Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Korean Adventure (March 21, 2003 Chautauqua
Every once in a while, there was a small featurette inserted into the editorial page of the Korea Herald, called "A Poem For Breakfast." It translated various poems from past and present Korean poets. This was done by the column's "host" Kevin O'Rourke.

It was a very pleasant distraction from the usual rants about the future of Korea, the U.S., and so on. It also provided a window into the culture of this so-beautiful country.

The first poem that I really took notice of was called "Shijo," which I believe is a reference to what kind of poem it is. It hung on the front of my refrigerator for a long time.

Butterflies hover in pairs where flowers blossom thick;
orioles perch in pairs on the branches of green willows.
Flying creatures, crawling creatures, all are in pairs.

Tell me, why am I alone without a mate?

It was written by a man named Chong Chol (1536-1593), who is described as "a controversial bureaucrat whose career was punctuated by periods of voluntary retirement and dismissal from the government. His family had marriage connections with the royal family.”

"The poem is structurally unusual in that the first part of the final 'chang' (line 4) has only two syllables." I just like it because it describes the feelings of a lonely guy perfectly.

The Far Shore
Lights across the river shine through teems of autumn rain.

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.

This was written by Pak Mog-wol (1916-1978), who was one of a famous trio of poets who comprised the "Blue Deer Group." His early poems are described as "lyrical evocations of rural Korea, elegant, nostalgic monuments to a traditional way of life.”

"'The Far Shore' is an excellent example...of an ordinary citizen struggling to survive against the background of an impoverished, dehumanizing city life." Anyone who has had to live in any city can readily identify.

Endangered Treasure
I was washing my silks by the willow stream;

a gentleman on a white horse took my hand and spoke of love.

For three months the rain has dripped from the eaves.

How can I wash the lingering fragrance from my fingertips?

Yi Chaehyon (1287-1367), a scholar-official in Koryo, and one of the great poets of the age, held a succession of high-ranking posts at court. This love poem offers the girl's point of view of a very daring gentleman. Another word picture of an age and a way of life.

When She Walked Without Spilling A Drop
I always stood on the path between the ramie fields watching her as she came away from the well carrying the water jar on her head.

Whenever water spilled and trickled down her face, she walked past without as much as a glance,

but when she walked carefully and did not spill a drop,

she caught my eye and smiled as she passed.

It was as if she had planned it that way,

to catch my eye when she could walk without spilling a drop.

So Chongju (1915-2000) tells us how girls showed boys they liked them in old Korea. This "lovely little prose poem... (has) all the intimations of attraction and first love come with a delicacy of touch." Perhaps So is recalling his childhood, and how he had no doubts about the message.

Near Moon Terrace
The cliff face soars countless feet;

the high terrace on top stretches close to the sky.

The Great Dipper scoops water from the Milky Way to brew a pot of tea at night.

The steam from the tea coldly wraps the cassia tree in the moon.

Hyeshim (1178-1234) studied Confucianism and served as an official. After his mother's death, he became a monk . He was officially given high priestly rank by the state, called "national preceptor." This poem is an example of "the soaring imagination of the Koryo poets."

One by one I've gathered up my feelings of love;
I've measured them, bagged them.

They're loaded now on the straight back of a fine strong horse.

Hey lad, give her the whip; send them off to my love.

An anonymous love poem, presumably from the 18th century. Early in the Choson dynasty poets were not quite so open about their feelings. This image of love as something measured and loaded on a horse is unique in Korean poetry.

Let's drink a cup of wine; let's drink another!
With petals from flowers we've cut, let's mark our cups;

let's drink and drink, let's drink forever!

For when at last this body dies, it will be wrapped in a straw mat and strapped to a jiggy,

or, perhaps, it will be borne on an elegantly decked bier,

ten thousand standard bearers shedding tears.

Either way, once among the reeds and rushes, the oaks and willows,

when the sun is yellow and the moon is white,

when fine rain falls or thick snowflakes flurry,

when whirlwinds blow a mournful dirge,

who will offer me a cup?

Need I add: when monkeys whistle on my grave,

won't it be too late for regrets?

Another by Chong Chol, this poem is sometimes described as a shijo and sometimes as the first of his "kasa" poems. Kasa is a unique Korean genre, a sort of poem essay. Anyone who has heard of my weekends over there knows why I like it.

I think everyone can find something in poetry that will call up inner feelings. It is the genius of the artist that helps us to think about our lives, and what they mean. If these poems don't strike a chord in you, at least you know a little how I feel.

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