Korean Perspectives on Poetry
An unpublished essay by Brother Anthony, of Taize (An Sonjae)
of Sogang University, Seoul
Many Korean students, when they write about a poem they have read, make
comments that show that as they read, they are more concerned to find concealed
subtexts than to elucidate the surface sense of the poem. It is sometimes
as though the superficial meaning of the words is neglected almost completely
in favour of responses that arise in the reader by a process of free association.
They are unable to make a simple paraphrase of the contents of a poem or
go through it step by step without a sudden leap into a quite different
zone of experience.
This serves to remind us that the way people read poems (and write them) is determined by conventions, orthodoxies, and expectations, that vary more than we realize, already within cultures, certainly, but above all between cultures. We have to try not to privilege one above the other before arriving at some understanding of the differences that exist.
"How on earth are English readers going to understand a culture in which all the administrators and bureaucrats have to be poets?" This was the spontaneous reaction of an English editor on reading our translation of Yi Mun-yol's The Poet, set in 19th century Korea. He could not believe his eyes on reading that, for a thousand years until about one hundred years ago, all would-be civil servants in Korea were obliged to take a national examination, which involved formal poetry-writing.
This led me to realize how very strongly in English eyes, at least, the poet is expected to be a marginal figure, poetry-reading is thought of as a leisure activity, while poetry-writing is a skill probably not even particularly desired in civil servants. Poetry has no place among the skills society demands of its administrators, or indeed of anyone else, except for those who choose, oddly, to call themselves poets. Even people who study poetry and "teach" it in universities are not usually expected to be able to write it. Certainly poetry and power do not go hand in hand anywhere.
Threatened with life in a world devoid of poetry, fantasy, imagination, our response to the thought of a land governed entirely by skilled poets may be very different from that of Plato in the Republic. It sounds rather like a good Utopia: no such possible place exists, alas. Yet such a culture existed until quite recently in what some people still term "the Orient": China, Korea, and Japan. But perhaps those countries meant something rather different by poetry?
Reflexions of a personal kind
The study of Chinese by Koreans corresponds very closely in many
ways to the study of Latin in medieval and especially renaissance grammar-schools
in Europe. Like the English school boys of the time of Shakespeare, young
Koreans in their very strict Confucian academies had to memorize vast quantities
of classical poetry and prose, be able to select relevent quotations for
any situation, and be able to write new poems closely imitating the traditional
formal styles, echoing their models so closely we might cry 'plagiarism'
only the allusion to familiar lines was part of the art, not a vice at
In Ben Jonson's days at Westminster School, Rosalind Miles (Ben Jonson: his life and work, RKP, 1986) tells us that it was forbidden to speak English in the school, the basic language was Latin, although older boys also studied Greek and Hebrew. The boys had to translate into these languages, as well as convert prose into verse and verse into prose, and write set pieces in a given style on a given topic. The skill of parodic imitation was highly valued.
Such schools were royal foundations, clearly designed to produce a ruling elite, and besides the Humanist content of the courses, there were formal recitations of prayers four or five times each day, by which students practiced the fundamental rites expressing a Christian vision of the world. Many of the problems faced by men like Jonson or Donne stemmed from the absence of anything corresponding to the Chinese civil-service examination at the end of their studies.
The English system provided an education designed to produce men trained in formal skills and in the ethical and religious values constituting the foundation of what today is often termed the official ideology. It produced them, but then left the task of finding work to chance and family connections; the resulting lack of administrative framework in which to immobilize them was one of the factors underlying the ambitions and frustrations that in the end undermined the system itself.
Poetry and power were related in the renaissance, though not in the tightly systematic way found in the Confucian system. Perhaps, though, we should be more conscious of the formative effect on the poets we read of having memorized hundreds of lines of Latin and Greek, and of having learned to imitate classical models in both form and attitude.
It is fairly clear that many modern readings of the courtier poets err when they assume that they shared modern attitudes to power and somehow distinguished between public service and poetic activity. "Self-fashioning" is perhaps not the only way of understanding what they were doing. In a society as allergic to notions of acquired "virtue" as today's, it is not fashionable to say that the study of poetry is designed to make you a better person, let alone a better civil servant, but the reason why courtiers wrote and read so many poems may have something to do with that.
Poetry and Society
In the East, by the discipline of Confucian studies, literati acquired
skills in formal styles of writing and address, together with the wisdom
about life and ethical values contained in the poems they learned and the
commentaries accompanying them. Poetry was not seen as a private act of
individual "creation" but as one of the conventional forms in
which virtue was expressed. The dominant mode was most often not overtly
satiric, though it might be didactic and moralistic. The poet, however,
required great delicacy in the choice of characters and the reader needed
equal refinement in the interpretation of images, for much of the meaning
of the poem was expressed in veiled allusions. The imagery of many poems
is drawn from nature, even when the actual topic is a human situation.
