Themes and Meanings
“Persimmons” is a poem about ways of knowing and of expressing what one knows. The most obvious form of expression for a poet is words, but Li-Young Lee learned early that words can mean very different things and that without love, including the kind of love a patient teacher might display toward a slow student, words may carry more confusion than understanding.
Lee’s experience as an immigrant provides him with a novel perspective on this familiar theme. Because English was not his first language as a child, he readily confused one word with another in ways a native speaker could hardly imagine. To his teacher, he simply seemed stupid, and she punished him. There was no love between them and therefore no understanding. Later in the poem, when she brings a persimmon for the class to share, Lee merely watches the faces of his classmates as they bite into the unpalatable fruit. Neither student nor teacher is prepared to teach or to learn from the other.
In contrast, when Lee tries to share the language of his childhood with his American wife, he finds that much of the understanding between them is nonverbal. It does not really matter that he cannot think of particular Chinese words because they share a complex set of physical and emotional sensations. Love, which is in part a deep sharing of such experience, creates and maintains understanding in the absence of the exact word.
Similarly, his relationship with his mother is also charged with love. Although the confusion between wren and yarn got him into trouble with his teacher, he was learning a new way to look at the relationships between word and thing and between one thing and another. The yarn can become a wren in the hands of the knitter or in the language of the poet. For both kinds of artist, reality is more fluid, the possibilities more creative, than a literalist such as Mrs. Walker could ever imagine.
This is the point the poet’s father makes. Dr. Lee can still paint even though he is blind because he has never lost certain sensations: the taste of a persimmon, the scent of a lover’s hair. Seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, loving, imagining, by the end of the poem, the persimmon comes to stand for all these things.