The poetry of Li-Young Lee is charged with the influence of being an outsider and dealing assimilating within a different culture. Young’s father was a doctor who at one time treated a very famous patient: Chairman Mao. Later he was imprisoned for living too dangerously under the brutal Sukarno regime in Indonesia. Finally, in 1959 the flight began which took the young poet-to-be from Hong Kong to Japan to the United States. Lee’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side was once President of Republican of China. The impressive historical baggage borne by his family has been instrumentally integrated into Lee’s poetry in the form of a pervasive thematic confrontation between a cultural background grounded in history and a cultural dislocation resulting from alienation from the surrounding cultural assumptions.
Themes common to writers struggling to unify a single identity when existing in the borderland between two distinct societies can be found in the verse of Lee, but expanding upon those broader concepts are the introduction of more precisely located topics that reflect the poet’s special and individual experiences. For instance, the inescapable feeling of being exiled from his homeland even though he was young when the exit occurred becomes a recurring motif. A tangential concern situated within the expressions of feeling exiled are a wealth of imagery and allusion to things being disconnected or displaced from their expected location.
Imagery is at the heart of Lee’s theories on poetic construction. The typical Lee poem radiates from a central metaphor and proceeds to freely associate—often in almost surrealistic language—words, sounds and rhythms that build image upon image to craft sensuous, tactile concretizing of the meaning of that metaphorical starting point.
Among the honors and recognition that Lee’s poetry has earned include New York University’s 1989 Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award for Rose. The very next year Lee claimed the Lamont Poetry Selection for The City in which I Love You. The Academy of American Poets for award a fellowoship to Lee in 2003 for distinguished poetic achievement.