Why Poetry Really Matters: Chaucer Today


An Sonjae / Brother Anthony


A lecture given at National Chung Cheng University, Chia-yi, Taiwan in March 2004


             What is the point of literature? In particular, does poetry have any real value, does it really matter to anyone in today¡¯s world? Is it worth reading and, an almost more important question, is it worth writing poetry in today¡¯s world? Does the study of literature in the classroom make you want to become a writer, and if not, why not? What are the poet¡¯s responsibilities? A lot of questions to cover in a few minutes.

If you have read any part of Chaucer¡¯s Canterbury Tales, I suppose it will have been the General Prologue. If you have read it, you will remember that Chaucer starts by describing in some detail a number of the pilgrims with whom he finds himself setting out on his pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. They are mostly defined by the work they do—their social role: Knight, Doctor, Miller, Lawyer, Cook, Sailor, and so on. Only a very few are given individual names, they are mainly identified by their job. The only woman among them who is not a religious nun is usually simply known as ¡°The Wife from Bath,¡± and she although since she has already outlived five husbands, being a wife can also be considered her full-time job. The descriptions feel ¡°realistic¡± to most readers because the people are described ¡°warts and all¡± as the English say. They are mostly not ¡°mere stereotypes¡± and not perfect role-models.

Quite early on, we begin to notice that we are being given information suggesting that this or that pilgrim is a thief, a lecher, a far from model example of a churchman, or even perhaps a murderer. Yet the voice describing them never falters, never expresses any reticence or negative judgement. The word used most often to qualify the pilgrims is ¡°worthy¡± – used 13 times! When it is used several times to qualify the knight, we are prepared to accept that Chaucer is impressed by such a high-class professional fighter; we are rather puzzled to find it used of the Friar just when we have learned that he refuses to care for poor people and lepers. The word ¡°good¡± is also kept busy, used for example to qualify the Shipman, a ¡°good fellow¡± who steals his passengers¡¯ wine while they are asleep and throws pirates who attack him into the sea, telling them to swim home. What makes Chaucer really modern is the stress he puts on money-earning ability. His descriptions are all about the capitalistic activities by which these individuals earn wealth, by fair means or foul; this world is a dynamic and competitive one, like ours, and full of opportunities to be dishonest.

By the end of the portraits, we have begun to feel that Chaucer, the author of this human comedy, is offering his readers an exam. Or perhaps a kind of quiz game: ¡°What is the value of a less-than-perfect human being.¡± After all, the word ¡°worthy¡± contains the word ¡°worth¡± within it, fairly obviously. By contrast, the Chaucer-figure who is telling the story of the pilgrims seems not to be at all interested in pre-judging their relative values, although he clearly knows that everybody does that. Rather, being of an immensely kind-hearted disposition, he seems ready to admire and respond positively to each person he meets, although there is a feeling of strained sympathy, of gritted teeth, when he is trying to be kind about the Pardoner and the Summoner who come at the end and seem particularly repulsive both physically and morally.

A lot of students, and some of us teachers too, tend to stop reading the General Prologue at the end of the portraits. We rather skim over the rest, where Harry Bailly, the landlord (Host) of the Tabard Inn where they have come together, expresses his admiration for the pilgrims and decides to join them. We know that he is going to suggest a way of having some fun along the road to Canterbury, suggesting a story-telling contest as a way of avoiding boredom. Each pilgrim, he suggests, will tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. He, the jovial though not highly-educated Host, will then be the judge of which of them has told the ¡°best¡± tales, ¡°Tales of best sentence and moost solaas,¡± (798). That pilgrim will be rewarded by a free supper at the end of the pilgrimage, paid for by all the rest. Such contests were a familiar part of the activities of literary groups in England and France, but there is obvious irony in the way the highly-experienced author and literary figure Geoffrey Chaucer attributes this initiative and the judging role to the very un-literary Harry Bailly, presenting himself as a rather stupid, unimaginative guy who can do nothing more than report what other people say and do.

