Poetry Kung Fu or: Breaking Boards With Your Head is Dumb, Write Poems Instead


Part 1: The Student

Bruce Lee wrote poetry and it is beautiful.

I’m going to assume that after reading that statement, in the duration of you saying “whooooa” or “huh?” or even simply moving onto this sentence, you have conjured up an image of Bruce Lee in your head: he’s probably shirtless and wearing those loose black karate/hammer pants he so often sported atop a torso whittled out of fleshy granite with a mop-top to rival Ringo. There is a high pitched noise escaping his mouth, a fearsome, foreign, and bewildering cry, like the noise beavers make when antagonized. He moves so rapidly the kicks don’t register as kicks: they’re simply snaps of fabric and dust. His punches are whooshes, ghouls.

Or maybe you’re imagining Bruce Lee composing poems in his yellow speed-suit from A Game of Death, taking turns to write verse as he delivers roundhouse kicks to Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s skyscraping flanks.

Now that we’ve processed this information and allowed our thoughts to be a bit silly and afro-laden, let’s dish out the facts: Bruce Lee was an accomplished poet who not only wrote his own work but translated the work of others. He was a man who took poetry so seriously that he even wrote an entire movie script (with the aid of Sterling Silliphant, the screenwriter of the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night) based off of a poem that he composed. This poem, “The Silent Flute”, was even written into the titular script, set to be delivered as a final monologue for the hero, Cord (originally set to be played by James Coburn, one of Lee’s famous Hollywood students). It concludes:

Now I see that I will never find the light
Unless, like the candle, I am my own fuel,
Consuming myself.

The film was made after Lee died, and like so many Hollywood properties, by the time it saw the screen it was mutated into a shadow of its former self called “Circle of Iron” (starring David Carradine as Cord). But the poem itself calls to mind William Earnest Hensley’s “Invictus”, which was in fact a poem that Lee admired as a young student in China. That is really what makes Lee’s writing so gosh darn interesting: it’s tremendously studious. Lee’s poetry builds off of his interdisciplinary background. Just as Lee learned Taekwondo and Hapkido from Korean masters, Wing Chun and Kung-Fu from Chinese masters, and Judo and Karate from Japanese masters, his poetry borrows from many nations’ traditions.

It’s hard not to hear Japanese haiku master Kobayashi Issa in Lee’s voice in the poem “Night Rain”

Sadness broods
over the world
I fear to walk in my garden,
lest I see
a pair of butterflies
disporting in the sun
among the flowers.

Or the traces of Korean poet Yun Dong-ju in “Boating on Lake Washington”

When the clouds float past the moon,
I see them floating in the lake,
And I feel as though I were rowing in the sky.
Suddenly I thought of you—mirrored in my heart.

I suppose it’s not too surprising that the man who taught Steve McQueen martial arts and then went out for chilidogs and milkshakes with him was a poet, but the depth and complexity of his poetry is. Take, for example, the poem “All Streams Flowing East or West” which follows the life cycle of a drop of water cinematically, accompanying the reader as the droplet descends a mountain, rolls over pebbles, nestles into a stream, settles into the ocean, grows into a wave, hammers into rocks only to finish “And with the final thrust the sun/ Throws wave upon the shore/ The jellyfish in weariness/ Nestles in a pool.” I don’t know if I can get over the image of a weary jellyfish, let alone it coming from the dude who sat on a hood of a car with Steve McQueen eating cylindrical meats in quite possibly the most American image this article will see.

Part 2: The Master

Bruce Lee’s poetry was Kung-fu. Or as he would call it, “gung-fu”.

To the Western world, Kung-Fu means kicking the bejeezus out of stuff and smashing boards with your noggin and fighting dudes named after knives with knives and doing the splits while you whomp a dude in the gonads and generally just doing a lot of violent and destructive motions that make you a “man”. But “kung-fu” literally translates to “human achievement”. To practice Kung-Fu did not originally pertain to a martial art, it refers to the process of one’s training, to the strengthening of one’s skills, to the perfection and intersection of mind and body. A chef’s kung-fu is in his/her preparation of their ingredients, not in their Iron Chef impression. A poet’s kung-fu is in their practice, in their imitations, in their reading and their reviewing of poetry.

Perhaps the way Lee practiced this best was in his works of translation. Just as Lee slapped and maneuvered against his Muk Yang Jong the grappling hands of Wing Chun, he learned from the still words of the poem, realigning and positioning words’ definitions and the line’s meaning into a living, breathing, teacher. Tzu-yeh, a 4th century Chinese poet and geisha most famous in America for creating The Ballad of Mulan was translated by Lee in her poem “The Frost”. And below is Lee’s translation of Madame Kuan’s poem “Parting”.

