Selected poems of Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng



Translated from the Korean by

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Young-Moo Kim










Introduction v

From : Bird 10

Flute 10

Tree 11

Seagull 12

Rendez-vous 13

A Reed 14

Obscurity 15

Next 16

Rivers 17

Afternoon 18

Not just blue 19

Lamp 20

One afternoon in Tŏksu Palace 21

One dark night 22

Bird 23

Bird  2 24

Bird  3 25

In a tavern 26

Bird 27

Samch'ŏng Park 28

Bird 29

Lament for Shin Dong-yŏp 30

Sabbath  1 31

Sabbath  2 32

Memories  1 33

Letter 34

Requiem 35

One chrysanthemum 36

Memories  2 37

Little child 38

Music 39

Back to Heaven 40

Daisies 41

Daytime starlight 42

"Crazy Vagabond" 43

At the West Gate 44

Smile 45

My poverty 46

Liver revolt 47

Soul 48

Harvest celebration at forty 49

One wish 50

Late autumn  - Sunday 51

À la Tu Fu 52

The guy from the Milky Way 53

That day 55

The place of flowers 56

At Kwanghwa-mun 57

Letter 58

From: In a tavern 59

Eyes 59

My house 60

At the foot of Mount Surak  5 61

Rain  7 62

Rain  8 63

Rain  9 64

Rain  11 65

Rain 66

News of spring 68

Suburbs 69

August bell 70

Streamside  5 71

A heart believed 72

Prelude to life 73

Fairyland  1 74

Classmates 75

Road 76

Beside a spring 77

Joy 78

Hope 79

Road 80

White cloud 81

Flowing stream 82

A flower's a medal 83

Tombs 84

The moon 85

From: A Real Poet 86

Wings 86

Distant mountain 87

Home 88

Clouds 89

Makkŏlli 90

My poverty 91

Three birds 92

Offerings for Father 93

Birdsong 94

Cold water 95

Happiness near Kwanghwa-mun 96

Light 97

Drink 98

Window pane 99

The wind has paths too 100

Cloud 101

Heart's village 102

Singing 103

Happiness 104

Wild asters 105

Morning 106

Rain 107

Distant mountain 108

Country bumpkin 109

Flower hues 110

The women I like 111

Maytime greenery 112

Notes on my Poems 113

Notes 116








When Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng left this world on April 28, 1993, it was a long-rehearsed departure. He had already left the world a first time in his childhood, when he fell over a cliff but survived after being caught in the branches of a tree. A second departure came in 1967, when the agents of the National Security Agency (KCIA) whisked him away to the dreaded cellars of their building in central Seoul. There he was subjected to torture by water, and also by electric-shock applied to his genitals. His name had been found in the address-book of a friend from university days, a friend who was now accused of being a communist spy after visiting the North Korean embasy in East Berlin. After six months in detention, he was finally freed, having nothing to confess except the fact that he had friends. As a result of the electrical torture, the poet would never be able to have children.

Born in early 1930 in Japan, he returned to Korea with his family in 1945 and resumed his interrupted schooling at Masan. The first of his poems to be published was the poem "Rivers" that appeared in the monthly review Munye in 1949, when the poet was still at school. By 1952 he was established as a poet, with recognition from already reputed writers. By this time he was studying at Seoul National University. After finishing his studies there, he worked for a while in Pusan. In addition to writing poems, he had also already begun to compose literary essays that were published in various periodicals. They constitute the other important aspect of his life's work as a writer.

Not very long after being tortured, Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng seemed really to have died. Deeply traumatized by the violence he had undergone, he began to roam about, drinking wildly until at last, in 1971, he disappeared. Months passed, his friends and relatives searched for him everywhere to no avail. They could only conclude that he had died and been buried somewhere anonymously, unknown. In sorrow, they collected the poems they could find, and published a posthumous memorial volume.

Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng's career may have been marked by a series of deaths, it is also a story of multiple resurrections. Suddenly news came that he was alive after all, interned in the Seoul municipal asylum where he had been taken after he had collapsed in the street. The only things he could recall at that time were his name, and the fact that he was a poet. Perhaps the second memory was the thread that kept him alive.

Deeply withdrawn though he was, Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng showed a clear improvement after being visited by Mok Sun-Ok, the younger sister of one of his university friends. The doctor told her that she could help him by her visits and that if all went well he might be ready to return to life in the outside world after a couple of months. So Mok Sun-Ok came to visit her brother's friend every day, until he was as ready as he ever would be to come back to life in society. Only it was clear that he would hardly be able to fend for himself on his own. He had the heart of a child, and a child's fragility. Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng and Mok Sun-Ok were married in 1972, a marriage that endured through twenty years of sometimes terrible hardship and struggle.

The poet's love of company, his simple trust, and his enjoyment of a drink and a smoke, did not answer the question of how the newly-weds were to feed and house themselves. Friends helped Mok Sun-Ok open a café in a small room in the Insadong neighborhood of Seoul, much frequented by artists, writers, journalists and intellectuals. The name given to the café was Kwi-ch'ŏn "Back to heaven," the title of one of Ch'ŏn's early lyrics. The couple lived in tiny rooms in an old house on the outskirts of Ŭijŏngbu, to the north of Seoul.

By 1988, years of drinking had eroded the poet's liver until at last a doctor told Mok Sun-Ok that her husband had reached the end of the trail, that he would never recover and she must prepare for the inevitable end. Another doctor, a friend of theirs, with a small clinic in the town of Ch'unch'ŏn, twenty or thirty miles outside of Seoul, decided to try to help. Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng was admitted there and for the following months Mok Sun-Ok took the bus every evening to be with him. She has written how, returning to Seoul from her daily visits, she used to pray silently in the bus: "God! Not yet. Give him another five years, please. Five more years."

Amazingly, strength returned and the poet was able to leave the clinic to resume a measure of normal living. For another five years. In the space of this reprieve he saw the publication of new volumes of poetry and of essays. Until at last he made his final journey Back to Heaven on April 28, 1993. People opening the door of the Insadong café no longer hear the poet's raucous voice call from his customary seat in a corner: "Come on in, there's room, there's room!" Even when, with fifteen customers, the room was completely full.

Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng enjoyed the rare privilege of surviving to see his poems published posthumously; more than that, his first, "posthumous" volume of poems was followed by several other volumes published in his lifetime. In 1993 a second, this time truly posthumous, volume of poems appeared.

                * * *

What kind of poetry did Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng write? Esssentially lyric verse echoing his private perceptions of the world around him. Often it is the world of nature, with which he feels a deep harmony. The world of human society is more complex. There are poems celebrating the people he feels at ease with, his friends, his wife. There are less obvious references to the many people who live in ways quite foreign to him: people busy in pursuit of wealth, for example.

The perception of reality out of which the poet's works spring is deeply human, sensitive and sometimes almost mystical. With the passage of time "God" figures more and more explicitly in his poems, with echoes of the passages in the Gospels where Jesus welcomes the poor and excludes the rich. Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng's heart was to the end the heart of a child and his response to life is childlike, his faith too is expressed with a childlike lightness.

As is usual in modern Korean poetry, the movement of the lines is very free, grammar is loose, the poems benefit greatly from being read aloud. They are much closer to the speaking voice than is sometimes the case with Korean literature, rooted as it is in a scholarly tradition of the written text. Using mostly a very simple vocabulary, the experience at the core of each poem is usually conveyed to the sympathetic reader as a shared emotion. It may be a wry smile, as when the poet is stranded in Seoul without the train fare to go to visit his parents' tombs and he wonders what he will do if he has to find the fare to go to heaven. Or it may be an intense happiness. Or the gloom of a rainy day.

Some poems are so simple, that over-sophisticated critics feel insulted by the apparent childishness. Poetry is supposed to be high art, deeply serious, and they complain; "But this could have been written in a nursery school." Only it wasn't. There are others who agree with the students' and general readers' opinion that Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng was almost the only utterly honest writer of his generation. They are not wrong. Everything he wrote strikes one as deeply authentic. Most of what he wrote could not have been written by anyone else.

