By Ku Sang, Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
The Translator’s Introduction
When I first began to translate Korean poetry, in about 1988, Ku Sang’s work was my training ground. Wastelands of Fire, River and Fields, and Infant Splendor were published in England and in Korea in the early 1990s. After that, while I met Ku Sang privately from time to time, I set about translating the work of other writers. In 2002, despite his already very poor health, Ku Sang showed great kindness when I was celebrating my sixtieth birthday. He had already told me how much he wished that I would translate his cycle of poems “Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales” and I felt that the time had come when I really must begin the task I had too long been postponing. These translations are the result. I only wish that they could have appeared sooner. These poems are the most personal of all Ku Sang’s work, precisely because they show him as a fragile human being, often at a loss in the midst of the turmoil of modern Korean history. Because he believes in the forgiveness of sins and in God’s saving Grace, Ku Sang feels no obligation to pretend to be perfect. His humility is expressed in his honesty. An honest poet is a very precious asset.
Ku Sang was born in Seoul on 16 September, 1919 in a Korea which had been annexed by Japan some ten years before and was just beginning to express its deep desire for independence. The Independence Movement had begun dramatically with nationwide demonstrations on March 1, 1919. From his earliest years, he was caught up in the events, and in the suffering, that are the stuff of modern Korean history. His life has mostly been spent in journalism and the world of public opinion, with periods in political prisons, and in university classrooms. Ku Sang has been a journalist, chief editorialist, foreign correspondent, an essayist, a dramatist, a teacher, and, above all, a poet.
In 1984, Ku Sang first published his remarkable cycle of poems, “Even the Knots on Quince Trees Tell Tales.” These works, to which he continued to add in the years that followed, relate his own private life to the events of modern Korean history in often unexpected ways. He feels that these poems are among his most significant work, since they bear vivid poetic witness to his nation’s tormented recent past. At the same time, they are intensely personal and reveal the poet’s own fragile humanity with all its “knots.” Ku Sang believes that no other poet has ever been able to combine private experience and national history in poetry as he has done.
In the first poem of the cycle, he recalls how, in the early 1920s, his family left Seoul and set off towards the town of Wŏnsan, in what is now North Korea, the place he considers his true home. It will surprise no one familiar with Korean sensibility that the first remembered emotional experience was one of tears. Ku Sang was born into a Catholic family and his elder brother was among the priests who disappeared into silence and presumed martyrdom in North Korea in 1950. Ku Sang attended minor seminary for a time, before ‘running away’. Later he became a student in Tokyo, exposed to all the radical currents of modern thought. Through this time of crisis, in which he studied the philosophy of religions, it was in the end poetry which offered a way forward.
Ku Sang returned from Japan a ‘follower of isms’ and in 1942 became a journalist in what is now North Korea. In 1946, he tried to publish a first collection of poems but the Communist censors found them to be ideologically flowed and he was about to be arrested when he fled south, leaving his mother and his newly-wed wife behind. His wife was later able to join him. During the Korean War (1950-53) he was in the military and the cycle contains a number of poems evoking the chaos of those times. An important feature in these poems is the rejection of all artifice. The poet offers simple evocations of scenes, or of nature, without complex poetic effects, and without explicit moralizing.
Soon after the end of the Korean War he was arrested, having published ‘Democratic Accusations’, essays against the corruptions of power. In 1960, Korea experienced a critical moment in its post-war history, when students protesting against the attempts of the corrupt president Syngman Rhee to cling to power were massacred by the army. This April 19 Revolution was followed just over a year later by the May 17 coup in which General Park Chung-hee came to power. As it happened, he had met Ku Sang some time previously and several poems in the cycle record the poet’s responses to his repeated attempts to install him in some kind of official position. This only reinforced in Ku Sang a conviction that he should do nothing but write poetry; throughout the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s he remained aloof from overt political action.
In the poems that conclude the cycle, he reflects on life as he prepares for death. Yet even when he is confronting his own death, or the death of his remarkable wife, he adopts a light tone, with great depth. For him, the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the key to the hidden mystery within daily reality, Eternity today. It is that vision which allows him to celebrate the minute events of daily life, or confront death or the realities of social and political wrongs without despair. In the end, the impression we gain from Ku Sang’s verse is that of a man intrigued to find himself alive, inexhaustibly surprised by all the things that each day reveals, delighted too by the many ways in which they can be expressed in poetry. As he says in his poem “Today,” Eternity is not separate from now and, despite human sin, God’s eternity gives meaning to each moment of each day in each one’s life, if we only learn to open our eyes.
I am deeply grateful to Ku Sang for his kindness throughout the years, and to Professor Kim Tae-Ok of Sogang University who first introduced me to him and suggested I translate his poems. In preparing this volume, I have been greatly helped by Kim Jong-Bok, who has checked the text of the translation against the originals. I am full of gratitude to DapGae Publishing Company for publishing this bilingual series.