Buddhist-Christian perspectives in Korean poetry

A shortened version of this essay was published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Japan Mission Journal (Tokyo: Oriens Institute for Religious Research) pages 204 - 216.

One dominant conflict in Korean society for the past 300 years or more has been centered on the theme of Modernization. Of course, the words used have varied, and the meanings, too, but the advocates of change have always been there. In the decades after the Korean War, the favored term was Development and at the moment it is Globalization. One of the main pre-modern sources for the notion that Korean society could be changed for the better, and that models from outside Korea might be followed with advantage, lies in the books mainly written in the 17th century by the European Jesuits living in China. Those scientific and technical volumes soon inspired a School of Practical Learning among Korean literati, whose adepts suffered repeated crack-downs by the dominant neo-Confucian “conservatives.”

One of the most famous names among the victims of such a conflict was the great thinker Dasan, Jeong Yakyong (1762-1836), who spent years in exile in his maternal home of Gangjin, writing some 500 books advocating change, and developing his own Way of Tea. The way of tea was something he learned from a Buddhist monk living nearby, the Venerable Hyejang, and Dasan transmitted it to another young monk, the Venerable Choui, who was later to become the greatest tea master of the age. The practical science and philosophy he acquired from Catholic books, but the Catholic faith he adhered to for a while was something others had already discovered in those same books from China. Dasan encountered it above all in his brother Jeong Yak-Jong, who was martyred in 1801, and that brother’s son was Jeong Ha-sang, the main lay leader of the growing Catholic community, martyred in 1839 and canonized together with his mother and sister in 1985. Despite these models, Dasan seems soon to have distanced himself from the Catholic faith as such, while surely remaining alert to its challenges and demands for constant change, both inward and outward.

The need for change in Korean society and its dominant values was strongly denied by those who benefited from the status quo, and the conflict between reformers and conservatives underlies the political and social turmoil of the late 19th century, that served to prevent any effective response to the relentless Japanese takeover of the country. While the Japanese annexation was experienced as an appalling humiliation, there could be no denying that early 20th-century Japan was the place for forward-looking Koreans to go to learn about the modern world. Few could go further. Young Korean intellectuals on their way to study in Japanese schools took the same boats as the thousands of economic exiles desperate to find work. Among them in 1908 was the young Manhae, Han Yong-Un (1879 – 1944), destined to become a great Buddhist teacher, leader of the Independence Movement, and poet. Manhae is above all famed as the leader of the 33 signatories of the March 1, 1919 Independence Declaration. In October 1925, he finished his one collection of poems, titled Nimui-chimmuk (Lover's silence).

In 1908, during his visit to Japan, he was struck to see that Japanese Buddhism seemed alive and well-integrated in the modernized society that was evolving as the result of the Meiji reforms. He had become a Buddhist monk at Baekdam-sa, in Seorak Mountain, in 1904, but was disturbed by the lethargy of the Korean Buddhist clergy in comparison with the energy of the newly arriving American Protestant missionaries and of Japanese Buddhist monks already eagerly recruiting Koreans to the various sects of Japanese Buddhism. Korean monks had no tradition of “missionary” proselytizing outreach, and in fact mostly continued to avoid the towns, from which they had been banished for centuries, since the start of the Joseon era. Manhae desperately sought for ways to revitalize Korean Buddhism, and these were expressed in his Bulgyo yusillon (Proposal for revitalizing Buddhism) which he started to write in 1909 and published in full in 1913.

There he suggested that Korean Buddhist monks should be able to marry. This might seem at first sight to be inspired by the Japanese model; he wishes to see more educated men becoming monks, and he hopes that Buddhism can leave the remote hillside temples to take root in the realities of modern (urban) life. However, it might also be that he was inspired by the example of the American Christian missionaries in Korea. One of their first activities had been to start schools for girls, on seeing that women, with their immense potential, were excluded from any role in Korean society by their lack of education, as well as by traditional culture. By contrast, the wives of the missionaries were as dynamic and active as the men, if not more so, and there were also unmarried women, Australian as well as American, who came as missionaries.