His biography suggests a life steeped in poverty and pain. Yet poem after poem proclaims, sometimes explicitly: "I'm the happiest man in the world." These are songs of a man who counts his blessings and knows exactly what they are, who relishes life and refuses any thought of running after shadows. Shadows there were, of course, death being the darkest one. Death and human mortality are the realities symbolized in the flow of the river towards the sea in the poet's first published poem, "Rivers." Only we're not dead so long as we're alive, and Ch'ŏn writes as a man alive, so alive that his heart is wide open to the song of every bird, the fall of every leaf.

The poems illustrate perfectly what Christ meant when he said that the poor were blessed. The rich complain about all they don't have; the poor rejoice intensely in the few simple things they have; a bunch of wild flowers is enough. The rich are blind to what makes poem after poem here so compelling: the beauty of the world, the beauty of being alive in this beautiful world. These poems are mostly very beautiful because they do not try to be. They let the beauty that the poet has perceived shine through their fabric of finely spun words.

The poet knew well enough how very ugly the world of human society could be, his poems are a witness to the victory of art over that. The vagabond poet has been a popular literary figure at least since François Villon roamed and played in 15th century Paris. 20th century Seoul had a poet whose games were closer to sorrow and pain than Villon's perhaps, but whose reserves of innocence were greater too. A happy man, indeed, and the happier for having had such a wonderful wife to look after him.

Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng would have been delighted, if amused and a little surprised, at the thought that only a few months after his death his wife would have published a splendid book of memoirs about their life together, later translated into English as My Husband the Poet. Then a writer composed a play portraying the main events of their life, with readings of some of the poems serving as the Chorus, that drew crowded houses for several weeks in a Seoul theater. The popular response to the play Kwi-chŏn is the clearest sign, together with the enduring sales of his books, that Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng is no "dead poet," despite having a tomb on a hill in Ŭijŏngbu. He has gone Back to Heaven inside many hearts, and as he promised in that most beautiful poem, Kwi-ch'ŏn, "Back to Heaven," written many years ago:

I'll go back to heaven again.

At the end of my outing to this beautiful world

I'll go and say: That was beautiful. . . .

There is the secret of his life's work. He teaches those ready to listen that the world is beautiful, that life is beautiful, and that we ought every day to be glad.


                * * *


The poems selected and translated here are among those most loved and admired by Korean readers; the selection was made for an edition published by Mirae-sa Publishing in Seoul in 1991. Most are youthful works, written in the 1950s and 1960s and included in Sae "Bird," that first "posthumous" collection published in five hundred copies by his friends in 1971, which was withdrawn when the poet was found to be alive.

The first volume supervised by the poet was published in 1978 under the title Ch'umak-esŏ "In a tavern." It contained the fifty-nine poems found in Sae, but arranged in a different order, followed by fifty others, mostly written after Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng's return to life. The first two sections of the present volume follow the order of Ch'umak-esŏ, distinguishing between the poems found in Sae and those added later. Some eighty of the poems included in this selection thus date from the earlier period of Ch'n's career, thirty of the poems found in Ch'umak-esŏ having not been translated.

The volumes published after this always offer a mixture of new poems and old favorites. The collection published in 1984 had the punning title Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng-ŭn Ch'ŏnsang Siin-ida " Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng is a real poet." Twenty poems and the "Notes on my poems" are taken from that collection. Chŏsung ka-nŭn de-to yŏbi-ga tŭnda-myŏn "If there's a fare to pay when you pass away," was published in 1987, its title drawn from the poem "À la Tu Fu." Six poems are included from that volume, and just two from Yonom yonom yo yipp-ŭn nom "You lovely fellow, you!" published in 1991.

There is a general consensus among Korean literary critics that the later works do not stand comparison with the early lyrics. They are often spontaneous echoes of an experience, something thought or heard. The style tends to be rather prosaic. Yet in terms of human interest, as opposed to formal beauty, the later poems sometimes appeal more to the general reader. The limitations of the present selection, heavily biased towards the early works, should be recognized, out of fairness to the poet's total reputation.



When the title of a poem is followed by an asterisk (*) readers will find a note on that poem among the notes at the end of the book.


From : Bird




If only I had a flute.

The moon is unmoving

the moonlight bright alone with the wind . . .

tonight with all insect sounds stilled

where, alas, can that flute be

that goes so well with my heart's sad melody?

In times past

great parties were held in towers to view the moon

where the court musician would play his flute

while pretty court ladies would dance;

I wish I had that flute.

If it can't be seen, still


I long at least to touch that flute.

Where can it be?






Everyone said that tree was rotten. But I told them that the tree was no rotten tree. That night I dreamed a dream.

In that dream I saw the tree flourishing, putting out branches as if it meant to touch the blue sky.

I called the people back again and told them that the tree was no rotten tree.


That tree is not rotten.






Sheer yearning

transformed the seagull

into a cloud.


In the blue sea's name

it dyed its white wings in the sky,

evidently joyful;


then the sea,

with its so bright breast

flowed after the cloud to distant lands.


Many times

many times

it was splendor flying high.


It was a beautiful heart.






I wonder why I'm standing

on this dreary road

where there's not a single tree?


A long road

not a new road

mile after mile of road, of red dirt road


like dusk

like tomorrow

I must be waiting for something.



A Reed


Under the bright moonlight

a reed and I

stood side by side in silence.


Anxiously we gazed at one other

calming our distress

in the gusting wind.


In the bright moonlight

the reed and I

were both drenched with tears.






No words

could express

the fading of the dusk.


As I watched that evening and that hour

I thought

about tomorrow.


Spring's gone

the twilight burns red then, ah, fades

yesterday and now today as well.


I want to know

I want to know


why, very soon,

once having hewn that sky

I'll have to inscribe there my obscurity.







Soon the wind will blow from the northern hills

snow will fly; winter's coming.


Then on snowy days

I'll walk Seoul's snow-covered streets,

longing for spring.


Even when I had nothing at all

I always had

this "next"

this dawn, this "next."

I reckon this absolute irresistible urge

is all my own.


Soon, tomorrow,

my dragging steps transformed

into something hotter than fire

my hope

will impose on the world a heavier burden

than the surf, than all the oceans.


So this "next"

like Seoul's streets on snowy days

is the road to my world's ocean






The way rivers all flow into the sea

is not the only reason I've been weeping

all day long

up on the hill.


It's not the only reason I've been blooming

in longing like a sunflower

all night long

up on the hill.


The reason I'm weeping for sorrow like an animal

up on the hill

is not only because of the way

rivers all just flow into the sea.






No sound

for the day's sake

this afternoon. . .



if I listen hard

I'm calling for mother

I'm crying.


Up in the sky

drifting far and near

like a seagull

grief flies on, flies on.



happened one such day.

happened one such day.



this quiet afternoon

it came to me like water

and made me cry.


If I listen hard

I can hear a voice

calling for mother.



Not just blue



I keep gazing, gazing and gazing again

at that sky so clear and blue up there.

It's not just blue.


Sometimes I'm riven with loneliness

as petals fall unceasingly and

out in the fields I open my arms

one cloud drifts past

now seen now unseen


the fresh green leaves of March April May

and where's the moon come rising from?

Do the stars look down at me each night?


I keep gazing, gazing and gazing again

at that sky so clear and blue up there.

It's not just blue.






There's someone on fire

inside that tiny flame,

in pain, hot, burning.

Legs, trunk, bones, skin, all turning to ash.

That person's a stranger to me.

Oh! My face

and nose and mouth and guts

and lungs and stones

are all turning into ash!



One afternoon in Tŏksu Palace




A leafy afternoon; over there

a woman in traditional dress lifts a hand to her ear.

If there's even a tiny black mole on the lobe,

it turns into the shadow

of a tiny petal fallen on stone stairs.


A floating cloud meets the storm

from Chunghwa Hall, then vanishes without return.


My apologetic disease becomes a light

never again to be seen on these lawns and sandy paths

and on the dumb pines

greets passers-by I do not know.


So drunk with folly I cannot drink wine.

