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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Li-Young Lee
(b. 1957)


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.

Lee 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.

Lee’s 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.

Breaking 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.

Xiaojing Zhou
State University of New York at Buffalo


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
I Ask My Mother to Sing (1986)
My Father, in Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud (1990)
This Room and Everything in It (1990)
With Ruins (1990)

Other Works
Ash, Snow, or Moonlight (1986)
Rose (1986)
The City in Which I Love You (1990)
The Winged Seed (1995)



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Links

Analysis of "Persimmons" by Li-Young Lee
(http://www.stnybrk.com/Persimmons.html)
A student essay.

Modern and Contemporary Poetry
(http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/English_Literature/us_poetry/Li/)
Photographs and many relevant links.

Poetry of Li-Young Lee
(http://www.indiana.edu/~primate/lee.html)
The texts of A Story, Early in the Morning and The Gift.

Readings in Contemporary Poetry
(http://www.diacenter.org/prg/poetry/95_96/leebio.html)
A biographical sketch.

The Academy of American Poets
(http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=309=694255=91186043)
Exhibit offering a biography, the text of The Cleaving, and links.


Secondary Sources





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