L Li-Young Lee

Persimmons by Li-Young Lee

‘Persimmons’ by Li-Young Lee is a beautiful poem that describes the poet’s interest in language. It explores how a persimmon comes to symbolize both his family connections and his feelings of alienation from his peers. 

Persimmons by Li-Young Lee Visual Representation

This poem first appeared in the poet’s collection Rose, published in 1986. It is one of the signature poems from his first publication and represents much of what the poet attempts to accomplish throughout the rest of the volume. Readers who are familiar with Li-Young Lee’s poetry will recognize his interest in themes of family, language, and immigration.

Persimmons-by-Li-Young-Lee


Summary 

Persimmons’ by Li-Young Lee is a poem about family and the importance of language. 

The poem begins with the speaker in sixth grade getting punished for not remembering the difference between two words, “persimmon” and “precision.” He proves in the following lines that he knows what a persimmon is and proceeds to explore how important it is to his family and his memories of youth. He remembers sharing his language with his girlfriend, Donna, and how, in this instance, language was a beautiful thing. 

He also brings the reader to a powerful memory of his father, who, before and after going blind, was a prolific painter. He knew the persimmon so well that he didn’t need to see it to depict it effectively. 

You can read the full poem here.

Meaning 

The poem asserts that language is a way of connecting and distancing. The speaker feels othered due to his confusion regarding two words, precision and persimmon, at the beginning of the poem. Although looked down on by his teacher and perhaps his classmates, he’s well aware of what a persimmon is and spends the rest of the poem depicting how integral the fruit is to memories of his youth and to his other family members. 

Theme 

The poem engages with themes of language and family throughout this poem. The persimmon becomes a powerful image that represents both the speaker’s distance from his peers and his connection to his family. The speaker understands the fruit well, something he demonstrates at the beginning of the poem. But, he struggles to speak English, and as a result, he is regarded poorly by his teacher. 

Structure and Form 

Persimmons’ by Li-Young Lee is a thirteen-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poem does not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length and use different sounds as they transition. For example, the end words of the first stanza are “Walker,” “head,” “corner,” “difference,” “precision,” and “choose.” Despite the poet’s choice to write in free verse, there are a few examples of rhyme that some readers may take note of. 

Another technique of interest is Li-Young Lee’s choice to structure some of the lines and individual words in italics. This provides added emphasis to certain passages and images. For example, “persimmon” and “precision” in the first stanza. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Wrens are soft as yarn.”
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three in the first stanza. 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “persimmons” and “precision” in line one of the second stanza, as well as “Sniff” and “sweet” two lines later. 
  • Personification: is seen when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, describing the center of persimmons as a heart.


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker

(…)

between persimmon and precision.

How to choose

In the first stanza of the poem, the poet begins by setting the scene. His speaker recalls how he was in Mrs. Walker’s sixth-grade class when he was asked to tell her the difference between “persimmon and precision.” He didn’t know the answer and was punished for it. In what many readers are likely to interpret as an overreaction, Mrs. Walker slapped the speaker in the back of his head in an effort to drive home how important her question was. 

Stanza Two

persimmons. This is precision.

(…)

all of it, to the heart.

The second stanza plays with language. It begins with the poet bringing back the ideas of persimmon and precision. It takes the latter to make a good choice of the former. You must use precision to choose the correct persimmon. You want to stay away from the ones that are overripe or under-ripe. The following lines provide some details regarding what one might look for when making their choice. 

The speaker then transitions into describing “How to eat” the same fruit. There is a clear step-by-step process to eating a persimmon that he lays out throughout the rest of the stanza. You eat it until you get down “to the heart.” By referring to the center of the fruit as the “heart,” the poet is using an example of personification. 

By laying out, in clear detail, how to choose and eat a persimmon, it becomes clear that this young man knows what the fruit is. He’s not confused about its identity, only which word he should use to describe it in English. Li-Young Lee is alluding to the struggles that immigrants (he often features Chinese immigrants and culture in his poems) face as they adjust to a new country, language, and cultural customs. 

Stanza Three 

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.

(…)

remember to tell her

she is beautiful as the moon.

The sixth-grade memory inspires the speaker to consider another memory from the past. He’s thinking about “Donna” and her “white” stomach. The two were naked in the grass, and he was teaching her Chinese words for cricket, dew, and more. She admits to having forgotten some of the words he’s taught her in the past, and the poet intentionally juxtaposes his reaction to the reaction his teacher had in sixth grade when he couldn’t remember the word for persimmon. 

He uses a simile at the end of the stanza, recalling how he told her that she was “beautiful as the moon” while he parted her legs. The two are clearly in love, and their affection for one another creates a very different atmosphere around language and learning a language than was seen in the first stanza. 

Stanza Four 

Other words

that got me into trouble were

(…)

a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

The next lines continue a discussion of the influence of words in the speaker’s life. He remembers how there were other words “like fight and fright, wren and yarn” that got him into trouble. Not only did he struggle with the words themselves, but he also had a hard time balancing his reaction against the circumstances he faced. His adjustment to the English-speaking country he now lives in was not an easy one. He fought when he was frightened and was frightened when he was fighting.

Language merges in the next lines creating another beautiful, personal memory that’s juxtaposed against the conflict the speaker faced. He remembers what a wren is and what yarn is. In his mind, the two are closely related as wrens are as soft as yarn, and his mother used yarn to knit birds. 

