Act I: Enter Ghost

Note: I realize that I am incredibly late with the Hamlet blog posts, which is the result of severe apathy and sloth, but hopefully I can still salvage 50% credit? Regardless, I’ll give my reactions to each Act and a selection of quotes that I liked and why for each post.


After reading Act I, I found the beginning of Hamlet to be somewhat interesting. I’m not so sure about the ghost though. It seems like Shakespeare was trying to find a way to reveal the nature of the King’s death, but having failed, he had no choice but to use…the ghost of the king come back from the dead. Lame. However, that said, the plot does seem to be unique. Murder for the purpose of incest? A crazy vindictive prince? Not bad W. Shakespeare, not bad at all.

I found the scene in the throne room to be rather well done. Although I’m usually bored by Shakespeare’s style, Hamlet’s soliloquies were engaging and expressive. However, the scene where Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost and makes Horatio etc. swear on his sword several times kind of weirded me out, and didn’t really make a whole lot of sense. I suppose it’s a 16th century thing. Nowadays ghosts don’t have nearly the same connotation as they must have had in the past. Oh, and the whole pouring poison in the King’s ear concept was rather strange. I suppose I have to give Shakespeare points for originality, as simply pouring it in his mouth or something like that would have been trite, but still…the ear? I appreciate the various allusions he makes about hearing and whatnot, but I can’t help but feel that he could have devised something more insidious and fascinating. Or maybe I’m missing the point. Was Shakespeare implying something about Claudius by the way he killed his brother? Pouring leprous poison in the ear, a most appropriately bizzare method for a murder with an equally offputting purpose. He could have given him poisoned wine like in Act V. Still not really seeing anything deep there, since poison is poison, regardless of whatever cowardly way it’s used.

Interesting Quotes from Act I:

King: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet: Not so, my lord. I am too much i’ the sun.

Interesting interplay of wit. Several other times this sort of contradictory pun exchange appears in the later acts. Most of the times it usually has something to do with the weather or the sky for some reason.

Queen: If it be,
Why seems it particular with thee?
Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show–
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Liking this speech; I feel that the sarcasm and bitterness here represent Hamlet’s emotional state and personality well.

Hamlet: Frailty, thy name is woman!-…
O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer…
O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

I can see why Hamlet is so distraught. The whole inter-marriage thing is more than just a bit taboo. Not so sure about his attitude toward his mother. He’s essentially calling her a whore, which seems a bit harsh to me. Regardless of how weird the situation is, she’s still his mother.

Polonius: …Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend…

Famous quote; if only people read more Shakespeare, we wouldn’t be in a recession

Horatio: What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff…

Oh come on now Horatio, we wouldn’t be lucky enough for something that exciting to happen *sigh*

Hamlet: Hic et Ubique?

One of only several instances in which I’ve found knowing Latin was useful…and even then, the book translated it in the footnotes. 


Project Overview

Overall I found this project to be rather enjoyable. The stuff I found as I searched the internet for Li-Young Lee was altogether fascinating. I found that by focusing one poet, I was able to discover an interest in his work. Prior to this year of English, I’d absolutely despised poetry. Now I don’t mind it so much. I don’t think I’ll actively seek out poetry, but if I have to endure it in the future, which is probably likely, then atleast it won’t be so bad.

This blog assignment was much easier than the research paper. I found it to be alot less stressful; instead of pulling an all-nighter to write an epic paper like in first semester, I could systematically procrastinate on each smaller assignment without losing an inordinate amount of sleep. Ironically, however, I found the research paper to be more interesting. The thought of facing another blog post every week was almost more depressing than a full paper (I’m kidding, it wasn’t depressing, but it didn’t exactly inspire enthusiasm). Call me crazy, but I actually enjoyed the book research involved with the research paper. It felt alot more legit than any web sources I’ve ever seen. Un an unrelated note, I found out quite a bit more about Whitman’s sexual orientation and relations than I was expecting (the disturbing possibility of relations with his “retarded brother”[sic] appeared more than enough times to convince me of its plausibility). Needless to say I was rather sketched out by this scandolous revelation, and the recurrance with which I continued to stumble upon similar information was quite amusing.

