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«Li-Young Lee»

Li-Young Lee is an Indonesian writer born into a family of Chinese political exiles. The major themes of his poetry are his family experience, love, death, identity, and nostalgia. Lee wrote his poems in a form of free verse. His works can be described as postmodern lyric poems, influenced by his life as a refugee. In his poetry, one may distinguish such features of postmodernism as intensity, metaphysical abstraction, fragmentation, temporal distortion, participation etc. While reading Lee’s poems, one may notice that they seem to be empty and full simultaneously. For example, his “Pillow” consists of several fragments, which have nothing similar but, at the same time, they have a unique sense and structure. Thus, Li-Young Lee is an American-Chinese representative of postmodern literature, who unites many literary features in his works, making their sense deep and essential.

The first feature of postmodernism is emotional intensity. For instance, the verse “Immigrant Blues” can be regarded as an example of intensity since it pressures the readers with its forcefulness. The author uses many repetitions, such as “inside you (me),” which is repeated five times (lines 13, 19, 20, 24, 25). Probably, he wants to emphasize the importance of these words, pointing out the theme of identity. Lee gives six different names to his story, and they are dissimilar. Moreover, the work includes too much excessive information. Even the meaning of the poem is excessive. On the one hand, it tells about the immigrant’s experience of learning the language. On the other hand, the author identifies himself with a lover. Finally, the issue of personal identity is also of high importance.

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The poem is written in sixteen stanzas, and there are many white spaces between the lines, which may seem unnecessary. However, for postmodernists, there is nothing unnecessary or excessive, and these white spaces between the lines have a special purpose – to make the readers think of the meaning of each stanza. Thus, intensity and excessiveness make the poem a work of postmodernism.

Another feature of postmodernism is fragmentation. The great example of this literary feature is the poem “Pillow.” Almost every line of the verse is abrupt as if some fragments are taken from different works and blended. For instance, “There is nothing I can’t find under there. / Voices in the trees, the missing pages / of the sea. / Everything but sleep” (1-4). The fragments have nothing similar. However, while reading further, the meaning becomes clearer. The poem tells about everything and about nothing simultaneously. It mentions the night, river, houses, mother and father, “lost shoes” and “broken alphabet” (19). However, such different things become a single unity at night, and colors and dissimilarities vanish under the pillow. 

The poem “A Hymn to Childhood” refers to the readers and requires their participation. Lee asks many rhetorical questions and drops some hints about the answers, but, at the same time, he gives the readers a possibility to imagine their personal answers. For instance, the first three questions appeal to the audience, “Childhood? Which childhood? / The one that didn’t last?” (1-3). The first two stanzas are questions, and the last two stanzas begin with the repetitive questions “Which childhood?” (Lee, “A hymn to childhood,” 2008). The author plays with the readers, making them feel uncertain about the answer. He tries to confuse them, and his attempts end successfully. After reading the verse, the readers are puzzled about the theme of childhood, reality, and imagination. The aim of postmodernist Lee is achieved, and the participation of the readers has a long-term effect.

Another example of postmodernism is Lee’s poem “Epistle” published in 1986 (Lee, 2008, “Epistle”). In this work, the main features of postmodernism are temporal distortion and metaphysical abstraction. First, the poem begins with a present time narration, when the speaker tells about his actual experience. Later, one may notice the transition from the first-person speaker to the third-person figure of a boy, who is abstracted from the poem. Further, the author indicates, “and that boy was me, and he / listened without understanding” (16-17). Although Lee states that the boy was he, he later denies this fact, asking the questions, “Who was weeping? / Did the boy fall asleep?” (28-29). Thus, he plays with the readers, first, abstracting the boy, and then, refuting that the boy and narrator were the same individuals.

Moreover, the poem “Epistle” is written in the present tense, and at the same time, Lee uses temporal distortion, transferring to the past. Thus, past and present are deeply interwoven; they become a single moment, and it is hardly possible to define whether the writer is speaking about the present or the past. Therefore, temporal distortion, metaphysical abstraction, and participation attribute the poem “Epistle” to the postmodern works of literature.

In conclusion, Li-Young Lee is an American-Chinese writer, who manages to combine in his poems the features of postmodernism and romantic elements of lyrics. Although the poems are written in free verse, they are easy and enjoyable to read. Moreover, his play with the readers and participation make the poetry deep and give many themes for consideration after reading. Lee forces the audience to seek the answers to his rhetorical questions and makes it love his verses unintentionally. With the help of such features as temporal distortion, metaphysical abstraction, fragmentation, and emotional intensity, the poems of Lee get their deep and essential meaning and can be defined as postmodern works of literature.


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