Those who had received such difficult schooling often found intense pleasure in using the skills they had gained, and until recently formal poetry competitions were a popular activity in rural Korea. Gentlemen would quite regularly write poems in Chinese during excursions or in their leisure hours, and take real pleasure in the activity. It must be admitted that the civil-service was the only possible course in life for ambitious and talented high-class youths. As governors and administrators in rural areas, or very often holding mere sinecures in the capital, they had nothing much to do in the posts they obtained, otium (leisure) was an obligatory part of their "active life". Showing off their skills in poetry was one of the rare activities available to them. As in the English renaissance court, a scholar's poems were enjoyed during his lifetime by a small coterie of acquaintances; collection and publication would only come after his death, and rarely then.
Poetry in its more relaxed forms was part of a larger whole, involving outings to beautiful spots beside rivers or amidst hills, viewing the moon in lakes and ponds, drinking rice wine and eating good food, making conventionally elegant conversation, all this often in the company of professional female entertainers (kisaeng) who were educated enough to compose and recite poems themselves, or at least suggest themes and key "rhyme" words for their customers to develop. It was these women who, more than the men, wrote poetry on the topic of love. Certain high class women mastered the art of writing characters and produced notable poetry but most loved are the poems of such entertainers as Hwang Chin-i (1506-1544):
My wish to see you is fulfilled only in dreams;
Whenever I visit my joy, you visit me.
So let us dream again some future night,
Starting at the same time to meet on our way.
(Trans. Kim Jong-gil)
All around them, in Korea as in China, were the rural masses whose lives of utter poverty must have contrasted starkly with the affluence of the elite. They had their work-songs and their folk-songs, their shamans had a huge repertory of spirit-songs, but almost all has been lost for it was purely oral, not written. Written poetry was part of a life-style financed by crushing levels of taxation and extortion; the poor people frequently starved while their governors recited their latest gems about the sound of wind in the pine trees. Poetry and the classics do not seem to have had the power to regenerate society, although they offered enough questions for there always to have been an anxiety among the best minds.
If anyone tried to suggest concrete changes in society, corruption was so strong that they very often made powerful enemies and found themselves exiled to some remote area where they had plenty of time for poetry and reflection, but no chance to act. The theme of exile is far more important than the theme of love in Oriental poetry, it represented the ever-present risk of exclusion from the only activity that might make life interesting: the exercise of power. Factionalism was rife, and the many poems that celebrate the peace of the scholar's study are a reminder that the writers were rarely able to enjoy such peace unless they were being punished:
I have lived in the mountains forty years,
Safe from involvement in the broils of the world.
I relax leisurely at my cottage in the spring breeze,
With smiling flowers and willows dozing.
(Song Hon (1535-1598), trans. Kim Jong- gil)
In contrast we might quote this poem by the great early nineteenth century scholar, Chong Yak-yong (pen-name Tasan) who lived for many years in exile beside the sea in the far south and wrote many important books in favour of reform of the state as well as suggesting a new vision of the human person perhaps inspired in part by his contacts with the Catholic faith in his youth:
You may have grain, but nobody to eat it,
And worry about hunger, if you have sons.
When you're promoted, you must become a fool,
While the talented cannot find a place.
A household can seldom enjoy perfect bliss,
And the best principles always collapse.
A miserly father has always a prodigal son
An intelligent wife a stupid husband.
When the moon is full, clouds often come;
When flowers bloom, the wind often blows.
This is the way of things.
So I laugh by myself, but nobody knows.
(trans. Kim Jong-gil)
Poetry cannot be separated from the conventions and theories that produce it, and this is especially the case of such a vast body of texts as the Korean and Chinese scholars of the last two thousand years produced.
A simplified historical outline will be needed by most non-oriental
readers. Since Han China, where the Imperial Academy was founded in 124
B.C., five Classics have been recognized as essential texts for Confucian
teaching. They are: (a) The Spring and Autumn Annals (Ch'un-ch'iu);
(b) The Book of Odes (or of Poetry) (Shih-ching); (c) The Book of
Documents (Shu- ching); (d) The Record (or Book) of Rites (Li-ching);
(e) The Book of Changes (I-ching). These texts were older than Confucianism
but were taken into it as expressions of the six fundamental disciplines,
music alone not being the subject of a surviving classic.
In Sung China (11-12th centuries) the rise of a more dogmatic form of Confucianism meant that these canonical texts were supplemented, or even superseded, by the previously obscure Confucian "Four Books" (ssu-shu) or "Four Classics" that were at the heart of much of later Confucianism: (a) The Analects (Lun-yu); (b) The Great Learning (Ta-hsueh); (c) The Doctrine of the Mean (Chung-yung); (d) Mencius (Meng-tzu). All these works taken together make up the Nine Classics.
