Li-Young Lee is one of the best-known and well-respected American poets writing today. His narrative poem, ‘The Gift’ is written from a first-person perspective, commonly considered to be the poet himself, and describes an experience with the poet’s late father. The poem was first published in Rose (1986), Li-Young Lee’s first poetry collection. Themes of memory, heritage, culture, and father/son relationships are often found in the poet’s work. When reviewing his poetry for Library Journal, a reviewer noted that:
Lee interweaves remembrances of incidents from his childhood with dreams, myths, his father’s sermons (dimly remembered), and mundane recollections, such as the seeds in his father’s coat pocket or the coconut oil in his Indonesian nanny’s hair. To the son, the powerful father figure embodied cruelty, Christian kindness, inspiration, deprivation, devotion, and penetrating insight.Poetry Foundation
Explore The Gift
‘The Gift’ by Li-Young Lee is a thoughtful poem inspired by a childhood memory that’s at once painful and soothing.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker (commonly considered to be Li-Young Lee himself) begins by describing how his father distracted him in order to remove a metal splinter from his palm. Despite the young child’s interpretation of the coming pain, the whole experience ended up being quite easy and soothing. The thing that the speaker remembers most is his father’s voice “a well / of dark water, a prayer.”
In the second half of the text, the speaker continues on to describe what the scene would’ve looked like from an outsider’s perspective. He reveals to the reader that now, as an adult man, he is helping “shave “his wife’s thumbnail down so carefully that she “feels no pain.” The memory of this simple childhood experience returned to him and inspired him to consider his actions as a child and what emotions the experience evoked. The poem ends with the speaker describing how he kissed his father.
You can read the full poem here.
The poem ‘The Gift’ contains a speaker’s specific memory of his father showing kindness, patience, and gentleness when removing a splinter from his son’s hand. The poem suggests that this act of kindness, and the other lessons the speaker learned from his father, were a “gift” that his father left him. Now, he can tap into that same kind/patient attitude when dealing with the people he loves.
Within this poem, the poet uses a few examples of figurative language. They include:
- In stanza two, the poet writes: “but hear his voice still, a well / of dark water, a prayer.” He compares his father’s voice to dark water that is somewhat mysterious but also soothing, like a prayer.
- Another example falls in the same stanza. The poet compares his father’s hands to the “flames of discipline,” suggesting that they have been responsible for both soothing and disciplining him.
- In stanza three, the poet compares the splinter to a “silver tear, a tiny flame.”
Imagery: an interesting description that uses language that evokes readers’ senses. These examples should inspire readers to smell, hear, see, or feel the same things as the speaker does.
- In stanza one: “my father recited a story in a low voice.”
- In stanza two: “a well / of dark water, a prayer.”
- In stanza three: “planting something in a boy’s palm, / a silver tear, a tiny flame.”
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
In the first stanza of ‘The Gift,’ the speaker begins by taking readers back to a memory from his youth. He brings the reader into the middle of an incident (a literary device known as in medias res) in which he got a “metal splinter” stuck in his poem, and his father, in a cool and disciplined way, removed it.
He recalls how his father “recited a story in a low voice.” The young speaker, while watching his “lovely face and not the blade,” was completely distracted from what his father was doing to remove the “iron silver” the young speaker thought he’d “die from.” This is an example of the comfort that a parent can bring to their child’s life. It also shows how powerful simple, everyday memories are even years after they’ve passed.
This final line is a hyperbolic statement. From a child’s perspective, any painful or unusual incident is emphasized. In this case, the speaker describes how as a young boy he thought a metal splinter might ruin his life for him.
I can’t remember the tale,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
While the speaker remembers the incident with a great deal of clarity, he can’t remember the story that his father told him. More than anything, his father’s voice stuck in his mind. It is the emotions of the moment and the way his father calmed him down with his voice like “dark water” and like a “prayer.” This is an example of a metaphor. The poet compares his father’s voice on the effect it had on him to a “well of dark water” without using the words “like” or “as.”
Within these lines, the poet also demonstrates his skill with imagery. While no one will have experienced the same exact incident in their youth, with the same emotive qualities, the poet’s affective language allows readers to feel they have. It is easy to imagine a father’s calming and level voice and its effect on a young, distressed child.
In the last lines of the stanza, the poet uses a good example of juxtaposition. He also employs another metaphor. He compares his father’s hands to “two measures of tenderness” and “the flames of discipline.” These lines allude to a more complex relationship the speaker had with his father (one that suggests moments of comfort may have been rare). His father used his hands to calm his child down and discipline him. The same hands laid against his face in love were also raised above his head (a metaphor that implies his father doled corporeal punishment when he thought his son needed it).
Had you entered that afternoon
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
The transition between the second and the third stanza. Here, the poet moves into using the second-person perspective, addressing their lines to “you.” Here, it is unclear if they have a specific listener in mind (it could be any reader, or it could be a single person), but by using “you,” readers are included within the text’s narrative. They are asked to imagine walking in on the scene of the speaker and his father. The speaker suggests that you would’ve thought that you saw a man” planting something in a boy’s hand.
This is an unusual line that takes on a great deal of meaning when analyzed along with the rest of the piece. The word “planting” implies growth and creation. It is integrally connected to the title of the poem— “The Gift.” The father is giving his son something at that moment. That is, self-discipline and self-control in difficult situations. Through his aspect, he’s teaching his son how to contend with moments where life feels out of control, painful, and stressful.
The speaker demonstrates the effect of the “gift” that his father gave him in the next lines. He describes how if “you” had followed that young boy from his youth up to his adulthood that the natural progress of events would lead you to “here.” At this moment, the speaker is bending over his wife’s “right hand.” He’s engaged in a similar task to that which was described in the previous stanzas. He is using the forbearance he learned from his father to help his wife in a similar moment.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
I kissed my father.
