Poetic Diversities: Social Dimensions of Korean Poetry


Brother Anthony of Taize

(Sogang University, Seoul)


When we translate modern Korean poetry, we are attempting to bring works written within one particular poetic tradition, and in a very specific linguistic, social, cultural, and historical context, to the attention of readers who cannot be assumed to be familiar with either tradition or context. Although obviously many individual Korean poems, well translated, can touch readers without any need for them to know about such things, a variety of deeper responses may be evoked by a greater awareness of some of the contexts and issues that have determined the evolutions of Korean poetry in the present century.

The basic question which I want to explore in this paper is the way in which Korea has dealt with the distinction just made between the internal, "aesthetic" aspects of literary works (form and contents) and the ways in which those works relate, directly or indirectly, to the context in which they arose. We should not forget the tensions and conflicts that exist in contemporary literary theory on account of the relative importance given by different schools to one or other of these two aspects, the formal and the contextual.

         Regarding Korean literature, suffice it to say that the tension between the aesthetic and the social has always been consciously felt. Already in the ancient Commentaries on the Chinese "Book of Odes", which Korean scholar-poets of earlier times studied deeply, we find clear indications that poems which seem to be essentially beautiful verbal artefacts can be and were read as coded social and political commentary. Not surprisingly, during the Japanese domination of Korea (1910-1945) Korean poets were concerned to find ways in which to express, indirectly, the sufferings and aspirations of their people.

The ideological division that brought about the Korean War (1950-3) was long present in the literary sphere as an intense debate about the relationship of art and life and the poet's social responsibility. A number of writers chose to support the North in the war on account of their social convictions, some even going to live there. Others echoed the writer Park Yong-hee in his disillusioned comment: "The left has gained ideology but lost literature."

Since the war, under successive repressive regimes in the South, "dissident" writers have often been imprisoned for their social and political options.  Kim Ji-ha and Ko Un are only the two most well-known names among many others. One important "worker's poet" whose works were published under the symbolic name of Park No-hae ("Workers' Liberation") is now in prison for life, although his poems are freely available in Korean bookstores.

According to one widely-received narrative, the mainstream tradition of contemporary Korean lyric verse began in 1936, when So Chong-ju published his "Flower Snake" and launched his search for a poetry rooted in Korean life:


A back road pungent with musk and mint.

So beautiful, that snake. . .

What huge griefs brought you to birth?

Such a repulsive body!


You look like a flowered silk gaiter ribbon!

With your crimson mouth where that eloquent tongue

by which you grandsire beguiled poor Eve

now silently flickers

look, a blue sky. . .  Bite! Bite vengefully!


Run! Quick! That vile head!


Hurling stones, hurling, quickly there

headlong down the musky, grass-sweet road,

pursuing it

not because Eve was our grandsire's wife

yet desperate, gasping

as if after a draft of kerosene. . .  yes, kerosene. . .


If I could only wrap you round me,

fixed on a needle's point;

far more gorgeous than any flowered silk. . .


Those lovely lips, blazing crimson,

as if from sipping Cleopatra's blood. . .  sink in now, snake!


Our young Sunnee's all of twenty, with pretty lips, too,

like those of a cat. . .  sink in now, snake!


Three years later, in 1939, So Chong-ju published "Self-Portrait" in an even more remarkable new beginning:


Dad was a menial; never home, even late at night.

My grandmother stood there,

old like the shrivelled roots of a leek,

a jujube tree flowering.

A whole month long, my mother had cravings

for one green apricot. . .

under an oil lamp in earthen walls,

her black-nailed son.

Some say I look like mother's dad:

the same mop of hair, his big eyes.

In the Year of Revolt he 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 have perceived a felon in my eyes,

others a fool in this mouth of mine,

yet I'm sure there's nothing I need regret.


Even on mornings when day dawned in splendour,

the poetic dew anointing my brow

was always mingled with drops of blood;

I've come through life in sunshine and shadows

like a sick dog panting, its tongue hanging out.


So Chong-ju claims to have written these poems as a 'humanist' and saw his main concern as being with 'the realities of life' but Symbolism had long been a potent influence in Korea and he soon launched out on an exploration of Korean mythical dimensions contained in what he termed "Shilla", which takes the reader far from the situations and concerns of everyday living.

