Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


James Lenfestey’s ‘Seeking the Cave’ is part travel memoir, part exploration of an obsession

Lenfestey tried to figure out why he couldn’t stop thinking about Han-shan’s poems. The only way he could answer that was to go to China and visit the remnants of the poet’s world.

I know, I know — we don’t need to hear anything more about that Replacements show, right? But just one more thing: Imagine a sports stadium, filled with 15,000 people fully electric with anticipation, waiting not to hear a rock band but a poet. It happened here.

“Up until the 1960s, poetry was revered in the U.S. It was very central to our society and an important part of our national conversation and entertainment. Dylan Thomas had huge crowds as he toured the country, as did Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot came to Minnesota and people just packed Williams Arena to hear him,” said poet and retired journalist James Lenfestey. That was in 1956; the crowd was 13,700 people, a bit shy of last weekend’s Midway show. But still: A poet. 13,700 people. “Of course, you know what happened next. People started listening to rock musicians instead — bless them all — and poetry will never be center stage again.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s over. Lenfestey estimates that in Minnesota, 250,000 people write poetry. (I am skeptical, but he is certain.) “People are writing poems all the time. They don’t do it because they want to get published. Maybe they don’t think of these words as poetry, or think of themselves as poets. But they are putting down words in an intentional way and trying to express themselves and they are doing it because they can’t not write.”

Article continues after advertisement

Some of those people do think of themselves as poets, but it’s complicated for many writers to take that mantle on. “I had resisted my whole life, feeling the artist’s path unworthy and me unworthy of that path.” Lenfestey has been writing poetry, teaching poetry and championing poets for most of his life, yet it wasn’t until 2006, at the age of 62, that he became comfortable with that title — just about at the same time that he realized that the poets he most admired also had that hesitation.

Process began in 1974

His new book, “Seeking the Cave: A Pilgrimage to Cold Mountain” (Milkweed Editions), explains how that process unfolded. It started in 1974, when he opened a book of Chinese poetry called “Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by T’ang Poet Han-shan.” The first one he read ended, “We could inscribe our poems on biscuits/And the homeless dogs wouldn’t deign to nibble.”

“That’s a 1,200-year old joke,” says Lenfestey, about the 8th century Tang Dynasty poem (in translation). “Even way back then, poets were already saying, ‘Oh shit, nobody’s going to read my stuff!’ ” (That’s another translation.)

James Lenfestey

Many centuries later, Lenfestey is one of thousands of people around the world who were still reading the early Chinese poets, and the poets they inspired, and contemplating issues and answers raised by Buddhist thinkers, also still relevant today. After this introduction to Han-Shan, Lenfestey moved to Minneapolis from Massachusetts; he raised his family and wrote a column about it for the Minneapolis community newspaper “The Hill & Lake Press”; and worked as a business writer and a journalist, eventually retiring from the editorial board of the Star Tribune to focus on his own poetry and try to figure out why he couldn’t stop thinking about Han-shan’s poems. The only way he could answer that was to go to China and visit the remnants of the poet’s world.

“Seeking the Cave” is both a travel memoir and an exploration of a personal obsession. Of course, Lenfestey tells the story with the help of poems — and not just those of Chinese poets. If this sounds like it’s going to be one of the stories about an American enamored with China, wait till you get to the part about the Chinese historian who recites the poems of Emily Dickinson by heart, with tears running down his face. “His translated Dickinson poems caused a sensation in the 1980s and now Chinese poets are trying to write as Emily did. So we gave them back something in return.”

Beauty, generosity — and pollution

Over the course of his journey, China does unfold with spectacular beauty and generosity. But the simple joy he experiences in meeting people and visiting shrines becomes complicated by the gruesomely polluted country. The dolphins of the Yangtze River are gone; the sky darkened and birds silenced by a thick, sickening cloud of pollution. First reveling in kindred spirits, the traveler ends his trip longing for clean air.

“I was jerked back into the world. It is an absolute global calamity. It may be too late, but I am determined to do what I can, through writing, through protesting, through education, through making changes, to fight climate change. We have got to change this if we can,” he says. “My former profession has done a terrible job of communicating how desperate things already are. I’ve been covering environmental topics since 1988, and the science has gone in only one direction, while public understanding has gone from decent to deplorable. I am in grief over what I say.”

Lenfestey’s pilgrimage to China helped him sort out his understanding of his work, and brought him closer to a fellow poet from the past. But what he came back with was an imperative to think about the poets of the future and the world — not just the words — we will leave for them.