Songs for Tomorrow: Korean Poetry

A talk / poetry reading given in Kyoto (Japan) at the invitation of the editors of Kyoto Journal, January 22, 2006.

    No matter what title one chooses for such a talk, on coming to Kyoto to present some Korean poetry, I find myself compelled at least as a way of beginning to evoke the Korean response to Japan that I have found expressed in poems I have translated. The lengthy catalogue of painful memories that constitutes the past history of Korean-Japanese relations as seen from Korea is a familiar one. But it is a fundamental aspect of poetry that it does not simply reflect and record past experience but transforms it. Without some kind of transforming process, it could hardly be poetry at all. And human experience is rarely as simple and unambiguous as stereotypes tend to claim, especially when it is expressed in poetry.

The senior Korean writer Ku Sang, who was born in 1919 and died in 2004, wrote a cycle of 100 poems inspired by his own life history; I want to start by reading one of those poems, recording his boat crossing from Korea to Japan to become a university student in Tokyo in the late 1930s. He was eighteen, and we need to recall that crossing the Genkai Sea, between Korea and Japan, was a deeply ambiguous undertaking in those days. For young intellectuals, it was what the poet Im Hwa (who made the same journey) once called “a sea of hope across which I shall return after learning art, scholarship, truth” but in the same collection he termed it a “strait of tears” since for many Koreans, the journey to Japan was a flight into undesired “economic” exile after finding themselves unable to earn a living in their own country. Ku Sang was fortunate, he was off to study; yet the journey was not a happy one:

I began by running away.

On the night ferry to Japan,
tossing on a single tatami space,

the cabin with its owl's eye
was a miniature tunnel with no way out,
and the roar of the engines tortured my heart.

So this young man, fettered in chains of history,
throwing aside his coat and sitting up,
turns into a nameless beast
and grinds his teeth.

Galilee with no Master!

Riding the waves of darkness,
I hear “Praise of Death” ringing out.
Independance martyr Yun Shim-Dŏk with hair untressed
gestures to me.

For Ku Sang, Japan was to be the place where he would discover himself as a poet, part of the international, modern world. The intense romanticism of his youthful responses to western thought and poetry serve to remind us how strong an impact they had on young Koreans:

At that time
the encounter with La Rochefoucauld
aroused a typhoon within me.
The early buds of eager desire to do good
vanished brutally, in a flash,
and, darkness-wrapped within,
I saw two-headed monsters come to life,
that tore at each other, roaring.

Moment by moment the cords of self-hatred
tightened around my throat;
the silence of heaven changed into horror,
all other people became hell
and human existence a world of utter evil...

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.

The fact of Japan’s brutal annexation of Korea in 1910 is the founding fact of modern Korea, although it cannot be separated from the ongoing intensity of often equally brutal violence that has determined Korean history since August 15, 1945. The wounds of past history, still unhealed today, might seem to be one cogent reason why the theme of “songs for tomorrow” is so strong in Korean poetry.

My main concern has always been to translate still-living poets, and none is more vitally alive than Ko Un, though he is now over 70. “Songs for Tomorrow” is the title we have chosen for the volume of Ko Un’s selected poems to be published later this year by Green Integer. This year he is set to publish up to 10 more volumes of poetry, in order to complete his “Ten Thousand Lives” cycle. This unique record of modern Korean history includes a few vivid images of his own childhood experience of life under Japanese rule:

