Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“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...
(The entire section is 387 words.)
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