In the fourth stanza, the poet again directs words to a specific listener, the reader. He asks those watching the scene, from a distance and metaphorical perspective, to “look” and “watch” as he shaves her thumbnail down and left splinter out “so carefully she feels no pain.”
As he was engaged in this act, he was struck with a moment of recollection bringing him back to his youth, at seven years old, when his father did the same thing for him. His father soothed him in a time of discomfort, and now he is engaged in the same task, benefiting from the “gift” that his father gave him and his youth.
It’s clear that this speaker’s father has been highly influential in his development into a kind and self-disciplined adult. While there is a great deal of meaning in this poem, the poet does not allow the text to get away from the image of a father helping his young son. In the final lines of this poem, he notes that when the metal was removed, there was not a great deal of drama or celebration. He did not raise the silver above his head and christen it “little assassin” or cry out, “Death visited here!”
Rather than despair over his situation or engage in dramatic thinking common to young children in difficult situations, he did what a “child does” when he’s “given something to keep.” He “kissed” his father. Here again, this is an allusion to the “gift” that the title emphasizes. While the speaker never uses the word “gift” throughout the entire poem, it is clear that from this youthful experience, he’d learned a great deal about how to contend with stress in a way that is calming and beneficial. He helped make him into the person he was when he wrote these lines and helped his wife remove a splinter from her own hand.
Below, readers can explore the most important themes in ‘The Gift’ by Li-Young Lee.
- Memory. The main theme Li-Young Lee’s poem, ‘The Gift,’ is memory. The entire poem was sparked by a memory of the past that the speaker recalled while engaged in a similar task with his wife. As a grown man, the speaker, who is likely the poet himself, was helping her remove a splinter or a stuck piece of metal from her hand. While completing this task, he recalled an experience with his father when he was young, that still has the ability to move him today. The memory is all the more effective now that the speaker has grown up, and the relationship he has with his father is no longer that of an adult and a child.
- Father/Son Relationships. While the basic premise of the narrative poem revolves around a father removing a splinter from his son’s poem, the poet is interested in the way his father made him feel and the relationship they had when he was young. He highlights how comforting, calming, and disciplined his father was and how his emotions influenced him at a young age. The most lyrical part of this generally narrative poem appears in the second stanza, in which the poet describes the way his father’s voice sounded. Readers from all walks of life are likely to relate to the speaker’s relationship with his father.
The tone of ‘The Gift’ is nostalgic. Throughout this contemporary poem, the poet looks back on an experience from his youth. He recalls the hyperbolic emotions that plagued him after getting a splinter in his palm and how those emotions were juxtaposed with his father’s calm and cool approach to the incident. These memories came to him in a burst of recollection when, now, as a grown man with a wife, he was helping his wife remove a splinter. As with many of Li-Young Lee’s poems, this piece elevates a simple, everyday experience and imbues it with importance.
Structure and Form
‘The Gift’ by Li-Young Lee is a four-stanza narrative poem written from the perspective of a first-person narrator. The poem is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains five lines, the second: eight, the third: seven, and the fourth: fifteen. Additionally, the poet chose to compose his piece in free verse. This means that he did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is common within Li-Young Lee’s verse as a whole.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Hyperbole: an intentional exaggeration that’s used to emphasize something in a poem. For example, “the iron silver I thought I’d die from” in line five of the first stanza.
- Personification: occurs when the poet abuse a non-human feature of their text with human characteristics. For example, “metal that will bury me.” Death is a commonly personified force in poetry. Li-Young Lee also uses personify death in this text, writing, “Death visited here!”
- Enjambment: the transition between two lines that does not use end-punctuation. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the fourth stanza and lines five and six of the third stanza.
‘The Gift’ is about a man looking back on his youth and the important character traits he received from his father as a “gift.” Specifically, he recalls an incident in which his father calmly and soothingly remove a splinter from his hand.
The message is that parents influence their children in important and life-changing ways during life’s simplest and most mundane moments. In this case, the poet’s handling of future crises, small and large, was crafted through an experience in which his father demonstrated his own self-discipline in a moment of his son’s pain and need.
‘The Gift’ was published in Li-Young Lee’s first collection, Rose. It was released in 1986. It is one of several poems the author has penned throughout his career that explore his father’s influence on his adult life.
The poet is known for his work revolving around emotions and experiences in contemporary life. Often, his poetry describes moments with family, moving personal experiences, and explores universal themes. His work is inspired by contemporary writers and traditional Chinese poets like Li Bo.
The speaker means that his father’s voice is soothing, endless, and deep in the same way as a dark well of water might appear as one looks down into it. His voice comforts him in a time of need and reminds him of his father’s depth of knowledge and complex experiences.
The mood is calm and peaceful. Readers are likely to be reminded of similar childhood experiences and feel inspired to consider their relationship with their parents and how their youthful experiences made them into the person they are.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading other Li-Young Lee poems. For example:
- ‘Eating Together’ – is a beautiful contemporary poem about death. It uses a thoughtful simile and direct language.
- ‘This Hour and What is Dead’ – the poet explores themes of life, death, and the possibility, or impossibility, of finding peace.
Some other poems that engage with similar themes of father/son relationships and memory include:
- ‘My Father’ by Peter Oresick is a poem that delves into the narrator’s relationship with his father. The narrator is regretful that his father’s pain created a wall between them, and he yearns to better understand him.
- ‘You Are Old, Father William’ by Lewis Carroll is a poem that is structured as a dialogue between a “father” and “his son”.
- ‘Father to Son’ by Elizabeth Jennings – portrays the generation gap between a father and his son.