I go to the pond and toss in a stone;

its sinks endlessly.


I go and sit down

on a bench in the shade of the pines.


There I get drowsy and close my eyes.

The whole park is a stone sinking into a pond.



One dark night



In the sky transmitted to us

through many thousands of years

one star then two then three stars float.


Old men

and children

have all passed away but

one young man is asleep tonight after writing a poem . . .





The day beyond

the day I die

lonely in death after lonely living

birds will sing as new day dawns and petals unfold

on my soul's empty ground.


I'll be one bird

alighting on ditches and branches

when the song of loving

and living

and beauty

is at its height.


Season full of emotion

week of sorrow and joy

in the gaps between knowing, not knowing, forgetting


pour out that antiquated song.


One bird sings of how

there are good things

in life

and bad things too.



Bird  2



After chattering all day long

saying things

now I fall asleep . . .


Sea silent, I fall asleep

and dream dreams

like the letters a son gets from an aged father.


All the words I said today

seem to be embracing and making love

to the screams of those already dead.

In those dreams, I mean . . . .


I sing for each day's spoken words.

Ah, my song, my song!

At night, instead of sorrow, my song falls asleep.



Bird  3



That bird can't fly or sing,

it can't even move.

It must be deeply wounded.

St Francis of Assissi preached

of grace

to the birds

but that bird seems just as sick as before.

The sunset and dusk on the fields long centuries ago

are making snow fall

here today.

It's snowing . . .


In a tavern


For the happy child that died within me long before the blade fell on my neck  (Jean Genet)


From alleyway to alleyway

and now in this tiny tavern.

Pour me one more glass, old dear.

Evening dusk's a poor poet's reward . . .

Is it normal, I wonder, for this world to appear

as smooth as it does to troubled eyes?

Pour me one more glass, old dear.

Hazy things are solemn.

At the entry to the alley

the night is growing darker with awkward steps

but behind the old woman's back

looms the hill beside my home village

and on that hill

unseasonable winter snow is falling heavily.

Beyond that hill,

on the lonely ridge with the local god's shrine

above that ridge,

hurling lumps of soft snow, the kids are playing.

The children are looking very cheerful.

They look infinitely cheerful.







Before it

eyes are quite useless

in the effort to see the utter stillness imprinted

on the tip of branches long against the winter sky . . .


What is meant by seeing?

What form can the bridge have that spans

the infinitely subtle difference

between what is and what is not?


Won't that thing

that pecks at blood-tinged sunbeams

gently spreading feathers over ruined visions

vanish as suddenly as it came?


So as the wind blows soundlessly

one bird is barely maintaining

the perfect balance

between this sky and that.




Samch'ŏng Park




The loneliest man in Seoul came to Seoul's loneliest park. All the time repeating that there's nothing so wrong with being lonely. . . . at more or less the same time the man seemed vaguely to realize what was bringing the cherry trees there into bloom. It's a sobering thing, like seeing all the hills from that one bench under the flowering branches. Ah, loneliness, or solitude, tell me you too sometimes experience this kind of dazzling moment, these times of song.



Within those cherry petals my father, who died ten years ago, is assuming his most loving expression and pose, while my niece, who died at the age of six, is laughing in green at the edge of freshly blooming baby flowers. Mother, mother, where are you?




- in the "Apollo" tearoom



It's been so long since I heard any music. It's as though a wise shade has followed the sunlight spreading over my soul's glades. Perhaps the shade is thicker and more appetizing.

Where has that bird gone, I wonder? Is it crossing beyond the dales? Has it rented my heart out and gone on an overseas cruise?

Come back, bird! Not to sing as you fly! But to ransack this shade's lonely splendor!



Lament for Shin Dong-yŏp



On a cloudless day

the sky revealed itself

from time to time in profile.


Its one clear eye

steadily gazing down

was fixed on your tomb.


At the farthest limit

of the grassy mound

a flower grew, boasting of its solitude.


Shin Dong-yŏp!

That's the kind of man you were.


No matter for how short a moment

you left everything there

and off you went.


Off away

to the land of glory!




Sabbath  1



Above autumn skies as bright as today's,

one flight above, a cloud goes drifting.


Here I am at present waiting

right in front of the church gate


to have my shoes shined after the policeman

on traffic duty at the gate.


It would be a pity if I were less considerate

than that policeman.


Above autumn skies as bright as today's,

one flight above, a cloud goes drifting.



Sabbath  2





He went walking on,

from alley to street,

from side-street to main road.


Stores and buildings

lined up side by side in rows.

Heedless, he went walking on.


How far is he going, you ask?

To the woods, to the sea.

Heading for the stars

unresting he goes walking on.





By day to a teashop, or a bar,

at night to an inn.


My paths

always used to be the same . . .



today I'm taking another path.



Memories  1



How beautiful the rejoinders of youthful love.

Where shall we go?

Nowhere special. Why?


How beautiful the rejoinders of youthful love.

I love you!

I hate you, no matter what you say!


On snowy days love drifts.

On rainy days time flows.






With my stomach full after eating lunch

I'm writing this letter to the once hungry me.


It used to happen sometimes.

You won't be upset, will you?


There were times of luxury too, you know.

I hope you won't forget that.


I was sure of tomorrow

for twenty years!


Now that I'm full

I'm worried I might forget all that


so I'm

writing this letter.





In yonder isle of death is also the tomb of my youth (Nietsche)



A place

where ancient stillness

walks the sea.


A place

where mists flow thick

like oil ablaze.


A secluded




A fresh grave

washed by the waves.




One chrysanthemum



Although for today there was no night

the moon came up,

the stars were twinkling bright.


Although there's no day with only grief

once again the sun rose,

the morning dawned.


I'm not utter innocence

but thanks to that one chrysanthemum

standing in a cup on the table

I'm all aglow.



Memories  2



If I go that way again

spring comes


if I pass beyond the hill

summer light shines.


On the way back

autumn leaves are drifting


and winter inevitably

scatters great flakes of snow.


The love letters

I wrote to you


the writings of love

have likewise turned into great rivers flowing vast.



Little child



In the early hours before sunrise, taking the wings of the pale grey dawn, I set off for Sajik Park, gnawing dejection as I went. Down an almost deserted street a little girl, only three or four, was standing crying outside one house's front gate, dressed in her nightclothes. She was sobbing dreadfully, sobbing dreadfully. I wonder why?  Why is this little child crying here outside this big house's front door, complete with its guard-dog, pressing the gate with her glass-like hand?  Perhaps she's being punished for wetting her bed? All the time looking back, I cannot ignore her.

Little girl, why are you crying? Because you've just learned something about life? Because something sad has happened, and you've experienced how very much painful things hurt? Yet this fellow here, aimlessly wandering up the hill in the dawn, isn't crying. . .

Little girl, you've got a mother whose hand's soon going to open that gate for sure. This fellow here has no door for any such love to open. Don't cry, little child! After all, look at me: I'm not crying . . .







What kind of music is this? A quiet whisper close beside my pillow in the early hours. I think the composer of this tune, that I used to listen to with tears, loved one girl his whole life long. It may be that her name was Clara. Wasn't she his teacher's wife? One century, two centuries of time have rolled by and yet it looks as though his love is still not over. Early this morning it's come to the heart of this messed-up wreck living in a distant land and weeps.



Back to Heaven



I'll go back to heaven again.

Hand in hand with the dew

that melts at a touch of the dawning day,


I'll go back to heaven again.

With the dusk, together, just we two,

at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes


I'll go back to heaven again.

At the end of my outing to this beautiful world

I'll go back and say: That was beautiful. . . .







A lonely spot on a hilltop ridge

with tiny daisies.


There's no wind,

yet somehow they're fluttering.



will come again.


Will this moment come again?

My lonely heart and yours

chastely united

as now . . .



Daytime starlight



Do you see the daytime starlight

sleeping quietly like a baby

near the roof

the white clothes hanging by the window

near the garden wall . . .


Do you see the daytime starlight

like that spinning world

beside love's gestures

the wearisome waiting

alongside of sorrow . . .


