Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee is an Asian-American poet, born in Jakarta, Indonesia. Lee's work and writing style is known for its silence and near-mysticism and has been heavily influenced by Chinese poets such as Tu Fu. Lee's poetry is popular, today, for its personal, yet universal nature

Li-Young Lee Li-Young Lee

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Table of contents

    Li-Young Lee's Biography

    Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1957 to parents Yuan Jiaying and Li Guoyuan. In 1964 the Lee family arrived in the United States after years of displacement and unrest due to anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia. Li-Young Lee is a powerful Asian-American poet, who did not begin writing poetry until his university years. He is now a celebrated poet, having written several important works that have impacted Asian-American poetry across the US.

    Li-Young Lee's Family Background and Early Life

    Li-Young Lee is a descendent of a politically powerful Chinese family. Lee's maternal great-grandfather, Yuan Shikai, was the first president of the Republic of China, who later attempted to become emperor. Lee's father was a personal physician to Mao Zedong (who founded the People's Republic of China) while in China.

    Li-Young Lee, Yuan Shikai, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Yuan Shikai, Li-Young Lee's great-grandfather and the first president of the Republic of China.

    As a result of the new Communist state in China, Lee's family fell out of favor. Lee's father was Christian and pro-Western, and these beliefs resulted in the family's exile and relocation to Indonesia, where Li-Young Lee was born. After the Lee family's relocation, Lee's father aided in founding Gamaliel University, a Christian college.

    Yuan Shikai was the first president of the Republic of China. He established the first modern army in China. Shikai wanted to restore the hereditary monarchy in China, and place himself as Emperor, but this attempt was thwarted. Shikai's rule is viewed almost exclusively negatively as a result of his fragile rule, the loyalty of his army fell apart after his death and, despite some political reform, his rule is contested as to its positive and negative effects. He died in 1916, just after he was forced to abolish his new monarchy.

    At this time Indonesia's dictator, Sukarno, began spreading anti-Chinese sentiment, and in 1958, just a year after Lee was born, Dr. Lee was arrested. Dr. Lee spent 19 months in prison in Indonesia, and upon his release the family began a supervised exile in Macau. The family escaped this exile and spent the next five years trekking through Hong Kong and Japan, before finally settling in the United States in 1964, when Lee was seven years old. Dr. Lee became the minister of a Presbyterian church in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania.

    Li-Young Lee's Career

    Despite Li-Young Lee's father reading to him frequently as a child, Lee did not begin writing poetry until he began attending the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied under poet Gerald Stern (who later wrote the introduction for Lee's book Rose (1986). Lee credits his father with helping him encourage his passion for language and writing. Lee was also influenced by Classical Chinese poetry from poets such as Tu Fu and Li Bai. Lee published his first collection, Rose, in 1986, and has won numerous awards for his poetry, including but not limited to the American Book Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship.

    Lee has had a profound impact on Asian-American poetry. Lee commonly writes about race and the experience of being bold and independent in his poetry. Lee's familial experiences commonly make their way into his work, but his work simultaneously speaks to broader issues surrounding Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. He is not only a poet, but an activist, a title which is closely linked with the history of poetics and artistry. This work in Asian-American activism gives him a special place in the American canon, and makes him stand out for his personal and independent writing.

    Li-Young Lee now lives in Chicago with his wife, Donna, and two sons.

    Li-Young Lee's Books

    Li-Young Lee has not published as many poetry collections as some poets, averaging at about one collection per eight years, but many of his poetry collections are celebrated and critically acclaimed. A list of all published books, as well as select awards for each collection is included.

    GenreTitleYearPublication InformationSelected Awards
    Poetry CollectionsRose1986BOA Editions LimitedDelmore Schwartz Memorial Award
    The City in Which I love You1990Rochester: BOA Editions LimitedLamont Poetry Selection
    Book of My Nights2001Rochester: BOA Editions LimitedWilliam Carlos Williams Award
    Behind My Eyes2008W. W. Norton & Company
    The Undressing2018W. W. Norton & Company
    MemoirThe Wingéd Seed: A Remembrance1995New York: Simon & SchusterAmerican Book Award (from the Before Columbus Foundation)

    Li-Young Lee's Poems

    Li-Young Lee has many popular poems, with the most famous certainly being "From Blossoms" (1986). Lee's work is eloquent and rife with stories of Lee's own life and experiences as both a child fleeing from danger, and an adult learning how to navigate the world as an Asian-American immigrant. His work concentrates on grief, love, sensuality, race, and many, many more personal and universal experiences.

    PoemYearPublication InformationDescription
    "From Blossoms"1986Rose, BOA Editions Limited"From Blossoms" is without a doubt Li-Young Lee's most famous poem. It is an eloquent portrayal of life and grief through the symbolism of a peach growing on a tree and being plucked and sold on the side of the road.
    "A Story" 1990The City in Which I Love You, Rochester: BOA Editions Limited"A Story" is a poem about a boy asking his father for a story, only the father can't think of one. More than a poem about youth, it is a poem that interrogates the role of a father and the ways in which children grow away from there parents.
    "Have You Prayed?" 2008Behind My Eyes, W. W. Norton & Company"Have You Prayed" is a poem about honoring ancestry. In this poem, the speaker hears their father's voice in the wind, recalling Lee's childhood of a displaced home.
    "Immigrant Blues"2008Behind My Eyes, W. W. Norton & Company"Immigrant Blues" explores the plight of immigrant writers in conjunction with writing poems about their own life experiences. The critical and academic analysis of poems such as "Immigrant Blues" does not do the poet justice, in that the work will never fully convey the full extent of personal experience.
    "A Hymn to Childhood" 2008Behind My Eyes, W. W. Norton & Company"A Hymn to Childhood" is a poem rife with the trauma of Li-Young Lee's own life. It is an impactful poem, using repetition and the concept of silence to express the ways in which one's childhood remains with the person for the rest of their life, regardless of the nature of those experiences.

