Impressions of Modern Korean Poetry in Translation

By | 8 April 2011

Yun Tong-ju’s poems reflect his youthful idealism as well as the youthful angst that is youth’s currency worldwide:

In a copper mirror corroded blue,
Is it so disgraceful
For my face remaining therein
To look like a relic of some dynasty?


His poetry abounds in unusual but entirely appropriate images. In ‘Towards a Place in the Sun’, spring winds carry ‘Yellow sands from afar,/ Like a Chinese waterwheel’, while above are the ‘Outstretched hands of the spotted April sun.’

When he moves from personal preoccupations, as in the nature and socially reflective pieces, his poems have an aura of lonely grandeur, as in ‘Last Words’:

In a moonlit room
Last words are the silence of playful lips.

- The son who went to sea in search of pearls,
The oldest son whispering love to the woman diver,
Look out to see if they might be
at long last returning this night -

The fate of their father, lonely throughout his life,
Sorrow gathers at his closed eyes.

At the lone house, a dog barks into the night,
And the radiant moon flows through the lattice door.

(24 October, 1937)

In a translation of the same poem by Kay and Steffen Richards (in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry), the final lines are beautifully rendered this way: ‘A dog barks from a remote house;/ cool blue moonlight flows over the ribs of the door.’

Ku Sang, a revered and prolific poet, was born in 1919. The turmoil that was, and is, Korean history underpins his socially and philosophically oriented poetry. A Catholic (and ex-president of the Catholic Writers’ Association and Korean PEN), he was brought up in the north, educated in Japan, forced to flee to the south when the Korean War began, and was subsequently imprisoned there for daring to write about government corruption. Such an outline barely does justice to the hardship and complexity of this poet’s experience.

There appear to be no strivings after effect in Ku Sang’s poetry. He is sometimes reminiscent of Kim Sowol, at least in the poems reflecting on nature, using carefully controlled and simple utterance to suggest the feelings aroused. His longevity and productiveness make it difficult to generalise, as he has written about so many different topics and in several different styles. One of his translators, Kevin O’Rourke, says that ‘his poems have a meditative, alert, and watchful air.’1

Some of his most powerful poetry (Wasteland Poems, translated by Brother Anthony of Taize) deals with his youthful experiences under Japanese occupation and the later traumas of the civil war. The slightly oblique point of view, almost a sense of detachment, emphasises the poignancy of his country’s recent history far more effectively than direct denouncing and moralising. There is an entire philosophical and metaphysical realm to his poetry, which space does not allow to detail here.

As Brother Anthony says, ‘In the end, the impression we gain from Ku Sang’s verse is that of a man intrigued to find himself alive, inexhaustibly surprised by all the things that each day reveals.’ Here is a poem, ‘First Frost’, that exemplifies this summation:

Along the branches of old trees,
stripped of every last leaf,
the hoarfrost-flowering morning cleanly spreads.

The ivory brow of the catechism sister,
object of my tiny breast’s deepest childhood longing,
creeps into my mind.

Purity is no matter for melancholy, surely,
yet my eyes are moist with a chill dew.

Another significant poet whom McCann despairs of translating adequately because of his ‘íntense physical and emotional intimacy’ is Pak Chaesam (1933-1997). McCann has, however, valiantly attempted to bring a large body of Pak’s work into English in Enough to Say It’s Far.

A sense of transience and time’s paradoxes is to be found in all the world’s poetries, but it has an insistence, is almost a preoccupation, in Korean poetry. Here is McCann’s translation of ‘Night at Tonghok Temple’:

Bury in order the snow-melt
and the spring night,

and somewhere in the next world
water drops fall from eaves

while at the very edge of your far away
lips, now the whole universe collapses.

Another factor shared by many poets, and Korean poets in particular, is poverty, often accompanied by illness, physical hardship and the predations of various conflicts and wars. But Pak’s poems frequently also celebrate a sense of ‘re-birth’ after illness, a joy in returning to the world, and he can write: ‘Generous bounty makes all things/ seem like an elder brother.’ In that poem (‘After an Illness’) he remains all too aware that while heaven is ‘great’, the earth remains ‘tiny’.

His exact contemporary, Ko Un (born in 1937) remains a real force in Korean literature and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize, in 2002 and 2004. McCann writes that he is ‘without question the most prolific writer of twentieth century Korean literature’2, across many genres. He has been both a Buddhist monk and an energetic pro-democracy campaigner, and has been imprisoned for his efforts.

  1. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 97.
  2. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 182.
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