Do you see the daytime starlight

speeding pole-wards

over deserts

over rocks

over waves . . .


A bird

traverses all the daytime starlight valleys




"Crazy Vagabond"





Today's wind is leaving

tomorrow's wind is beginning to blow.



Today's been far too dull.


Like baby rats mewling in a backyard cesspit

tomorrow's wind is beginning to blow.





Hugging the sky

embracing the sea

I draw on a cigarette.


Hugging the sky

embracing the sea

I drink a draught of water.


Someone sat for a while beside the well

then went on, leaving a fag-end behind . . .


At the West Gate

- Bird



Between the countless branches where you lingered a while in days gone by, the daylight departs and darkness looms. It's cold. The wind comes bleakly gusting from the lips of one near death, while the hands of the clock that has never told the right time are drowsing near midnight. Seasons are not things that come for those who wait the longest.

And you, little bird. . . .




- Bird





This thin smile lurking smug on my lips

is a bridge composed of a single thread

deftly slung at the brink of life and death.


A bird goes flying up that bridge.

Fraternity and resolution, with courage too,

wafting on just such pinions . . .


Not a breeze furtively shaking the leaves

but rather a wind that touches the roots,

the sunbeams streaming from this breast.


How often will my lips smile bright at the hills

along the meadow path

taken today, and tomorrow too . . .





My friend

come to this sun-shimmering hill.


Though you have to cross many oceans

to pass from hill to hill, still


come to this sun-shimmering hill

my friend . . .



My poverty



I feel fairly happy this morning,

with a cup of coffee, enough fags in the pack,

breakfast eaten and still the bus fare left over.


I feel fairly gloomy this morning,

though I'm not short of small change,

because I have to worry about tomorrow.


Poverty's my full-time job

but if I can hold up my head in this sunshine

it's because the sunshine has no bank account either.


My past and future

my dear sons and daughters,

sometimes come to my grass-grown grave and say:

Here sleeps a life that took pain in its stride.

Let the fresh breeze blow . . .



Liver revolt



I sat facing a sixty-year old man.

Don't worry. Relax.

But still, what must I do?

We'll just have to wait and see . . .


My completely unseen liver

has dared to stage a coup d'état.

There's not much that little fellow can do,

yet a life still eager to live comes home to me.


I don't much like coup d'états.

I ask the old doctor

how to deal with it.

Policies depend on situations!






Asking if I have a soul

is like asking if I exist or not.

Can you see a hill and say it's not there?

My soul!

Run wild.

My body's movements

are my soul's disguise, that's all.

When I'm gloomy on rainy days,

it's my soul that's gloomy.

I want my soul to be free worldwide,

able to run all over the place.



Harvest celebration at forty



Silence is like lightning and

people who know do not make a fuss

while those who make a fuss are ignorant:

that is what Lao Tzu said.


I could not understand such a saying:

I was always in too much of a rush

I was noisy.


Today is not the first Harvest Celebration

I've spent alone like this

but the reason I'm gloomier today

is all to do with an incurable sickness.


Putting a bowl of makkŏlli

on the rickety table

of a poor neighborhood's lowest grog-shop

I celebrate rites for my father's soul.


When that's done

I drink what remains

then inevitably

set out again

as I'm forty now.



One wish



You think my fairly lucid mind and my spotless soul,

buried together with my flesh in the ground,

will also rot and ooze and be devoured?


Jaspers said

that if you ask science about its own significance,

it is utterly unable to reply.


In this half-penny world of utter obstinacy

I wonder how I have managed to survive at all.

I've no particular complaint to make


but though my shitty mind may rot

it's altogether another matter when it comes

to the soul that's making me write this poem.


Years after I die, maybe my soul

will be boarding late buses in the streets of Seoul,

gladly paying the penny it's been clutching so hard.



Late autumn  - Sunday



A seed that will be this flower next year

has plunged fleetingly into the breeze

seeking its way with blood-shot eyes.


After wandering penniless

from wood to wood, hill to hill,

it has to endure agonies of thirst in a sandbank.


At last a little lamb comes home.

Tenderly meeting the ground without a word

it is guided to the house of rest.



Grant me a lifetime like this flower.



À la Tu Fu

- One autumn day, 1970



Father and mother lie

in the family burial plot at home


I'm all on my own

here in Seoul


brother and sisters

are down in Pusan


I don't have the fare

so I can't go.


If there's a fare to pay

when you pass away


does that mean

I'll never be able to go?


When you think of it, ah,

what a deep thing life is.



The guy from the Milky Way





Late at night

as I lie vacantly

there's a noise somewhere.

The room is dark

but on the roof

starlight is piled up white.

Is it the weight that wakes me up?

I want to walk in the starlight village on the roof

yet I'm really loath to get out of bed.

If I listen hard

there's a noise.

What can that noise be?

It sounds as though someone's having a drink

in the starlight village pub on the roof.

If I strain to hear

it sounds like the voice of drunken angels

it sounds like Dostoevsky's voice

like the noise of friends killed young

it's no such thing.

That rogue's

a thief peeping into my room.

But there's nothing here worth stealing.

I'll have to think again.

Above the roof the stars are in full glory.

Perhaps it's some guy from the Milky Way.

I'm not afraid, anyway.

That guy

if he's come all this way

isn't going to waste his time staring at me.

I could invite him to come inside

but I don't expect he'd understand. . . .


Still, he did say something

clearly in our language

before he went away.

"Have breakfast in my neighborhood."

He must have been a saucy fellow.









Is it shining or not?

That star

so faintly shining

is the farthest star

in the Milky Way.

It must be two billion light years away.

I wonder how it makes such a long journey?

On foot?

by bus?

or in a taxi perhaps?

Have a safe journey, anyway.




That day

- Bird



That day, when I suffered

like a shirt beneath the iron,

I can't say how many years ago . . .


That day when one summer bug tried to shake hands with me

as I perspired by a back window in a fearful house,

I can't say how many years ago . . . .


Your flesh and bones all know

which is mightier,

sincerity or pain . . .


To one side

of the heaven in my mind

a bird is stretching its wings in alarm.



The place of flowers



What makes flowers bloom like this?

Beautiful beyond compare, tender and so quiet,

they're quite preposterously superhuman.


Even our wisest doing their best can't rival them . . .

Try as she may, the fairest princess is bound to fail.

There are sometimes things like this to name.


Not even Mr University, no matter how rugged.

How could anyone roughly pluck this flower?

Wasn't he singing a hymn, foolishly at that . . .



At Kwanghwa-mun



Out early at Kwanghwa-mun, I witnessed the funeral procession of the star they called "The Queen of Tears."  The funeral banners were streaming, the band was tootling, while several buses and a great crowd filled the road. I mused thoughtfully. About how my late father had been a devoted fan of that same Queen of Tears? No, not that. How sometimes the funerals of writers have passed the same way. With no banners, certainly no band, and absolutely no procession, a totally wretched, incomparably seedy-looking gathering. To earn that seediness was the sole reason they wrote poetry.









Dear Mother and Father, and my lovely niece Yong-jun who left us in childhood, I do hope you're at peace under the heavenly trees. Meanwhile, three poets have gone your way, I want you to keep an ear open for news of them. Their names are Cho Chi-hun, Kim Su-yŏng, Choe Kye-rak. If you meet them, please give them warm wishes on behalf of your despicable son. While they were alive they were no end kind and helpful to me. I often spent time with them. Those three are the only ones who'll speak no ill of me. I hope you keep well.






than the morning sunlight


more complicated

than the whole wide world


more tormented

than the dark


those men

have gone on ahead, leaving us here.

From: In a tavern





Silently a leaf comes fluttering down

drops on my chest and is gone.


The spot where it falls

is just beside the wound


deeply scored

that drove me out into life

with not a moment then to utter a cry.


There the leaf

is now wholeheartedly

watching you as it examines your life.


The wind keeps on blowing

on and on blowing

the leaf watching motionless over the wound


that leaf is an eye, an eye,

clear heaven's eye, our eye, mother's

angry, tearful eye as she calls you.