The only downside is that it felt like I couldn’t really consolidate anything truly complex about Li-Young Lee, whereas the connections between Emerson and Whitman were far more conducive to academic insight. I’m not sure if this was because of the fragmented nature of examining a poet (disregarding whitman), or the nature of the blog itself. Either way, this project was very edifying, especially in gaining experience with using internet and blog resources for research. I also experimented with HTML code while writing my posts, which was sort of interesting.

Comment Links:




“I’m glad I’m not the only one who appreciates Li-Young Lee’s style. I’ve heard several critics attack him for using “simple language” and not conforming to an impossible literary standard. I find that Li-Young Lee is able to convey alot more with his poems than others who attempt to embelish their works with grandiloquent language (not trying to be hypocritical). Alot of poets turn me away because of the obscurity of their poems, yet Lee is able to be ambiguous without being confusing. (Sorry for the random post 1 year later, but I needed to for a school blog project).”

Three Sir!


I too am fascinated by the thoughtful nature of Lee’s poetry. I find that even in poems dealing with a vulgar subject have an air of compassion about them. In particular, “The Cleaving” contains descriptions which while being harsh in their reality, are simultaenously sensitive and deep. For instance:

“He could be my brother, but finer,
and, except for his left forearm, which is engorged,
sinewy from his daily grip and
wield of a two-pound tool,
he’s delicate, narrow-
waisted, his frame
so slight a lover, some
rough other
might break it down
its smooth, oily length.”

“I would eat
the gutless twitching on the scales,
three pounds of dumb
nerve and pulse, I would eat it all
to utter it…
I thought the soul an airy thing.
I did not know the soul
is cleaved so that the soul might be restored.”

(I had a headache of a time trying to find other blogs about LYL. Most of them were just news blogs about when he was at a poetry reading in Chicago etc. or were just people posting a copy of one of his poems with no comments at all)

Imitation Poetry


I’d thought the memories buried,
Out in the placid expanse of grass.
Yet timid claws sifted
The damp earth, throwing years
Of dust and clay against the wind.
A curious gaze beholds what lays interred
Considers, thoughtfully, what may be the source
Of the curious contents of the new hole.
Out drift the silent vapors of the distant past,
Winding around the emancipator with ardent gratitude,
Drifting listlessly across the grass,
Twisting gently around an ashen tree; climbing ever cloudward.

I attempted to incorporate some of the themes from “Little Father” while following a LYLesque style of free verse, interrupted sentences.

Contemporary Influences

According to this Source, Li-Young Lee has referenced Gerald Stern as a source of influence for his poetry. The following poem of Stern’s contains several similarities to Lee’s poetry.

Lucky Life

Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows.
Lucky I don’t have to wake up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
on the hill overlooking Union Square or the hill overlooking
Kuebler Brewery or the hill overlooking SS. Philip and James
but have my own hills and my own vistas to come back to.

Each year I go down to the island I add
one more year to the darkness;

and though I sit up with my dear friends
trying to separate the one year from the other,
this one from the last, that one from the former,
another from another,
after a while they all get lumped together,
the year we walked to Holgate,
the year our shoes got washed away,
the year it rained,
the year my tooth brought misery to us all.
This year was a crisis. I knew it when we pulled
the car onto the sand and looked for the key.
I knew it when we walked up the outside steps
and opened the hot icebox and began the struggle
with swollen drawers and I knew it when we laid out
the sheets and separated the clothes into piles
and I knew it when we made our first rush onto
the beach and I knew it when we finally sat
on the porch with coffee cups shaking in our hands.

