Impressions of Modern Korean Poetry in Translation

By | 8 April 2011

As with so many of the Korean poets, nature themes abound. He can celebrate: ‘Just look! The fish rising from deeper water/ are using their backs/ to break the ice!/ How on earth/ can heaven keep silent?'(‘Great Spring’). And he can remember times of duress, famine in particular: ‘About the time crepe myrtles bloomed and/ the barley was nearly ripe,/ I got so hungry.’ (‘About the Time’).

There is considerable intensity and anger in many of the political poems, and this possibly doesn’t translate so well. The most successful are those in which the ‘message’ is conveyed indirectly or through a memorable and concrete image, as in ‘Peace’:

on the peninsular cease-fire line,
after the bird has flown,

I caress the helmet that lay rusty all these years,
yearning for

(translated by Clare and Richard Silberg)

A droll and sometimes sprightly or whimsical humour permeates many of Ko Un’s poems, especially his little haiku-like reflections, such as ‘Green Frog’:

Green frog,
because you croaked
the rain clouds massed in the sky.

You sure are a mighty dude,
you little runt.

(translated by Silberg)

There remains a huge amount of Ko Un’s work to be translated, though a useful and recent selected poems, The Three Way Tavern, translated by Clare and Richard Silberg, is available.

Another controversial poet who has also been nominated for the Nobel Prize (in 1975 for Peace and Literature) is Kim Chiha, born in 1941. He was sentenced to death in 1974 for writing poetry considered offensive by the military government of Park Chunghee. There was worldwide condemnation of this projected act, and the sentence was commuted in 1980, after the assassination of Park.

Many of his poems are long, satirical narratives, drawing on traditional Korean oral-narratives (pansori). The humour is wry and sardonic, as in this stanza from his well-known political epic, ‘The Story of a Sound’:

He began to think of hanging himself,
but couldn’t find a rafter.
Gas wouldn’t do - the windows were full of holes.
He couldn’t slip away
on a mixture of poison and wine -
there was no money for a cup
and nothing else to use,
so no way, he had no way:
no way to rest, no way to put his feet
down on the ground and just stand.

(translated by David McCann)

If this brief survey of some of Korea’s most important poets is male-dominated, it is simply because the most influential voices have been male poets. Korea is very much a patriarchal (Confucian) society and it is only relatively recently that women have had opportunities for expression, and there are now many fine contemporary female novelists and poets (see, for example, 12 Contemporary Korean Poetesses, edited by Koh Chang-soo, Literature Academy, 1996).

Korea’s most prominent female poet is Kim Namjo (born in 1927). She has published thirty books of poetry and essays, and achieved much favourable attention in the 1960s and 70s when her first books appeared. They also sold very well. David McCann refers to her pioneering efforts for women writers, saying that her success was all the more unusual ‘given the male domination of the literary critical establishment, then and even now.’ 1

Aspects of nature are frequent subjects of her poetry, as is love in all its many variations. In ‘For Baby’, she writes, ‘Sunlight alights and plays by my baby’s sleeping head./ Sunlight is the baby’s guest.’ There is often a philosophical dimension to her musings about love, as in this stanza (one of 88!) from ‘Love’s Cursive’:

An uninvited woman;
I live with her.
Many days, I am that woman.
So it is,
while love is a special invitation,
the reception of conscience.

(tr. McCann)

Korea’s turbulent history in the Twentieth (and Twenty-First!) Century is reflected in the work of all the major poets. It could not be otherwise. Yet Korea’s cultural traditions go back thousands of years and form a rich foundation for the country’s poetry and other thriving art forms and crafts (see journals such as Koreana and Korea). Korean poetry has not as yet received the worldwide attention it so eminently deserves. Koreans themselves respect their poets and are generally quite knowledgeable about them. Poetry features far more prominently in the education system than it does here in Australia, where it is very much treated as the neglected member of the literary family (for example, there are five categories for books in the Prime Minister’s literary awards, but not one of them for poetry).

Final impressions? Well, there is much to learn from, discover and enjoy in the oceanic world that is Korean poetry. It is poetry that is as variable, multifaceted, as the poets who write it. It is suffused with a deep reverence for nature and a deep desire for peace, both personal and political.

Even though translators cannot convey all the beauty and subtlety of the Korean language, enough can be brought across in the form of meaning, image and tone to legitimately claim the attention of Anglophone readers. Translators are the great unsung heroes of literature. We must remember that most of us have read our Bible or Homer or Goethe or Plato in translation, yet we are still inspired and awed by the reading. I would like to close by encouraging others to seek out the world of Korean poetry, and to express gratitude to all the translators of Korean poetry that I have read.

I append a list of some of the books referred to in this essay:

Kim Chiha, Heart’s Agony: Selected Poems, White Pine Press, 1998
Ko Un, The Three Way Tavern, University of California Press, 2006
Koh Chang-soo (ed), 12 Contemporary Korean Poetesses, Literary Academy, 1996
Ku Sang, Wasteland Poems, English Translations of Korean Literature Series, 2000
Lee, Peter H. (ed), Poems From Korea, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1974
Lee, Peter H. (ed), The Silence of Love: Twentieth Century Korean Poetry, The University Press of Hawaii, 1980
McCann, David R., The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, Columbia University Press, 2004
Pak Chaesam, Enough to Say It’s Far, Princeton University Press, 2006
Pak Mogwol, Selected Poems, Asian Humanities Press, 1990
So Chong-ju, Poems of a Wanderer, Dedalus, 1995
Yun Tong-ju, The Heavens, The Wind, The Stars and Poetry, Hakmun Publishing Inc., 1999

  1. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 160.
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