Headmaster Abe

Headmaster Abe Sudomu from Japan
with his round glasses: a fearsome man,
fiery-hot like the spiciest peppers.
When he clacked down the hallway
in slippers cut from a pair of old boots,
he cast a deathly hush over every class.
In my second year during ethics class
he asked us what we hoped to become.
Kids replied:
‘I want to be a general in the Imperial Army!’
‘I want to become an admiral!’
‘I want to become another Yamamoto Isoroko!’
‘I want to become a nursing orderly!’
‘I want to become a mechanic in a plane factory
and make planes to defeat the American and British devils!’
Then Headmaster Abe asked me to reply.
I leaped to my feet:
‘I want to become the Emperor!’
No sooner were those words spoken
than a thunderbolt fell from the blue:
‘You have formally blasphemed the venerable name
of his Imperial Majesty: you are expelled this instant!’
On hearing that, I collapsed into my seat.
But the class master pleaded,
my father put on clean clothes and came and pleaded,
and by the skin of my teeth, instead of being expelled,
I was punished by being sent to spend a few months
sorting through a stack of rotten barley
that stood in the school grounds,
separating out the still useable grains.
Every day, I was imprisoned in a stench of decay
and there, under scorching sun and in beating rain,
I realized I was all alone in the world.
Soon after those three months of punishment were over,
during ethics class Headmaster Abe said:
‘We're winning, we're winning, we're winning!
Once the great Japanese army has won the war, in the future
you peninsula people will go to Manchuria, go to China,
and take important positions in government offices!’
That's what he said.
Then a B-29 appeared,
and as the silver four-engined plane passed overhead
our Headmaster shouted in a big voice:
‘That's the enemy! They're devils!’ he cried fearlessly.
But his shoulders drooped.
His shout died away into a solitary mutter.
August 15 came. Liberation.
He left for Japan in tears.

The tears of the parting teacher must not be ignored, or dismissed as mere signs of a humiliated aggressor. We all know that for many individual Japanese, the years they spent in Korea were inspired by a genuine desire to serve and help prepare a better future for the Korean people. On the whole, Ko Un is more concerned by the negative effect the Japanese era had on certain Koreans who remained far too much in charge after Independence in the southern regions under American control.

Lee Chong-nam

When children cry, if you tell them:
A roaring tiger will come,
a big tiger will come
and carry you off if you cry!
the crying goes on.
But if you say:
‘They’ll take you to Sinpung-ri police box!’
then the crying stops as if by magic.
And grown-ups too,
when they pass before Sinpung-ri police box
with the three trays of eggs they’re selling,
they feel as if they’ve stolen them somewhere, and
their hearts beat two or three times faster than normal.
One fellow simply took to his heels
as he went by and was called in: ‘Hey, you!’
by a Japanese cop, and had a hard time.
I had a fright going by there once, too,
as I was following Uncle Hong-sik
on the way to sell dried pine branches
down at the wood store.
A man coming out had a messed-up face,
hands tied behind his back.
He was being transferred to Kunsan Central Police Station.
Someone was marching along behind him, holding the rope.
And who was that?
The police box cat’s paw, that’s who,
Lee Chong-nam,
brother-in-law to our grandfather’s niece.
That wicked man!
He kicked his wife in the stomach and made her abort.
He turned on his own father and pulled his beard.
But where the Japs were concerned, he was down on his knees,
on his knees and crawling, he was so crazy about them!
At Liberation he should have been first to get it,
but he hid for a while, and when he came out
he was put in charge of Sinpung-ri police box.
He dressed himself up in a policeman’s cap and uniform,
and put on airs riding around the district on a bicycle:
tring-a-ling, tring-a-ling—“Out of my way!”

Where Ku Sang and Ko Un are so strongly rooted in Korean history, and write about it, there were other poets in Korea for whom the poetic enterprise led in very different directions. So Chong-Ju (Midang) is often today accused of having been a pro-Japanese collaborator. This witch-hunt is unfortunate, though perhaps easy to understand, on account of the way it raises issues never previously aired about the exercise of power and privilege in post-Japanese South Korea. But Midang, by writing extraordinarily intense lyrics in Korean in years when all education was being given in Japanese on the assumption that Korea’s future was to be an integral part of Japan for ever, has to be seen as an agent of future hope, simply by the poetic value he bestowed on the then-despised Korean language.

Flower snake

A back road pungent with musk and mint.
So beautiful, that snake. . .
What huge griefs brought you to birth?
Such a repulsive body!

You look like a flowered silk gaiter ribbon!
With your crimson mouth where that eloquent tongue
by which you grandsire beguiled poor Eve
now silently flickers
look, a blue sky. . .  Bite! Bite vengefully!

Run! Quick! That vile head!

Hurling stones, hurling, quickly there
headlong down the musky, grass-sweet road,
pursuing it
not because Eve was our grandsire's wife
yet desperate, gasping
as if after a draft of kerosene. . .  yes, kerosene. . .

If I could only wrap you round me,
fixed on a needle's point;
far more gorgeous than any flowered silk. . .

Those lovely lips, blazing crimson,
as if from sipping Cleopatra's blood. . .  sink in now, snake!