Out of this, and later out of the works of western fiction translated into Japanese, emerged the notion of the “New Woman” represented mainly in “new novels” written by Korean (usually male) writers of the 1920s. One major theme in these novels, as in social reality, was what came to be known as “free love” – not the promiscuity of Bolshevik idealists but the demand that a woman should not be forced to marry a man she did not feel love for. Until then, a Korean bride normally had never even seen her future husband, chosen by their families, until the wedding ceremony and her feelings were of no significance. The very notion that a woman might experience passionate love toward her husband was revolutionary, and was surely in Korean minds related to the practices of Christian cultures.

Manhae, whose youthful arranged marriage had been dissolved when he became a monk, only put his recommendation into practice in his own life in 1933, when he married a woman in the modern manner, seeking a relationship of minds as well as of bodies. The poems of Nimui chimmuk (Lover’s Silence) were written before this, and they are best seen as expressions of strong but unspecified desire; Manhae himself refused to say if, for him as he wrote, the “one loved” (Nim) was a person, a religion, a country, or an ideal. Yet the poems clearly express sensuous longing and are quite unique in their intensity. The poems seem to be spoken by a voice striving for fulfillment in love in separation, or rather through separation. The paradox of the Zen koan is not absent from these poems, in which separation, distance and longing beget a fulfillment of desire more intense than any presence can offer :

Others love their freedom, but I prefer submission.
It’s not that I don’t know freedom,
I just want to submit to you.
Willing submission is sweeter than exalted freedom.

If you tell me to submit to someone else,
that’s the only thing to which I can’t submit.
If I submit to someone else, I can’t submit to you.

One dominant presence in the collection, that was composed during the summer of 1925, is that of the great Indian poet Rabidranath Tagore. Manhae writes in a constant dialogue with him and it might be wondered if reports of the reading tour Tagore made through China and Japan in 1924, just before he left for Argentina, did not initiate Manhae’s creative process. Certainly, Tagore’s poems were translated into Korean at about the same period, though Manhae would have known them in Japanese. In The Gardener 50, Tagore wrote “Love, my heart longs day and night for the meeting with you—for the meeting that is like all-devouring death ( . . . .) Alas for my vain desire! Where is this hope for union except in thee, my God?” Manhae responded to this in the poem “Reading Tagore’s Poem ‘Gardenisto’”:

You say the scent of death is sweet, but you can’t kiss the lips of dry bones.
Don’t spread a web of golden song over that grave, but plant a bloodstained banner.

Similarly, we find in Gitanjali 103 “Let all my songs gather together their diverse strains into a single current and flow to a sea of silence in one salutation to thee.” In some ways, the whole of Manhae’s collection is a paradoxical contradiction of that exaltation of silence, nowhere more than at the end of the extraordinary opening poem, “Lover’s Silence”:

My love is gone.
Ah, the one I love is gone.
Crossing the narrow path to the maple grove
that shatters the mountain green, she tore away from me.
(. . .)
Love is a human thing—when meeting I already feared parting,
and still with separation, my heart burst with fresh sorrow.
(. . .)
My love is gone, but I didn’t send her away.
My common song of love wraps itself around my lover’s silence.

Thus for Manhae, the poems exist to make sense of the absence and the silence of the one longed for. The silence of the absent lover leads to the utterance of the poem and without the one, the other would be without value. There is no necessity to seek an allegorical dimension to such poems, as many Koreans have tried to do, forcing the Nim to be a representative of colonized Joseon/Korea, or of the Buddha. Yearning in itself is the collection’s central theme, expressed vividly in “Wine”:

I made wine from fragrant grapes ripened by autumn breeze and morning sun.
The perfume of fermenting wine dyes the fall sky.
I fill a lotus leaf with this wine and offer it to you.
Take it from my shaking hands and wet your parched lips.

If kept overnight, this wine will turn to tears.
After one night more, my tears will turn to new wine.

Of this, Manhae’s translator Francesca Cho writes (106): “The scent of fermenting grapes that paints the autumnal sky leads to a tremulous offering that looks forward to an erotic fulfillment. The love of God (and perhaps of nation) has been conceived in such opulent terms in the literatures of the world, particularly in the traditions of religious poetry that use the human language of desire to express the insatiable longing for God. Buddhist enlightenment however, which lacks a personal God, is never envisioned in such terms in Asian poetry. (. . .) Manhae states that all avenues of human activity, in their historical and passionate particularity, form the paths to human perfection and, paradoxically, to human transcendence.” It is not sure if Manhae ever read the Song of Songs from the Old Testament, but the parallel is striking, as Francesca Cho suggests. Manhae’s radically new spiritual vision, expressed as human passion in all its concreteness, is far removed from conventional Buddhist language, and rather links with ways in which Christians have expressed themselves.