My dream is I’m walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I’m lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,
by memory, which statue of Christopher Columbus
I have to look for, the one with him slumped over
and lost in weariness or the one with him
vaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe in
one hand and a compass in the other.
My dream is I’m in the Eagle Hotel on Chamber Street
sitting at the oak bar, listening to two
obese veterans discussing Hawaii in 1942,
and reading the funny signs over the bottles.
My dream is I sleep upstairs over the honey locust
and sit on the side porch overlooking the stone culvert
with a whole new set of friends, mostly old and humorless.

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?
Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.


(I’ve highlighted particular lines that remind me of LYL’s style)

Li-Young Lee specified this poem as a source of inspiration. It is clear that he has drawn subtle stylistic patterns and structure from it. Gerald Stern employs frequent repetition of a key phrase, such as “Lucky life…the year…I knew it…my dream is…will you”, throughout the poem. This style of listing and cataloguing is very similar to of Whitman. Perhaps it’s not just a coincidence. Whitman appears to have affected both Stern and Lee. Although Lee does not frequently employ an overt, parallel listing behavior in his poetry like Whitman and Stern, he incorporates similar images troughout his poetry. For instance, in “From Blossoms”, he  says, “not only the skin, but the shade, not only the sugar, but the days, to hold…from joy to joy to joy, from wing to wing, from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.” He repeats the images of hands and peaches in slightly different contexts in each section of the poem. Lee also discusses similar themes of time as Stern and seems to have strong feelings of nostalgia towards certain places and objects (i.e. fruits associated with his family/father). In <a href=”“>This Hour and What is Dead</a>, Lee uses a parallel structure like Stern/Whitman.

“At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning…

At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive…

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives…”


More examples of similarities between Stern (Blue text) and Lee:

Each year I go down to the island I add
one more year to the darkness;

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background


Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.


Lucky I don’t have to wake up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
on the hill overlooking Union Square…My dream is I’m walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I’m lost on South Main Street…

Last night the room was so cold
I dreamed we were in Pittsburgh again, where winter
persisted and we fell asleep in the last seat
of the 71 Negley, dark mornings going to work.

Lee, Emerson, and Whitman (A trifecta of Epic win…or is it?)

The main reason I chose Li-Young Lee for this blog assignment was because I had encountered an essay during the first semester research project that compared LYL, Emerson, and Whitman. Having enjoyed the intricacies of the intertextuality of Whitman and Emerson, LYL was the logical choice. Of course, having found the article that I would use for my intertextuality post of this blog already didn’t have anything to do with it (haha).

Jeffrey Partridge analyzes the cultural and racial aspects of Lee’s poetry in the context of American literature as a whole, and includes his relation to Emerson and Whitman. He suggests that rather than embrace the literary traditions of Emerson and Whitman, LYL simultaneously repudiates and “devours” them.

What is it in me would devour this world to utter it? … I would eat it all to utter it …I would devour this race to sing it … I would eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his soporific transcendence.
–Li-Young Lee, “The Cleaving” (83) 

In one of his longest and best-known poems, “The Cleaving,” Li-Young Lee announces his desire to devour Ralph Waldo Emerson like a steamed fish in a Chinese meal. The reader forgives this breach of table etiquette because, as Lee informs us, Emerson said the whole Chinese race was ugly–he deserves to be eaten. But Lee’s poem is more sophisticated and more philosophical than this tit-for-tat scenario suggests. In “The Cleaving,” eating is assault, but it is also digestion and assimilation.

This rather disturbing comparison is somewhat interesting. LYL characteristically uses his vivid sensory imagery to convey the texture and taste of the “meat” he devours. Metaphorically, it makes sense that he absorbs the style and prose of E. and W. as if he had eaten them or their work. He seems to suggest that eating (metaphorically) is an act of accumulating the essence and wisdom of the food itself, and also that “As we eat we’re eaten”, much the same way that “as we teach we are taught”. In the full text, it becomes clearer that LYL emphasizes his appetite for the Chinese soul and scoffs at Emerson’s distate.

“I would devour this race to sing it,
this race that according to Emerson
managed to preserve to a hair
for three or four thousand years
the ugliest features in the world.