Outside of them, but also of immense influence, are the classics of Taoism, of which the Tao te ching attributed to Lao- tzu is the most remarkable, and the immensities of the Buddhist scriptures, a literary, philosophical, and visionary world on a scale which it is virtually impossible to come to terms with, compared to which the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics look like short stories for children.
Of the Five Classics, the Book of Odes, or of Songs, also called the Classic of Poetry, is the one that must interest us most. It contains 305 lyrics probably mostly written between 1000 and 600 BC.. Traditionally it was compiled by Confucius (died in 497 B.C.) from earlier collections of poetic texts, although this may not be a reliable tradition. It was the fundamental poetic text studied in schools in China and Korea, it came equipped with prefaces and commentaries in which the poems were given political and moralistic interpretations they perhaps did not originally have. For example:
Locusts, winged tribes,
How you cluster together!
It is only right that your descendants
Should be in swarms!
This is part of a poem in praise of fertile grasshoppers that the commentators
say, with the utmost seriousness, was written to praise the attitude of
the wife of King Wan, who showed no jealousy at the fruitfulness of the
concubines in the king's harem.
Even more extreme is the case of a poem spoken by a bird whose young have been devoured by an owl that threatens now to destroy the nest itself:
Owl, owl, you have taken my young;
Do not destroy my nest as well.
I nourished them with love
And toil. I am to be pitied.
The commentary says that the poem was written by the Duke of Chow to
defend himself after two of his brothers had joined a rebellion. He killed
one brother and punished the other, but is now pleading to the king not
to believe a slander involving him in the rebellion. The nest is his family's
future fortunes, threatened with destruction if the king decides to punish
Not all the poems are interpreted by the commentators in this metaphorical way, and nothing in the poetic texts themselves indicates a difference between straight narrative poems and symbolic ones.
Most interesting for us is the general theory of poetry found at the beginning of the entire collection:
Poetry is the product of earnest thought. Thought cherished in the mind
becomes earnest; exhibited in words, it becomes poetry.
The feelings move inwardly and are embodied in words. When words are insufficient for them, recourse is had to sighs and exclamations. When those are insufficient, recourse is had to the prologed utterances of song. When that is insufficient, unconsciously the hands begin to move and the feet to dance.
The feelings issue in sounds. When those sounds are artistically combined, we have what is called musical pieces. The style of such pieces in an age of good order is quiet, inclined to be joyful; the government is then a harmony. Their style in an age of disorder is resentful, inclined to the expression of anger; the government is then a discord. Their style, when the state is going to ruin, is mournful, with the expression of retrospective thought; the people are then in distress.
Therefore, correctly to set forth the successes and failures (of government)... there is no readier instrument than poetry.
The former kings by this regulated the duties of husband and wife, effectually inculcated filial obedience and reverence, secured attention to all the relations of society, adorned the transforming influence of instruction, and transformed manners and customs....
(on the various types of poetry...)
Superiors, by the Fung (Lessons of manners) transformed their inferiors, and inferiors, by them, satirized their superiors. The principle thing in them was their style, and reproof was cunningly insinuated. They might be spoken without giving offence, and the hearing of them was sufficient to make men careful of their conduct.... (trans. J. Legge with some adjustment)
It would have been valuable to have had such a precise and carefully thought out text from Greece or Rome, or even the renaissance. Aristotle's Poetics comes to mind but in its present form there is no discussion of the social function of the lyric at such a fundamental level. There is no way of dating this remarkable text precisely but it is clearly far more recent than the poems it claims to be prefacing. It may date from the beginning of our Common Era, about two thousand years ago. Modern scholarship naturally stresses the distance between its theories and the reality of the poems:
"...folk songs... poems designed to accompany the rituals and entertainments of the aristocracy or ... recitals of dynastic legends.... We see people farming, hunting, gathering food plants, building, courting, feasting, performing sacrifices, going off to war. The imagery is that naturally associated with such activities, concrete and commonsensical. There is no imagery that appears to be designedly exotic, and no interest in the beauties of nature for their own sake. The poems concentrate on youth, beauty, and vigor, with considerable attention to the misfortunes that trouble the young. Little mention is made of sickness, old age, or death..." (Burton Watson ed., The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry. Columbia University Press. 1984. Page 15)
In the preface, though, a certain view of society and of social utility
dominates in the reading, and by transfer in the imagined writing, of these
poems and of all poetry. It was this preface that gave the later scholar-administrators
of China and Korea their theoretical framework, when they felt the need
to justify their reading and writing of poetry. They memorized its main
ideas in childhood, it formed a fundamental reference for them as they
read and wrote. The one thing that poetry cannot be, by this text, is private
and individual. The demands of social morality can never be forgotten,
public virtue is always being taught or defended, even by antiquated folksongs.