When Tagore read his poems in Tokyo in 1924, there was a young Korean Buddhist monk in the audience. He reported later how enthralled he had been to hear the great poet reading in Bengali. In later years, this monk, the Venerable Hyodang, Choi Beom-sul (1904-1979), was to become a close associate of Manhae in defending Korean Buddhism against the encroachments of Japanese sects, and a major Buddhist leader in his own right. Hyodang was active in many ways: Buddhist monk, advocate of an independent Korean cultural and national identity, founder of schools, quiet opponent of dictators, friend of dissidents, communitarian visionary, tea master . . . One major factor giving unity to all this was his attachment to the teachings of Wonhyo (617-686).

This immensely popular Buddhist figure from ancient Silla is hardly known in the West. Even in Korea, the difficulty of his many writings makes his teaching hard to grasp. His life story is more accessible, the story of his night-time drink from a skull leading to enlightenment being especially familiar, but the deeper vision underlying the tales of his various strange and eccentric acts is not always well understood. Wonhyo was convinced that all human beings were utterly equal since each and everyone had an inalienable, fundamental (Buddha) nature, the potential of attaining buddhahood (il-sim). In his own life, Wonhyo stressed that freedom (mu-ae) and compassion were the two essential qualities of a Buddhist (or human) life. He stressed the need to struggle to overcome false distinctions (hwa-jaeng), and in so doing he rejected all that we would term “clericalism;” he even reckoned total enlightenment was a potential snare, if it were seen as dispensing those who had attained it from practicing compassion toward suffering humanity. In order to make this clear, he deliberately broke his vow, fathering a child with a princess (the child became a great Confucian scholar), then left the comforts of temple life, adopted secular dress and went dancing through the streets in a deliberate break with social conventions. In this way he was able to share joyfully the Buddhist vision with the suffering poor he met, a kind of Korean St. Francis.

One of the most characteristic features of Hyodang’s life was his openness, especially to those who were suffering. We may cite his welcome at his home temple of Dasol-sa (near Jinju) of so many different kinds of marginalized and persecuted people, his readiness to accept as monks people who did not conform to standard models, his ready mingling of monks and ordinary people in the community there, to say nothing of communists and christians, his conviction that monks too should work with their hands and perform menial tasks, rather than spend hours chanting sutras while lay workers slaved to feed them and rich ladies bought them expensive automobiles.

    The anarchist radicalism practiced by Hyodang in his youth, when he even helped plan the assassination of the Japanese Crown Prince, must surely have appealed to him above all by its rejection of divisive, elitist attitudes. Like Wonhyo, and like Manhae, Hyodang refused to practice a distinction between the monastic life and ordinary life. Unlike Wonhyo, he was not inclined to sing and dance in the streets, banging on a gourd in an eccentric lifestyle; but like Wonhyo, he placed his monastic vocation firmly on the side of those who were poor or suffering under the demands of current social and political realities, as a challenge to the powerful and privileged. Hyodang’s sympathies clearly lay, from his earliest days in Japan, with the exploited victims of society. He was a very Christian Buddhist monk, we might say, more christian than many christians, indeed! The same might well be said of Manhae.

When we see how often he wrote the four characters 茶道無門, “the Way of Tea has no doors, excludes no-one” we are reminded of that same deep, universal, all-embracing vision. His assertion that to prepare and drink a cup of tea is in itself a practice of Zen, a means of enlightenment, challenges the need for years of harsh practice in monastic seclusion. Like Wonhyo, he is affirming that anyone, monk or lay, here and now, in this present life, no matter what their education, or status, or morality even, can fulfill their essential nature in the simplest possible ways. It is hardly surprising that there were many christians, catholic and protestant, who came to hear him teach and who admired his vision, so close to their own. He invariably welcomed them, and even lectured on explicitly christian topics sometimes.