From that time until today poets and critics have fought about the proper articulation of poetry and life, art and reality. When So Chong-ju wrote, Korea had only a handful of poets; today it is said to contain over two thousand poets who have published at least one volume. It is hard to keep track of tendencies among so many.

In this paper, I would like to look at poems by a small group of modern Korean poets, indicating similarities and developments in their themes and styles, and discussing briefly their relationship with the contexts in which they have lived and worked, in the hope of communicating something of the specificity of the modern Korean poetry I translate. I want to focus on some poets whose work is marked by one particular set of responses to the question of the poet's place in society: Kim Su-yong (1921-1968), Shin Kyong-nim (1936- ), Kim Kwang-kyu (1941- ), and Yi Si-yong (1949- ).


Kim Su-yong was born in 1921 and his tragic death in a traffic accident in 1968 robbed Korea of a major poetic and critical voice. During his lifetime, he did not enjoy the reputation he deserved, but in the years following his death critics and writers began to pay much more attention to him, and his importance in the historical development of contemporary Korean poetry is now widely recognized.

His early poems, some of which were published in 1949 in the important anthology Seroun tosiwa simindurui hapch'ang (The New City and the Chorus of Citizens), were marked by the Modernism so popular at that time. During the Korean War he was forcibly conscripted into the North Korean Army and as a result was interned by the South for a time in the prisoner-of-war camp on Koje Island. These harsh experiences confirmed him in the conviction that Korean poetry needed to seek a deeper relationship with concrete realities.

Kim Su-yong had initially followed the Modernist model enthusiastically. His early work is as difficult as any, and at least on the surface level far removed from the suffering of ordinary people:


The waterfall drops without a sign of fear at the lofty cliff.


The uncontrollable spate drops

with no sense of falling toward anything,

making no distinction between night and day,

never pausing for rest, like some noble mind.


When nightfall comes, ox-eye and house hid from sight,

the waterfall drops on with lofty sound.


That lofty sound is true sound.

Lofty sound calls out

to lofty sound.


The water drops, falling like lightning,


without height or breadth

as if confounding sloth and rest,

not granting the mind a moment's rapture.

                                                                                         ("A Waterfall" (1957))


The events of April 1960, the student-led "April Revolution" after which Syngman Rhee was driven from power, gave him immense hopes, coupled with apprehension:



a poet once said that the skylark was free,

mastering the blue sky;

but that must be modified.


Those people who have soared aloft

for the sake of freedom

know what the skylark sees

that makes it sing,

they know why the smell of blood

must mingle with freedom,

why revolution is a lonely thing


why revolution

is bound to be a lonely thing.

                                                                        ("The Blue Sky" (June 15, 1960))


His hopes were soon dashed when the military took power in 1961, but even before then he had felt betrayed by the way in which society was evolving away from the ideals of the Student Revolution:


From somewhere far away

to somewhere far away

I am sick again.


From quiet springtime

to quiet springtime

I am sick again.


From woman

to woman


from crab-apple blossom

to crab-apple blossom...


without being aware of it

I am sick.

                                          ("From Somewhere Far Away" (September 30, 1961))


In his poems, the words "love" and "freedom" are virtually synonymous and both are shown to be hard to find. In his lifetime, he only published one volume of poetry, Talnaraui changnan (A Game Played in the Moon), in 1959.

His April 1968 lecture entitled Siyo, ch'imul pet'ora (Spit, Poetry) and his essay of the same year Panshiron (Theory of Anti-Poetics) were particularly important manifestos arguing for a renewal of Korean poetry, that seemed to him to have become far too mannered and artificial, bogged down in sterile aesthetic conventions.

In an essay published in the Choson Ilbo newspaper in early 1968, "Shilhomchogin munhakkwa chongch'ichok chayu" (Experimental literature and political freedom), he takes issue with earlier articles, "Threats to Today's Korean Culture" and "Culture under the Domination of the Ogre," by the critic and writer Yi Oryong (later to become Korea's first Minister of Culture at the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics):


... the 'purely inner literary creativity' within the limits of the established order, that (Yi Oryong) has recently been advocating, seems to me to involve a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between literature and freedom, provoking serious doubts as to what he actually means...