The main concern of the Confucian scholar, in reading poetry and in studying history, was "acquisition of moral knowledge through the careful study of the classics and the scrutiny of the principles behind history and daily life" (Kwang-Ching Liu, 1990, quoted on page 101 of John King Fairbanks, China: A New History Belknap, Harvard. 1992). The ethical and the practical, not the private and aesthetic, predominates in this vision of poetry and reading.
In ancient China, poetry was not restricted to the Book of Odes, which originated in the North. In the South there was another tradition, that of the state of Chu, represented by the Chu ci (Songs of the South) anthology from the second century A.D. which were translated and annotated by David Hawkes in a marvellous Penguin Classics edition in 1985. Here, more than in the Book of Odes, we find poems on the themes of separation and exile, familiar from translations of Chinese poems by Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound:
My heart is clouded over with melancholy thoughts.
Long and alone I sigh, but the pain grows only greater.
My thoughts are ravelled in a skein that cannot be disentangled;
And when it comes to the night, the time drags endlessly....
I would like to rise up and fly to him unbidden,
But seeing how others have fared, I restrain myself,
And instead I have set out my secret thoughts
and put them into verse,
And offer them up to lay before the Fair One....
For anyone familiar with Wyatt and the Petrarchan poets in the Tudor court, with their concern to negociate indirectly with power through imagery drawn from earlier love poetry, it comes as something of a shock to read the translator's introductory comment:
The poetic convention whereby the relationship between a man and a woman could be made to symbolize the quite different relationship between a courtier and his prince was already an ancient one when these poems were written.... In the shamanistic religion of Chu the worshipper approached his god as a lover; so kings, who are earthly gods, were naturally approached in the same way and with the same endearments ('the Fair One', 'the Fragrant One').... Much of this poem reads like a passionate love- letter, and only the occasional line reminds us that this is an exile's poem addressed by a banished courtier to his fickle king.
After these two collections of archaic Chinese poetry, mostly written
in lines containing four characters, styles continued to develop with longer
lines and more complexity in the technique of rhymes, until a summit was
reached in the eighth century A.D. with the poems of the later T'ang dynasty,
above all those of Li Po (A.D. 701-762) and Tu Fu (712-770) (Penguin Classics
translation by Arthur Cooper, 1973). Here the art of veiled references
and indirect allusion reaches its zenith, aided perhaps by the lack of
personal pronouns, articles, or tenses in Chinese.
The poems of the T'ang and later eras, familiar to China's and Korea's ruling elites, suggest a more private poetic world, one where individuals elegantly hint at their situations or those of others. These two poets offer differing images of the poet: Li Po the itinerant wanderer and habitual drunkard, Tu Fu the common man, in good humour despite hardships. This poetic tradition has less didacticism and more entertainment value. Yet the risk of life close to centres of power remains a major theme:
On Marble Stairs
Still grows the white dew
That has all night
soaked her silk slippers,
But she lets down
her crystal blind now
And sees through glaze
the moon of autumn.
It is only after reading a very long foot-note that we see behind these words the figure of a girl recruited as an Imperial Concubine but now growing old, lonely and out of favour but unable to leave the palace or find another partner, while the poet echoes disapproving murmurs from high officials who consider that a wise Emperor would not make his subjects suffer in this way, endangering the state by lack of virtue. Where an ordinary western reader finds perhaps nothing more than stylized posturing, the Chinese reader senses an intense challenge addressed to the powers-that-be in a veiled satire.
In the 15th century, an alphabet known as hangul (phonetic symbols as
opposed to ideogrammes) was invented to allow the complex sounds of the
Korean language to be transcribed. Korean Confucians had already developed
a form of poetry in the Korean language some two hundred years before this.
There is, however, virtually no surviving trace of an autonomous vernacular
poetic tradition existing before the 13th century, except for a number
of isolated older songs (hyang-ga) and until the nineteenth century
Chinese character poetry reigned supreme.
In the 13-14th centuries literati developed the poetic form known as Sijo in which the Korean language was used, the syllables were counted in a fairly fixed form with three lines of 12-15 syllables each, there being regular syllabic clusters (e.g. 3-4-3-4 or 3-5-4-3) within each line and the third line always starting with a 3-5 cluster. The topics were at first little different from those found in the Chinese poems (separation, longing, leisure, drinking, loyalty) but as the Yi Dynasty grew more and more corrupt and slowly lost control of the country in the 18th century, the sijo became popular at a more general level since it could be written in the Korean hangul that most scholars despised because anyone, even women, could learn to write it in only a few minutes.