    Li-Young Lee's Writing Style

    Li-Young Lee has a writing style that is unique and bold, sensual and intimate. He commonly uses repetition and

    intentional silence to touch on themes such as grief, race, and love—both familial and intimate. Li-Young Lee commonly writes about childhood, using sonics and repetition to give his poetry a sing-song quality and the impression of youth. Lee writes about memory and ancestry as well, concentration on personal memory as well as intergenerational memory. Lee's poems are commonly very approachable by the everyday reader. Lee takes a slow, intentional pace with much of his writing, allowing each word to be absorbed fully before moving onto the next line.

    Sonics in poetry relate to the noise that the words make within a poem. Poets can change the feeling or nature of a poem by using words with soft sounds, or words that imitate the content they are writing about. For example, if a poet is writing about an ocean or the tides, they might use words with a lot of whooshing sounds, such as "sh" "s" or "th".

    Li-Young Lee, Peach tree blossoms, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Peach blossoms, as in the poem "From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee.

    Li-Young Lee also uses storytelling in his poetry. He continually concentrates on childhood and the passage of time, using symbols to illustrate different stories and tales that may, at times, even read as fables or parables. Lee's poems, such as "A Story", contain refrains or repetition that can lead the reader to have lines stuck in their head or that can lead the poem to feel like there is a consistent structure. Lee writes in free-verse most frequently, but the internal structure of many of his poems can feel as though he is writing in a traditional form. These sonic and structural qualities are, perhaps, replicated from his traditional Chinese poetic influences such as Li Bai.

    Li-Young Lee Quotes

    Li-Young Lee has many, many beautiful quotations that come from his poetry, interviews, and life's work. Below, are some quotations from select poems, depicting the simplicity and beauty that come from Lee's poetry and worldview.

    There are days we live

    as if death were nowhere

    in the background; from joy

    to joy to joy, from wing to wing,

    from blossom to blossom to

    impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom. (Lines 17-22)1

    These closing lines from the poem "From Blossoms" depict the beautiful imagery of the peach blossom and the way in which Lee uses it to discuss the vibrancy of life. Contrary to being a poem about death or life after death, "From Blossoms" is a poem that revels in the senses of the human body, painting life as all the more beautiful for its finite nature. The quotation as listed above is one of Lee's most famous quotations, depicting the peace that comes with letting death fade beyond the background, into almost nothingness.

    When the windturns and asks, in my father’s voice,Have you prayed?I know three things. One:I’m never finished answering to the dead. (Lines 1-5) 2

    This quotation, from Lee's poem "Have You Prayed?" is a quotation about inter-generational burden and the responsibility of ancestry. This poem's exploration of ancestry and the ways in which the speaker is beholden to their dead father is a deeply personal interrogation into where we come from and what responsibilities we carry within us from our families, past or present. This is a good example of the ways in which Lee's poetry concentrates on familial relationships and uses refrain in his poetry to create a tone of intentionality.

    People have been trying to kill me since I was born,a man tells his son, trying to explainthe wisdom of learning a second tongue.It’s an old story from the previous centuryabout my father and me. (Lines 1-5) 3

    This quotation, from "Immigrant Blues" focuses on the inter-generational teachings between father and son. The poem opens with "People have been trying to kill me since I was born", a very potent, very real reminder of the world that Li-Young Lee came from, as well as the plight of many Asian-Americans living in the United States. This quotation is not only a quotation about language learning, but it's a reminder that privilege leads to safety. On the other hand, those who come from a dangerous place sometimes attempt to combat that danger with knowledge and, sometimes, healing.

    Li-Young Lee - Key Takeaways

    • Li-Young Lee is an Asian-American poet who was born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1957.
    • Li-Young Lee's ancestry is rife with political power, his great-grandfather was Yuan Shikai, and his father was a personal physician to Mao Zedong in China.
    • Lee's father was exiled for going against communist sentiment in China, and fled to Indonesia where he was then imprisoned and exiled for being Chinese.
    • Li-Young Lee's poetry concentrates on the themes of personal and universal knowledge, focusing on ancestry, death, love, and sensuality.
    • Lee has five published poetry collections, and now lives with his wife and two sons in Chicago.

    1 Li-Young Lee, "From Blossoms", Rose 1986.

    2 Li-Young Lee, "Have You Prayed?", Behind My Eyes 2008.

    3 Li-Young Lee, "Immigrant Blues", Behind My Eyes 2008.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Li-Young Lee

    What is Li-Young Lee famous for?

    Li-Young Lee is a famous Asian-American poet. 

    What are Li-Young Lee poems about?

    Li-Young Lee's poems are about many things, with special concentrations on the themes of race, immigration, death, love, relationships, and sensuality. 

    Why was Li-Young Lee's father exiled?

    Lee's father was exiled for going against communist sentiment in China, and fled to Indonesia where he was then imprisoned and exiled for being Chinese. 

    Who is Li-Young Lee?

    Li-Young Lee is an Asian-American poet who was born in Indonesia and has Chinese heritage. 

    Where is Li-Young Lee now? 

    Li-Young Lee now lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the poem "A Story" about? 

    The first stanza in the poem, "Sad is the man who is asked for a storyand can't come up with one"is an example of which literary device?  

    Who is the author of the poem "A Story"?

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