... if his censure of the 'weaknesses and the ensuing crisis' in Korean culture, which he considers 'incapable of transforming political freedom into true cultural creativity' is really intended to challenge the incompetence and incapacity of our cultural community, he would first of all need some kind of initial premise or prescription more deeply conscious of how close an organic relationship there is between the vanguard of today's literature and the problem of political freedom.

In other words, if he is not simply ignoring the eternal rules governing literature and art, which affirm that all authentic new literature, when it becomes inward-looking (insofar as it demands inner freedom), becomes a threat to established forms of literature, and when it becomes outward-looking, becomes an inevitable threat to the order of established society, he is certainly attempting to apply them one-sidedly. Yet Michel Butor, the French originator of the anti-roman, who recently visited Korea, has said that any work of experimental literature is necessarily bound to stand on the side of progress, which has as its goal the realization of a perfect world. All avant-garde literature is subversive. All living culture is essentially subversive. Quite simply because the essence of culture is the pursuit of dreams, the pursuit of the impossible. Yet according to (Yi Oryong), if we propose to set out in those directions, experiment limited to the formal aspects of literature is good, but investigations of political and social ideology are wrong. (From: Collected works Vol. 2. Seoul: Minumsa, 1981. pages 158-9)


Those phrases set out the terms of a major debate. Conservative critics, such as Yi Oryong and the novellist Son Woo-hui (originally from the North), denounced Kim Su-yong and his like as dangerous radicals, leftists, while for others these ideas represented a rallying cry. Out of that arose the tendency that found expression in the pages of the quarterly review Ch'angjak-kwa pip'yong (Writing and criticism) founded in late 1966, that in the troubled years ahead continued to promote the literary and social values Kim Su-yong had advocated.

Long denigrated by the conservative establishment as "dissidents", the vision of these writers is now largely vindicated. The vast majority of younger writers active in Korea today follow these assumptions quite naturally. It is clear to them that literature must necessarily be subversive, since the ruling classes in society are clearly corrupt and the dominant ideology not so much discredited as morally bankrupt. It is however no longer so obvious in what ways literature can in fact be subversive, but that is another question.

Kim Su-yong remained to the end an intellectual poet, but at a crucial moment he rejected the idea that certain lofty topics alone are worthy to be the subjects of a poetry written in a corresponding style, and he began to focus on the most ordinary events of daily life, often pathetic or bathetic, domestic and social. He equally rejected the idea of "decorum" (special poetic language and tone) and introduced ordinary speech, vulgar terms and slang expressions into his works.


Why do the littlest things make me livid?

Why am I not livid with that palace and its debaucheries,

but livid that I got a lump of fat for a fifty Won beef-rib,

pettily livid, swearing at the pig-like woman in the sollong-t'ang restaurant,

swearing pettily?


Why do I only hate the night-watchmen

who come calling three or four times to collect their twenty Won,

not once fairly and squarely

demanding freedom of expression

for an imprisoned novelist, incapable of exercising that freedom

in opposing the despatch of forces to Vietnam?

                                                (From: "Emerging From an Old Palace One Day")


The tone in his later works is frequently colloquial, satiric or self-mocking. Yet in poems adressing social realities, sufferings, and hopes, he can rise to a rhetoric of heroic style.


Open your lips, Desire, and there within

I will discover love. At the city limits

the sound of the fading radio's chatter

sounds like love while the river flows on,

drowning it, and on the far shore lies

loving darkness while dry trees, beholding March,

prepare love's buds and the whispers

of those buds rise like mists across yon indigo



Every time love's train passes by

the mountains grow like our sorrow and ignore the lamplight

of Seoul like the remnants of food in a pigsty.

Now even brambles, even the long thorny runners

of rambling roses are love.


Why does love's grove come pushing so impossibly near?

Until we realize that loving is the food of love.

                                                           (From: "Variations on the Theme of Love")


His poems are at times prosaic, since he consciously rejected artifical techniques of rhythm, yet he is capable of great intensity because his poems are always reflections of his own intense emotion, even at their most iconoclastic.

He represents a very conscious departure from the path laid down by So Chong-ju, Pak Mok-wol and their followers, and his support and recognition was important to younger poets such as Shin Kyong-nim, who were writing in ways and on topics not likely to be approved by the older generation. Shin Kyong-nim was born in 1935 in Ch'ongju, North Ch'ungch'ong Province. He grew up in the midst of Korea's old rural culture and later in life he went travelling about the country, collecting the traditional songs of the rural villages.

His literary career officially dates from the publication in 1956 in the review Munhak Yesul of three poems, but for years after that he published nothing, immersing himself instead in the world of the labouring classes, often called the "Minjung", and working as a farmer, a miner, and a merchant. The experience of those years underlies much of his work as a poet. He only graduated from the English Department of Dongkuk University in 1967, when he was over thirty, and he is not an academic or intellectual poet. On the contrary, his poetry is strongly marked by an anti-intellectual ethos that forms part of its power.

His fame as a poet dates mainly from the publication of the collection Nong-mu (Farmers' Dance) in 1973, some of the poems from which were first published in the review Ch'angjak-kwa Pip'yong in 1970, heralding his return to the literary scene.

Many of the poems in this collection are spoken by an undefined plural voice, a "we" encompassing the collective identity of the Minjung, the poor farmers, laborers, miners, among whom the poet had lived.

The ching booms out, the curtain falls.

Above the rough stage, lights dangle from a zelkhova tree,

the playground's empty, everyone's gone home.

We rush to the soju bar in front of the school

and drink, our faces still daubed with powder.

Life's mortifying when you're oppressed and wretched.

Then off down the market alleys behind the kkwenggwari

with only some kids running bellowing behind us

while girls lean pressed against the oil shop wall

giggling childish giggles.

The full moon rises and one of us

begins to wail like the bandit king Kokjong; another

laughs himself sly like Sorim the schemer; after all

what's the use of fretting and struggling,

shut up in these hills

with farming not paying the fertilizer bills?

Leaving it all in the hands of the women,

we pass by the cattle-fair

then dancing in front of the slaughterhouse

we start to get into the swing of things.

Shall we dance on one leg, blow the nallari hard?

Shall we shake our heads, make our shoulders rock?

                                                                                  ("Farmers' Dance" (1971))


He makes himself the spokesman of the working people on the basis of no mere sympathy; he has truly been one of them, sharing their poverty and pains, their simple joys and often disappointed hopes. Echoing in Nong-mu are memories of the terrible violence that occurred all over Korea in the years following Liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, culminating in the Korean War.

Dad's cousin's been drunk and rowdy since daybreak.

Cheerless leaves are falling on the awning.

Women clustered in the back yard are making a fuss,

the excited bride's boasting about her new husband.

Have you forgotten? Dad's cousin's drunk and rowdy.

Have you forgotten the day your father died?

No point in listening to his stupid voice.

Finally a proper party comes alive beneath the marquee,

the excited bride's boasting about her in-laws.

Even though the truck's arrived, drawn up in front:

Have you forgotten? Dad's cousin's drunk and rowdy.

Have you forgotten how your father died?

                                                                                          ("Party Day" (1972))


In a literary culture accustomed to the individualistic "I" speaker of the western romantic tradition, or the fairly unspecified voice of traditional Korean lyrics, the "we" employed in Nong-mu was felt to be shocking, almost offensive. This became an element in the critical debate sparked by Kim Su-yong's "All avant-garde literature is subversive". Shin Kyong-nim has continued to play a leading role in this movement. He has served as president of the Association of Writers of Peoples' Literature, and of the Federated Union of Korean Nationalist Artists.

 His poems often express the pain and hurt of Korea's poor, not only those of remote villages but the urban poor and those marginalized in society. Many poems take on increased power by the suppression of explanatory background; readers are invited to supply from their own memories or imaginations an explanation for the scene recorded in "That Day":


One young girl all alone

follows weeping behind the bier.

A procession with no funeral banners, no hand-bell in front.

Ghost-like shadows

along the smoke-veiled evening road,

a breeze scattering falling leaves

down alleys with neither doors nor windows,

while people watch hiding

behind telegraph posts and roadside trees.

Nobody knows the dead

man's name that dark

and moonless day.



He uses easily accessible, rhythmic language to compose lyrical narratives that are at times close to shamanistic incantation, or recall the popular songs he had heard sung in rural villages:


The sky urges me to turn into a cloud,

the earth urges me to turn into a breeze,

a little breeze waking weeds on the ferry landing

once storm clouds have scattered and rain has cleared.

To turn into a peddler sad even in autumn light,

going to Mokkye Ferry, three days' boat ride from Seoul,

to sell patent face-powders, on days four and nine.

The hills urge me to turn into a flower,

the stream urges me to turn into a stone.

To hide my face in the grass when hoarfrost bites,

to wedge behind rocks when rapids rage cruel.

To turn into a traveller with pack laid by, resting

on a clay hovel's wood step, river shrimps boiling up,

changed into a fool for a week or so, once in thrice three years.

The sky urges  me to turn into a breeze,

the hills urge me to turn into a stone.

                                                                                              ("Mokkye Market")


The publication of Nong-mu coincided with the dreadful years when the dictator Park Chung-hee gave up all pretence at democracy and installed himself as permanent president, sending out riot police to batter into silence the protests and demonstrations against his new consititution. Ever since 1961, while those in command of capital grew rich, brutal suppression made sure that the factory workers continued to work submissively for minimal wages.


After we've lost every trace of laughter all day long

when we try to smile in front of the alley grogshop

our faces twist and contort.

When we clasp each other's hands warmly

our hands feel cold and rough.

As we limp through night-covered poverty

freed from all the people who hate us

we rage, and repent,

curse but then part,

and when we push open our rooms' curbside doors

and call our wives' names,

our voices turn into keening laments.

                                                                         ("The Road Back Home" (1965))


Much of his work composes a loosely framed epic tale of Korean suffering, as experienced by the farmers living along the shores of the North Han River, the poet's home region, in the late 19th century, then throughout the Japanese colonial period, and during the turmoil of the last fifty years.


Ssitkim Kut

-- A wandering spirit's song


Go your way in peace, they say, go your way in peace.

With your broken neck, hugging severed limbs,

go a thousand, ten thousand leagues down the road

to the land beyond, without night or day;

go your way in peace, they say, go your way in peace.


Sleep now, they say, sleep quietly now.

Though a myriad million years pass, never open those eyes

blinded with blood as you fell in barley field, meadow,

or patch of sand;

sleep now, they say, sleep quietly now.


Seize hold, with your slashed and slivered hand

seize warmly hold of these blood-covered hands.

A new day has come, the sun is shining bright,

birds are carolling, the breeze is balmy,

so seize hold with your slivered hand, they say, seize hold.


I cannot go with my broken neck and severed limbs,

I cannot quietly close my blood-blinded eyes,

cannot seize hold, cannot seize with this slivered hand,

I cannot seize your blood-covered hands.


I have come back, with blood-blinded eyes glaring,

I have returned

with my broken neck, hugging severed limbs;

I grind my teeth and wish bitter frost may drop from heaven.

I cannot seize hold with this slivered hand,

I cannot seize your blood-covered hands;

I have come back, a dense storm-cloud,

to alleys, markets, factories, quays;

I have come back, a violent outcry.


No poet has so well expressed, and so humbly, the characteristic voice of Korea's masses, both rural and urban. Shin never sentimentalizes his subjects but rather takes the reader beyond the physical and cultural exterior to reveal them as intensely sensitive, suffering human beings.

As the translator of such poems, I cannot accurately judge their likely impact on readers away from the Korean tradition and context, which have to some extent become my own. I am very conscious that such poems could never have been written in Britain, yet I sincerely believe that certain of the tensions and concerns out of which they have been written can be paralleled here. Indeed, the writings and efforts of Jon Silkin and others in favour of a poetry rooted in reality would seem to be particularly important points to which one might refer.

Yet the rather lofty rhetoric favoured by Kim Su-yong and the often grim evocations of rural pain found in Shin Kyong-nim could hardly have found favour in the English literary tradition, so deeply marked as it is by intellectual tough-mindedness, wit, and irony, where the Korean texts are far simpler in their approach. Their work has the advantage of 'foreignness', certainly, and this is the quality that some translators stress in presenting Korean literature abroad. It is so different from anything we are familiar with, and that difference must remain after translation or we would be guilty of eliminating a characteristic feature of it.