I would eat these features, eat
the last three or four thousand years, every hair.
And I would eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his
soporific transcendence.
I would eat this head,
glazed in pepper-speckled sauce…”

Lee brings the butcher’s shop close to the banquet table by deliberately playing on the two senses of the verb “cleave” to suggest both chopping up and clinging to, and thus the poem vacillates between the act of rejection and the process of assimilation. Eating in this poem may begin with the butcher’s chopping block, but it is ultimately about communion.The dialectics of Lee’s poem reveal a blind spot in contemporary critical theory’s discussion of the ethnic author. In valorizing the so-called marginal element in ways that reproduce it as “central” to our cultural concerns, contemporary criticism, in spite of itself, insists upon the segregation of the “ethnic writer” from the “mainstream.” As such, we are in danger of patronizingly valuing ethnic writing as a “dynamic” and “colorful” literature of outsiders that brings new “life” to America’s tired literary traditions. By insisting on marginality for ethnic authors, we also ignore the dialectical relationship that exists between these writers and the various traditions of American literature to which they, like any other American author, belong. Li-Young Lee’s dinner/communion with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman in “The Cleaving” illustrates what is at stake when we approach a given writer as either “Asian American” or “American.” Lee’s poem shrewdly questions the either/or between these authorial identities. In Li-Young Lee’s poetry, eating is a cultural activity that enacts familial and ethnic community. The Chinese meal of rice and steamed fish in “Eating Together” is a metaphor that combines generational continuity with a sense of familial belonging after the death of the poet’s father, and this metaphor is juxtaposed with the loneliness of the meal described in “Eating Alone.” These poems from Lees first book of poetry, Rose, contextualize eating as a familial activity fraught with personal (though not just private) significance. In a much longer poem, “The Cleaving” (from his second book of poetry, The City in Which I Love You), eating becomes both a sign of cultural communion with other Chinese immigrants (i.e. the larger cultural community) as well as an aggressive weapon against racism in American society and American literature. The poet “transforms words into things capable of competing with food” (Deleuze and Guattari 20) when, in order to speak as a poet for his community, he “eats” that community and he “eats” Ralph Waldo Emerson and his insulting and reductive remark that the Chinese “managed to preserve to a hair … the ugliest features in the world.”The Cleaving” is a poetic cleaver that carves a space in American literary tradition, with Emerson standing for the overt (albeit negative) marker of that tradition. In some sense it would be more accurate to say that the poem “hacks” a space: hacking describes the action of a cleaver, and perhaps it more clearly describes the speaker’s voracious attack on Emerson. Yet, as discussed above, Lee makes deliberate use of the verb “cleave” to suggest both hacking and adhering, splitting and joining. This same process is inherent in the analogy of eating: we attack by cutting, biting, chewing, swallowing, and digesting, but through this attack we also absorb the nutrients of what we eat; we reterritorialize it. What we eat, in this sense, becomes a part of us.

The opposite actions of devouring and nourishing, and of deterritorializing and reterritorializing, are thus necessary to the speaker’s response to Emerson, which is implicitly linked to this line toward the poems end:


resides in the embrace

of the effaced and the effacer,

in the covenant of the opened and the opener. (86)

By linking these lines with the speaker’s response to Emerson, I wish to suggest that the poem is not an outright rejection of Emerson and the philosophy of transcendentalism. While eating Emerson seems overtly and violently to disassociate the speaker from Emerson and his influence, as a “food” substance Emerson also becomes a nutrient for the speaker’s poetic utterance (though I will later question the poem’s reconstruction of Emerson). The poem suggests therefore that positive “change” requires, as in expanding the horizon of consciousness and the reader’s horizon of expectation, an “embrace” and a “covenant” between the racialized self and the racist Other. Thus, while it may appear that Lee has set Emerson up as a straw man, what he expresses in the poem belies a deep-seated indebtedness to Emerson.