My house



Won't somebody give me a house? I roar to the heavens. Hear me, someone, to the ends of the earth . . . I got married just a few weeks ago, so how can I help but shout like this? God in his heaven will hear with a smile. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud put an ad in a London newspaper. "Won't someone take me to a southern country?" A ship's captain saw it, gladly took him on board and shipped him to a southern country. So I'm shouting like a giant. A house is a treasure. The whole world may crumble and fall, my house will remain . . .



At the foot of Mount Surak  5



Our house is thatched, next door's is thatched too.

Our house belongs to the people of Seoul

I've never had dealings with the folk next door.


It's a matter of crossing the street

but the house next door's located

somewhere in Africa.


Three families live in our house, the owner's too,

our population density's at international levels.

Fourteen people in all, no less.


Our house sold off its only dog:

are we a developing country like the papers say?

Next door they've put up a TV antenna

they're really advanced.


I know our house's owner's name,

he does his best to be kind;

could the house next door be Jesus Christ's?



Rain  7



The monsoons are late in coming.

They were needed for the crops

but that's all junk for ordinary folks. . .


I suddenly think of remote Cheju Island. . .

I was never once able to visit it!

Isn't it somewhere near London?


There's no way I'll ever get there.

I must make a long journey, to the coast at least . . .

Then the scent of that island may come drifting by.






Rain  8



Is rain really always pouring down

into Ch'ŏnji Lake on Paektu Mountain?

Old Father Tangun must have used an umbrella.


The falls at the head of the Yalu River roar down

and form such a great whirlpool

that even the tiger has to tremble for fear.


There may be a classical poem about white clouds,

there's no classical poem about this mountain.

So I'm obliged to write one, I suppose?






Rain  9



Limply the leaves are getting wet in the rain.

The trunk's getting wet too, the fruit as well.

Every surface is meeting the same fate.


The stream's getting wet, too,

like a grandchild shaking hands with grandad.

The local folk must be glad to see it . . .


It's like a fiesta in a forest village.

The womenfolk are preparing the next day's work

and the husbands are busy drinking their fill.






Rain  11



Rain is extremely pure and innocent.

Even if it only rains for a day

the mountain streams, that were dry before, swell.


The late poet Kim Kwan-Sik

used to say that humans live at riversides;

by the looks of it that's the king of truths.


Why do trees grow so luxuriantly at riversides?

Not because they've got enough water there

but because they love the riverside mood.









Like a dark continent, an uninterrupted mass

of clouds is covering the sky

in a strange silence. Luckily, it's raining.

It's the rainy season now


and on that dark continent lies the Great Wall.

Perhaps there may be peals of thunder.


Isn't the universe a land of mystery?

Where do the moon and stars go in the daytime?

Maybe rain's the green light for them?





This spring water

obliged to rise now with the dawn

was perhaps rain that fell on such and such a day.


The hill itself and the nearby rocks may know,

the sky and clouds must know for sure,

but they have no mouths, it's frustrating.


There's no harm in drinking this spring-water,

its taste can never vary.

You only need pray for good luck.





From a commonsensical view, rain falls on all of Nature.

But you think it's just falling on the roof,

not realizing it's striking the vase inside.


Only think!

Nature's the whole of the cosmos.

Which is why it's striking the vase as well.


Physically the vase is not being struck

but in actual fact the vase's real soul,

being raised to the roof, is getting rained on.





The chemical composition of water

is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen

I already knew that in middle school.


But I still don't know

what on earth there is

behind that hydrogen and oxygen . . .


What's in there is a wild beast fit to be feared.

A hydrogen bomb behind the hydrogen,

an atom bomb behind the oxygen . . .





When I was in primary school

if ever it rained

I didn't use to go to school.


I would desperately beg my mother

(she's already gone to the kingdom of heaven)

to bake me some beans because I was sick.


I'll go out now

but seeing I'm already forty

it's no use setting the world back to front.



News of spring



Ipch'un's come, it's much less cold!

Winter's over, spring's nearly here.

I scan the calendar up and down.


Steaming breath again?

Earth's idea of a joke!

Soon flowers will be blooming.


Faintly gleaming sun,

why are you so gloomy?

Won't the arctic turn into the tropics?






If you want to go downtown from here by bus,

this being the suburbs, it takes about an hour.

Our neighborhood lies at the foot of Mount Surak.


The water's good and the hills are good.

The people here are kind-hearted too.

It's a fine place to make a home.


Today the rain is drizzling down.

It's a gloomy day and cold though it's spring.

I like it here, I like it here.



August bell



What can that sound be?

The sound of the earth?

The sound of the sky?


A moment's thought: the sound of a bell

a sound heard from far far away.


How far will that sound go?

Maybe to the ends of space.

Or perhaps it will sink beneath the ground

and even be heard in the kingdom of heaven?



Streamside  5



As the stream poured fiercely down

it even broke into waves.

Striking rocks, its billows raged in fury.


It poured yesterday all day and all night until

the water falling in the hills, wandering beneath the pines,

united in the valley in this shape.


Hills and land being physically higher than the sea,

water is naturally bound to flow downwards

but today's the first time I ever saw waves raging so.



A heart believed


What's normal is "a believing heart"

so why am I contrary with "a heart believed"?

The uncommon reason is as follows . . .


I have no believing heart

I believe my heart.

Firmly firmly I believe my heart.


I have nothing but a heart believed,

no riches

no property at all.



Prelude to life



A proverb is far more than any truth.

Truth depends on reasoning

and life's only a smattering of truth.


Experience of life rebels against that.

Life's history's composed of rise and fall.

All positions are the accesories of time.


My friend was well-versed

in almost everything, only he looked a fool,

and life deals generously even with fools.




Fairyland  1




This grass is one foot high at least.

With its delicate dangling leaves it looks

like a lady-in-waiting, an empress, even.


It's green in hue, but no mere green,

darker and lighter here and there,

it's a fine sight with its dangling leaves.


I vaguely feel it would fly, given wings,

and that if it's growing in precisely that place

it's thanks to its roots plunging into the soil.







What are they all doing now, I wonder?

How far have they got by now, I wonder?

Where are they walking now, I wonder?


Are they having lunch, I wonder?

Are they ranking officials, I wonder?

Are they walking under streetside trees, I wonder?


I'm walking now, but

my stomach's rumbling, I've not eaten;

what are they all doing now, I wonder?






There's no one there, though I walk on and on,

this road is no one's road.

So I walk on alone.

Look, flowers in blossom!

Like friends, like neighbors!

Truly beautiful flowers' life-forms—

the road just keeps right on.

I'd like to snatch a moment's rest

but there's really no place much for that.

On and on I go until

bit by bit I get hungry.

I look for food but

though I walk on and on, it's no one's road,

what on earth shall I do?

After walking some more, at last

a village appears in the distance.

It comes into sight far away.

In unbridled joy I walk

quickly quickly along the road.

The bliss of going along this road!



Beside a spring



Beside the spring I visit early every morning

spreads an expanse of earthly fairyland,

a green land where Yao and Shun might like to be.


All the plants you find there are ordinary enough

yet that lovely harmony's peaceful hue is so pure


everything is so exactly where it should be

grace, harmony and color are in such unity

that together they attain this world's perfection.







If a friend arrives from far away

and tells entertaining tales

I giggle merrily.


Then I'm joyful.

So what is joy, you ask.

All I do is laugh.


The greater the joy, the greater the laughter.

Don't ask so many questions.

The heart is replete with simple laughter.


When something very good occurs

I feel gratified, envigorated

and the heavens seem like a loving sister to me.






Gazing up at tomorrow's peaks

neck craned, hands raised,

I follow today's sunbeams.


Every hour is rare and precious.

Work may be piled up

but look, tommorow's light.


The window's open on the future.

Before the window, what a sky!

Nothing but movement forwards!


Hope, like clouds high up in the sky!

North south east west every way

my steps move lightly towards tomorrow.






Why, the road has no end.

When it touches a stream

there's a bridge or a ferry.

And when it reaches a seaside harbor

there are ships so we can cross the sea.