The rules about the number of syllables, diction, and proper subjects relaxed and disappeared until by the 19th century the sasul sijo had become a popular stanzaic song form. Its rhythms were completely free verse, its diction was the popular language, and it became a means of protest against economic oppression, official corruption, hypocritical morality. Many of these poems use coarse, physical language, deal with erotic and comic subjects, in an attempt to express a longing for greater freedom and simple human dignity.
The role of poetry in the last 100 years of Korean history is equally
important in explaining why Koreans do not read poetry in the same way
as Europeans. Put in the simplest terms, few countries have been subjected
to the threat of total cultural annihilation as Korea was. Just over one
hundred years ago, after being a closed "Hermit Kingdom" for
centuries, Korea was forced to open to the outside world as its society
collapsed. The "outside world" in Korea means China, Russia,
Japan, with the European powers and the United States jittery in the background.
Of the three powers, at the turn of this century China was collapsing, Russia's centre of interest was far from Korea, while Japan was efficiently modernizing and arming itself, inspired by its contacts with Prussia to see big. In 1894 the open-minded, pro-western queen Min was murdered by Japanese soldiers at the instigation of her father-in-law, who was equally responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Catholics in the 1860s. At the same time, peasants in the south-western rural areas were in revolt, partly against official corruption, but also against incoming western notions about science, technology, and religion. Japan used all of this to take over a very shaken country with little resistance.
After 1895, Korea was virtually run by the Japanese. That reform and modernisation were needed had been a common theme of such great scholars as Tasan at the start of the 19th century, but they came now imposed from outside, accompanied by every kind of humiliation. It was as though the entire legacy of the past, and not just the corruptions and inefficiencies, had been disqualified by contact with the outside world. There seemed no way in which the traditional culture could adapt, there had to be a new beginning and in poetry that meant looking for new themes and new styles.
That search comes within a culture where, as has been seen, poetry is expected to be the finest expression of thoughts about good government and inner virtue, a verbal image of harmony, a subtle mirror to vice, an icon guiding a people towards essential goodness. Some poets tried to advocate reforms in poems written in older styles, or in styles renewed by reference to the old. At the same time, there was for the first time contact with the modern poetry of the West; a very small number could read the original English or French but for most the encounter came in Japanese translations. The contrast, the difference was appalling. Confidence in the value of what Korean poetry had been doing dissolved. If poetry should be like this...
tcho---l sok, tcho---l sok, tchok, schwa---a
Rushing, smashing, crushing
Hills like great mountains, rocks like houses: What are they? What are they?
Roaring: Do you know, don't you know, my great might?
Rushing, smashing, crushing,
tcho---l sok, tcho---l sok, tchok, schwa---a
Rather like Sir Philip Sidney impressed by French and Italian, Choi
was trying to show that the native Korean language could do poetry as well
as any other. The language, but divorced from almost all the poetry previously
written in Korea. Nature is still at the centre, though, as it very often
was in the earlier Chinese verses, and as there Nature is not present for
its own sake but as an image of the world in which human life is set. The
vastness of ocean and sky, the flow of rivers, the steadfast power of mountains,
were all topoi connected with implicit themes of government, power, time
By 1908, the Korean language had already become a symbol of a threatened national identity. The task of raising up the dignity of the language in a new poetic activity was a paradigm of the message many other writers expressed in directly didactic poems on the importance of reform combined with the need to defend the nation.
For centuries, Korea had been an independant, unified state ruled by a king who recognized the superior standing of the emperor in Peking and sent regular tributes. The Korean king sacrificed to the Earth, only the Chinese emperor offered the sacrifice to Heaven. Under Japanese pressure, in the 1890s Korea broke with China and began to call its king "emperor" in the Japanese style. He even offered sacrifices to Heaven, but he soon had no power left, being made to abdicate in 1907 after he tried to tell the West what Japan was up to. In 1910 Korea was finally taken over by Japan, whose ultimate policy was to expand from there throughout China and Siberia.
Japan had been open to the West (the Meiji Reform) for thirty years before Korea began to move in the same direction. The Japanese solution for the Korean Problem was quite simple, the Koreans must become Japanese. All Korean-language newspapers and journals were banned. Almost all schools were closed. Several hundred thousand copies of text books, history books, and others, that indicated that Korea had an independent past and had previously resisted Japanese invasions, were destroyed. All education that continued was to be given in Japanese, which became the official government language. School-teachers were to wear Japanese police uniforms. Koreans had to take Japanese names and stop writing or publishing in any language but Japanese. The traditional culture was to be obliterated and all sense of national identity or national pride was to be demolished.
The 1919 Independence Movement largely failed to impress or affect the
Japanese. Meanwhile, Japanese literary translation had made modern European
poets familiar to young Koreans eagerly (or desperately) seeking a new
way to express themselves. There is no equivalent in the English poetic
world to Mallarme, Rimbaud, Verlaine and the other French Symbolists, to
say nothing of Baudelaire, or in German Rilke. In Korea, these were the
western poets that first pointed the way ahead.