Thus, for all its violent eating and grotesque devouring, the metaphysics of “The Cleaving” is Emersonian. The poet, furthermore, communes with his American literary forebears through the poem’s celebratory mood, reminiscent of Walt Whitman and his brand of transcendentalism. Through “The Cleaving,” Lee enters a dialogic relationship with Emersonian transcendentalism that is similar to the relationship between Whitman’s poetry and Emerson’s philosophy. According to Jerome Loving, one “of Whitman’s achievements in his first edition of Leaves of Grass was to advance Emersonianism or transcendentalism by contradicting it” (452-53). While Whitman’s poetry maintained a transcendentalist perspective that God is immanent in nature and in the human soul (encapsulated, for Emerson, in the rather disembodied notion of the Oversoul), his poetry departed from Emerson’s transcendentalism in its language and philosophy of the body. Rather than seeing the body as merely “an emblem of the Soul” or as a “world of senses” that must be transcended in order to become “whole again in the mind of God” (453), Whitman celebrated the body as soul. In the twenty-first stanza of “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul” (207). Similarly, in the closing lines of “I Sing the Body Electric,” the poet equates the body with the soul, thereby breaking down the distinction between the two: “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, / O I say now these are the soul!” (258). This poem in particular established Whitman as “the poet of the body” and distinguishes his transcendentalism from Emerson’s. Like Li-Young Lee, Whitman continued Emerson by challenging him in an Emersonian way.



Well, the esteemed Mr. Partridge pretty much took the words right out of my mouth. There’s no way I could come close to the sort of comparisons he uses without extensive research (wouldn’t that be cruel, if the final assignment for the blog was a second research paper surprise?). So instead I’ll just note a couple of similarities I see between Lee and Whitman. Emerson seems sortof aloof from Lee’s works in terms of style (some content similarities as noted by Partridge however).

I recall one of the main similarities I found between Whitman and Emerson in the first semester paper was a shared use of cataloguing and listing of details or elements within their writing. While Lee does not typically rely heavily on this style, he does use mutliple descriptors for many of his memories of his father. Another somewhat obvious similarity between the three writers is their fascination with nature and plant imagery. Many of LYL’s poems involve fruits of some sort, or surreally involve nature metaphors, as did Whitman’s poems.

For instance in the following poem which I recently discovered (my favorite one of LYL’s so far),
he incorporates natural elements into the memories of his father.

Little Father

I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds (The image I imagine of this scene is very amusing)
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
every night.

I buried my father underground.
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors
stand open at evening, receiving
guest after guest.
Sometimes I see past them
to the tables spread for a wedding feast.

I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won’t drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life.


In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down the newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew on the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down,
I teach her Chinese. Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.
Naked: I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo: you me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set them both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang. The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father would stay up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons, swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.

He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

This is one of LYL’s more prose heavy, autobiographical poems. In the beginning, he describes his experience of being punished for not understanding a pronunciation difference. Although he knows the very essence of the persimmon, his teacher acts as if he could not tell the difference between a persimmon and the concept of precision, rather than the pronunciation, which would be difficult for LYL, new as he was in the US.

The description he gives of the persimmon is characteristic of his style of writing. He focuses on a sensual description of a fruit which brings him fond memories, contrastingly evenly with the associated memory of his teacher.

He continues, describing the associations he has with particular words or pairs of words. He struggles to transition between Chinese and English, much as he struggles to change cultures and lifestyle. LYL is fond of infusing sexual experiences into some of his works, as seen here. He often blends them into his memories of other sensual experiences.

When his teacher brings the persimmons to class, the feeling of alienation that results clearly had an impact on LYL. He must have felt upset that his teacher would cruelly torment him with the afforementioned fruit.

The description of his father is reminiscent of many of his other poems. He associates his father with Persimmons, and recalls a specific fond memory when he thinks of the fruit.