We must turn now to a poet who was a practicisng catholic. In 1946, Ku Sang took leave of his widowed mother, who was living near Wonsan, on the east coast of what is now North Korea. As she watched from the road in front of the gateway, he walked away, heading for the southern part of the Korean peninsula. Neither could imagine that they would never meet again. After returning from studies of comparative religion in Tokyo a few years earlier, he had found work as a journalist and had already written a number of poems. With other local poets, he had recently been working on a collective volume of their poems. Before any book could be published, it had to be approved by the authorities, already dominated by the communist party, and in this case the censors had detected seven separate serious ideological failings. To avoid a trial and a potentially lethal outcome, Ku Sang fled, leaving behind not only his mother and his elder brother, a Catholic priest, but also his recently married wife. His wife was later able to join him in the South, but the other members of his family remained in the North until their deaths. His brother was almost certainly martyred in June 1950. Ku Sang died in Seoul in 2004 at the age of 85.

He was born in Seoul on September 16, 1919, but when he was only a small child his family moved to the north-eastern city of Wonsan, where he grew up. Although he had attended “minor seminary” and had been brought up as a member of a devout Catholic family, Ku Sang underwent a crisis of faith during his student years in Japan, where he studied the philosophy of religion, especially Buddhism:

Stretched out on my boarding-house tatami floor,
I celebrated daily
funerals of God
and sitting beside a pond in Kitsijoji Park,
I imagined the rapture of a Zarathustra
climbing up to the stronghold of the Superman.

Later he slowly found his own understanding of Catholicism, thanks in part to the works of French catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain and Gabriel Marcel. He frequently insisted that without a clearly-thought metaphysical system, there could be no truth and no true poetry. It was this that inspired Cardinal Kim Su-hwan, the retired Archbishop of Seoul, to say of Ku Sang during his sermon at the funeral Mass, “He was truly a Catholic poet, not just in the sense that he belonged to the Catholic church and respected its doctrines, but in the sense that his heart was universal, that his poems had a vision that was cosmic, touching people in every corner of the world.”

One of his poems is particularly well-adapted for our theme, for in it he deliberately tried to bring together and reconcile the Buddhist notion of Karma with the christian notion of Koinonia in his expression “the mystery of meeting.” Ku Sang deliberately avoided the more elaborate poetic styles, insisting that he was simply trying to express things without wanting to impress anyone.

A Pebble

On the path before my house
every day I meet a pebble
that once was kicked by my passing toe.

At first we just casually
brushed past each other, morning and night,
but gradually the stone began to address me
and furtively reach out a hand,
so that we grew close, like friends.

And now each morning the stone,
blooming inwardly with flowers of Grace,
gives me its blessing,
and even late at night
it waits watchfully to greet me.

Sometimes, flying as on angels’ wings
it visits me in my room
and explains to me the Mystery of Meeting,
reveals the immortal nature of Relationship.

So now, whenever I meet the stone,
I am so uncivilized and insecure
that I can only feel ashamed.

One of the main translators of his work once wrote: “No other Korean poet has so perfectly brought together the christian belief that all is redeemed in God’s eternity with the Buddhist conviction that all that exists is united in an unending cosmic process.” He was remarkable for his laughing responses to life, even in its most serious moments. He notoriously laughed while he was speaking at his wife’s funeral Mass, telling how she gave all the money she earned as a doctor to the poor, leaving nothing for them, although as a poet and journalist he could earn almost nothing. Several of his friends remarked that it was only suitable that the photograph carried before his coffin at his funeral showed him smiling rather mischievously. The French poet and critic René Tavernier once wrote of his work: “A poetry born out of faith in God, and at the same time emerging from history, the thoughts of Ku Sang are based on experience as well as on belief: physical reality, appearances are by no means insignificant but beyond them there is another truth of which we only detect traces here and there. The thinker, the theologian, the believer are able to sense the existence of that higher universe. For Ku Sang, poetry is the sign of an inner experience.”

The volume Yuchi-challan (Infant Splendor) was a remarkable joint production, combining poems by Ku Sang and paintings by the eccentric Buddhist monk Junggwang. Both men had a radical, anarchic streak in their personalities, although in Ku Sang it was usually kept under control. He himself wrote in the preface: ‘The mind of childlike innocence that we try to portray in our poems and paintings is not that state naturally found in the child before it reaches the age of discretion, but rather the condition of someone who has reached purity of heart by achieving mastery over self. Not, of course, that we claim to have attained such a state; I would rather say that we have simply been striving to fathom what might be the nature of such a state. At a time when the whole world seems fascinated by strategic values such as ownership and profit, in the midst of all this uproar, the fact is that we are eager to achieve such an innocence in our lives. While we were bringing out our series of poems and paintings, we were criticized on the one hand for being ‘unrealistic,’ on the other for being ‘inartistic’. But since neither of us has ever had any thought of becoming the ‘ornament of the age’ as poet or artist, it seems not to matter!’

