If you live in the United States, chances are you know an immigrant. Heck, you might even be one yourself. Have you ever had a chat with one of these people – whether it's your grandmother, your neighbor, or your best friend? Well, if you haven't, here's your chance to get up close and personal with an immigrant. And we should warn you: this guy asks a lot of tough, unanswerable questions.
"Immigrant Blues," published in 2008 as a part of the poetry collection Behind My Eyes, is poet Li-Young Lee's attempt to examine the struggles and hardships of the immigrant experience. And you couldn't ask for a better man to do it: Lee is an immigrant himself. He came to the U.S. from Indonesia (his parents are Chinese) right smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War. Sounds complicated, right? Right.
Let's talk poet-fame: Lee's first book, Rose, came out in 1986, and promptly won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. By the time Behind My Eyes came out, Lee had long been considered one of the best poets of his generation. Not only is he included in all the major contemporary poetry anthologies, he's also one of the few contemporary poets whose books you can actually find in a bookstore! (On that one, sad little half-shelf in the back corner where the shop owners hide all the poetry. Sigh.)
Lee's poems are often notable for their meditative quality. It's the kind of poetry that makes you suddenly understand what all those people are saying when they talk about the importance of silence in poetry. His poems aren't in a rush. They pause to think, to ask questions, to make connections, and often they pause to just revel in all the confusion. Sometimes, Lee seems to say, we just can't know. This poem explores questions of identity, language, and society without forcing answers on us in any kind of preachy way. In fact, it invites us right into the conversation.
One last thing: when you read poetry, you can never assume that the speaker is also the poet himself. We're going to respect that rule here and refer to our guy as the "speaker," just in case. But we know from the horse's mouth that this one is autobiographical.
Why Should I Care?
Immigration. Just that one word can spark a thousand conversations – some of which might get a little heated. It's a hot topic, to be sure. But unfortunately, all this controversy often overshadows the individual stories of the people who are directly affected by immigration – whether they're affected in good ways, bad ways, or something totally different. As you can imagine, there are a million different tales to be told from a million different perspectives, but all these stories get lost in the political hubbub.
Li-Young Lee offers one of these perspectives in "Immigrant Blues," as he explores how hard it can be adjusting to life in a new country and culture, with a new language to boot. And even better: our speaker is able to talk about the broader immigrant experience, helping us understand not just his experience, but the experience of all immigrants. So while Lee doesn't offer you the facts, he can offer you a new perspective – one Shmoop thinks is worth a look.