Partly, their impact had deep roots in the traditional way of writing poetry with Chinese characters. There all deep resonance has to be given by the selection of suggestive, often obscure and little-used, ideogrammes. Grammar vanishes, and the reader is left to imagine the indirect implications of what is being hinted at, rather than expressed. At the same time, the already very free prosody of vernacular Korean, with its flexible oral rhythms, could rejoice in the freedom given by vers libre to "follow nature".
Put very simply, it is the lack of any clear nationalistic, ethical, or social dimension in almost all 20th century western poetry that is probably most disconcerting for Korean readers and students, although they do not always realize it. In ancient (pre-20th century) Korea, each individual's identity was defined by three levels of fixed, involuntary obligation: to Heaven (cosmos), to King (state), to Family (father/ancestors). The ideal was to live in harmony with these three, which in practice meant subduing (or at least appearing to subdue) one's will and identity to the will and identity of the superior. The main focus was on harmony brought about by the submission of the lower to the higher, especially in Korean Neo-Confucianism.
There is a great difference between this individual and the western individual subject, who is essentially an autonomous bundle of feelings and thoughts wrapped in flesh, all the time wondering whether or not it would be good to form relationships with other similar subjects (with or without flesh) in romantic love, a social contract, or a religious covenant.
This suggests that the modern Korean experience of poetry may diverge
radically from anything imaginable in English. We are not talking of protest,
but of a fundamental national resistance. Poetry of resistance at the Korean
level is not part of the English experience because no one has ever tried
to abolish England or the English language, not even William the Conqueror.
There are many ways in which an Irish or a Welsh reader will probably feel
much more directly some of what is being implied by the Korean act of poetic
composition. Similarly, young Koreans coming to Europe find themselves
at ease with their contemporaries from Eastern Europe, and at a loss to
understand the cynical attitudes of many western Europeans.
Interestingly, while criticizing the Romantics for their selfish individualism, my Korean students have found it quite easy to feel sympathy for what English poets such as Gray, Collins and the other so-called Pre-romantics were doing when they tried to find the ancient British bardic voice, expressed insecurity about the possibility of being a poet in modern times, and struggled with the difficulty of writing about the sufferings of rural societies from which their education had removed them. Where the direct didacticism and satire of Pope left them cold, the more veiled lyricism of Collins, with its implicit melancholy, and often mysterious images, touches them.
It is impossible to read 20th century Korean literature and criticism
without being struck by the nationalism. Before condemning it as narrow-minded
(which it sometimes is) we have to recall that no Korean can conceive of
a personal identity distinct from a national identity. Every word written
is a Korean word, each voice is the voice of Korea, because of what happened
in the years 1895-1945 when there was no Korea on the map of the world.
In the poetry written during the time of the early Independence Movement, some works (poetry or prose) explicitly express resistance but they are few because open speech would at once lead to censorship, prison, even to death. After 1920, the predominant emotion was near-despair. Nothing at all seemed possible, except exile or suicide, and there is a great body of poetry (e.g. Pak Chong-hwa, Yi Sang-hwa) written in imitation of European decadence, tinged with nihilism, expressing visions of dark places, tears and sighing, sorrow, sickness, death. In appearance juvenile and sentimental, the underlying justification for such works was the fact that they corresponded faithfully to the intense experience of a whole people. As some have said, the glory of tragedy was denied the majority, because they had to go on living.
Others in the 1920s produced more dynamic expressions of a nationalistic spirit in the vers libre style (Han Yong-un) or in more traditional forms evoking the ancient culture, sometimes in forms of ballad (Kim So-wol), sometimes in echoes of sijo (Ch'oi Nam-son), all hoping to maintain a light in the midst of darkness. As one of the thirty-three patriots who formulated the March 1 Independence Proclamation, the Buddhist monk Han Yong-un (1879-1944) enjoys the highest position and his poetry is deeply venerated:
Others say, they love freedom, but I choose to obey.
Not that I do not appreciate freedom, but I long only to obey you.
When I do so, obeying is sweeter than beautiful freedom;
that is my happiness.
But if you order me to obey someone else,
I simply cannot be obedient to you,
For were I to obey him, I could be no longer free to obey you.
(Trans. Ko Won)
It is one hallmark of the poetry of these writers that formal images
of romantic love between man and woman are often employed with symbolic
force; it is very striking that the purely private kind of "love poetry"
of the European tradition is virtually unknown, since intensity of experience
needs the social dimensions. In Korea, poetic representations of a man
or woman longing for a lost partner evoke audience response on the level
of "yes, life is an ocean of pain, that's what we all feel, there's
nothing to be done about it. Only weep and endure as you can, faithful
to the bitter end."