In that volume he was especially conscious of writing in a Buddhist-inspired “Zen” mode, free and spontaneous:

Poetic Feeling

Each month for this series
I select bits of idle chatter such as this
and turn out things called poems,

so that one young poet, perhaps finding it rather odd,
observed, ‘Then it seems there is absolutely nothing
in the whole world that is not a poem?’

Right! There is nothing
in the world, to be sure,
that is not a poem.

From humanity on down,
in every thing and every act,
all that is true and good and beautiful
is all poem.

More than that, in every person
and in every thing and in every act
the good, the beautiful, the true dwells.

And it is written that where sin increases
God’s grace increases all the more.

Discovering that,
and then like a child
savoring and enjoying it,
is to be a poet.

The Buddhist refusal of distinctions is echoed in the Christian refusal to judge and condemn sin, finding in its manifestations only the added possibility of Grace. The notion “tout est grâce” offends the moralist, delights Ku Sang. That recalls another of the poems from that volume, in which he tells how delighted he was to hear a neighborhood child say she had told her school teacher that she knew a famous poet ‘who looks just like a little boy playing by himself.’ Authenticity in him meant lightness and truth; he was never ashamed to evoke moments of sexual or other transgression, to the greater surprise and scandal of certain priests who wanted Korea’s leading “Catholic poet” to present a mask of feigned respectability to the world. He is one of the very few poets to report having had a ‘wet dream’ in the course of a poem, and more than once recalls spending the night with a prostitute. The heart of the child?

The Baby Now

The baby now
is seeing something.
Is hearing something.
Is thinking something.

It’s seeing forms like those when
Mohammed in the cave on Mount Hira
received revelation from God.

It’s hearing voices like that which
rang out over the head of Jesus of Nazareth
when he was baptized on the banks of the Jordan.

It’s lost in thoughts like those when
Shakyamuni attained enlightenment sitting
beneath the Bo tree in the forests of Mount Gaya.

No, the baby is seeing, hearing, thinking
something that is none of those.

It’s seeing, hearing, thinking something
that no one else can see or hear or think:

something that as a quite unique human being
it alone will have to bring to bud and blossom.

And all on its own it’s smiling sweetly.

The “thusness” of all things, stressed in Buddhist thought, corresponds to something that is very essential in christian thought, as Ku Sang makes plain in this poem. Things are what they are, neither more nor less, not veils or symbols; likewise words should function directly and not claim to a complexity they do not have. Ku Sang writes in his poem “Poetry”:

People commonly claim that words and thoughts are distinct,
but really thoughts and feelings are experienced in words
so that it has been said 'Being dwells in language'

And just as another person may savor the beauty of a rose
blooming in a neighbor’s garden more than the actual owner,
or just as the trampling of a roadside weed
may move someone else to tears of pity,

a poem is something born, brought into being and written
out of a 'universal sensitivity'  and compassion,
so never try to find or get or write a poem
while haltered by ownership or self-interest!

Ah! The wonder of the Word!

It can be argued that one of the most widespread and damaging distortions of Christianity derives from the influence of Platonism, with its suggestion that the material world is essentially unreal and that there is a more real world of pure mind or spirit beyond it, ‘transcending’ it; related to that is the dislocation caused by notions, from the same source, that the real relationship with God, with Christ, can occurs only after physical death, when the soul is liberated from the “prison” of the body. Whereas the Christian tradition more precisely reckons that Eternity is “here and now” or it is nowhere.

Ku Sang’d last poem expresses that very forcefully:


Today again I confront a day that is a source of mystery.

In this day the past, present and future are one,
just as each drop of water in that river
is linked to a tiny spring in some mountain valley
and linked to the distant, azure sea.

In that way, in this today of mine, being linked to eternity,
at this very moment I am living that eternity.

That means that it is not after I have died
but from today on that I must live eternity,
must live a life worthy of eternity.

I must live in poverty of heart.
I must live with an empty heart.

