| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Li-Young Lee has been praised for his passionate
poetry and its deceptively simple style. His poems are unique in their
emotional intensity and metaphysical abstraction, particularly at a time when
many contemporary American poets are breaking away from the “lyric I” in order
to articulate an unstable and plural “I.” Lee’s three prize-winning books, Rose
(1986), The City in Which I Love You (1990), and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance
(1995), share recurrent themes of love, exile, and mortality. Hunted by
memories, Lee’s poems are exploratory, showing as relentless search for
understanding and for the right language to give form to what is invisible and
evanescent. He once said, “When I write, I’m trying to make that which is
visible—this face, this body, this person—invisible, and at the same time, make
what is invisible—that which exists at the level of pure being—completely
visible.” Critics who celebrate the disappearance of the “lyric I” from
postmodern poetry as the only possible way of opening the poetic to the
historical and political might take issue with Lee’s poetics. Yet for minority
American poets like Lee to explore the interior and the abstract may not be as
escapist or politically inconsequential as some critics might think.
was born in 1957 in Indonesia of Chinese parents. His mother, a granddaughter
of Yuan Shi-kai, China’s first president (1912–1916), married the son of a
gangster and an entrepreneur. His parents’ marriage in Communist China was much
frowned upon, and they eventually fled to Indonesia, where Lee’s father taught
medicine and philosophy at Gamliel University in Jakarta and served as
President Sukarno’s medical adviser. In 1959, when Sukarno launched a violent
ethnic purge of the Chinese, Lee’s father was incarcerated for his interest in
Western culture and ideas; he loved Shakespeare, opera, and Kierkegaard, and he
taught the King James version of the Bible. After nineteen months of
imprisonment, he escaped; with his family, he traveled to Macao, Japan, and
Singapore before settling in Hong Kong, where he became a revered evangelist
minister. In 1964, the family emigrated to the United States. Lee’s father
studied at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and later became a Presbyterian
minister. Lee went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he took Gerald
Stern’s poetry writing class and earned his B.A. in 1979; he continued to study
creative writing at the University of Arizona and the State University of New
York at Brockport. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their two sons.
father and his family’s experience of exile have had a significant impact on
Lee’s poetry. As a child, he learned to recite Chinese poems from the Tang
dynasty (618–907) and was often enchanted by his father’s poetic preaching and
reading of the Psalms. Many of his poems recall his father, who is portrayed as
strict and tender, powerful and vulnerable, godlike and human.
away from linear, rhetorical structure, Lee’s poems unfold and expand from a
central image, which holds together the discontinuous narratives and
fragmentary scenes. Similar to the functions of imagery in classical Chinese
poetry, his composition method gives him greater freedom in making leaps from
narrative to lyricism and from the concrete to the abstract. Lee’s poems bring
together Eastern and Western ideas and traditions. Among the literary
influences that Lee has acknowledged are the biblical Song of Songs, Gerald
Stern’s Lucky Life, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Meister Eckhart’s
sermons, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.” The spiritual and emotional
experience of the poems is accompanied by a down-to-earth sensualness that Lee
says “comes from my obsession with the body, man-body, earth-body, woman-body,
father-body, mother-body, mind-body (for I experience the mind as another body)
and the poem body.” This vision may suggest the influence of Whitman, but it is
also rooted in Daoism. Lee is familiar with Daoist texts and admires Lao Zi,
Lie Zi, and Zhuang Zi, whose sense of wonder and mystery and whose paradoxical
and skeptical characteristics are evident in Lee’s poems and prose-poem memoir.
State University of New York at Buffalo
In the Heath Anthology
I Ask My Mother to Sing
My Father, in Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud
This Room and Everything in It
Ash, Snow, or Moonlight
The City in Which I Love You
The Winged Seed
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Analysis of "Persimmons" by Li-Young Lee
A student essay.
Modern and Contemporary Poetry
Photographs and many relevant links.
Poetry of Li-Young Lee
The texts of A Story, Early in the Morning and The Gift.
Readings in Contemporary Poetry
A biographical sketch.
The Academy of American Poets
Exhibit offering a biography, the text of The Cleaving, and links.