In reading the poems of Kim Sowol, particularly, non-Korean readers often experience a clear conflict between what the poem seems to be saying and the nationalistic way it has long been received and interpreted in the official Korean academy:
When you go away at last,
sickened with the sight of me,
know that I shall let you go,
saying nothing, make no fuss;
but climbing high on Yongpyon's hills,
there I'll pick azalea flowers,
armfuls of purple, just to spread
along the pathways as you go
Then go, with muffled parting steps
trampling down those flowers you find
strewn before your departing feet;
and when you go away at last,
sickened with the sight of me,
know that for the life of me
I'll shed no tears then, no, not one.
No western reader could comprehend the extent to which this poem has
become a national cultural monument, a defining icon of Koreanity. This
is in some ways similar to the way poems were chosen for school textbooks
in the Victorian period in England, only most of those were exhortations
to "play up, play the gane" in a Henry Newbolt vein. This poem,
though, is treasured in Korea for reasons that have almost nothing to do
with its text as "pure poetry", but rather with the sacrificial
suffering attitude to life underlying it.
An alternative dynamism, though, existed. Beyond the frontiers lay the Russian Revolution, the USSR was being formed. In China too, Marx and Lenin were becoming the sources of a struggle for another future. In Korea such references gave birth to a "proletarian literature" (Pak Yong-hi, Kim Ki-jin) in which the struggle against Japan was subsumed into the wider struggle against capitalism.
All of these views of poetry are strongly utilitarian; a reaction was inevitable, and by 1930 a younger generation (Kim Yong-nang, Pak Yong-ch'ol) had come up that urged the cause of pure lyricism, removed from politics or ideology. Yet when Kim Yong-nang quoted Keats's "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" he was writing in a situation where even such a statement had to be seen in the context of the continuing Japanese oppression of all Korean beauty. That equally transforms our reading of his most reputed poem, "Until peonies bloom":
Until peonies bloom
I shall still wait for my spring to come.
On the day that peonies drop their petals one by one,
I merely languish in sorrow at the loss of spring.
Then one day in May, one sultry day
when the fallen petals have all withered away
and there is no trace of peonies in all the world
my buoyant expectation crumbles in irrepressible sorrow.
Once the peonies have finished blooming, my year is done;
for three hundred and sixty gloomy days I sadly lament.
Outside influences continued to come in, and already young poets were following the ways of Modernism (Chong Ji-yong), Dadaism (Kim Nocholai), and Surrealism (Yi Sang); Eliot and Pound were the main guides of a poet like Kim Ki-rim, whose intellectualism stood far from the romantic sentiment of such effusions. Daily reality was the least of his concerns:
my mind is like glass--it clouds so easily,
like winter air at the slightest breath.
The reaction to my touch looked iron-hard
But after only one night of frost it cracked.
In snow storms it screams and cries.
At daybreak my cheeks are wet with tears.
This passion unkindled, a beacon for bats,
spending all night gazing at shooting stars.
my mind is like glass
even in moonlight it so easily breaks.
In the mid-1930s the voices of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer began to be
heard through Japanese translations and there came a new reaction, this
time in the direction of "life" (So Chong- ju, Yu Ch'i-hwan).
These poets believed that the language of poetry should be the language
of the direct experience of life, expressed in a truly Korean diction inherited
from its guardians among the simple rural communities, who had preserved
a powerful oral idiom that owed nothing to books and education.
Dad was a menial. He wasn't home even late at night.
Only old Gran was around, like a leek's roots
and a flowering jujube tree.
For months Ma craved just to eat one green apricot. . .
And Ma's son, black-nailed under a tiny lamp in a mud wall.
Some folks say I look like her dad:
the same mop of hair, his big eyes.
In the Year of Revolt Grandad went to sea
and never came back, the story goes.
What's raised me, then, these twenty-three years,
is the power of the wind, for eight parts in ten.
The world's course has yielded only shame;
some people have perceived a felon in my eyes,
others have perceived a fool in my mouth,
yet I'm certain there's nothing I need regret.
Even on mornings when day dawned in splendour,
the poetic dew anointing my brow
has always been mingled with drops of blood;
I've come through life in sunshine and shadows
like a sick dog panting, its tongue hanging out.
Equally, the Confucian tradition leads to the institutional monumentalization of certain poems through their elevation to school textbook pages as national poems. The need for simple poems with nationalistic messages has meant that generations of Korean school children learn one poem by So Chong Ju, invested with a symbolic nationalistic meaning that it may well not originally have had in the poet's mind:
For one chrysanthemum to bloom
must have sung like that since spring.
For one chrysanthemum to bloom
must have rolled like that in pitch black clouds.
Chrysanthemum! You look like my sister
standing before her mirror, just back
from far away, far away byways of youth,
where she was racked with longing and lack.