Kuan, the wife of great Yuan painter Chao Mengfu wrote this upon hearing her husband was to take a mistress.

By Madame Kuan, translated by Bruce Lee

Who knows when meeting shall ever be.
If might be for years or
It might be forever.

Let us then take a lump of clay,
Wet it, pat it,
And make an image of you
And an image of me.
Then smash them, crash them,
And, with a little water,
Knead them together.

And out of the clay we’ll remake
An image of you, and an image of me.
Thus in my clay, there’s a little of you,
And in your clay, there’s a little of me.
And nothing will ever set us apart.

Living, we’ll be forever in each other’s heart,
and dead, we’ll be buried together.

Chao Mengfu didn’t take the mistress. Poetry Kung-fu!

There are lessons upon lessons to be found in the work of Lee’s poetry, lessons that I, as a poet, often find lacking in many, many poets. Poetry often inspires other poetry, but at its best it does not create production out of jealousy or competition, it creates knowledge. One of Bruce Lee’s greatest lessons in his own martial art, Jeet Kune Do, is that of self actualization vs. self-image actualization. The core of this is simple: spend your energy creating yourself, not creating yourself as you wish to be seen. Don’t fake it before you make it. Make it. Too often as poets we are obsessed with our soft-lit profile photos and the ideas that our lives have to be quirky, complicated, and different than “the normals”. We must backpack in some other country! Why? For poetry! I have a gajillion lovers! I am a poet! What’s wrong with a poet who eats at Pizza Hut buffet and likes poetry a lot? What’s wrong with a poet who loves one woman his entire life? What’s wrong with poetry?

Stylistically, Lee was alongside his peers of the 60’s and 70’s. He wanted to destroy traditions, forms, and styles. Lee was saddened to see rows of young men being drilled by oppressive sensei into motions that spoke of nothing but repetition and conformity. “Style concludes. Man grows.” Lee famously said. “Man, the human being, is more important than any style.” This was also a core principle of Jeet Kune Do. If your opponent grabs your collar, don’t knock his hand away. Give it to him, he has it already. Just punch him in the nose.

Poets can learn to punch in the nose from Lee. Why break the line? Because you broke it similarly above? The words are still holding onto the line: let them speak. Punch us in the nose on the next stanza. Fight your lines with lines named after lines. Lee often spoke of being like water, as evidenced in the above “All Streams Flowing East or West”. You can choose to flow, or you can crash. A cup is a cup because the water forms to the cup. Let your words flow, crash. Give the page (or whatever shape you’re working with) a purpose, let it form to the words, not the other way around.

Perhaps the most disappointing feature of Lee’s poetry is that even in a man so positive, a man who was such a dynamo and creative force of creation and positivity in his real life, his poetry tends to focus on the longing for the beloved and the incompletion of the self. In Eastern thought, this is actually not depressing subject matter, for it simply infers to the completion and dependent harmony of things: the material and the immaterial, the yin, the yang. But to Western audiences this often reads as insecurity and “something is wrong with my life.” I suppose this is no fault of Master Lee’s, but a fault of us, as Western poets, and how we tend to see our problems in others. I mean, we can’t even get the word Kung-fu right, how are we supposed to get the idea of longing right? However, it is refreshing to see a man of Lee’s stature and fame equalized by the calming practice of writing poems.

Perhaps the only thing Lee traditionally shares with some famous Western poets is his all too young and tragic passing.

Part 3: The Man

There’s a photo of Bruce Lee I’ve always found to be so sensitive that when I see it that I feel invasive. Lee and his wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, are sitting in front of their grated fireplace. It’s black and white. Lee’s legs are stretched out in black shorts, Linda’s curled under herself in velour capris, they are at least 15 feet away from the camera. Linda’s hair is bouffant, she’s wearing a floral pattern that looks like it was duplicated on the easy chairs of the day. Fireplace poker, Buddha on the mantle, a furniture box television off in shade to the right. The lovers are off center. A stamped, addressed letter is sheathed in an intricate weaved iron piece at the end of the mantle. The carpet is imperfect; it looks like waves from a helicopter. The young couple is smiling, both very faintly.

They are butterflies.

Linda said that Bruce recited poetry to her often. She can even recite them from memory. From his poem, “Since You Left”

My boat glides down the tranquil river,
Beyond the orchard which borders the bank.

I leave you my poems.
Read them.


Bruce Lee’s poems can be found in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, written by famous Lee biographer, John Little.

Dave Landsberger is a poet living and working in Chicago, Illinois. His work can be found in the chapbooks "Whoa, Yeah, Baby" and "Ballerz2K10: Poems about the NBA" (University of Wynwood). More from this author →