17 pages 34 minutes read

Li-Young Lee

I Ask My Mother to Sing

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1986

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Li-Young Lee is the author of “I Ask My Mother to Sing” (1986), a lyric poem informed by the free verse style of the late-20th century. The poem centers on family, loss, and nostalgia, yet its quiet tenor also underscores strength, family ties, and the importance of memory. “I Ask My Mother to Sing” is one of Lee’s best-known works.

Lee’s poems are typically praised for their expansiveness, subtlety, and deft use of autobiographical material. Although literature was always a part of his life, Lee didn’t earnestly start to write poems until he went to the University of Pittsburgh. Here, Lee took classes taught by the American poet Gerald Stern. Stern penned the foreword to Lee’s debut collection, Rose (1986), and the collection includes “I Ask My Mother to Sing.” In his forward, Stern applauded Lee’s “love of plain speech” and his “true spirit” (Stern, Gerald. Foreword. Rose, by Li-Young Lee, BOA Editions, 1986). The book won New York University’s Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.

Poet Biography

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957. His mother came from a powerful dynastic Chinese family. Her grandpa, Yuan Shikai, served as the president of China during the early 1900s. Lee’s father was from a different class. Lee’s grandpa on his father’s side was a ruffian and a hustler. Due to the contrasting backgrounds, the marriage of Lee’s parents was controversial. They left China and settled in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Lee’s dad earned a living by teaching philosophy and medicine at Gamaliel University.

Before teaching, Lee’s dad was the personal physician of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. Due to their Chinese identity, the Jakarta government persecuted Lee’s family. Lee’s dad spent time in prison. As Lee and his family were on their way to a prison colony, they fled Indonesia and, eventually, came to the United States in 1964.

As of 2021, Lee has published five collections of poetry and one memoir. His poetry has won several awards, and awards and acclaim continue to follow Lee. In 1988, Lee received the Whitling Award, an annual prize bestowed upon up-and-coming writers. Lee’s second collection of poems, The City in Which I Love You (1990), received the Lamont Poetry Prize (now called the James Laughlin Award). Reviewers noted the collection’s brevity and intimacy. Lee’s third collection of poems, Book of My Nights (2001), won the William Carlos Williams Award. His other two volumes of poetry are Behind My Eyes (2008) and The Undressing (2018). Lee’s memoir is The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995).

Poem Text

Lee, Li-Young. “I Ask My Mother to Sing.” 1986. Poetry Foundation.


In the first stanza, the speaker’s mom and grandma sing. The speaker says they sing like “young girls” (Line 2). The nod toward youth suggests the singing is vibrant and playful. The speaker’s dad is absent because he has passed away. The speaker says that if his dad were alive, he would join the festivities and play the accordion.

In the second stanza, the speaker lists some places that he’s never visited. The speaker has never set foot in Peking, which is another name for Beijing, the capital of China. In Beijing, there are many attractions, including the majestic gardens of the Summer Palace, which contain the Stone Boat pavilion and the Kuen Ming Lake. The speaker hasn’t been to these places either. He’s never heard the rain on the lake nor viewed the picnickers on the grass running away from the rain.

In the third stanza, the speaker ties together the first two stanzas of the poem. The singing in the first stanza relates to the reflections on the Chinese landmarks in the second stanza. Although the speaker hasn’t experienced the sights and sounds first-hand, he “loves to hear it sung” (Line 9), which indicates that his mom and grandma are singing about memories from China.

In the final stanza, the mom and grandma are crying. Despite their tears, they sing on. The poem concludes with mixed emotions. The final couplet conveys persistence and sadness.