Why, there's nothing blocking the road.

There's no wall across it

and heaven alone is blue and a friend

heaven alone is guiding the road.

That means

the road is eternal.



White cloud



That triangular little cloud

floats on at its leisure across the sky.

It may have some business to deal with.

That very slowly flowing thing

has only the breezes skimming past.

The wind is the cloud's true love.

So the cloud invariably goes

wherever the wind is blowing it.

Snow-white cloud!

The cloud is not in the least concerned

about what season it is.

The cloud flows on at its leisure

just as today becomes tomorrow.




Flowing stream



I live below Mount Surak.

In summer

I wake at five

climb up to a mountain stream

and wash there every day.

The really kind things said by

the faces I meet each morning


big rocks middling rocks small rocks

such rocks are plentiful

and the trees grow thick

gurgle gurgle gurgle

the sound of water dropping from the rocks


as I'm washing

for there's sometimes water

splashing as high as my knees. . .

(that's the kind of place I go)

the secluded mood of the flowing stream. . .



A flower's a medal



A flower's a medal.

A medal awarded us by God.

The beauty of flowers in bloom on hills and plains.


Sometimes people pick flowers to wear on their breasts.

It's only natural, since they're medals.

It's a very admirable gesture.


It's natural to bless God for ever and ever

for bestowing such gracious awards on us.

Such is our wisdom that keeps advancing.






Oriental tombs are naturalistic

western tombs are rationalistic.

Oriental tombs are a union with earth

western tombs are convenience.


Grass and soil

gentle outline and volume

an armful of quiet atmosphere

that's our tombs . . .


Crammed together in a well-organized space

with a cross as small as possible

in a spot almost nobody visits

those are the white men's tombs . . .


Our family tombs

are on a hillside behind Daeti Village

in the Chinbuk district of Changwŏn county

in South Kyŏngsang province.

We visit them once a year on New Year's Day.



The moon



Gazing up at the moon with a heart serene

I'm out in the fields though it's ten at night,

forgetting life's cares and soaking in moonlight.


Whether or not the mysteries of space can be seen

there's a human footprint up on that moon,

that place that's become so close to us


that place so far away far when I was a child

now it's full moon and more beautiful still

the clouds cling close as if brushing against it.

From: A Real Poet





I want wings.

I want wings

that will carry me wherever I want.

I can't understand why God

didn't give humans wings.

Being a pauper

the only trip I've ever had was our honeymoon

but I want to go any and everywhere.

Once I have wings I'll be satisfied.


give me wings, please . . .



Distant mountain



I live in Ŭijŏngbu.

There's a mountain in sight in the distance

that seems to be whispering to me.

All the time it seems to be calling me.


Lazybones as I am,

I've not got that far yet

but I'm thinking of making a visit

one day some time soon.


The distant mountain looks like the good old days,

like an old old man

or maybe like those already dead,

like the site of an ancient castle.






My home town is Chindong in South Kyŏngsang province

a place some twelve miles from Masan

beside the sea

lovely with hills and streams.


Home town is home, despite the fact

that I left there as soon as I started school.

I wonder where my real home is?

My home before I was born, I mean.


Almost all the time everyone's talking of home,

and I'm just like anyone else,

home before birth, I mean.

The older I get, the more I talk about home.


I really mean going back into the void, I suppose.

Not back to Chindong, that's sure.

To home before birth-home

back into the void. Middle-aged sensitivity.






Maybe the clouds that float in the sky

are armchairs for angels

come down to inspect the world?


Angel assistants of God

have a nice rest, then go

and tell him everything's fine.


You can't be seen

so we may misbehave;

I do hope you'll excuse us for that.






I like a drink

but makkŏlli and beer are all I can take.


If I buy one bottle

of makkŏlli in the morning

then only drink a little glass

when the thought strikes me

it lasts the whole day, almost.



If I happen to get paid for writing something

I buy just one glass costing five hundred won,

yet my wife

disapproves if I drink even once in a month or more.


That's not how the world is.

At mealtimes

when that's the only pleasure

I feel

how on earth can she pretend to disapprove

of my only source of pleasure?


That's not how the cosmos is,

not how the world is

not how life is.


The aim is only pleasure

pleasure's life's greatest goal.


Makkŏlli 's no mere drink

it's the same as food

which is not simply food

but God's divine grace

and gives pleasure too.



My poverty



I may be shabbily poor,

I lack nothing a person needs in life.

My three brothers are living at ease in Pusan but

I wouldn't share their lot for anything.


My publishers look after me,

I get help from various writers


so I never experience the least discomfort.

I simply give thanks to Heaven, that's all.


I may be poor,

I enjoy the greatest happiness.

Money and happiness are unrelated.

The rich have to pass through a needle's eye.



Three birds



I share a room with three little birds.

Those three birds perch beside the tele

and can't budge an inch

because in fact

they're not real birds at all

they're only imitation.


The first's a magpie perched on a savings-box

we got from a bank

The other two look a bit like wild geese

my wife brought them back from Kyŏngju.

So they're three

and I live with them day after day.


I'm very fond of birds.

So peaceful quiet and free

heaven itself is theirs.

I love and treasure these

as much as any real live birds.



Offerings for Father



We make offerings for father

on the third day of the ninth lunar month.

I can't get down to Pusan this year either

Again! Yet again!

Father's soul will be angry with me.


Dear father's soul, please remember

that poverty is heaven-sent.

Didn't you tell me

when you were alive,

"There's bliss in poverty"?


In his youth father's wealth

was a thousand sacks of rice a year

then, fooled by the Japs, he lost it all.

He went across to Japan to earn a living.


Father! Father!

If you were still alive now

you'd have just turned eighty; father,

I beg you, enjoy peace and joy in heaven.






Birds are always bright and cheerful.

This nether world belongs to them.

Wherever they go they're unrestrained,

free and happy things.


Birdsong's a sound they make in joy.

Yet some poet or other once dared to say

that the songs birds make

sound like weeping; what nonsense!


The twittering of birds

is life's joy and delight.

Let's all do our best to be like the birds,

let's all be bright and cheerful!



a sound made in joy.

What an awful wretch he was

to take those songs for signs of sorrow!


Perhaps the birds, being free to fly

through the sky to their heart's content,

seeing with compassion us humans below,

are singing "Arirang Arirang."



Cold water



I'm fond of cold water.

We're "water people" so I keep on drinking.

Energy comes welling up

there I'm second to none.


Nature's energies are far from us

but still we must imitate all we can

like our ancestors

calling out "Water! Water!"

as they crossed Manchuria's Sungari River

in their progress southward.


Like birds that fly on, drenched in sky,

I'm all drenched in water.

Energy's essential

if we're not to let life slip through our fingers.


My song may be feeble,

at its end

I invariably find cold water energy

that can reach places far away.




Happiness near Kwanghwa-mun



At Kwanghwa-mun

there's the office of a paper that bravely fought

against the former dictator Syngman Rhee.

That paper's leader writer,

the novelist Oh Sang-wŏn, is a close friend of mine.


A man who, if I feel I want to see him

and ring him up,

unfailingly comes out to join me

in my regular coffee-shop Arirang.

One such day in such and such a month,

once again he came, paid for what I'd consumed

and offered me two thousand-won notes--

at which I said,


"Just this once I'm afloat too,"

pulled out two thousand won from my pocket

and showed them to him plainly

but he just repeated, "It's alright, it's alright,"

heading for his regular beer house!

That bar

was not far away

it was run by a fellow who'd been section head

in a paper banned under the Liberal Party

and so the three of us,

my wife as well,

had a chance to celebrate

a springtime of freedom and happiness

a garden of flowers.


Dear God!

How could you let such a moment happen

to a poor wretch like me?






Sunlight, moonlight, lamplight,

light's a really splendid thing.


Without light

everything would be dark, you know.


The world moves by light

human eyes exist by light.


Tomorrow, tomorrow,

let there always be light!






I like a drink.

Only makkŏlli though,

and very little of that.


Getting drunk's a sin.

It's wrong to sin.

If I'm drunk I don't know where I am.


