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An unpublished essay by Brother Anthony, of Taize (An Sonjae)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?

Poetry and society in ancient China and Korea

Privilege and power in old Korea, more than in China, were very largely hereditary, a matter of blood and not of mere wealth. Only men born into families recognized as belonging to the class of yangban had access to the higher posts in society, both civil and military. Even when penniless, a self-respecting yangban would never work with his hands. Work in the national administration was the only acceptable activity. Since the Han dynasty (c. 150 B.C.) in China, entry to the ranks of the administration was by examination. In Korea, the name "gentleman-scholar" (sonbi) was applied to a member of the yangban class who had received a basic education, and who had taken or hoped to take the government service examination. The term kunja was also used, it designated one of the great ideals of Confucian society, the "true gentleman" or "man of virtue" who had attained through study and self-discipline the wisdom required to help govern the country.

Confucian teaching stressed that those governing a country should be "men of virtue". This was tested by the examinations designed to see who had mastered the Chinese Classics, since they offered the essential key to the Way of virtue. The system of examinations, first introduced into Korea from China in A.D. 958, was originally designed to enable any talented young man from even a humble class to enter the administration. As time passed, however, successful candidates were increasingly limited to those born into yangban families.

There were two stages in the preliminary, licenciate stage of the literary examination, one "literary" and one "classical," after which a far smaller number of candidates went on to take the main examination which opened the doors to the higher echelons of power. These examinations included the writing of texts we would consider to be poetic: evocations of nature or epigrammatic expressions of conventional wisdom on governing the state and living in a virtuous manner, illustrated by references to figures found in the records of past history.

Chinese influences in Korea

The Korean language is grammatically quite different from Chinese. It has a highly developed system of aglutinating syllables to permit grammatical nuances to be articulated, whereas Chinese has no tenses, no plurals, no verbal declensions, usually no pronouns, and makes no distinction between verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives. The main style is the appositive. Yet Korean was never used in official documents. Classical Chinese was the means of all official written communication in Korea, even after an alphabet had been invented in the 15th century that allowed vernacular Korean to be transcribed. Linguistically distinct, the Korean language was so affected by the contact with Chinese culture that it absorbed into its own vocabulary a host of Chinese words that often replaced the original Korean vocabulary, very much in the way French words entered English in the middle ages. At least half of today's current Korean vocabulary is Chinese in origin.

Those who have not been initiated into the culture of ideogrammes will not be able to imagine how a system of writing can exist that is unaffected by the language spoken by those writing it and can be read equally well by people unable to communicate in their spoken tongues. One of the main limitations of the Chinese system of "characters" is their pronunciation, for each character is spoken as a single syllable, and often dozens of different characters are all pronounced in the same way. Chinese poems are exercises in "sound and sense" but equally in "sign and sense" for unless you can see the characters being read, it is virtually impossible to find out the sense of a text you hear. Poetry in this culture cannot be dissociated from calligraphy.

Reflexions of a personal kind

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):

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:

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:

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.

The evolution of poetry in China

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:

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:

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 him.

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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 Korea

The literati of Korea shared the poetic tradition of China completely, and their poems cannot easily be distinguished from those written by Chinese scholars. Out of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of poems written in Chinese characters in Korea over the centuries, Professor Kim Jong-gil has made English translations of a tiny representative selection in his Slow Chrysanthemums (Anvil, 1987) and he stresses how the Korean poems reflect at times the specific qualities of the Korean landscape, with its vast areas of forested hills, and evoke questions that were issues in the Korean society of their time. Already at this time, nature was not a self-contained topic but was always associated with the life of society.

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.

Modern poetry begins in Korea: Historical background

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...

Modern Korean poetry begins: poets and poems

Virginia Woolf once declared that "On or about December 1910 human nature changed" but from a Korean point of view the date should be two years before. In 1908, an eighteen-year old called Choi Nam Son published a poem "From the Sea to a Boy". It is not a particularly wonderful poem but it stands as a landmark in the search for a new poetic expression (this whole trend is called 'the new poetry') using the vernacular in a free and idiomatic way to say things that had not been said before:

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 and eternity.

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.

Poetry and the struggle against Japan

These policies were applied with varying degrees of severity. After early years of intense linguistic oppression, Koreans stood up on March 1, 1919, and issued a first declaration of independence, which attracted some degree of international attention. Soon after, newspapers and publications in the Korean language were permitted. But only because they would permit a more efficient communication of official Japanese policies and attitudes to the people. Violence continued to be exercised against all aspects of Korean culture, including imprisonment and thousands of deaths, and there were noted atrocities, as when Japanese militia herded the population of a patriotic village into a church and set fire to it.

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.

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:

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:

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":

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:

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.

So Chong-ju and a new beginning

One topic that this paper cannot go into is the relationship between the way poetry is received in its moment of origin and how it is perceived in later translations like those I and others now make into English. Suffice it to say that virtually all the main stream of poetry in modern South Korea derives from the early lyrics of So Chong Ju. There is no way a simple translation can begin to suggest the impact of a poem like "Self-portrait" on Korean poetry from the moment of its publication in October 1935:

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:

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:

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.


The poetry written since 1953 in the two halves of the divided peninsula cannot be covered here.
As a final example, here is one well-known poem by a still- living poet, often taught in high schools, "Flower" by Kim Ch'un- su:

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.