Equally significant is the little word ¡°and¡± between ¡°best sentence¡± and ¡°moost solaas.¡± Both these terms are unfamiliar in modern English. ¡°Sentence¡± might be replaced by ¡°meaning¡± or ¡°content¡± or even ¡°significant message¡± and ¡°solaas¡± by ¡°fun¡± or ¡°entertainment value.¡± Chaucer knows, and expects his readers to know that since classical times there had been a tension between the two obvious reasons for telling a story, or writing anything: to teach or to entertain. In the 16th century, Sir Philip Sidney spoke of the same topic in his Defence of Poesy as ¡°to teach and delight,¡± pointing out that a text that gave no pleasure to the reader would not be able to teach any lesson because no one would go on reading it.

In Chaucer¡¯s General Prologue, Harry Bailly informs the pilgrims that on their return he is going to be the judge as to which has told the best tales, but he shows no awareness of any need to decide first whether ¡°a good story¡± is one that teaches the audience something serious about life, or one that makes them roar with laughter. His ¡°and¡± too readily conflates instruction and pleasure. Chaucer clearly expects his readers to notice this potential confusion, for one of the most important features of the diversity of tales contained in his unfinished collection, stressed by the often stormy exchanges between pilgrims that precede and sometimes interrupt the tales, is the difference between a tale told with a didactic intention regardless of the audience¡¯s wishes or response, and one told with the goal of pleasing an audience at all costs.

I would like you to see a connection between these two aspects of Chaucer¡¯s work. The portraits of the individual pilgrims in the General Prologue often suggest imperfections, sometimes serious moral failings, yet keep reminding us that we do not always feel the strongest affection for the most perfect people. Chaucer is so positive about everyone. Perhaps because our own humanity is also flawed, we are easily taken in by and respond positively to people we know to be wretches, rascals, or rogues. ¡°He¡¯s a good fellow!¡± and ¡°That was a good story!¡± come together to indicate our usual unwillingness to think clearly enough about the word ¡°good.¡± ¡°That¡¯s a good story / fellow because I like it / him / her.¡± In the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the two exclamations come together because we can often sense strongly that each portrait is the condensation of an otherwise untold tale.

Chaucer was doing something in writing those portraits that has perhaps never been bettered, his art is amazing. Everyone notices a sense of ¡°realism¡± in the way each portrait follows a different pattern. The pilgrims come alive in a way that has often been considered to look forward to the much more recent novel. In reaction, in recent decates scholars have talked about ¡°estates satire¡± and the ways in which other medieval writers wrote to pinpoint failings and encourage reform in the practice of social exchanges. This can be valuable, but . . . The way Chaucer writes the portaits, you will know if you have read them, includes the use of ¡°indirect reported speech.¡± At several points we seem to hear the voice of the pilgrim talking, telling self-justifying tales about himself or herself. In the Monk¡¯s portrait, we read lines in which he can be heard defending his very un-monastic life-style: ¡°He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,¡± (177) and the sense of hearing his actual words is only strengthened by echoes of Chaucer¡¯s response: ¡°And I seyde his opinion was good.¡± (183). Often, the portraits are presented as if they were based on the way each person has spoken of himself. Now there are very few people who speak negatively of themselves to a sympathetic stranger; yet through what people say, we may often get a picture other than the one they want to give. A complete fool may reveal himself to us as such while believing that he is displaying great wisdom. It is very important to practice discernment while listening to the things people say about themselves. It may sound very convincing and plausible; it may all be quite untrue.

This is the basis of what is often known as ¡°Lucianic Satire¡± and the most important work in English literature inspired by that is Book 2 of More¡¯s Utopia. Here, we have an intensely positive account of life in Utopia. Generations of readers have done as More feared they would, and assumed that they were expected by the author, the great Sir Thomas More, to share the narrator¡¯s admiration, forgetting that the person speaking this account is not Henry VIII¡¯s Lord High Chancellor and Catholic martyr-saint Thomas More, but an uneducated though well-intentioned sailor, Raphael Hythloday, whose given name may be that of a truth-telling archangel, his family name means ¡°speaker of nonsense.¡± The companion work to More¡¯s Utopia, Erasmus¡¯s Praise of Folly, works on much the same principle, with Folly being not only the topic of the praise but also the speaker of it; both men had taken delight in translating from the Greek works by the said Lucian, which employ the same technique, that of the often unconsciously unreliable ¡°speaking¡± narrator.

