Thursday, April 9, 2020
April 9, 2020: Poets We Should All Read: Li-Young Lee
[April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate I’ll highlight a handful of poets, past and present, we should all be reading. Including some suggestions from fellow AmericanPoetryStudiers—add yours for a celebratory, crowd-sourced weekend poetry post, please!]
On the power of a single perfect poem, and the need to go beyond it nonetheless.
For the last 15 years, the contemporary American poet with whom I’ve had by far the most consistent experience is Li-Young Lee. The reason is very specific and somewhat random: when I constructed my first American Literature II final exam at Fitchburg State, back in the Spring 2006 semester, I wanted to include both a prose and a poetic passage for a close reading question; somehow (I honestly have no recollection of how or where) I came upon Lee’s stunning poem “The Gift ” (1986, part of his first published collection Rose), and I felt that it had so many compelling choices, elements, and themes that it would make a great such close reading poetic passage. It did indeed work so well in that context that I’ve kept Lee’s poem in that role for every subsequent American Lit II final exam since, and since I’ve taught at least 20 sections of the course over my 15 years at FSU, that has meant many, many times re-reading “The Gift” as well as reading hundreds of student analyses of it (they get to choose between it and the prose passage for their close reading answer, but I believe the majority have chosen “The Gift” over the years, a testament in and of itself to its quality as poetry tends to be a less popular option than prose in such settings).
Another testament to the quality and power of “The Gift” is that it has retained its ability to impress and move me even after all those readings and all those exam analyses. One of the reasons is that Lee’s poem manages to capture the perspective and voice of the speaker (presumably Lee himself, although a persona is never identical to the poet) as both a seven year old and an adult, both a son to a loving father and a loving husband to his wife, existing both in memory and the present. That is does so in four relatively short stanzas, in just thirty precise lines, is to my mind nothing short of a miracle—and it does so while also foregrounding a number of other complex and important human themes, from the power of storytelling to the different shapes that love can take (Lee’s poem embodies the concept of “love languages” long before that was all the social media rage). And on top of all of that, Lee also includes the audience in compelling ways through his use of the second-person “you,” a striking choice that makes the poem itself into a storytelling moment from poet to reader and adds yet another vital layer to its effects and meanings. I guess I just wrote my own final exam close reading of “The Gift,” and the poem is so good that I’m not even mad about that!
No poet, especially one with a more than three-decade (to date) career, can or should be reduced to a single poem, however. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about Lee beyond “The Gift” before researching this post, and so for example I didn’t know that his family were deeply tied to the early 20th century Chinese government (his great-grandfather was its first republican president) and fled to Indonesia after the Communist revolution in 1949, nor that his father was imprisoned for a year by Indonesian President Sukarno before the family fled once more. Those multi-generational histories and stories, losses and links, are certainly all present behind the family saga of “The Gift.” But they are also part of Lee’s voice and work well beyond that poem, as illustrated for example by the other two poems (“A Story” and “Early in the Morning”) featured alongside “The Gift” on this page. And they remain part of his evolving career, as illustrated by the intimate yet epic titular poem from his newest collection, 2018’s The Undressing. The depictions of love and intimacy in that poem feels both similar to and quite distinct from those in “The Gift,” and highlights the continuing arc and growth of this wonderful contemporary American poet.
Last poets tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other poets you’d highlight?