If you're curious about Korean poetry, understanding the country's rich and turbulent history is a great place to start. Scholar and translator Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae) explains.
Korean poetry is hardly a frequent topic of conversation around British dining tables. This is not surprising, in a world where very little translated poetry is read, although it saddens Korean poetry lovers. There are lots of poets in Korea, and there used to be even more.
Poetry was central to 19th century Korean society
In times past, the main mark of an educated gentleman was an ability to write poetry, mainly in Classical Chinese but also in Korean. The two languages are very different, since Chinese has almost no grammar, whereas Korean has an awful lot of grammar. Indeed, in the Joseon period (1392 – 1910), in order to become a high state official, one had to pass a Chinese-language poetry-writing exam. Before 1900, Korea was a Confucian state in which all studies were conducted using Classical Chinese texts and following Chinese models.
Yi Munyol’s novel The Poet (Harvill / Vintage, 2001) tells the true story of a young man’s struggle early in the 19th century to master the rules of Classical Chinese poetry, only to find he was disqualified from taking the civil service exam. So he became a wandering poet, and was welcomed everywhere because poetry composition was a popular form of entertainment as well.
Once modernisation began, just before 1900, with the introduction of the modern curriculum in schools, the whole tradition and culture of Classical Chinese poetry went into decline. Historians of Korean literature cannot agree whether or not there is any continuity linking it with contemporary Korean poetry.
Modernisation and Japanese influence changed poetry in Korea
This divide coincides with the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. Korean culture, history and language were banished from schools and replaced by Japanese culture, history and language. For a time, it was very difficult to publish anything written in Korean. However, the encounter with contemporary Japanese writing was far from a negative experience for many sensitive young Koreans. The art of translation had a vital role in the Meiji era of Japan, when the country transformed from an isolated feudal society into its modern form. In 1905, the Japanese scholar Ueda Bin produced a volume of poetry translations in which the French symbolists were given pride of place. This revolutionised Japanese poetry, and Korean poets who studied in Japan soon fell under its influence. One vital aspect of the French poets was their use of ‘free verse’ and this soon passed into the Japanese imitations, and then into Korea.
Another development common to Japan and Korea after 1930 was a division between those who wrote the ‘pure poetry’ of ‘art for art’s sake’ and those who, influenced by the Russian Revolution, insisted on the social duty of the poet and attempted to write ‘proletarian’ or ‘revolutionary’ verse.
Censorship limited the publication of poetry in Korean
Censorship meant that Koreans could not openly express their intense longing for recovery of their lost national identity. Resistance to Japan had to be covert. Two remarkable collections, Kim Sowol’s Azaleas (published 1925) and Manhae Han Yong-un’s Silence of My Beloved (published 1926), were written in Korean and later identified as 'great monuments of Korean resistance'. But reading these poems as anti-Japanese declarations is now widely seen as a distortion. Both are intensely lyric; the first looks back to more traditional poetry, the other was written in response to the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Silently the winds blow, weep, sigh
while without a reason we know sadness and longing this
dark spring night
as gentle vapors rise and cover the ground.
- from Spring Night in Kim Sowol's collection Azaleas, translated by David R. McCann (Columbia University Press).
In the 1930s, two frontiers attracted the attention of more radical poets. Many Koreans crossed into Manchuria, either dispossessed peasants in search of land to farm, or radicals eager to join anti-Japanese guerillas. Even more Koreans took to ships and crossed to Japan; many were desperate for work and went to the slums of Japan’s industrial centres; others were intellectuals and were eager to learn about modernity. A number of fine Korean poets who dared resist Japan before and during the war died in prison and are viewed as martyr-poets.
How a national 'Korean' poetry was born
When Korean ceased to be ruled by Japan in 1945, and publication in Korean was again possible, there came years of intense poetic activity, as Korean poets sought to develop a national poetics. Then, 1950 brought the Korean War. Quite a number of socially committed poets had sided with North Korea before the war and gone to live there. When the North Korean army was withdrawing from Seoul in the autumn of 1950, they kidnapped several other reputed writers and forced them to march north, where they immediately vanished. In exchange, a number of poets had come south from the northern regions.
Once the war was over, South Korean poetry, like its fiction, was subject to strong pressure not to express any form of socialist sympathies. The development of contemporary South Korean poetry had to begin amid the ruins. Seoul’s Myeong-dong area had suffered much from the bombing and shelling of the war, but its bars, cafés and gaming rooms (chess and baduk/go) provided shelter for a motley crowd of bohemians, writers, artists, singers, cineasts, who usually had no money, but were allowed to drink (and eat) on credit in hope of the occasional royalty payment.
Korea's turbulent post-war history inspired a generation of poets
A leading figure on the officially approved aesthetic side of poetry was Midang Seo Jeong-ju, who wielded great power and influence. In post-war Korean history, a vital turning-point is 19 April 1960, the 'April Revolution’, when the police opened fire on students protesting against corrupt elections, killing many. The president, Syngman Rhee, was forced into exile, but democracy was not something Koreans had ever experienced, and everyone wanted to be the head of a political party. One year later, on 16 May 1961, the military took control.
For certain poets and critics, this served as an awakening, and for decades, poets were divided between those who played safe with delicate lyrics and those who, in one way or another, expressed dissent faced with oppressive regimes. The names are mostly unfamiliar; Kim Su-yeong was a modernist who after the April Revolution advocated a poetry using ordinary language, realising that literature was out of touch with the nation’s reality. Shin Gyeong-nim returned after spending ten years among the rural and urban working classes and wrote his ‘Farmers’ Dance’ in their name, often using ‘we’ in place of the poetic ‘I’ persona.
We're met in the backroom of the co-op mill playing cards for a dish of muk; tomorrow's market-day. Boisterous merchants shake off the snow in the inn's front yard.
Fields and hills shine newly white, the falling snow comes swirling thickly down.
People are talking about the price of rice and fertilizers . . . .
- excerpt from On a Winter's Night in the collection Farmers' Dance by Shin Gyeong-Nim, translated by Brother Anthony (University of Hawai'i Press, Cornell East Asia Series)
What Korean poetry looks like now
Today, Ko Un has become a familiar name all over the world, the only Korean poet of whom this can be said. He was the main spokesman for dissent and protest during the 1970s and again after prison in the 1980s. In the 1970s, the world came to hear of another Korean poet, Kim Chiha, whose early poems of protest had inspired a generation and whose satirical masterpiece ‘Five Bandits’ so infuriated the ruling elite that he was imprisoned for years and became an internationally known ‘prisoner of conscience.’
Still, today, thousands of Koreans write poetry, belong to poetry associations, usually centred on a senior poet, recite their poems to one another, and often pay to have them published. The finest poets are published by three or four publishing houses that still reflect to some extent the divisions between the aesthetic and the social schools.
Nowadays, many older poets shake their heads sadly and confess that they find it very hard to understand the poems written by the upcoming generation. With the growth of democracy and wealth, young Koreans, especially, find themselves challenged to find and express coherent meaning in their poems. Fragmented symbols and fragmented grammar puzzle the reader. Meanwhile, older poets such as Jeong Ho-seung enjoy tremendous popularity with poems that gently express nostalgia and melancholy at life’s transience and love’s uncertainty.
As part of the Korea Cultural Programme at the London Book Fair this year, Brother Anthony will be speaking about Korean literature at the British Library on Tuesday, 8 April. You can book tickets through the British Library site.