Even Jesus Christ made wine.

It's no sin

to drink just a little.


Our life's a vale of tears.

In order to reduce the pain

there's nothing like a drink.



Window pane



Windows are always made of glass

yet for my window I have

the green leaves of trees.


The vigorous lively leaves

with the sky as their background

grew up indifferent and thick.


Sometimes birds fly past

or a cloud goes by.

Ah, this sunlit window pane . . .



The wind has paths too



I think the wind blows at random

strongly and sometimes weakly

but it's not true! It's not at all like that!


The wind bravely follows

invisible paths.

Wind paths lie in all directions.


While I keep on along my path

the wind pursues its own wind-paths.

The path is always everywhere there.






Look at the sky's own vagabond flower

attracting every gaze,

as leisurely as time.


Eternal wanderer, going where it likes

this wanderer moving with the wind

without a goal, without a purpose, slowly


seeming altogether weightless,

blanker the longer you look at it,

is embroidering the sky with tints of white.



Heart's village



My heart's village

is called Nine Thousand Village.

I'm Mr. Thousand, but it's a neighborhood

crowded and busy enough for nine thousand.


True, it's only one neighborhood

but it's vaster than South Kyŏngsang Province

equal to the City of Seoul yet at the same time

nothing more than one very small neighborhood.


Yes, it has high buildings

like the skyscrapers of New York,

but it has thatched cottages

and caves from prehistoric times, too.


In this village's sky

birds of every season fly,

and when that is not the case

white clouds cover it completely.


This village's law

is conscience alone

for its court-house

there's nothing but the court of conscience.


If you want to point out this and that

ten thousand words will not suffice.

This heart's complex crowded village.






At five every morning

I go to the mountain.

It lies in northern Seoul

right on the city outskirts.

I don't mean a mountain at all.

I ought really to say a valley.

There I sing freely.


Bad at singing as I am

I let rip.

And the rocks, those very serious rocks,

pretend to dance

the mountain ridges pretend to rock

while the birdsong gives me music

and the trees seem to whisper.

I'm singing, I'm singing.








I'm the happiest man

in the world.


Since my wife runs a café

I've no need to worry about making ends meet

and I went to university

so there's nothing lacking in my education

and because I'm a poet

my desire for fame is satisfied

I have a pretty wife too

so I don't think about women

and we have no children

no need to worry about the future

we have a house as well

I'm really very comfortable.

I'm fond of makkŏlli

my wife always buys it for me

so what have I got to complain of?


I firmly believe in God

and since the mightiest person

in the whole wide world

is looking after my interests

how can anyone say misfortune's coming?



Wild asters



One day early in October '84

my wife brought home a bunch of wild asters.

It made the room really bright.

There were white asters

and violet asters

and pink asters too.


Autumn's the season of mellow fruitfulness,

our room's lightly perfumed

there's a marvellous feeling about.

Why is it so good?

Nature's profundity has come visiting,

I'll have to study poetry more.






Mornings I feel happiest.

Today has begun

the start's from now on.


Once I've finished washing my face

I begin my work

I grope for my books.


May there be blessings today.

May kind heaven send

some joyful news.






Rain falling, rain falling.

Ruminating melancholy

I recall the dead.


Rain is waters of sadness

repentance for my youth

God's providence.


Friends' sad plights

spring suddenly to mind.

Shall I go to church alone and pray?



Distant mountain



That distant mountain

is like an old man.

It has heaven behind it

speaking words of wisdom.


People all exist separately

there's no unity and yet

if once they learn the ways of heaven

it seems that makes a difference . . .


Distant mountain

history's only bigwig

we human beings

should learn from your silence . . . .



Country bumpkin



I live on the outskirts of Ŭijŏngbu

but Seoul City's only eighty yards away

and that's no big deal

as far as transport goes

but with rice and vegetable fields nearby

I'm a country bumpkin.

If you live in Seoul

you're just one among nine million

but that's not my case at all.

A country bumpkin's a happy man.

I must sing.

How could I not sing the praises

of such intense satisfaction?

Heaven! Heaven!

My song's heaven's own.



Flower hues



Look, my open hand

placed beneath these growing flowers

is mottled with flower-hued shade


inspiring unprompted memories, hues

of flowers seen in the Secret Garden

when I was there a few days ago.


That brightness and shade

passionately making love!

Right on my palm . . .




The women I like



The first of all the women I like

can only be my wife

of course.


My wife's fifty-two

and I'm sixty now—

there's almost nothing we can do


but still!

The time as I write this poem

is five o'clock in the afternoon

of May the fourth 1989, but all the same . . .


Only two or three days ago, at night,

up and down, up and down,

there was suddenly such a squirming


that I called out in a loud voice

to my wife in the room next to mine;

I called and called


but she went on sleeping.

At last my mother-in-law called out,

"What a racket . . . let's get some sleep"

and thanks to those words

I went back to being a loach again

with no hope of even beginning.




Maytime greenery



May's the month for greenery.

Green light

covering the world, Maytime's

literally the month for greenery.


Green light's very good for the eyes.

And not just for the eyes;

it whispers of hope.


So the month of May

seems much too brief.

Green Maytime!

All the world's Maytime!




Notes on my Poems



Let me expose briefly how I write poetry. There is no room for detailed notes on the composition of each individual poem, but I can explain how I see poetry-writing in general terms.

I consider poetry to be the king of literature. In literature there are many different genres: you have novels, essays, childrens' stories, drama. But poetry is topmost among them.

By that I mean that poetry is the truest of all. A lying poem is no poem. A poem is the truest of all truths. We cannot live if once we abandon truth.

Joy is one expression of truth. I love to laugh. The critic Kim Ju-Yŏn once commented that he could not help laughing when he read my work; I have never deliberately written poems to make people laugh but there does seem to be a sense of humour about them.

You and I are all living for the sake of truth. The truth about human existence lies spread far and wide. What gives it expression is poetry. If you get angry after reading a poem, it must have been a fake!

I never write poems like that. More and more with the passage of time I have tried to express the true meaning of human existence.

I tend to write poems quickly. But it is only the writing down of the poem that is soon done; it takes a long time for me to compose a poem. Once I have hit on an idea, I spend hours reflecting whether I should express it in this way or that.

Notes on the composition of a poem touch its very being. It is very difficult to say, such a poem came in being for this particular reason. Because then you are expressing its very essence.

As I said, I see poetry as the essence of human existence. We have to be faithful to one particular task. Only then is it possible for worthwhile works to be produced.

Perhaps because I have no children, I am rather lonesome. In order to overcome that loneliness I naturally have to become stronger. Which naturally means I have to become more firmly resolved.

I am obliged to face existence honestly, with a bold heart, since in that way I grow more resolved.

Wishing to become more resolved means that I have to read a lot of books. Not only do I have to read many books, I have to do a lot of thinking too.

As a result, I have to live in close contact with poetry. Wishing to live in close contact with it, naturally my links with poetry multiply. Maybe that is why I became a poet.

What I have to be careful of as a poet is my fear of being snared by worthless things of no value. Attaching importance to the realities that give increasing weight to human existence as time goes by, I have to reflect that in my poems.

It is easy to imagine that since I am obliged to lead a lonely existence, I must be gloomy all the time but such is not the case. That is because God is there. I believe in God.

God is the absolute being for me. Whenever I feel lonely, I think of God and try not to feel lonely.

That is as much as to say that I never feel lonely at all.

The thought that I am never lonely is one aspect of the truth in my poetry. Thanks to belief in the constant presence of God, I am never lonely. God is always there comforting me.

I have got into the habit of constantly looking out for poetry in my everyday surroundings. Our surroundings are full of poetry. If you look at your own life's surroundings properly, you're sure to find a poem rolling around.

Life covers a wide area. Even when you are somewhere quietly on your own, there is poetry about. You only need open your eyes, there is a poem rolling around. You just have to seize it for a poem to be born.

I love being alive. Even in the trivial incidents of daily life there are so many moments when you feel something. I have grown quite good at seizing poems in the thick of daily living.

