Last reviewed: June 2018
August 19, 1957
Li-Young Lee, one of the most widely acclaimed American poets at the turn of the twenty-first century, was born in Indonesia, of Chinese descent. He emigrated to the United States in 1964. After attending high school in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, he studied poetry with Gerald Stern at University of Pittsburgh, receiving a B.A. in 1979. He then did graduate studies at the University of Arizona and State University of New York, Brockport, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1998. Lee and his wife, Donna, whom he married in 1978, and their two children made Chicago their home, living in a building with other family members, including Lee’s artist brother, Li Lin Lee, whose wife is Donna’s twin sister. Although Lee had taught at several prestigious universities, he preferred to work at a Chicago warehouse.
Lee is praised for his finely crafted poems, which are luminous with sensuous imagery, infused with profound spirituality, and sonorous with biblical resonances. His first book won New York University’s Delmore Schwartz Prize, its successor, the prestigious Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets. His memoir won the American Book Award. Lee also garnered grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
His family’s diasporic experience and Chinese ethnicity are important factors in Lee’s writing. In fact, as Lee recounted in The Winged Seed, his mother, Joice Jiaying Yuan, is the granddaughter of the fifth wife of General Yuan Shih-kai (1859–1916), the first president of the Republic of China. The family figure who has loomed largest in Lee’s works, however, is his father, Richard Kuo Yuan (Perfect Nation) Lee. Lee’s Peking-born father had been a physician who counted among his patients Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. In the 1950s, Kuo Yuan migrated from China to Indonesia; there he became vice president of Gamaliel University, a small private college where he taught medicine and philosophy. That country was then experiencing Indonesian president Achmad Sukarno’s “guided democracy” (which made Sukarno president for life). An anti-Chinese pogrom swept Kuo Yuan into jail, where he sustained kidney damage and where he also became a fervent Christian. After nineteen months of incarceration, Kuo Yuan escaped, and the family made its exodus for several years through Indochina (now known as Southeast Asia) to Hong Kong. There, Kuo Yuan became an evangelical preacher and a successful businessman. After a business dispute, Kuo Yuan and his family emigrated to the United States in 1964, where he attended theological seminary in Pittsburgh. He subsequently became a Presbyterian minister in the small town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, where his congregation dubbed him their “heathen minister.” He died in 1980.
This Odysseus-like father is a haunting presence and persistent remembrance in Lee’s poetry, taking on almost mythic qualities of spiritual might and physical debility, nurturing gentleness and disciplinarian sternness. For instance, the poet-speaker of “The Gift” (in Rose) remembers his father thus:
In Lee’s later poetry, the presence of other family members becomes more palpable. The memory of a brother who died in childhood recurs in Book of My Nights, and in that book his mother figures more importantly, as for instance, in “The Hammock”:
Love is another constant in Li-Young Lee’s poetry, ranging from a deep love of family that seems to spring from Confucianism and soar into Christianity (as in “My Sleeping Loved Ones” in Rose), to a complexly evanescent erotic love (as in “This Room and Everything in It” in The City in Which I Love You), and a sensuous yet spiritual love of food (“Eating Alone” and “Eating Together” in Rose). Indeed, a fine and intricate combining of spirituality and sensuousness is the alchemical power of Lee’s poetry, whether it be caught in the tug of his wife’s hair that he braids with a love mirroring his father’s for his mother (“Braiding” in Rose), or in the jubilance of ripened peaches that celebrates creation and reminds of mortality (“From Blossoms” in Rose), or in the marrow of a roast duck that elicits a meditation on the interconnectedness of humanity (“The Cleaving” in The City in Which I Love You).
The two dominant literary influences upon Lee’s writing have been the Chinese Tang Dynasty poems his parents recited during his boyhood and the Bible, which his father made him read. In the latter, Lee’s favorite books are Exodus, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, and in these one sees several major themes of Lee’s writing: an ethnic diaspora and search for identity, the oneness of sensual and spiritual love, and the aspiration to wisdom through the pain of experience.