Our young Sunnee's all of twenty, with pretty lips, too,
like those of a cat. . .  sink in now, snake!

Poems like that served to inspire a whole generation of young Koreans to look to the resources of their native tongue, and stood as a vital reference in 1945, when it was at last possible to speak out and publish freely in a language that had to be brought back from the tomb.
Ko Un only began to write poems in the later 1950s, but his early work was no less passionate and nihilistic than that of Midang. Both explored the deeper sonorities of the Korean language, that cannot be adequately represented in English translation:

Insect Buzz

Late autumn, leaves all fallen,
the branches stretching bare—
in such a season
how can a dark stream be flowing underground?
A sound of surging waters interrupts my dreams
as if a subterranean stream were surging upward.
As I listen it fades away but deep in the blue night,
while I try to get back to sleep, I hear it again,
not with my ears
but with my eyes.
The depth of one insect buzz in my eyes!
No ears,
no sound.
Dawn, awakening by the eyes’ darkness.

Beside Sŏmjin River

If your heart is aching, look at a river at sunset.
I call in a low voice, the nearby hills, sharp-eared,
come dropping down, nearer now,
floating dark on the river waters.
Mount Chiri’s high ridge, Nogodan, floats there like a flower.
while the river flows on alone, a dark soy-sauce flood in the deepening twilight.

If your heart aches with sorrow, look at a river at sunset.
I stand here and simply watch
the great task of hills and river growing dark together and
more than that, tiny silver fish drifting in swarms close to the banks,
and the river bearing away Hwaŏm Temple’s Enlightenment Hall.

Look at the river at sunset. Look for a moment as if it were a thousand years.
See this world’s river at sunset,
a temple built above that river,
all those once killed in the valleys and hills gathering there.

The river flows on, made deeper by the bitter cold.
I stand here at sunset and simply watch
the river at Sŏmjin Ferry, unable to tear my eyes away from it,
until the river leaves the hills, leaves the millions of peach-flowers like old blind men,
and leaves the grand temple too.

Things that live, things that have died have now all become one.
The river is repeating the laments of girls from nearby hamlets.
Now both banks have faded into darkness
and that darkness is towering aloft,
the ridge of Nogodan, bright to the end, utters sudden birdsong.
Thus the river water darkens in the presence of someone alive.
If you have endless ages of pain to spare, watch a river as night falls.

Today's ebb tide

We’ll remember.
There is a time for the world to be battered by storms.
There’s a time for the world to be covered with raging waves.
Though now we’re retreating with the white froth,
let's not dismiss today because it’s on the day's ebbing tide.
Surely today’s the stark reality of past and future.
We shall recall,
recall, and tell our children.
Ah, this nation of unending waves!
But there’s a time when this world should be lulled, a child that cries by night.
There is a time when history is not fathers but sons.
I lull today, as my own child,
with the ebbing tide's distant retreating waves
but that's not all, for there’s a time to repent whole-heartedly for what this world is.
Repenting is not a matter of beating on the ground and regretting the past,
rather it means doing eventually what we could not do then.
Now we have things to do.
We'll all return with breaking waves on the youthful incoming tide.
Several thousand years of our life will become today,
become the whole ocean, the whole world,
and we’ll remember each of our nights, a star high up there, shining.

One other poet among those I have translated had strong childhood links with Japan. Chon Sang-Pyong was born here in 1930, his father worked in Japan until the end of the war. Still, his poetry has its roots in the post-Liberation rebirth of the Korean lyric voice. His school-teacher was the poet Kim Chun-Su, and the value of his first published poem, written while he was still a school-boy, was recognized by the leading senior poet of the 1950s, Yu Chi-Hwan

River waters

The reason why the river flows toward the sea
is not only because I've been weeping
all day long
up on the hill.

Not only because I've been blooming
like a sunflower in longing
all night long
up on the hill.

The reason I've been weeping like a beast in sorrow
up on the hill
is not only because
the river flows toward the sea.

 It is a fluke of poetic history that the woman who cared for Chon as his wife in his later years, Mok Sun-Ok, whom some of you have met in the tiny café she runs in Seoul’s Insa-dong, also grew up here, and has the distinction of having been in Hiroshima on August 6 1945, when her father died. There is no time to evoke the remarkable story of Chon’s life, but his most well-known poem, “Back to Heaven” is the Korean poem I most value, because of the faith in life’s beauty it expresses, although it was written in 1970, only a few years after arrest, torture, imprisonment, when the poet thought he was dying aged only 40:

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: It was beautiful. . . .