Chaucer, who surely had never heard of Lucian, was to employ the same technique in his two great ¡°dramatic monologues,¡± the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue and the Pardoner¡¯s Prologue. The idea for those extended ¡®self-tales¡¯ is an obvious extension of what begins in the General Prologue¡¯s portraits, though in the first case there is also some influence from a similarly self-admiring speaker, La Vieille in the Romance of the Rose. In all these cases, the subtle and invisible author¡¯s work can only be read as he hopes if he finds ¡°fit readers,¡± people with the wit, the intelligence to see beyond appearances and discern, judge, evaluate what is being said in terms other than those of the potentially self-deluded speaking persona. If the reader is not thinking, challenging, bringing other perspectives, he will end up like the reporting pilgrim Chaucer, who is so taken in by the Monk¡¯s self-justifying narrative that he can be heard confirming his options, (which are fundamentally incompatible with the demands of the monastic life):


(And I seyde his opinion was good.)

What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood,

Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,

Or swynken with his handes, and laboure, 

As Austyn bit? how shal the world be served? (184-7)


He seems completely to be forgetting that ¡°serving the world¡± is not something that a monk should be doing, even if he is from a high-class family. ¡°Fit readers¡± must not be so indulgent. Yet few ¡°normal¡± people automatically feel sympathy for aescesis, discipline and self-denial, when the alternative is to have a good time and enjoy yourself to the full. Chaucer¡¯s repsonse to the Monk is that of the majority; yet that does not make it right.

Now Chaucer¡¯s (unspoken) wish for fit, discerning and intelligent readers, should be set alongside the work which most closely resembles the Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio¡¯s Decameron. It seems inconceivable that Chaucer was not influenced by it, but there is no evidence that he knew it. Perhaps someone in Italy told him about it, describing the framing structure and the story-telling competition. That would have been enough. The most important point is not the similarity but the difference. For in Boccaccio¡¯s work, I would say, there is no sense of a tension or contradiction between ¡°sentence¡± and ¡°solaas.¡± The only thing all the gay young folk gathered to escape the plague and death seem to want is fun, entertainment, laughter, ¡°solaas¡±. The famous tales that explain why the Decameron is still popular are all naughty ones, inspired by the fabliau tradition, about sex and successful trickery.

Such tales are found in the Canterbury Tales too, of course, and are equally popular among lovers of humour. Indeed, the Miller¡¯s Tale is widely recognized as one of the world¡¯s greatest comic masterpieces. But the Canterbury Tales equally includes the Nun¡¯s Tale of the life and martyrdom of St. Cecilia, an officially canonized saint, and ends with the Parson¡¯s Tale, a solemn theological treatise on sin and forgiveness delivered after the Parson has fiercely refused to tell any kind of entertaining story at all. A lot of Chaucer¡¯s intentions are uncertain, because he never completed the work, but left it in a broken, fragmentary form, tales without links or clearly identified tellers, pilgrims with tales barely begun or no tales at all. Only one thing seems clear. By introducing the ¡°literary contest¡± with the two conflicting categories of ¡°sentence¡± and ¡°solaas¡± at the start, he is encouraging his readers to be constantly evaluating the tale they are reading, and comparing it to others in those terms. In particular, by the subtle connection between teller and tale, and the dramatized tensions between different pilgrims, he reminds us of the techniques by which speakers attempt to influence their audience. Sincerity and Truth, we know, are often less important than success, especially in election campaigns and literary contests. Telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they ought to hear is usually the key to popularity. After all, they poisoned Socrates and crucified Jesus for their refusal to do just that.

