threatening to destroy the poet himself, this relationship is the hard-fought battle to overcome the alienation of a century and to establish a renewed covenant with things.

In The Mural of Wakeful Sleep and The Creole Mephistopheles Lieberman continues his search in the Caribbean for that essence of relationship between inner and outer, between himself and things. His effort seems not to succeed, however, as his insistence on returning to the same format and style of his previous poetry works against him. One reads with the sense of having been here before. The language lacks the eloquence and precision of the earlier work, and the form of long narrative is overworked. Even so, there are moments when the poems—such as "Banana Dwarf" or parts of "The Mural of Wakeful Sleep"—achieve a lyrical beauty that reminds us of the best of Lieberman.

—Richard Damashek