“The desire to find some connection with his heritage and prove to himself that he has not fully immersed himself into an alien culture is at the core of Li-Young Lee’s poem. His memory of a teacher who embarrassed him in class by insinuating that raw persimmons are typical Chinese fare are contrasted by his attraction to a white girl. Lee’s need to take pride in his native culture which America cannot lay claim to or lacks is fulfilled when he realizes the warmth of his parents love and the precision they exercise in their respective crafts.The speaker remembers the day Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class, and instead of peeling it, “cut it up / so everyone could taste / a Chinese apple.” Aside from the impropriety of using a knife, Mrs. Walker was also imprecise in her choice of an unripe persimmon, and in calling it a “Chinese apple.” In giving it this name, she also committed the insensitive blunder of connecting the odd fruit with the speaker, the Chinese boy in class. The scene expands into the image of an Asian American child who declined the offered fruit because he knew “it wasn’t ripe or sweet,” and “watched the other faces.” Unripe persimmons are extremely sour and astringent, and Lee has sketched in enough of the scene to suggest those childish faces scrunching up and turning to the quiet Chinese boy who eats such strange, terrible food at home.

The poem ends with the father’s remark that “some things never leave a person,” and indeed, as in so much of Lee’s loving, precisely crafted poetry, this work reaches into the murky depths of memory to salvage cherishable characteristics of his parents and their culture.”


I never thought of the fact that the unripe persimmon would cause the other children to associate the Chinese culture, and therefore Lee, with the unpleasant taste they experienced. This added layer of meaning intensifies the trauma of the experience LYL had with his teacher.


We two sit on our bed, you
between my legs, your back to me, your head
slightly bowed, that I may brush and braid
your hair. My father
did this for my mother,
just as I do for you. One hand
holds the hem of you hair, the other
works the brush. Both hands climb
as the strokes grow
longer, until I use not only my wrists,
but my arms, then my shoulders, my whole body
rocking in a rower’s rhythm, a lover’s
even time, as the tangles are undone,
and brush and bare hand run the thick,
fluent length of your hair, whose wintry scent
comes, a faint, human musk.

Last night the room was so cold
I dreamed we were in Pittsburgh again, where winter
persisted and we fell asleep in the last seat
of the 71 Negley, dark mornings going to work.
How I wish we didn’t hate those years
while we lived them.
Those were days of books,
days of silences stacked high
as the ceiling of that great, dim hall
where we studied. I remember
the thick, oak tabletops, how cool
they felt against my face
when I lay my head down and slept.

How long your hair has grown.
Gradually, December.

There will come a day
one of us will have to imagine this: you,
after your bath, crosslegged on the bed, sleepy, patient,
while I braid your hair.

Here, what’s made, these braids, unmakes
itself in time, and must be made
again, within and against
time. So I braid
your hair each day.
My fingers gather, measure hair,
hook, pull and twist hair and hair.
Deft, quick, they plait,
weave, articulate lock and lock, to make
and make these braids, which point
the direction of my going, of all our continuous going.
And though what’s made does not abide,
my making is steadfast, and, besides, there is a making
of which this making-in-time is just a part,
a making which abides
beyond the hands which rise in the combing,
the hands which fall in the braiding,
trailing hair in each stage of its unbraiding.

Love, how the hours accumulate. Uncountable.
The trees grow tall, some people walk away
and diminish forever.
The damp pewter days slip around without warning
and we cross over one year and one year.