In its present shape, the Canterbury Tales ends with the Parson¡¯s Tale, there is no sign of a return to London, Harry Bailey¡¯s judgement and a joyful, drunken banquet. Instead, the Parson¡¯s Tale is directly followed by a short note, known as the Retractions, in which Chaucer surveys his total work in the light of Eternity and distinguishes between the solaas-tending works, ¡°translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke¡± (he appends a list, including Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, or at least ¡°Thilke that sownen into synne¡±) but he is proud of his serious, sentence-inclined writing ¡°of the translacion of Boece De Consolacione, and othere bookes of legendes of seintes, and omelies and moralitee, and devocioun./ that thanke I oure Lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful mooder, and alle the seintes of hevene.¡±

In other words, Harry Bailly¡¯s plan suggests a secular view of time and life, a pilgrimage being to him nothing but a journey out and back, the after being much the same as the before, a system in which judgement is simply a matter of ¡°knowing what I like.¡± By contrast, the structure of the Canterbury Tales that Chaucer has left us, with the Parson¡¯s Tale at the unexpected end, stands to remind readers that in the Christian view, each human life is a never-ending pilgrimage, one that only reaches its goal when death comes, usually before we are fully prepared. Judgement and reward in this case are not the affair of Harry Baily with cakes and ale for all, but the affair of God after we die, with Heaven and Hell the extreme alternatives.

This is stressed by the presence of so many religious figures among the pilgrims, and the many references to Christianity in the Tales. As you may recall, apart from the Parson and his Plowman brother, who are indeed shining examples of Christian living, the Church-related figures are all less than perfect models of their Christian calling. The Prioress is mostly interested in behaving like a seductive courtly lady, the Friar in making money, the Monk in hunting, all three of them are too fond of good food and drink, while the Summoner and the Pardoner are a corrupt, monstrous pair about whom even good pilgrim Chaucer finds it hard to be kind. We are constantly being reminded that human life is in need of God¡¯s saving Grace, that people are most of the time busy doing the things they ought not to do but very much want do, and trying to forget the commandments of God. It is surely no accident that at the very climax of the Miller¡¯s Tale, when the lusty young wife of old John the Carpenter is busy in bed with Hende Nicolas the student lodger, while her husband is lying asleep exhausted in a tub hung high up in the roof, expecting to survive a new Noah¡¯s Flood, the narrator introduces an unexpected reference to the prayers of the friars in a convent outside the walls of the house:


And thus lith Alison and Nicholas,

In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas,

Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge,

And freres in the chaunsel gonne synge. (3653 –6)


The celebration of God¡¯s salvation coincides with a moment of human depravity. Chaucer¡¯s depiction of various humanity is in many ways not so unlike that found in the Augustan poets, full of the most amazing contradictions, as Pope says at the start of Book 2 of the Essay on Man:


Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (13 – 18)


The Wife of Bath in her Prologue takes the most widely-known materials of Christian antifeminist discourse, subverts them to serve her own self-justifying purposes, delights her readers, and cannot see that she is fashioning herself into a perfect embodiment of the female conduct those writings denounce. We known what pain sexual infidelity can cause, and that adultery is a grave breach of social order as well as of personal trust, yet while reading the fabliaux, like the Miller¡¯s Tale, we readers are very easily persuaded to cheer with the immoral and rejoice when the dupes are duped. Not even Carpenter John¡¯s broken arm can prevent us joining the laughing, gawping crowd of neighbors whose sympathies are firmly on the side of the lovely, lively young folk with their irresistible sex-appeal. The greedy Pardoner declares that his only goal is to trick the poor into giving him their money; although the text of his sermon, which he presumably stole from someone because he could never have composed it himself, is an extraordinary anatomy of sin and denunciation of greed, having the power to convert sinners, only not himself who has memorized it but cannot hear its message.

But Chaucer is less simply a moral satirist inclined to scoff at human foibles than Pope was. We can come closer to Chaucer¡¯s way of seeing human life by examining his references to other works of literature. We saw that the simply aesthetic criteria of the contest in Boccaccio¡¯s Decameron do not correspond to the moral and religious dimensions of the Canterbury Tales. This might be because Chaucer¡¯s imagination is being informed by memories of another work he had read. The portraits of the pilgrims, with their brief echoes of autobiographical tales, might be thought to have some relation to the much longer series of encounters, equally containing portraits with brief evocations of complex human stories, comprising Dante¡¯s journey through Inferno and Purgatory to Paradise in the Commedia. We know that Chaucer had a deep understanding of Dante¡¯s work by the way he uses it as an ironic subtext to his Troilus. Chaucer, however, goes in the opposite direction to Dante, and refuses to condemn or judge anyone or anything. Here it is worth stressing the greatest difference between the two: everyone that Dante meets on his great journey is already dead and judged. All the figures whom Chaucer memorializes in the Canterbury Tales are alive, and remain alive for ever by the power of the literary text, still today engaged in the human adventure of making choices and advancing through life as best they can. Their words and deeds will ultimately be subject to judgement by God, and they ought to know that, but instead of God, Chaucer entrusts that necessary evaluation and discernment to each individual reader. Chaucer¡¯s is a poetry of life.