But I cannot stop there. I want to point to Shin Kyong-Nim, for his poetic record of the voices of Korea’s poor, laboring classes in the 1950s and 60s is remarkable, and deserves to be better known across the world.

Farmers' Dance

The ching booms out, the curtain falls.
Above the rough stage, lights dangle from a paulownia tree,
the playground's empty, everyone's gone home.
We rush to the soju bar in front of the school
and drink, our faces still daubed with powder.
Life's mortifying when you're oppressed and wretched.
Then off down the market alleys behind the kkwenggwari
with only some kids running bellowing behind us
while girls lean pressed against the oil shop wall
giggling childish giggles.
The full moon rises and one of us
begins to wail like the bandit king Kokjong; another
laughs himself sly like Sorim the schemer; after all
what's the use of fretting and struggling, shut up in these hills
with farming not paying the fertilizer bills?
Leaving it all in the hands of the women,
we pass by the cattle-fair,
then dancing in front of the slaughterhouse
we start to get into the swing of things.
Shall we dance on one leg, blow the nallari hard?
Shall we shake our heads, make our shoulders rock?

Shin wrote the pain and vitality, the Han and Heung of Korean history, in unique ways :

Ssitkim Kut
A wandering spirit’s song

Go in peace, they say, go in peace.
With broken neck, hugging severed limbs,
go a thousand, ten thousand ri to the land beyond,
without night or day; go in peace, they say, go in peace.

Sleep now, they say, sleep quietly now.
Though a myriad million years pass, never open those eyes
blinded with blood as you fell in barley field, meadow,
or patch of sand; sleep now, they say, sleep quietly now.

Seize hold, with your slashed and slivered hand
seize warmly hold of these blood-covered hands.
A new day has come, the sun is shining bright,
birds are caroling, the breeze is balmy,
so seize hold with your slivered hand, they say, seize hold.

I cannot go with my broken neck and severed limbs,
I cannot quietly close my blood-blinded eyes,
cannot seize hold, cannot seize with this slivered hand,
I cannot seize your blood-covered hands.

I have come back, blood-blinded eyes glaring, I have returned
with my broken neck, hugging severed limbs;
I grind my teeth and wish bitter frost may drop from heaven.

I cannot seize hold with this slivered hand,
I cannot seize your blood-covered hands;
I have come back, a dense storm-cloud,
to alleys, markets, factories, quays;
I have come back, a violent clamor.

The Korean War, of course, and the ensuing absolute division of the peninsula, created an even stronger desire for a different future. At the same time, Korean society, like Japan’s, was being transformed. The rural communities lost almost all their young people in the course of rapid urbanization and industrialization. Like Shin Kyong-Nim, Lee Shi-Young has written poems echoing the pain and desperate hopes of that process, when Seoul took the place of Japan as the promised land offering work to the impoverished.

In the Train for Seoul

The eleven thirty night train, Pigeon class, from Yosu to Seoul.
The name’s nice, Pigeon class, the third class train.
Looking up from the floor of the jam-packed aisle,
a young woman asked me:
“Where can I find Myongil-dong?”
She had a newly-born infant strapped to her back
and on the blanket spread on the floor a boy aged five or six
was sitting with a flushed expression.
“I’m off to find these kids’ dad.
He missed last year’s farming season, so he left home.
Someone told me they’d seen him in Myongil-dong.”
I know that place, Seoul’s Myongil-dong;
it used to be as dark as a mining village even at midday,
with public address speakers bawling full blast,
drunks lying sprawled full length,
a place where, when night came,
from beneath each low roof
young women’s short cries of pain used to emerge.
On that woman’s throat too, burned dark by the sun,
where sweet dew from the fields used to flow,
the veins will soon stand out from shouting.
The kid’s clean white rubber shoes, washed in the pure stream
in front of their house, will soon be filthy with coal-dust.
But I know something more: the Myongil-dong
that she is pinning all her hopes on finding no longer exists.
The alleys that used to be full of scrap-merchants, pawn-shops,
day-laborers, are all demolished and gone.
In the grounds of Green Mansions that’s replaced the old huts
spotless children are prattling away
as they go scampering across green lawns.
The eleven thirty night train, third class, from Yosu to Seoul.
The young woman opens her bundle, offers me a boiled egg,
and keeps asking me anxiously:
“Where can I find Myongil-dong?”