Here too, in the closing lines, he deliberately combines Buddhist and Christian terminologies for what he sees as one and the same Way. The poetry of Ku Sang, the eccentricity of Wonhyo dancing in the market-places and the joy of St Francis kissing the leper all concur in affirming that here and now is all we’ve got, and that the sanctity of God is to be sought within the desires and the agonies of the flesh, in the stench of sewers and the sudden beauties of a normal, messy day. The essential is never elsewhere, only it is always just out of sight, just out of reach. Korean poets are very good at making that plain, and they refuse to let us make false distinctions, by attaching divisive labels “Buddhist” or “christian” to people, for example. People, whether they are poets or not, do not correspond to such labels and do not need them.

That is especially true of the poet Ko Un, who was a Buddhist monk for some 10 years in his youth, after which he returned to secular life. Though he has gone on writing on Buddhist themes and published volumes of “Seon / Zen poetry,” he always insists that he must not be labeled “a Buddhist poet.” Ko Un is a prolific writer, with some 140 volumes to his credit. He has written almost every kind of poetry—epic, lyric, short, long, poetic, prosaic, easy and difficult. His life story is a poem too: becoming a monk more or less by chance at the nadir of despair after witnessing massacres during the Korean war, founding the main Korean Buddhist newspaper, then leaving the monastic life and passing through years of nihilistic angst that culminated in a nearly successful suicide attempt in 1970 before finding a meaningful life as spokesman for the opposition to the military dictatorships of Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan in the 1970s and 1980s. In that opposition, Christians and Buddhists demonstrated side by side and were arrested together. Ko Un’s most famous poem from those days, read at countless demonstrtaions, is eloquent of their united self-giving:

Body and soul, let's all go
transformed into arrows!
Piercing the air
body and soul, let's go
with no turning back
rotten with the pain of striking home
never to return.
One last breath! Now, let's leave the bowstring,
throwing away like rags
everything we've had for decades
everything we've enjoyed for decades
everything we've piled up for decades,
all, the whole thing.
Body and soul, let's all go
transformed into arrows!
The air is shouting! Piercing the air
body and soul, let's go!
In dark daylight, the target rushes towards us.
Finally, as the target topples in a shower of blood
let's all, just once, as arrows
Never to return!  Never to return!
Hail, arrows, our nation's arrows!
Hail, our nation's warriors! Spirits!

Ko Un was arrested along with most other opposition figures in May 1980. In his dark prison cell, he began to recall all the people he had met in life, many already dead and forgotten. He felt that he owed them memory; they were the stuff of which his own life and Korean history itself were made, the victims of that history’s agonies and the authors of its justification, if it had any. He vowed to write a poem commemorating each of them by name, if he survived the present ordeal. The result was the series of poems titled Maninbo (Ten thousand lives) of which 23 volumes have so far been published. The thought behind this is deeply Buddhist, the notion familiar to every Korean that the lives of two people whose sleeves touch as they pass in the street will be brought together repeatedly in the course of multiple future lives by the processes of Karma. This leads to something not so far removed from the christian conviction that every human person is united with every other person in one single human family, and that it was for every member of that family that Christ came to bring the manifestation of an eternal love from which no one would ever be excluded. It is not really very important to argue just how similar or different the notions are. The responsibility remains; the unspoken “Yes,” in response to Cain’s question predates all such separations: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In poetry, the Korean Ko Un’s Maninbo, in a mainly Buddhist tradition, and the work of Britain’s Geoffrey Hill, writing in a Christian tradition, raise not completely different versions of a response.

Geoffrey Hill has long been convinced that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing of the dead. Hill’s poetry has pursued that task, for which he feels an almost obsessive responsibility. The dead whom Hill most frequently memorializes are the Jewish dead of the Shoah, or the Germans who tried to assassinate Hitler; there are other poems in which he is looking further back, to the dead of the Renaissance or the Middle Ages. Since the theme of poets in prison has emerged with Ko Un, there would be some point in quoting Hill’s “Four Poems Regarding the Endurance of Poets,” the first being “Men are a Mockery of Angels” in memory of the imprisoned and martyred “Tommaso Campanella, priest and poet”:

Some days a shadow through
The high window shares my
Prison. I watch a slug
Scale the glinting pit-side
Of its own slime The cries
As they come are mine; then
God’s: my justice, wounds, love,
Derisive light, bread, filth.
To lie here in my strange
Flesh while glutted Torment
Sleeps, stained with its prompt food,
Is a joy past all care
Of the world, for a time.
But we are commanded
To rise, when, in silence,
I would compose my voice.