Li-Young Lee uses images of hair in many of his poems. He often uses the movement of hair as a metaphor for the passage of time. It seems like in this poem, he is trying to relate to the reader the memories and feelings that are invoked when he braids his wife’s (assuming) hair. He is very perceptive to patterns and rituals, such as in his poem “I Ask My Mother to Sing” where he notices the way his mother always grooms her hair. In “Braiding”, he describes his own ritual that he performs, and how it is a continuation of a memory of his parents. He seems to associate particular memories with certain patterns or objects. Alot of times, he likes to describe his father by means of different flora (vegetables, fruits, trees etc.). I find this association very fascinating as it is almost like Lee is trying to instill these symbols with the spirit of his past relatives. As with his other poems, I enjoy the imagery he employs in “Braiding”, particularly associated to specific nostalgic experiences. For instance, he says “I remember the thick, oak tabletops, how cool they felt against my face when I lay my head down and slept.” This reminds me of another of his poems, “Eating Alone”, where he says “By the cellar door, I wash the onions, then drink from the icy metal spigot,” yet another example of nostalgic sensory experience. He seems to like cold, dark, quiet, or liquid memories, as they appear most frequently in his works. He speaks of “a rotten pear. In it, a hornet spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.” Sometimes he also breaks his pattern and writes something like “Nocturne”, which is suffused with sharp, rusty, unpleasant imagery, grating and out of place compared to winter vegetables or a succulent pear, much as the sound described in the poem seems out of place to LYL in the night. In many ways it seems that LYL uses his poetry to record his specific physical experiences and memories. I enjoy experiencing a part of his memories, as in many instances they closely relate to my own. In particular, the icy metal spigot invokes memories that I’ve associated with that image. Others don’t seem to appreciate these memories, as I’ve discovered below.


“LYL is a modern day martyr- someone, not unlike a Mary Oliver, to whom the PC Elitist term of spiritual is attached oh-so-delicately to- as if he is a modern monk. Being spiritual also entails being called lyrical & musical, whether or not the poems plod. MO’s best poems have music. LYL’s are merely distorted prose.”“This kind of pathetic bathos should be weeded out in any Day 1 of any even shady workshop rip-off class. That this kind of writing finds publishers, & gets lauded is only more proof of the utter dumbing down of culture- HUMAN CULTURE! Publishers have been thoroughly Oprahfied! About the only positive thing that 1 can say about this stock workshop themed piece of doggerel (the titular poem), which is as wholly generic as any poem I’ve yet essayed in TOP, is that- thankfully- LYL showed enough compassion to not cast it as a villanelle!”

Not only do we have here a critic, but a particularly snide, jaded one at that. His excessively grandiloquent style is almost nauseatingly fake aswell. Dan Schneider takes on the task of reviewing Li-Young Lee and “Braiding” with gusto.

“Stanza 1 has nothing new nor poetic in it- but the rewrite (below) says far more with far less. In it we start in media res, get all the attendant baggage that the original feels a need to detail, & it has music. Stanza 2, originally, is rote, trite, & detailed description meant to make the poem’s percipient ‘real’ & individuated. But characters become real by their actions, & how they are described. The rewrite gets to the center in haikuvian fashion. Stanza 3 can even be shortened. With just the rewritten title & line 1 of Stanza 1 of the rewrite we have invoked all the hair brushing & braiding workshop clichés. The 2 word stanza 3 can be seen as the query at the poem’s axle, of a moment of appreciation of the brushed’s mane. Stanza 4, originally, feels a need to remind you this is about hair & braiding. The rewrite focuses in on what the speaker finds important. This ‘builds’ character in & of its own ungilded statement. Stanza 5- an abomination of tautology, while the rewrite is more mysterious, lauds the creationary impulse, & leaves blanks to be filled in. In short, it intrigues where the original bores. Stanza 6 ends the poem with a whimper- more braiding, but the braiding is not just of hair- see, the poet was being deep & symbolic. The rewrite leaves us wanting to reread & connect some dots. Read it fully:Braiding
Undone, brush and bare hand run the thick,
fluent length, whose wintry scent comes musk.
The thick, oak tabletops- how cool
they felt against my face.
How long.
After your bath, crosslegged on the bed, sleepy, patient.
Making, which abides the hands
rises in the combing, fall
in each stage of it.
Damp pewter days slip around without warning.”