Modern authors, since the 18th century, have mostly decided that readers should not be allowed too much freedom, and have filled their narratives with words and devices designed to do the work of evaluating and judging for them. Chaucer is amazingly modern in the way he gives equal weight and value to multiple voices without ever suggesting that all actions and every way of living or speaking are of equal value and validity. There are good deeds and bad deeds, good people and bad people, he agrees, just as there are good stories and not-so-good stories. Only the decision as to which is which belongs to the generality of his readers, whose qualities of judgement and discrimination need to be honed by a touchstonethat no mere author can offer. Each person must decide in their own heart what are the values by which he or she lives, and reads.

Chaucer was aware that Christians should never be idealists since humanity is known to be sinful, only redeemed by grace and love, not condemned out of hand on the basis of inflexible, impossible moral laws. Dryden was speaking of that breadth of heart and vision when he said of Chaucer that ¡°in him was God¡¯s plenty.¡± It is my opinion that Chaucer¡¯s readers, by becoming ¡°fit readers¡± become better human beings at the same time, so long as they apply the same criteria of judgement to themselves as they do to the books they read and the people they meet. It may be that depth of compassionate understanding, rather than his depictions of corruption in the Church, that explains why in the 16th century Chaucer was considered to have been a ¡°prophetic poet,¡± a label later applied to Edmund Spenser and John Milton. The Christian prophet is, after all, not so much a fortune-teller as a ¡°seer,¡± one who sees the real value of each person clearly and well in the light of God¡¯s truth, speaking it out among all the confusions of human reality and public opinion. To be a poet, according to that, is a high vocation indeed.


From here, we must end with some gigangtic leaps, from Chaucer to modern times, from England to Korea. Three key words will be our guide: poet, prophet, portrait.


Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.


             Those are the words with which Percy Bysshe Shelley ended the first part of his Defence of Poetry. Early in Part One, he had anticipated the same theme by reference to the past:


Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the forms of the flower and the fruit of latest time.


What Shelley saw was that immensely serious vocation of the poet; what he failed to recall, it seems, is the humiliation, suffering, rejection and inglorious fate suffered by most of the Old Testament prophets, and not only those. The great writer Osip Mandelstam once boasted that it was only in the Soviet Union that ¡°they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else.¡± and we might wish to refer to Czeslaw Milosz¡¯s The Captive Mind (1953) in which he wrote: ¡°In Central and Eastern Europe, the word ¡®poet¡¯ has a somewhat different meaning from what it has in the West. There a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ¡®bard,¡¯ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.¡± The poet as prophet, indeed.

However, another ¡°prophetic¡± poet, the contemporary British poet Christopher Hill, has argued that despite those words, Milosz proposes a fundamentally flawed view of poetry, one first formulated by Schiller in the words ¡°The right art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.¡± We find ourselves back at the tension between ¡°sentence¡± and ¡°solaas.¡± Matthew Arnold was persuaded by Schiller¡¯s essentially ¡°aesthetic valuation¡± of the finality of poetry to omit from the 1853edition of his Poems his lyrical drama Empedocles on Etna on the grounds (stated in the ¡°Preface¡±) that the work deals with a situation ¡°in which the suffering finds no vent in action; . . . in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done¡± and concluding that this was not ¡°a representation from which men can derive enjoyment.¡± It should therefore not be republished.

             Hill recalls how W. B. Yeats, editing The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935 in 1936, excluded virtually all the poets of the First World War and justified that by quoting Arnold¡¯s decision, which he expounded in his own words: ¡°passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.¡± Famously, W. H. Auden tried to supply an answer to that in the second section of his elegy ¡°In Memory of W. B. Yeats¡±:


             Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

       Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,

       For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

       In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, . . .

 it survives,

       A way of happening, a mouth.