Stanza Five 

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class

and cut it up

(…)

but watched the other faces.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker returns to the sixth grade and recalls how his teacher brought a persimmon to class so the students could taste a “Chinese apple.” This memory is not an entirely pleasant, but he again proves that he understands what a persimmon is by noting that it wasn’t ripe. He had a connection to the fruit and an understanding of it that the other students didn’t. He was the only one in the class who didn’t eat it. 

Stanza Six 

My mother said every persimmon has a sun

(…)

warm as my face.

The classroom memory is again contrasted with a more peaceful one. This time, his mother tells him that every persimmon has a sun inside. At heart is “something golden, glowing.” It is as “warm as my face,” he remembers. There is love in this recollection in a way that is not present in the classroom. In Mrs. Walker’s class, there is no understanding or kindness. 

Stanza Seven 

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,

(…)

sang, The sun, the sun.

The persimmon image continues into the seventh stanza, where the speaker remembers finding two persimmons in the cellar and bringing them to his room. They sat on the window sill, and each morning, he remembers a cardinal singing, “The sun, the sun.” As the sun rose, the birds sang, and he was reminded of what his mother told him about a “sun” at the heart of each fruit. 

Stanza Eight 

Finally understanding

he was going blind,

(…)

swelled, heavy as sadness,

and sweet as love.

The seventh stanza relates to the eighth in that the speaker finds a use for the two fruit from the cellar. He gives them to his father when the older man understands he is going blind. They did not, at that moment, represent happiness or the sun. Instead, they were “heavy as sadness” and “sweet as love” (two similes).

The fruit represents the connection the speaker has to his family, and they continue to pop up in important moments. They are the only thing he thinks is appropriate to give to his father when the man is consumed with sorrow regarding his eyesight. 

Stanza Nine 

This year, in the muddy lighting

(…)

All gone, he answers.

The ninth stanza brings the poem to “This year.” The poet has returned home for a time, and his father is happy to see him. He sits on the steps and enjoys his son’s presence despite the fact that, by this point, he’s completely blind. He has his cane between his legs, and the speaker, after asking his father how his eyes are, realizes it’s a stupid question. His eyes are, his father replies, “All gone.”

The phrase “All gone,” like several other lines throughout the poem, is written in italics. This adds to its power and the reader’s understanding of its effect on the two men in this scene. 

Stanza Ten 

Under some blankets, I find a box.

(…)

Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

The speaker discovers three paintings his father completed while the two are in the cellar. One depicts two persimmons that are so full (of life and beauty) that they want to drop out of the painting and into reality. This is suggestive of the father’s artistic ability and, again, the meaning of the particular fruit for his family. The fruit also represents the liveliness his father once had and the life he lived before he lost his eyesight. 

Stanzas Eleven and Twelve

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,

(…)

This is persimmons, Father.

His father asks his son which painting they’re looking at, and his son, the speaker, replies, “This is persimmons, Father.” After the word “asks” in the second line, every word stretching from here to the rest of the poem is written in italics. This indicates that readers should pay particularly close attention to what’s being conveyed and how the primary symbol of the poem, the persimmons, is being used. His father’s words feature in the final stanza of the poem.

Stanza Thirteen 

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,

the strength, the tense

(…)

in your palm, the ripe weight.

The thirteenth stanza is powerful. Written entirely in italics, the speaker conveys his father’s words. His father remembers what it was like to paint when he could still see. But, even after he lost his sight, he continued to paint. He painted the persimmons “hundreds of times / eyes closed.” The ones on the page in front of them, he reveals, he actually painted blind.

Here, readers can reassess the power of the painting. Not only is it incredibly beautiful and filled with life, but it was also painted by a man who couldn’t see either his work or the subject. He knew the persimmon, its colors, texture, and shape so well that he didn’t need to see what he was doing in order to convey it fully. 

The father remembers how, despite losing his eyesight, there are just some things that “never leave a person.” He suggests that the “scent of the hair of one you love” and the “texture” and weight of a persimmon in the palm of your hand are two of those things. 

The poem ends on this note, weaving together the beautiful memories the speaker associates with the fruit and alluding to the less-pleasant ones. The father also provides a connection back to the son’s recollection of his time with Donna and how they were able to connect through language. 

FAQs 

What is the poem ‘Persimmons’ about? 

The poem is about the importance of language, family, and culture. The poet explores the ways that language divided him from his peers during his youth and connected him to his family at other times. 

What literary devices are used in ‘Persimmons?’

Throughout this poem, the poet uses examples of figurative language, like imagery, metaphor, and smile. He interweaves these examples in the text in order to add meaning and power to the persimmon as an image. 

Why did Li-Young Lee write ‘Persimmons?’

The poet wrote this poem in order to share memories from his youth and speak about his experience with language (specifically learning English) and the ways that it can both bring people together and divide them.

What is the importance of “persimmons” and “precision?”

The poet recalls being chastised for mistaking these two words in sixth grade. He delves into their meanings, proving he knows what a persimmon is and that it takes “precision” in order to choose a ripe one and prepare it. 

When was ‘Persimmons’ by Li-Young Lee written? 

The poem was written sometime around 1986 when the poet’s first collection, Rose, was published. This piece, like most of Li-Young Lee’s poems, deals with his personal experience as a Chinese American immigrant. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Li-Young Lee poems. For example: 

  • Eating Together’ – is a beautiful contemporary poem about death. It uses a thoughtful simile and straightforward language.
  • This Hour and What is Dead’ – the poet explores themes of life, death, and the possibility, or impossibility, of finding peace.
  • The Gift– is an effective contemporary poem about the way a father’s voice and attitude influenced his son. 

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Persimmons by Li-Young Lee Visual Representation
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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