About Li-Young Lee
Li-Young Lee draws on his Chinese-American heritage in his poems, in particular his early experience of exile and migration. He was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, the son of Chinese parents exiled there having fallen foul of the Communist authorities. Lee’s mother came from a noble family – her grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China – whereas his father’s family were gangsters and entrepreneurs. Not only was their marriage disapproved of, Lee’s father was also pro-Western and Christian, a combination that left him vulnerable in the new Communist state. Finding himself in exile, Dr Lee helped found a Christian college, but the family’s security was short-lived when the then dictator of Indonesia, Sukarno, began to stir up anti-Chinese feeling. Dr Lee was arrested in 1958 and spent nineteen months in jail. On his release, the family began a supervised exile in Macau, but they managed to escape, first to Hong Kong and finally the United States in 1964. In America, Dr. Lee became a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania where Li-Young Lee grew up. Given this dramatic early experience, it’s not surprising that Lee’s poems often focus on themes of alienation and identity. Lee’s work is also influenced by the classical Chinese poets Li Bo and Tu Fu whom he was taught to recite as a boy. Equally important is his father’s Christianity and Lee’s consequent exposure to the King James version of the Bible. This remains a powerful source of inspiration, Lee’s sensual work recalling the language of The Song of Songs.
Lee himself initially found it hard to communicate in English; it wasn’t until studying at Pittsburgh University that he began writing his own poems under the guidance of the poet Gerald Stern who became an early admirer, providing the introduction to his first collection, Rose (1986). This book made an immediate impression, winning the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award and attracting wide-spread critical recognition. Subsequent collections include The City in Which I Love You (1990), Book of My Nights (2001) which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award, and Behind My Eyes (2008). Lee has also published a volume of memoir, The Winged Seed: a Remembrance (1995), about the upheavals and dangers of his early childhood. His many awards include a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, three Pushcart Prizes and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He lives with his wife, Donna, and their two sons in Chicago.
The poems you can listen to here are from his most recent collection, Behind My Eyes, but in their preoccupation with memory and family they maintain a common thread with his earlier work. In particular Lee’s continuing exploration of his past and his attempts to make sense of his immigrant experience haunt the poems. In ‘Have You Prayed?’ the powerful figure of Lee’s dead father appears as a voice on the wind. Lee’s poems honour ancestry; denied a stable home and country of origin, Lee is thrown back on ties of blood rather than earth, or as he says in this poem, “I’m never finished answering to the dead.” Another recurring motif is the importance of song, story and narrative. Many of the poems revolve around the passing on of memories, or Lee telling the reader a story from his own life. But a poem like ‘Immigrant Blues’ acknowledges the difficulties in this; there may be many academic explanations of Lee’s feelings, but these don’t help him communicate his deeper experience. The problem facing the immigrant writer is beautifully expressed in the final line of the poem which forms the title of an imaginary book, “I Want to Sing but I don’t Know Any Songs.”
Lee’s poems bear the influence of his Chinese masters in their plain-spoken simplicity and strength. As Stern, his early mentor, comments, Lee’s work is characterised by “a willingness to let the sublime enter his field of concentration and take over, a devotion to language, a belief in holiness.” His is also a highly sensual voice that uses the encounter with the physical world as a gateway to profound meditations on loss and love. His skilful use of repetition – as in the recurring and increasingly haunting platform announcements of ‘Station’ or the insistent questions of ‘A Hymn to Childhood’ – is a means of organising his poems, despite their lack of conventional form. Lee also uses silence in his poems, the spaces between stanzas furthering the argument as each thought unfolds. This is apparent in his reading style which makes the most of these pauses. In its quiet, deliberate progress, Lee’s delivery allows the listener to take in the philosophical investigations of his work. It’s a reading style which, along with the generous explanations of his poems, invites the reader into a quiet intimacy with the poet.
This recording was made on 3 March 2008 in New York.
Featured in the Archive
Books by Li-Young Lee
BOA Editions, 1986
The City In Which I Love You
BOA Editions, 1990
The Winged Seed: A Remembrance
Simon & Schuster, 1995
Book of My Nights
BOA Editions, 2001
Bloodaxe Books, 2007
Behind My Eyes
W W Norton, 2008
Guggenheim Foudation FellowshipPrize website
National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
Lannan Literary AwardPrize website
Whiting Writers AwardPrize website
American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foudation, The Winged Seed: a Remembrance
Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, Rose
Lamont Poetry Selection or James Laughlin Award), The City in Which I Love YouPrize website
William Carlos Williams Award, Book of My Nights
Academy of American Poets FellowshipPrize website