Online Edition: Summer 2004

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The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry

edited by David R. McCann

Columbia University Press ($22.50)

by Sun Yung Shin

Koreans have been writing poetry since the rise of their civilization; the earliest extant poem, composed by King Yuri in Chinese characters, dates from ca. 19 B.C. This new book, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, does English speakers a great service by bringing us up to date into the 20th century with a generous sampling of 228 poems by 34 Korean poets, as rendered by a variety of translators (including prominent Korean American poet Walter K. Lew). Korean, like its linguistically un-related neighbor Chinese, is a rich language for poetry; it's also considered by linguists to be one of the most difficult to learn by non-native speakers. Therefore as with any set of translations, one might approach the English-language versions of these poems as wild, possibly difficult, animals tamed just enough for transport to a foreign zoo. To aid in our advance, each gallery of poems is prefaced by a succinct introduction to the poet's life, work, and the specific political and literary context in which she or he wrote.

In his general introduction, editor David R. McCann—Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature at Harvard University—reminds us of what Korean poets were facing:

From the annexation in 1910 until the Japanese defeat at the end of the World War II, Korean literature was produced under increasingly conflicted circumstances.… Japan was both a place where the new could be encountered and explored…while at the same time the agent of Korea's national demise, the source of an array of disturbing controls, prohibitions, and affronts to the Korean people.

The anthology is also striking for the increasing number of women poets included from the latter half of the 20th century. These writers struggled with the absence of a female literary lineage and peer group:

one of the more recently prominent women poets, Kim Hyesun, has observed… that when she was beginning to explore ways to develop a narrative style in her poetry, there were literally no contemporary models for her to work with or against.

In "The Titanic, Reincarnate," Kim Hyesun (born in 1955) takes a grand, ruined thing of the Western world and deconstructs it into the domestic measures of her life:

The Titanic, reincarnate, now a cauldron.
Built, 1911, in Southampton.
Twenty-two knot, a passenger liner, over
two thousand aboard on her voyage,
Dismantled the year I married, and now
turned into a toaster, a teakettle, a Chinese wok, and
a Korean pressure cooker.

Yet it is not only contemporary poets who found a new idiom. The prose poem "Fireworks" by Chu Yohan (1900-1980), published in 1919, contains an interior monologue the tone of which would not be out of place in A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man:

a dusky crowd of people sways, with each burst of wind the flame-dyed waves burn with mad laughter, spooked fish take cover in the sand, waves slap the ships broadside, figures pace to and fro with a drowsy rhythm—flickering shadows, rising peals of laughter beneath lanterns hanging overhead… fireworks igniting sudden lust now are tiresome, one glass, another glass, yet another, the endless wine no longer welcome, lying listless in the filthy bottom of a boat… men with leering eyes leap from the boat, unable to endure their rekindled desire… Oh, oh, burn! burn! This very night! Your red torch, your red lips…

The anthology, in fact, contains many prose poems. The lengthy "Paengnokdam: White Deer Lake" was written by Cho˘ng Chiyong, one of the most important avant-garde Korean poets from the 1930s, who was later kidnapped by North Korean forces and lost to the South Korean literary world. "Paengnokdam" is sectioned and numbered; written in a fictive mode it exhibits an unhurried observance of the natural world in which the speaker is in a wandering thrall:

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The perfume of the sweet orchid, the sound of orioles warbling to one another, the whistling of Cheju's whistling bird, the sound of water rebounding off rocks, the swishing of pines when the sea crumples far away; I lost my way among ash trees, camellias, oaks, but emerged down a twisting path of pale stones all tangled with arrowroot vines. The dappled horse I abruptly encounter does not run away.

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Royal fern, bracken, to˘do˘k, bellflower, wild aster, umbrella plants, bamboo grass, rock-dragon mushrooms, high mountain plants with bells hanging like stars: I ponder them, then fall asleep intoxicated.

And no anthology on modern Korean poetry would be complete without the prominent modernist Yi Sang (1910-1937). The use of the name Yi Sang was a political act for Kim Haegyong, a response to the unwanted Japanese presence:

…a Japanese supervisor called to Kim Haegyong, "Mr. Lee!" the second-most common surname—after Kim—in Korea, which in Japanese would have been "Ri-San." According to the story, Kim Haegyong took that wrong name deliberately as his pen name, thereby joining Yi Yuksa as a Korean writer marking his notice of, resistance against, and existence within, the Japanese occupation.

Yi is notable for his rather louche surrealism; his prose poem "I Wed a Toy Bride" reads like a moment from a decadent fairy tale:

Whenever I give the toy bride a sewing needle the toy bride stabs wildly at anything around. The calendar. A book of poems. The clock. Also the place that is so worthwhile for my body my accumulated experience to enter and sit around in.

In the poem "Two People…2…" Yi writes strikingly about two favorite Western idols:

Al Capone's coins had a very good luster, good enough to use as a medal; Christ's coins were so few in number as to be nearly invisible, barely worthy of the name money.

As for the story that says Christ refused until the very end to accept the frock coat Al Capone had sent him, though famous, isn't it believable?

Another notable writer, laborer-poet Pak Nohae, writes in "plain speech," using particulars to expose the harsh reality of his economic conditions. In the poem "How Much Is This One?" a bleak cause and effect predicts the future:

My cousin at the dye factory, who stutters
had his 10-year pension embezzled by a Middle East-job broker and
killed himself.
If it's $1,000
my bed-ridden mother could be hospitalized,
my 29-year-old maid sister could get hitched.
If it's $10,000
I'd have to kiss ass for ten years.

In this anthology we thus get the high and the low, the symbolic mist and mountains and the reckoning of the kissed managerial ass. In the most ethnically homogeneous nation in the world, a culture that until recently required civil servants taking state exams to write poetry, one might expect a certain sameness of aesthetics, but McCann's fascinating tour shows otherwise. Though modern Korean poets have generally shared a common cause—writing through a tumultuous century of colonization, wars, division, Western influence, internal political strife, rapid industrialization—the 34 poets within these pages distinguish themselves with their individual visions. Each locates her or his condition in language in an engrossing way, illuminating the course of Korean poetry and the struggle of their modernization as a people.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents