|THE SOUND OF A DIFFERENT SEA
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
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
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
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
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
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 -
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
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