It may be that the poetry of Kim Kwang-kyu comes closer than either of the previously discussed poets to the norms of modern western European poetry. The reasons are partly due to age. Kim Kwang-kyu is younger, he was born in Seoul in 1941. He is a professor in the German department of Hanyang University, having studied for several years in Germany. He published his first volume of poems in 1975, the same year as he published translations into Korean of poems by Heinrich Heine and Gunter Eich; he has also translated works by Bertold Brecht. His vision is therefore much more universal.

He too owes much to the principles expressed in Kim Su-yong's critical essays. More even than Kim, he adopts a plain style. Like him, he is convinced that poetry must be relevant to the things happening in society. He is an intellectual, and unlike almost any other Korean poet, he views human life with a sardonic eye and does not disdain humour as a means of social action. He has a delicate ear that allows him to develop lyrical moments, but always in quiet modes. There is none of the loftier rhetoric and intense emotion that often passes for high poetry in Korea. One of his earliest poems is a prose poem:


In my childhood village home there was a mysterious mountain -- Spirit Mountain, it was called -- and no one had ever climbed it.


Spirit Mountain could not be seen in daytime.

With thick mist shrouding its lower half and clouds that covered what rose above we could only guess dimly where it lay.

By night too Spirit Mountain could not be seen clearly.

In the moonlight and starlight of bright cloudless nights its dark form might be glimpsed but yet it was impossible to tell its shape or its height.


One day seized with a sudden longing to see Spirit Mountain -- it had never left my heart -- I took an express bus back to my home village but strange to say Spirit Mountain had utterly vanished and the now unfamiliar village folk I questioned swore there was no such mountain in those parts.

                                                                                              ("Spirit Mountain")


This poem should not be read as expressing an individual's simple nostalgia for childhood haunts. The mountain of the poem was no private dream; in childhood it was a vision shared by all in the village, transcending the ordinary but at the same time transforming the ordinary by its presence. The loss is not individual, but collective, and it has been brought about by all the violent changes that Korea has been subjected to.

The speaker has been away, living in the city, while in the village there has been a break in continuity, a destruction of tradition, so that the strangers now living there have lost sight of anything transcending their ordinary material existence, and have no memories of anything else ever having existed. Urbanization has robbed Korea of so much humanity, and many of Kim Kwang-kyu's poems are city-poems:


We gave up any thought of flying long ago


These days we don't even try to run

we dislike walking so we try to ride

(We mostly travel about by bus or subway)

Once on board we all try to get a seat

Once seated we lean back dozing

Not that we are tired

but every time money-making is over

our heads become atrophied

scales sprout all over our bodies

Our blood has grown cold

But still with half-open eyes

our practised feet take us home


We return every evening to our homes

like reptiles returning to their swamp

                                                                             ("Going home in the evening")


Kim Kwang-kyu invites us to recognize the sub-human sides of modern life; the person speaking in his poems does not moralize from outside or above, but offers a little vignette of an only too familiar experience. For many today, the private car has replaced the bus and subway, but perhaps the reptile is only more numbly headed for the swamp, sitting in the middle of a traffic-jam.

One of the experiences reflected in his works is that of finding oneself middle-aged, with youth lying lost in the past. For the Korean intellectual of his generation, this also implies a shared social experience. The memory of having been a student in April 1960, as he was, means that the loss of youth is paralleled by the loss within Korean society of that vision which drove the students down the streets in April of that year with a burning hope: a hope that guns extinguished in some, time in many others. Under dictatorship, there was the challenge of learning to survive as a human being within the silence, the supression of truth and of divergent opinion which it demanded:


In the land of mists

always shrouded in mist

nothing ever happens

And if something happens

nothing can be seen

because of the mist

for if you live in mist

you get accustomed to mist

so you do not try to see

Therefore in the land of mists

you should not try to see

you have to hear things

for if you do not hear you cannot live

so ears keep growing bigger

People like rabbits

with ears of white mist

live in the land of mists


                                                                                           ("The land of mists")


Those who have no experience of dictatorship may not see at once why long ears are necessary; but even today, the art of getting to the truth of things in society is scarcely easier, anywhere; there are so many lies and false rumours everywhere. Kim Kwang-kyu has faith in the power of the new generations to redeem the terrible mess caused by the failures of the parents, failures of courage that led many to become social ostriches with heads in the sand:


Was there anyone who didn't know?