It appears that Dan is frustrated by the “verbose” style of LYL’s poetry. However, the notion that you can rewrite a poem to remove everything but the essential details is borderline absurd. Aside from William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, almost every poet uses more description than is needed. In fact, if we’re going to be reducing things to their essential meaning, I can describe “Romeo and Juliet” in two words: “unrequited love”. There, I’ve reproduced one of Shakespeare’s most famous works with only the essential details, award please? Dan clearly misses the meaning and purpose of art and poetry. It’s not necessarily about saying exactly what you mean in specific, painstakingly rhymed verses. Like Li-Young Lee says, “The Real medium in architecture is the not materiality, it’s space, it’s immateriality.” The spaces are just as important as the words of a poem. Impatiently reading a poem like a book, expecting to find overt meaning certainly would lead to a conclusion like “This kind of pathetic bathos should be weeded out in any Day 1 of any even shady workshop rip-off class.” One must consider the spacing and structure of the poem that LYL presents; not just the meaning of the words, but also the way they bring about particular associations. Arguing about the triteness of themes and styles of poetry is frustratingly pointless as it ALL has been done before. Why is Father-Son relationship and “reconciliation” off limits? The only new direction to go is towards the bizarre, yet this is seen by some (Dan) as pointless dribble. Quite honestly there’s nothing you can do about a jaded critic. They’re too far gone to realize the inflexability of their impossible standards. I’m not saying that everyone has to like LYL’s style of poetry, but rather that Dan’s reasons for disliking it are invalid and insufficient. Some people obviously can’t stand this kind of poetry. In all, it comes down to a matter of opinion, much like the controversy of modern art.

Modern Art

Who is LYL?

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee is a modern poet with a rather eccentric style of combining prose, poetry, and autobiographical content in his work. He was born in 1957 in Indonesia. Originally Chinese, his family was forced to leave the country due to racial tensions and eventually relocated to the U.S. in 1964. Li-Young Lee (Hereafter to be referred to as LYL for the sake of brevity) attended several universities, where he began his writing career. He published his first collection of poems Rose in 1986. He has since released several other collections and autobiographical works, most notably The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, and The City in Which I Loved You, which is his most well known and recognized work. LYL has won several awards for his books, including an American Book Award for The Winged Seed  (Full List [Source 2]).

LYL Frequently participates in interviews, discussions, and readings of his works. For instance, he reveals several aspects of his writing in the following excerpt from an interview between him and Scene Missing Magazine:         

SM: If the world is a place of portals and doors, where do the important doors go?

LYL: I would guess that the “important doors” open onto self-knowledge, knowledge of who we are… For isn’t it true that how we encounter, how we react and relate to what’s on the other side of the door will determine the importance of the event even more than what’s on the other side (a rose, a duck, a tiger, a naked man with a leafblower…a pile of money). And so the outcome of our encounter stands as testimony and evidence of who we are, our true identity.

SM: Up to this point, how has the passage of time treated you?

LYL: I was about to say that Life has treated me with great leniency, kindness, and love, so far. But then I realized your question wasn’t how “Life” has treated me but how “the passage of time” has treated me. So I have to say “the passage of time” has treated me exactly the way it has treated everyone.                         

SM: What was the last circumstance in which you found yourself that you could not comprehend entirely?

LYL: Working at a poem earlier this afternoon. I couldn’t tell why or what or how I was doing. I couldn’t tell what a poem is, what is its value, what am I trying to say, am I trying to say anything, is something else wanting to speak through me, am I listening to the right words, what does a line-ending punctuate that commas and periods don’t, what is poetic consciousness and how is it different from mundane consciousness, what does the practice of poetry have to do with human evolution?

(Source: )                                                                                                                                                         

In this short conversation, LYL reveals many of the aspects about himself that pervade his works. Particularly his fascination with seemingly random, eccentric detail (Such as the examples he lists for what might be behind the door). He also describes the level of detail and care he takes in choosing the form and construction of his poems.

In future posts, I’ll explore the nature of the uniqueness of his many poems, and the ensuing debate over their value as part of the modern literary world. Although widely critically acclaimed, the style of his work has also attracted negative sentiments. Much like modern art, his style is nowhere near universally accepted or well liked. Regardless of his abilities as a poet (which I believe are appropriately represented by his many awards and honors), the eccentric and unique nature of his work is atleast interesting and worth reading.