Hill writes: ¡°Auden perhaps meant to say that the achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness. If that is what he meant, I agree with him . . .¡± (254) Hill refers to his project ¡°to propose a theology of language¡± and he quotes a sermon by G. M. Hopkins:


To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hands, a woman with a sloppail, give him glory too, He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live


Hill concludes: ¡°Hopkins, with Victorian aesthetics at his fingertips, sometime pupil of Walter Pater, leans away from the aesthetics equation, takes the weight of the more awkward stresses of a world which, in justice, contains aesthetics as a good, but is not to be either ruled or saved by them.¡± (255)

These phrases relate, I believe, to the same possibilities of meaningful, compassionate, human poetry of ¡°sentence¡± relating to life in ordinary society that we have been finding in Chaucer. Geoffrey Hill, whose name and work I hope you know, has written: ¡°the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing of the dead¡±. There can be no doubt that 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.

Hill¡¯s is very powerful writing but I want to end, not with a British poet but a Korean one, Ko Un. I know him personally, I have translated his work, he calls me his friend. Born in 1933, for over ten years a Buddhist monk after experiencing unspeakable horrors as a teenager during the Korean War, Ko Un wrote youthful poetry of immense power and sensuality. Despairing of life, he attempted suicide before finding a meaningful vocation in the struggles against military dictatorship in the 1970s. Included in the lists of hundreds of people to be taken away at the start of Chun Doo-Hwan¡¯s coup d¡¯etat in May 1980, Ko Un was condemned to life imprisonment after an initial period of such isolation and insecurity that he became convinced that he might be taken out and shot without warning at any moment.

That experience marks a radical turn in Ko Un¡¯s life and work. When he was liberated in August 1982, he brought out of prison with him the concept for a new poetic project, the Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) series. In prison, confronting the possibility of imminent death, he had become aware of himself as a locus of historic, social and national memory. Korean Buddhism contains suggestions of the immense and lasting significance of every human contact, be it the mere passing touch of a sleeve, within the structures of relationship composing karma. At the same time, Ko Un was strongly aware of the need to affirm that Korea¡¯s history must not be seen as a succession of wars, brutal dictators and incompetent administrations; Korea (like any land) is the sum total of its population, and the nameless, voiceless masses are only nameless and voiceless to the elite who fear them. A host of names and voices and tales remained alive in the memories that Ko Un began to recover in the solitude of his cell. He felt it was his poetic duty to ensure that each of those names and voices should be memorialized in the only way open to him, within poems, raised beyond the merely anecdotal by the nature of the poetic achievement. So far he has published twenty volumes of those poetic portraits, records of humanity. I find myself brought back to Chaucer¡¯s portraits; they go beyond the particular to become representative of our diverse humanity.

In the foreword to the collection Haegŭmgang (Sea Diamond Mountain), Ko Un says of his sense of poetic creation: ¡°If someone opens my grave a few years after my death, they will find it full, not of my bones, but of poems written in that tomb¡¯s darkness¡¦.¡± Now past his seventieth year, Ko Un has spoken and written many words. If any are prophetic, they will fulfill their task in due time. Only history can show what that task was. Ours is to listen with unsealed ears, compassionate hearts, to the voice of the poets, past and present, close at hand and far away – memorializing lives marked by pain and joy, prophets of truth and hope, the true seers of what it might mean to be truly human. That is why poetry really matters.


And to conclude, I must read at least one poem. There is a word I have not used and it is unforgiveable: Beauty. True, I have spoken of God, and goodness, and truth, and we all know, if only thanks to Keats, that those are synonyms for beauty. A Korean poet, Ch¡¯on Sang-Pyong, whose life was marked by pain and poverty, who maintained the spirit of a child through it all, wrote a most extraordinary poem in 1970, after he had been tortured and when he thought he was dying, prostrate with malnutrition and exhaustion. It is very simple, it does not need any explanation; it is a perfect poem:


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. . . .