Lee, Li-Young

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LEE, Li-Young

Nationality: American. Born: Jakarta, Indonesia, 19 August 1957, became American citizen. Education: University of Pittsburgh, 1975–79, B.A. 1979; University of Arizona, Tucson, 1979–80; State University of New York, Brockport, 1980–81. Family: Married Donna L. Lee in 1978; two sons. Awards: National Endowment fellowship, 1986, 1995; Guggenheim fellowship, 1987; Delmore Schwartz award, 1986, for Rose; I.B. Lavan award, 1986; Lamont award, 1990, for The City in Which I Love You; American Book award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1995, for The Winged Seed.Address: c/o Simon and Schuster, Simon and Schuster Building, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020, U.S.A.



Rose. Brockport, New York, BOA Editions, 1986.

The City in Which I Love You. Brockport, New York, BOA Editions, 1990.


The Winged Seed. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.


Critical Studies: By James Lee, in BOMB, 51, spring 1995; by Tim Engles, in Explicator (Washington, D.C.), 54(3), spring 1996; "Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee's Poetry" by Zhou Xiaojing, in MELUS (Amherst, Massachusetts), 21(1), spring 1996; "The City in Which I Love You: Li-Young Lee's Excellent Song" by Walter A. Hesford, in Christianity and Literature (Carrollton, Georgia), 46(1), autumn 1996.

Li-Young Lee comments:

Each poem presents its own demands, its own requirements, and its own pleasures. Every encounter with the page is new. I proceed by unknowing.

Early influences include the Bible, Tang dynasty poetry my parents recited, Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.

*  *  *

Li-Young Lee's subjects often overshadow the poetry in his two award-winning volumes, Rose (Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry award) and The City in Which I Love You (Lamont Poetry award). This makes sense given the dramatic aspects of Lee's family life, especially his father's. Once the personal physician to Mao Tse-tung, the elder Lee spent a year incarcerated as a political prisoner. In 1959, when his son was two, he escaped from Indonesia with his family, embarking on a long trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before landing in America five years later. After attending the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport, the son began to publish poems that drew heavily on the exotic, adventurous refugee experiences that he had both observed and heard recounted by family members in the United States. These poem-stories are tempered by a sense of transition, insecurity, and wish to be included that are unique to the immigrant experience anywhere. In that regard they achieve a degree of universality that appeals to many readers, especially to those who are willing to overlook Lee's slack rhythms and his periodic mistakes in phrasing and in making accurate connections within the poems.

Composing in a meandering free verse line, Lee appears to be forever in a hurry to pull together the endless threads of his observations and experience. Yet this patchwork quilt mainly features its creator's good intentions and enthusiasm. It is not so much how Lee writes, or even what he writes about, but what lurks inside his effort that most moves us. In "The Cleaving" Lee visits the butcher at the local market and sees himself in the man, the animals the man cuts up, and the world teeming (and eating) all around him. The lines are characteristically clipped, constructed in the skinny, note-taking style popular in some poetry circles since the 1960s:

   In a world of shapes
   of my dreams, each one here
   is a shape of one of my desires, and each
   is known to me and dear by virtue
   of each one's unique corruption
   of those texts, the face, the body …
   The soul too
   is a debasement
   of a text …
   God is the text. The soul is a corruption
   and a mnemonic.

As this example illustrates, the characters and situations in Lee's poems are usually incidental, setting the stage for the poet's meditative declarations about humanity's capacity for adaptability, friendship, and love. What Lee aims to honor best through his poetry is the past, and this is always a worthy goal.

—Robert McDowell