I look for poetry in the trivial things and incidents of everyday life, and as a result I find myself with a plentiful supply of material for poems. I find so many things to write about in everything around me.

As far as family goes, there is no one but my wife so it's a bit deary but I'm never alone since I try to follow God's command to love everyone.

If you are too much alone you cannot write poetry. I'm blessed because I consider that there is nothing that does not concern me. That explains why I am relatively optimistic, although I cannot earn any money and have nobody in life except my wife.

Life may be complicated, if only you keep your wits calm and steady, it is really very simple. There may not be many people who think life is simple, but I am one of them.

Material for poems is not only found in deeply meaningful events. I have got into the habit of finding deep meaning in quite insignificant happenings.

I savor intensely everything that happens around me and try to give it shape. In that way trivial events turn into poems.

I face life with open eyes and that is why I find poetry in insignificant things. So life is my poetry.

I love music. Classical music. So whenever I am writing a poem I always listen to the radio. There is a channel that broadcasts classical music all day long.

Beautiful music not only stimulates poetic ideas, it furnishes an appropriate approach. I cannot even imagine writing without music. Beauty is the very life of a poem.

The world is a complex place. This world's mixture of war and peace complicates our emotions about life but so long as we keep our minds straight, everything is simple. The effect of all that has an influence on the world.

Our life is bound to be affected by the things that happen in the world. Those influences are reflected in our lives. If we face life squarely, such things are decisive. Or at least, facing life squarely is. Life needs to be lived. The truth about existence lies in our lives and characterises them.

There is a poem I wrote a long time ago called "Not just blue". It is about how there are other colors, not only the color blue, in the color blue. There are other things, not only one thing, in each object.

As I have said, my life and my faith are the basis for my poetry. That is my approach to poetry and its very essence.

It is no good if we think how difficult a poem is, as we read it. The thought must be simple. A poem we have difficulty with is no poem.

I consider that a poem we can read like an essay is a good poem. A poem is something that makes us think about the essence of existence on the basis of some trifling incident.

I think that faith and life are the essence of poetry. For me there can be no excuse for the use of difficult words.

Faith is belief in the Absolute Being. How can we live if we do not know the essence of the world? Since the Absolute exists, how can we live ignoring it?

Faith is the first principle of my existence. This fundamental principle once removed, I do not see how it is possible to write poetry. For myself, without principles I am helpless.


So I go to church and write poems. There are almost no religious poems in this volume, though.

You will find here poems written recently and others written earlier, but readers need not worry about that.

This is my third book. At fifty-five, only to have published three books is not very much but I regret nothing.

I may be a poor wretched poet but I live as well as I can without any regrets. Love is the greatest happiness in life. I may be poor and sad, I am happy too.

This book is the outcome of that happiness.

Happiness is nothing other than that. Happiness means always living with a full heart. Happiness is when you are able to find meaning in trifles and feel happy.

That is how I am. If you are able to lighten your hearts even a little by reading these poems, nothing could give me greater joy.

In any case, read as much as time allows and make an effort, if you have to, to enjoy yourselves. That is my hope and my wish for you all.













(The above text by the poet forms the conclusion to the volume Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏngŭn Chŏnsang Siin-ida "Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng is a real poet" published in 1984.)






One afternoon in Tŏksu Palace  (page 14)


Tŏksu Palace is in the heart of Seoul. The last king of Korea mainly lived there. The grounds are now a public park. Chunghwa Hall is the name of one of the palace's main buildings.



Lament for Shin Dong-yŏp  (page 23)


The poet Shin Dong-yŏp was one of Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng's contemporaries. Born in 1930 in Puyŏ, he died in 1969. His work is marked by a strong concern with social questions. His most noted work is the long poetic cycle Kŭmgang.



Little Child  (page 31)


Sajik Park lies a few hundred yards to the west of the old royal palace of Kyŏngbok-gung. It is the site of the altar where the kings of Korea used to celebrate offerings to the Earth spirits. It is now a public park.



Back to Heaven  (page 33)


The title of this poem, the Chinese characters Kwi (return) and Ch'ŏn (Heaven), gave its name to the tiny café in Seoul's Insadong neighborhood run by Mok Sun Ok, the poet's wife. ("The smallest café in the world," the poet claims in a poem not included in this selection). This is the poet's best-known poem, it has several times been set to music.



Harvest Celebration at forty  (page 42)


Harvest Celebration is the feast known as Ch'usŏk or Han-kawi in Korean, which falls on the full moon (15th day) of the eighth lunar month, usually towards the end of September. On this day offerings are made to thank the family's ancestors for the harvest which is being gathered in. In modern Korea, it is a moment when city-dwellers all try to go back to their family's home village in the countryside.



At Kwanghwa-mun  (page 50)


Kwanghwa-mun is the name of the main gateway to the royal palace, Kyŏngbok-gung, in the center of Seoul, and by extension the name of the road and of the major intersection a few hundred yards in front of it.



Letter  (page 51)


Cho Chi-hun, Kim Su-yŏng, Choe Kye-rak are three modern Korean poets; the first lived 1920 - 1968, the second 1921 - 1968, the third 1930 - 1970.



Rain 7  (page 58)


Cheju Island is a large island off the south-west coast of Korea.



Rain 8  (page 59)


Mount Paektu is an extinct volcano on the Korean-Chinese border; in its crater there is a large lake, called Ch'ŏnji in Korean, fed by almost constant rain. The lake empties through a famous waterfall to give birth to the great Yalu River that flows westward to form the main frontier with China.

Old Father Tangun is the mythical founder of the Korean nation. He is said to have been born in 2223 B.C., the offspring of a heavenly visitor and a bear transformed into a woman. There are legends associating him with various mountain peaks, including that of Mount Paektu.


Rain 11  (page 61)


Kim Kwan-sik (1934 - 1970) was a poet, and a friend of Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng.



News of spring  (page 64)


Ipch'un (onset of spring) is the name given to a day in early February, the date varying slightly from year to year. It is one of the twenty-four "seasonal" dates superimposed on the traditional lunar calendar.


Beside a spring  (page 73)


Yao and Shun are the first Chinese kings mentioned in the "Book of Documents." Their reigns in the second millenium B.C. are traditionally seen as a golden age of harmony.



Home  (page 87)


Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng was born in Japan, where his father had gone to work. But for Koreans, the "home town" is not necessarily the place where the individual was born, but the town or village in which recent generations of the family lived and were buried. The poet's family came back to their home village near Masan soon after his birth, then returned to Japan just when he was starting school. They finally returned home to Masan at the Liberation when the war ended in 1945.

Kyŏng-sang Province covers the south-eastern portion of the Korean Peninsula, Taegu and Pusan are the main cities, Masan is a port that lies to the west of Pusan along the southern coast.



Makkŏlli (page 89)


Makkŏlli is the essential Korean drink. A thick white ferment of a mush of boiled rice, it used to be made in every home. People working in the fields drink makkŏlli as a nourishing source of renewed energy. It is a little stronger than beer.



Birdsong  (page 93)


Arirang is title and the first word in the chorus of a traditional song that exists in a great variety of versions sung in every part of Korea. It is virtually the national song.



Happiness near Kwanghwa-mun  (page 95)


Syngman Rhee was the first president of the Republic of Korea, from 1948 until 1960. His authoritarianism earned him increasing unpopularity until opposition to him culminated in the revolts of April 1960 which he tried to quell by violence. The April 19th Massacre, when the army fired on a crowd of unarmed students, brought about his downfall.

The Liberal Party was the party supporting the authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee in the 1950s.



Country bumpkin  (page 110)


The limits of Seoul City are marked by monumental markers placed along the main roads, so that travellers are always aware of the point where they leave the city limits and enter Kyŏnggi Province or another city, such as Ŭijŏngbu.



Flower hues  (page 111)


The Secret Garden is the name given in modern times to the gardens lying behind Chang-dŏk Palace in Seoul.



Maytime greenery  (page 113)


This is the last poem Ch'ŏn Sang-Pyŏng wrote. Commissioned by a monthly magazine, it was in his overcoat pocket at the time of his death.