A final step takes us to the Modernity of our own world, not so different in Korea and Japan, the world of cities, international travel, of pollution and rootless materialism. Here I need to point you to Kim Kwang-Kyu. He was born in 1941 and belongs to the first generation of Koreans for whom Modernity was sought in the universities of the West, not Tokyo. He studied in Germany, translated Brecht, Heine, Gunther Eich, and only then began to write his own poems in his own, modern voice, unimpressed by the vapid lyricism of the poets eager to imitate So Chong-Ju and avoid the frowns of military dictators. The dry irony, the veiled satire of dictators and the dehumanized existence offered instead of life in modern cities make him a more directly universal poet than perhaps any other of those mentioned.

Going home in the evening

We gave up any thought of flying long ago

These days we don't even try to run
we dislike walking so we try to ride
(We mostly travel about by bus or subway)
Once on board we all try to get a seat
Once seated we lean back snoozing
Not that we are tired
but every time money-making is over
our heads become atrophied
scales sprout all over our bodies
Our blood has grown cold
But still with half-open eyes
our practised feet take us home

We return every evening to our homes
like reptiles returning to their swamp.

The land of mists

In the land of mists
always shrouded in mist
nothing ever happens
And if something happens
nothing can be seen
because of the mist
for if you live in mist
you get accustomed to mist
so you do not try to see
Therefore in the land of mists
you should not try to see
you have to hear things
for if you do not hear you cannot live
so ears keep growing bigger
People like rabbits
with ears of white mist
live in the land of mists

Later this year, White Pine will be publishing a selection of translations of poems by a close friend of Kim Kwang-Kyu, Chonggi Mah (as he prefers to be known, having lived in the US for some 30 years). His poetic vocation began when he was a student in medical school, when writing poetry was the only way he could come to terms with the constant experience of mortality:

Anatomy lab  2

Why, just look at that child,
that little girl, eyes tightly shut,
smiling, her breast wrapped in flowery white.
Here we cannot cry, even silently
for this is not a grave.
After setting out on a lifetime
you finally wearied of everything.
Now, you gaze up at the white ceiling,
your flesh bleached pale.
The lads who teased you
have scattered one after another, seeming lonely;
speak, little girl, too shy to open your eyes.
Once you used to roam the hills
nibbling flowers, spitting colored saliva,
used simply to laugh
at that smell, the smell of falling sunshine.
We hold our breath,
extend our two hands.
Why, just look at that child.
Listen to her breathing fragrantly,
still smiling with dimpled cheeks,
teaching us with our cold palms
the warm art of parting.


When the light goes out in the westward sickroom,
the dark shadow of winter
passes beyond the low hills
and the chill bricks of the autopsy room
ring to the sound of a skull being sawed,
it’s no finale.
I first learned about
natural life in anatomy class.
That’s when the cold came.
On my lonely, youthful bed
I often found myself sentenced to death.
The dazzling vertigo of the remaining hours.
Don’t you see? The solitary deathbed
of the tall guy who gave up.
Don’t you see? This is no finale.

Eleven years ago, in the first days of 1995, Ko Un and another younger poet friend and I were planning to come to visit Kyoto, together with Mr. Hong who will soon be performing Korean Tea for us. Then came the terrible Kobe earthquake and we never made the journey. That poet friend should be with us today, because we went through almost all these translations together, but he died of cancer in 2001. Kim Young-Moo came late to poetry, by a kind of epiphany he experienced in Canada. One poem of his, the final poem he wrote on his death-bed, can serve to bring him into our midst here in Kyoto today, from beyond the grave and gate of death:


In this land one poet
blossomed -- a wild flower,  
played in the wind, then went away.
He enjoyed the songs of crickets and birds,
enjoyed even more
the sturdy fin-strokes
of minnows, neighborly, kin-like.
The world of wild greenery
where cool drops of dew hang, many-hued jewels  
-- it’s so full of tenderness.