What everyone felt

What everyone went through

Was there anyone who didn't know?


In those days

everybody knew

but pretended not to know

What no one could say

what no one could write

was spoken

in our language

written in our alphabet

and communicated


Was there anyone who didn't know?

Don't speak too glibly now times have changed

Stop and think

In those days

what did you do?

                                                                                                ("In those days")


The question is a sharp one, very awkward indeed for all of us who have a past to look back on, in any country. It would be wrong to read these poems as referring only to Korean situations, they challenge all who know that they have kept silent when they might and should have spoken and acted for a better world. For Kim Kwang-kyu, contemporary society offers little hope. Once people are inside the 'system', they all loose sight of Spirit Mountain, and concentrate on staying safe, meekly conforming to society's demands:


There's no audience and yet

everyone's carrying a pole

and walking the tightrope up in the air

where so many ropes are crisscrossed

that if there's no way ahead on one

they jump across to the next

and even when resting keep switching

seats from one to another and back

but if you fall

between the ropes you


into the unfathomed dark

With so many ropes criss-crossing

it sometimes looks like solid ground

but if you blink one eye and

make a false step

you've had it so

trying hard not to fall

controlling their swaying bodies

everyone's ever so cautiously

toeing the line



At one level, one might say that Kim Kwang-kyu is a poet of the absurd, refusing to admit that the occupations with which most people are so busy have any meaning at all in terms of human existence and human dignity.

If we turn to the youngest of this family of poets, we find ourselves back much closer to Shin Kyong-nim. Another non-intellectual, at first Yi Si-yong followed his mentor Shin Kyong-nim and wrote poems focussed on the pain of the poor and marginalized:


"Suppose we chuck them out now?"

"We can't; let them sleep there tonight. Tomorrow morning..."

"We can't, how many times has it been 'just for tonight'? 

If the boss knew..."

"Still, we can't..."

The laborers' murmurs, confused as in a dream, reach the woman

leaning against the thin wall of the corrugated shack; like fire

she covers her babies as they lie with their little feet sticking out,

rises silently and sits there,

staring into the pitch black night outside.

                                                          ("At the Far End of a Building Site" (1983))


That is an extreme example, because Korean poets, even in this tradition, usually feel a need to be more lyrical in their evocations of other people's pain:


The snow is melting.

But it has not melted yet.

It lies gleaming, spotted with grey,

like the dreams we failed to dream last night.

I glimpse traces of snow

still covering the foot of a pine tree

as I walk late at night

down an alley behind the bus terminal, or pass

Palace Hotel where a girl killed herself.

Oh, I want to turn into a fire

and delve deep to the roots

to protect everything cold.

I want to turn into an icy love

sparkling beside those piles of stones,

refusing to melt or ooze

even if something touches it.

                                                                                             ("Traces of Snow")


More recently, his poems have moved towards a suggestive, epigrammatic style. The following poem was recently chosen for future inclusion in Jon Silkin's "Stand Magazine", a sign that modern Korean poets can address an audience much wider than the few who study Korean literature in universities:


On a night like this, wolves are leaping in distant hills.

Hares hunting for food

glance about with fearful eyes

as they come down unawares into the village streets.


Aha, the warm sober tracks of a family of hares,

swept away in a flash by a dawn gust of wind.

                                                                                      ("One Snowy Evening")


In translating Korean poetry, it is this degree of universal communication that I hope for. The specific qualities of Korean poetry are often tightly linked to specific qualities of the Korean language that no translation can transmit. In this paper I have tried to present a group of poets whose works may still have power to move when they have been stripped of their original language and decked out in the borrowed vesture of a foreign tongue. In very different ways, each of these poets testifies to the power of Korean poetry to echo experiences of pain, of hope and endurance far beyond the frontiers of the Peninsula. That, I believe, should be the translator's primary task.