For your yellow petals to bloom
the frost must have come down like that last night
and I was not even able to get to sleep.
In 1941, when Japan had sent thousands of Korean soldiers to fight its war and thousands of Korean girls to comfort its fighting men in camp brothels, the Korean language was again banned. By the time the war ended, fine poets had died in prison (Yun Dong-ju, Yi Yuk-sa). Until the end, the images of their poems concealed to all but Korean readers a fierce longing for a return of their national identity free of the Japanese yoke, as in these, their most famous works:
July's the month when green grapes ripen
Back in my village at home.
The village legend ripens in clusters
The dreaming sky settles on each grape.
A white-sailed boat will come drifting by
As the sea bares its bosom to the sky
And the longed-for guest will at last arrive
His weary limbs wrapped all in green.
With a feast of grapes I'll welcome him
Happy with dripping hands.
Quickly, prepare the dishes, lad,
White cloth on a silver tray.
Until I breathe my last breath
I wish to face my sky without shame.
Even a wind blowing on leaves
Has left me restless.
With a heart singing hymns to the stars
I shall love all that must die.
And I shall walk diligently
Upon the path assigned to me.
Tonight again, the stars are blown by the wind.
(Yun Dong-ju, trans. Sung-il Lee)
After Liberation in 1945
The restoration of Independence in 1945 should have been a wonderful
moment but it was deeply overshadowed by the coming Cold War; Russia was
to oversee the withdrawal of Japan from the Northern half of the Peninsula,
America from the Southern half, in preparation for full self-governing
independence. That division of responsibilities became an ideological division
that led directly to the death of three million Koreans in the three years
1950-3 and there is still no solution in view to the Korean Problem.
As a result, the forces dominating Korean poetry today are very similar to those found in the 1920s and 1930s. Should poetry be pure music, lyrical language for the language's own sake, aesthetic, or should it incite a love of the nation in idealistic terms, nationalistic, or must the poet speak out against oppressive and alientating forces within society, idealistic? These quarrels divide poets and writers among themselves, and pit some against the government when they venture too far along paths that seem to advocate what the regime in North Korea represents. There can be no Korean who does not suffer intensely, though silently and often unconsciously, from the present situation. That pain provokes multiple kinds of reaction, from denial through anger to despair and flight, as well as giving birth to a poetry longing for Unification.
Until I spoke his name
he was nothing more
than a set of gestures.
Once I had spoken his name
he came to me and
became a flower.
Won't someone speak my name,
one matching my colour and scent,
as I spoke his name?
I want to come to him
and become his flower.
We all of us
want to become something.
We want to become unforgettable significance
I for you and you for me.
Some of my sophomore students chose it as the most impressive poem in
Korean they had ever read, for the following reasons: "This is the
only poem that I could feel the meaning of naturally without any explanation
of my teacher; that was sadness, despair, and desire." "When
I fell into powerlessness, this poem helped me find the direction of my
life... People are all lonely beings. They have empty space unfilled. They
are finding their invisible thing to fill this space with. As for me, such
a thing can be the feeling of being together with another person. That
is communication not with speaking but with emotion. So I think the fulfillment
of this space together is life, unforgettable meaning." "Through
this, we can find out our identity. Sometimes I conceive how I can love
like this and I'll try in order to be unforgettable meaning." "The
way of making relationship in this poem became my guidepost in my life."
"In this poem, I think of the reason for being. We can be recognized
when there is someone around us." "When I was a high school student,
it seemed that there was nobody who could understand me. After reading
this poem, my longing for someone grew bigger than before."
There are some very large bookstores in the centre of Seoul, they are open at weekends and until 9pm every day. During vacations and at weekends, they are crowded with middle- and high-school children who stand reading for hours. A lot of them are reading poetry books, of which many are clearly designed for them. They read very seriously. They are clearly looking for poems that will tell them about the meaning of life, innocence, authenticity, a sense of beauty and true values. There are also great piles of newly published volumes of poetry for adult readers, displayed in a position where English bookstores seem to put royal biographies or illustrated cookery books. Poetry still matters in Korea. At prime time on Christmas Eve the main TV channel broadcast a 2-hour dramatisation of the life of a poet who died in poverty two years ago. Few countries can have such a lively poetic tradition.
The purpose of this paper isto suggest that Korean poetry has arisen and taken shape in social and national contexts which have no equivalent at all in any English-speaking country. Perhaps this can serve to remind us of dimensions and of absences in English poetry that we too often forget. The expectations of Korean readers/students coming to the poetry of other cultures will be formed by those with which they read their own poetry. Their way of reading is contained within a framework of references that I have tried to outline above. Poetry in the Korean sense is not quite the same as the poetry being written elsewhere in other tongues. Because there is no country in a situation or with a history similar to Korea's. We need to remember that.