Pak Mog-wol, born in Kyongju in 1916, is one of the most distinctive of twentieth century Korean poets. His early poems are lyrical evocations of rural Korea, elegant, nostalgic monuments to a traditional way of life long since gone. His later poems offer quite a contrast: they are pictures of an ordinary citizen trying to eke out an existence against the background of an impoverished, dehumanizing city life. He is concerned with the search for meaning and the inner compulsion of the artist to make "form", and he describes these processes in the plain language of everyday speech. "April" and "The Wayfarer" are part of every young Korean's introduction to poetry. Lovely, fluid, lyrical, they are part of the Korean poetry experience. The elegy to Herman Hesse is radically different: the tone is clipped, restrained, much more in rhythm with contemporary life. "Hanbok" is filled with a wry humor and nostalgia, but the quality of the feeling is quite different from earlier lyrical evocations of that older world enshrined in hanbok. The poem speaks of the strength and comfort derived from traditional things in the face of approaching old age and death. Old age, the imminence of death, and the lack of personal accomplishment are favorite Pak Mog-wol themes.  
Pak Mog-wol was an academic as well as a poet. His classes always attracted a large cross-section of students from literature, music and the arts. I still vividly remember these classes, partly perhaps because I found the poet so difficult to understand with his strong, lilting Kyongsang accent, but also because I was aware of the magnetic pull of a compelling artistic presence. The qualities I admire most in the man are his humility and humanity, beautifully encapsulated in the lines that conclude "The Far Shore". I don't think there is anything more moving in modern poetry. The poet looks back on his life and concludes that he is  

An autumn tree,  
wetting its head  
in the dark.  

Trees in Korea are at their best in the autumn. It seems to me that the Pak Mog-wol tree will live in the light for as long as Korea lives.  


When the cuckoo cries  
protesting April's too long day  

the blind daughter of the forester  
in a solitary house  

on a solitary peak  
where pine pollen blows in the air  

puts her ear to the lattice door  
and listens.  

The Wayfarer 

Across the ferry  
by the path through the corn  

like the moon through the clouds  
the wayfarer goes.  

The road stretches south three hundred li  

every wine-mellowing village  
afire in the evening light  

as the wayfarer goes like the moon through the clouds.  

A Bare Wind 

Herman Hesse,  
poet of the clouds, is gone;  
summer is gone.  
sand flats, draped  
in a fine ash tint,  
bite into the sealine.  
cut on the prow of the  
battered boat abrades.  
the wind is bare.  
Nature's harmony has its way:  
the old wreck hunkers,  
the rotted keel sinks,  
the poem carved on the  
battered prow wears thin.  
The foolish fisherman grows old  
while a shortening sun flashes  
on his waving shock of white hair.  
The sea is dark:  
a bare wind blows today;  
nature's harmony has its way.  
The sea is dark  
on the rotted keel. 


I like hanbok because it's roomy:  
pants, blouse, and coat  
are warm, homey apparel.  
Those feelings of reassurance  
that wrap me when I wear hanbok,  
where do they come from?  
My hair, turned foam, freezes  
as it stretches to the distant shoreline.  
I'm at an age when  
my ears  
hear the sound of a different sea,  
an age on which snow is piling.  
Winds lash the frozen land  
but my hanbok is amply padded.  
Hanbok isn't just apparel.  
It is the weave - with breaths strong and liberal -  
of a stolid life homeward bound.  
Cotton pants, blouse, coat -  
dyed jade:  
hanbok wraps the body and in doing so  
lets me strip the body away. 

The Far Shore 

Lights across the river shine through teems of autumn rain.  

Fifty, and not a couplet adequate to the bleak prospect.  
Hair half white, I wander city streets  
urgent for food and clothes.  
The lights glimmering on the far shore may be my answer.  

An autumn tree  
wetting its head  
in the dark. 

Translated by Kevin O'Rourke.