Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. His father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, and relocated the family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959, the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.
Lee attended the University of Pittsburgh and University of Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa.
He is the author of Spoken For (W. W. Norton, 2018); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008); Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.
His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
With regard to Lee's work, the poet Gerald Stern has noted that "what characterizes [his] poetry is a certain humility... a willingness to let the sublime enter his field of concentration and take over, a devotion to language, a belief in its holiness."
He has been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I. B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1998, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York at Brockport.
He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and their two sons.
Spoken For (W. W. Norton, 2018)
Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001)
The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990)
Rose (BOA Editions, 1989)
The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995)
Li-Young Lee’s poem entitled “A Story” poignantly depicts the complex relationship between a father and his son through the boy’s entreaties for a story. The speaker employs emotional appeals as well as strategic literary devices to emphasize the differing perspectives that exist between father and son. Through shifting points of view, purposeful structure, and meaningful diction, the speaker adds depth and emotion to the love shared by the two characters and illuminates a universal theme of present innocence and changing relationships over time.
Throughout “A Story”, the speaker utilizes alternating points of view to accentuate the differences between the father and the son as well as the division that exists within the father, who remains torn in the middle of two realities. The son materializes as a five-year-old boy with “…a boy’s supplication…” for a story. From the boy’s perspective, his father remains affectionately known as “…Baba…”, a storyteller and source of entertainment; however, the man’s desire to supply his son with amusement becomes lost amid his immediate inability to “…come up with one” story. The image of “The man rub(bing) his chin, scratch(ing) his ear…soon he thinks, the boy / will give up on his father,” evokes emotions of lost opportunity and hopes unfulfilled, feelings the speaker utilizes to accentuate the contrast between the boy’s optimistic request and his father’s response, a response that holds implications for their developing relationship.
Another significant elements within “A Story” becomes the purposeful juxtaposition of the man’s immediate state and his shifting, future point of view. While in a present sense the man lives far ahead…sees / The day this boy will go.” The man develops a troubling image of “…the boy packing his shirts…looking for his keys,” and he subconsciously screams out, attempting to justify his silence and asking, “Am I a god that I should never disappoint?” such an inflammatory reaction to a plea for a story does not correlate with practicality, but it does serve to portray the man’s fear of one day losing his five-year-old to manhood as he looks on, regretting one less story read, one less laugh solicited. The man’s view of the day his boy leaves involves pleas to tell his child one more story, and he laments, “Don’t go! Hear the alligator story! The angel story…You laugh at the spider. Let me tell it!” This comparison of two images of the man, the forgetful storyteller and the parent desperately in love with his son humanizes his character and allows for an understanding of the relationship he shares with his son.
Finally, the speaker’s meaningful diction and selection of detail allows for the development of both characters as well as the relationship they share. They boy’s childlike “…Baba…” contrasts sharply with images of the same boy “…packing his shirts…(and) looking for his toys…” while his father looks on, longing for the days when the name “Baba” still defined his role in his son’s life. As the speaker states, the relationship between the man and his son remains “…emotional…(and) earthly…” rather than “…logical…(and) heavenly…” Despite the father’s trepidations about the future, the speaker succeeds in illustrating that both characters’emotions, from the “…boy’s supplications…” to “…the father’s love…” result in silence, and a silence based on trust, affection, and heartfelt love.
In the poem “A Story,” the topic of coming of age is heavily present. With this being present, the relationship between the father and the son instantly becomes complex. While the author never directly states the complexity of the relationship, it is clearly presented through techniques such as point of view and symbolic structure, from beginning to end, the reader is able to infer all of the issues that are present, along with the deep feelings, through the above techniques.
The story is told from a third person point of view, automatically creating a scenario for the reader to evaluate, rather than having ti told to them through first person. A very important aspect of the third person point of view is that it is omniscient and allows for the characters thoughts, and even fears to be heard. The italicized sentences throughout the poem represent both thoughts and actual dialogue. With this, the author is able to make the father’s fears of his little boy leaving come to life. For example, “Don’t go! / Hear the alligator story!...Let me tell it!” primarily shows a scenario in which one day his son will no longer wish to hear stories and will be leaving his side. The fact that the father plays this scenario out in his head, makes it come to life for the reader and allows them to see how traumatizing this experience would be for the father. Through this simple action of writing characters thoughts and dialogue, the writer reveals the deep love the father contains for his boy, but also the nagging fear that one day he will no longer have his little boy. “But the boy is packing his shirts, / he is looking for keys.” This is a typical description of when a child, now an adult, is preparing to adventure into adulthood and leave their parent’s side. It is very apparent that the man fears this frightful scene with every fiber of his being because he knows he will not be wanted by his son any longer. At the moment, he has his son and his son wants, and even needs him, and this means the world to the father. Unfortunately though, he is failing to do the one thing his son yearns for him to do, tell him a story. As the boy sits in his lap and begs for a story, the man cannot help but sit with fear as thoughts and scenarios run through his head of his biggest fear becoming reality, the day his son leaves. The author’s ability to share the father’s thoughts and even create images from the future make this fear apparent to the reader and truly bring out the troubles that the father is having within his own mind.
As the reader can tell, the poem contains a very symbolic structure, starting with the present situation, then going into a future scenario of the boy leaving when he is grown up, and finally coming back to the present and reflecting upon what is happening now. As previously stated, the poem does contain a central theme of coming of age and reveals the father’s fear of coping with this issue when the time comes. Fortunately the son is only five years old at the moment, but this does not keep the father from dwelling on the day in the future. At the moment, the father is unable to come up with a story to please his son. This simple action leads the father into fearful thoughts of the day his son leaves, and then he will finally contain stories to please him but he will not want them. This is clearly symbolic of the fact that he is already losing his son because he cannot please him momentarily. As the poem continue, it eventually works in to its final stage of reflection where the equation “a boy’s supplications / and a father’s love add up to silence.” is stated. Here, the narrator shares how while the boy is unpleased and unsatisfied, the father thinks of his love for his son and how he fears the day he will no longer have to worry about satisfying him.
Overall, the man’s love for the boy and his inability to tell him a satisfying story mix to create unending thoughts. The author does anexcellent job of including the reader in these tormenting issues through his use of structure and point of view.
There are many ways in which the poet conveys the complex relationship between a father and his son. The poet does this by using many different literary techniques.
One literary technique the poet used is the order of events in which all this takes place. At the begginning of the poem, the little boy is begging his father to tell a new story to him, not the same one he always tells. Then, begginning in line 10, the father jumps ahead to when the boy is all grown up and about to leave home. Once again, begginning at the line 19, the boy is little again wanting to hear a new story told by his father.
Another literary device the poet uses would be the difference in the points of view between the father and the son. The little boy simply wants to hear a new story from his father. His innocense plays a big role in the guilt his father feels. The father is upset of the fact that “In a room full of in a world stories, he can recall not one.” (Line 6-8) The father is afraid the little boy is only worried about hearing another story.
The last literary device used throughout this poem would be the comparison of thoughts going through the fathers mind. Line 20-23 states, “It is an emotional rather than logical equation, an earthly rather than heavenly one, which posits that a boy’s supplications and a father’s love add up to silence.”
“A Story” written by Li-Young Lee is a great poem in which the complex relationship between a father and son is revealed in a very interesting way.