Li-Young Lee and Poetry about Fathers

ROSESubmitted by Elaine Magliaro, Weekend Contributor

I fell in love with the poetry of Li-Young Lee when I read his debut collection Rose. Published in 1986, the book won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. In the foreword that he wrote for Rose, Gerald Stern said that when he first came across Li-Young Lee’s poetry, he “was amazed by the large vision, the deep seriousness and the almost heroic ideal “reminiscent more of John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke and perhaps Theodore Roethke than William Carlos Williams on the one hand or T.S. Eliot on the other.” Stern added that what characterizes Lee’s poetry “Is a certain humility, a kind of cunning, a love of plain speech, a search for wisdom and understanding…”

Stern also wrote in his foreword that the “father” in contemporary poetry “tends to be a pathetic soul or bungler or a sweet loser, overwhelmed by the demands of family and culture and workplace.” He said that the father in Lee’s poems isn’t anything like that. He said the “father” in Lee’s poetry is “more godlike”–and that the poet’s job “becomes not to benignly or tenderly forgive him, but to withstand him and comprehend him, and variously fear and love him.”






Lee’s second collection, The City in Which I Love You (1990), is a remembrance of the poet’s childhood…and his father. Writing in Publishers Weekly, reviewer Peggy Kaganoff said the book’s poetry “weaves a remarkable web of memory from the multifarious fibers of his experience.”

For Father’s Day, I have selected some poems from Li-Young Lee’s Rose and The City in Which I Love You to share with you.


Excerpt from Eating Alone


Once, years back, I walked beside my father

among the windfall pears. I can’t recall

our words. We may have strolled in silence. But

I still see him bend that way-left hand braced

on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my

eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet

spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.


It was my father I saw this morning

waving to me from the trees. I almost

called to him, until I came close enough

to see the shovel, leaning where I had

left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.


Click here to read the rest of the poem.


Excerpt from The Gift


To pull the metal splinter from my palm

my father recited a story in a low voice.

I watched his lovely face and not the blade.

Before the story ended, he’d removed

the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.


I can’t remember the tale,

but hear his voice still, a well

of dark water, a prayer.

And I recall his hands,

two measures of tenderness

he laid against my face,

the flames of discipline

he raised above my head.


Had you entered that afternoon

you would have thought you saw a man

planting something in a boy’s palm,

a silver tear, a tiny flame.


Click here to read the rest of the poem.


Li Young Lee “The Gift”



Excerpt from My Father, in Heaven, Is Reading Out Loud


My father, in heaven, is reading out loud

to himself Psalms or news. Now he ponders what

he’s read. No. He is listening for the sound

of children in the yard. Was that laughing

or crying? So much depends upon the

answer, for either he will go on reading,

or he’ll run to save a child’s day from grief.

As it is in heaven, so it was on earth.


Click here to read the rest of the poem.


Eating Together



Li-Young Lee Reading ‘This Room & Everything in It’



The Poetry Foundation

The Academy of American Poets


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7 thoughts on “Li-Young Lee and Poetry about Fathers”

  1. Beautiful poetry Elaine! Very touching and very appropriate for Fathers Day!

  2. Elaine, Brava. Could you please retrieve my comment on the “sonny” thread. Thanks for your anticipated professionalism. I treated clients I despised w/ respect because I was a pro.

  3. Thank you for this gift of words and thoughts, gentle on the tongue and heart.

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