Authors: Li-Young Lee

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet

August 19, 1957

Jakarta, Indonesia


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. {$I[A]Lee, Li-Young} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Lee, Li-Young} {$I[geo]ASIAN AMERICAN/ASIAN DESCENT;Lee, Li-Young} {$I[tim]1957;Lee, Li-Young}

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:

    And I recall his hands,     Two measures of tenderness     He laid against my face,     The flames of discipline     He raised above my head.

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”:

   When I lay my head in my mother’s lap   I think how day hides the stars . . .   I don’t know what my mother is thinking. When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder:   Do his father’s kisses keep his father’s worries   From becoming his? . . .   I have no idea what my child is thinking. Between two unknowns I live my life.   Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am   by coming before me, and my child’s wishes, older than I am   by outliving me. And what’s it like?

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.

Author Works Poetry: Rose, 1986 The City in Which I Love You, 1990 Book of My Nights, 2001 Behind My Eyes, 2008 The Undressing, 2018 Nonfiction: The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, 1995 Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee, 2006 (Earl G. Ingersoll, editor) Bibliography Berk, L. Review of The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee. Choice 28 (June, 1991): 1640. Presents a review of the The City in Which I Love You. Engles, Tim. “Lee’s ‘Persimmons.’” Explicator 54 (Spring, 1996): 191–192. Engles shows how the words “persimmons” and “precision” represent the experiences of the poet’s search for values from his “fading heritage.” Engles says that the speaker of the poem “Persimmons” reflects on the warmth of his parents’ love and the importance of their culture. Greenbaum, Jessica. Review of Rose, by Li-Young Lee. The Nation, October 7, 1991, 416. Presents a review of Rose. Hesford, Walter A. “The City in Which I Love You: Li-Young Lee’s Excellent Song.” Christianity and Literature 46, no. 1 (Autumn, 1996): 37–60. Explores the influence of Song of Songs on Lee. Lee, Li-Young. “Li-Young Lee.” Interview by James Kyung-Jin Lee. In Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, edited by King-Kok Cheung. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000. Interview centering on The Winged Seed. Lee, Li-Young. “Li-Young Lee.” Interview by Bill Moyers. In The Language of Life. New York: Doubleday, 1995. This interview explores Rose and Lee’s background. Lee, Li-Young. “Poems from God: A Conversation with Li-Young Lee.” Interview by Amy Pence. Poets and Writers 29 (November/December, 2001): 22–27. Interview discusses Book of My Nights. Lee, Li-Young, and Shawn Wong. Li-Young Lee. Los Angeles: Lannan Literary Videos, 1995. A reading by Lee, followed by an interview with Wong. Lee, Li-Young. “To Witness the Invisible: A Talk with Li-Young Lee.” Interview by Tod Marshall. The Kenyon Review, Winter, 2000, 129–147. Tod Marshall spoke with Li-Young Lee in Memphis, Tennessee, during the fall of 1996. In this interview Lee discusses his interest in quest poetry and talks about his own search for identity, coming to the conclusion that poetry comes out of a need to hear the voice of the universe. “Li-Young Lee.” Poetry Foundation, 2017, Accessed 2 Aug. 2017. Presents a profile of the poet and his work. Muske, Carol. Review of The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee. The New York Times Book Review, January 27, 1991, 20. Presents a review of The City in Which I Love You. Slowick, Mary. “Beyond Lot’s Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25, no. 3 (Fall/Winter, 2000): 221–242. Slovik explains that many immigrants find it difficult to speak of their experiences because they have been expelled from their homelands and have had to survive in a different and often hostile new culture. This silence leads to cultural ambivalence and a loss of cultural identity; families of immigrants live in a void between cultures. She discusses the poets whose lives are affected by the immigrant experience. The meaning of Lee’s life lies not only in his own lifetime but also in the earlier generations of his family. The subject of Slowick’s article is the effect of complex interfamily relationships on the poetry of these immigrant poets. Waniek, Marylin. Review of The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee. Kenyon Review 13 (Fall, 1991): 214. Presents a review of The City in Which I Love You. Zhou, Xiaojing. “Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee’s Poetry.” MELUS, Spring, 1996, 113-132. Xiaojing Zhou shows that Lee’s search for his own identity leads him to examine the years he and his family lived in exile as well as the sense of alienation he experienced as an immigrant. Zhou says that Lee’s memories of his father and his Chinese cultural heritage combine to make his poetry unique.

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