Here Hill affirms the poet’s duty to evoke and memorialize others who were in similar situations, by application of the imagination. Likewise in “Christmas Trees”:

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

Ko Un comes back into the picture by way of his prison cell, evoked in the poem “Sunlight” from the collection “Homeland Stars” of 1984:


It's absolutely inevitable!
So just take a deep breath
and accept this adversity.
But look!
A distinguished visitor deigns to visit
my tiny north-facing cell.
Not the chief making his rounds, no,
but a ray of sunlight as evening falls,
a gleam no bigger than a crumpled stamp.
A sweetheart fit to go crazy about.
It settles there on the palm of a hand,
warms the toes of a shyly bared foot.
Then as I kneel and, undevoutly,
offer it a dry, parched face to kiss,
in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away.
After the guest has departed through the bars,
the room feels several times colder and darker.
This military prison special cell
is a photographer's darkroom.
Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool.
One day it was a coffin holding a corpse.
One day it was altogether the sea.
A wonderful thing!
A few people survive here.

Being alive is a sea
without a single sail in sight.

The prisons in all these poems serve as images for the human condition experienced as constraint and oppression in multiple ways. The weak are every day victims of the strong; millions die unwillingly as the powerful pursue appalling designs. If there is a major difference between the approach to these things of a western poet such as Hill and the Korean poets mentioned here, it surely lies in the amazing lightness these latter retain despite all the things in their lives that might appall. Ku Sang wrote 100 poems about his life (Even the Knots on Quince Trees Have Tales) without once really groaning under the burden of grief, but rather always finding reasons to keep smiling. The Korean life experience is often said to produce deep han (the bitterness produced by constant loss) but that is in turn transformed by heung, a resilient vitality that persists despite all, turning the most terrible events into ongoing communal life, dancing in tears in the market-places.

For Hill, there is no escaping the great depravity, the fallenness of the human condition, that is manifested in massacres and horrors for which the man of faith can neither deny nor assume responsibility. That blood is the touchstone of our contact with reality:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

And by Christ's blood are men made free
Though in close shrouds their bodies lie
Under the rough pelt of the sea;

Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight
The bones that cannot bear the light.
            (from “Genesis”)

In contrast, Korean poets of all religious traditions maintain a fundmental lightness of optimism. They do not moralize, they do not blame. Neither do they agonize over their own helplessness. It could be thought that such a detachment has much to do with an approach informed by Buddhism. At the same time, it may be that the Christian tradition as we know it in the poetry of the West also invites us to trust that, despite the terror, blood and pain, because of the One who suffered it all with us for us, there is a source of peace and joy here and now, essential if life is to continue. There is no need for a conclusion. In today’s Korea, poets naturally echo Buddhist and Christian themes as aspects of a single vision of life, and see no need to distinguish one from another. The last word belongs to Ku Sang:

Eternity within


Day and night, inside the confines
within me, snarling,

I wonder what that ferocious beast
is really like?

Has it glimpsed some prey?
Today it is bounding high.


Aimlessly drifting
over the sea within me,

I wonder where is the port of call
of that anchorless skiff?

The waves seem rough.
Today it is rocking wildly.


Endlessly stretching its pinions
in the vastnesses within me,

I wonder when and where
that bluebird dream will be fulfilled?

It longs for the Gardens of Immortality.
Today Eternity lies within me.

Works Cited

Everything Yearned For: Manhae’s poems of love and longing. Translated & introduced by Francisca Cho. Wisdom Publications. 2005.

Eternity Today. Selected poems by Ku Sang, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé. Seoul Selection. 2005.

Geoffrey Hill. Collected Poems. Penguin. 1985.

Ko Un. Ten Thousand Lives. Green Integer. 2005.

Ko Un. Songs for Tomorrow. Green Integer. 2007.

Brother Anthony was born in Cornwall (U.K.) in 1942. A member of the Community of Taizé since 1969, he has lived in Korea with other brothers from Taizé since 1980. He taught medieval and renaissance English literature at Sogang University until his retirement early in 2007, and still teaches there as Emeritus Professor. He has published more than 20 volumes of translations of modern Korean poetry and fiction, with more to come, as well as 3 books on English literature and one on the Korean Way of Tea.
Brother Anthony’s home page: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/