It is 2.30am in early November and the streets are frosty, the dry air abrasive. Small groups shuffle towards the neon of V.I.P. rooms, saunas, sundry entertainments. A few lonely cars speed along mostly empty arterial roads. I am sitting at a table with an octogenarian and two others, a dozen empty bottles before us. This is the fourth place we’ve been to this evening, and we’re soaked. These three Korean poets—Ko Un, Lee Si-young, Kim Soo-bok—are again breaking into song. Ko Un lurches upward, balancing on his red plastic stool, clapping and urging us to sing louder, to follow him. A table of twenty-somethings collectively rolls its eyes while the teenagers staffing this concrete-floored annex sit passively and pretend not to watch. Lee Si-young sings wistfully, dutifully, cigarette smoke curling itself around him while Kim Soo-bok claps, explaining ‘we are chanting protest songs from Gwangju’: 1980, and a civic uprising is put down by dictator Chun Doo-hwan; hundreds of civilians—and many say thousands—are killed by crack troops sent to assert with bloodshed the military dictatorship’s authority. In this late-night BBQ joint, this is no drunken sing-along but an alcohol-fuelled shamanic paean to unforgotten spirits. Two of these poets have been jailed for their political activities. Before South Korea became a democracy, Ko Un and Si-young both spent time in Seoul’s notorious Seodaemun Prison, and Ko Un speaks openly of his time in another (Daegu military jail) where he feared summary execution. What happens to a mind that escapes, against all odds, a prescribed and certain fate?
These so-called old men eat energy for breakfast, and the oldest here out-talks, out-dreams, out-thinks, out-charms and out-drinks seasoned campaigners a third his age. Allen Ginsberg once called Ko Un a ‘demon-driven Bodhisattva’ (Ko Un 1997: 9) while on his website, the poet suggests he is a ‘friend of Dionysius’ (http://www.koun.co.kr); these are each men who dare to remember everything and have been doing so, professionally, for decades. When the table of youngsters across the room asks the staff to tell the old guys to quiet down, little do they suspect they’re insulting national treasures whose lives are defined by a predilection for disturbance. Of course none comply, and our group is soon on the street once more, and the night full of immediately-arriving taxis zipping drunken dirge-filled poets across the concrete suburbs.
Musing on Ko Un’s Maninbo in the New York Review of Books, Robert Hass remembers a comment from Czeslaw Milosz: ‘Woe to the poet born to an interesting piece of geography in a violent time’ (Hass, ‘Poet of Wonders’). Ko Un is a literary giant, and his life reads like an epic: failed suicide, former monk, peace broker between the two Koreas, one-time maudit, and Nobel Prize nominee. He describes his life as ‘a poetics of experience’ (Ko Un 2008: 35), and this perhaps is best exemplified in the Maninbo project, conceived during an extended period in solitary confinement. Maninbo translates literally as the ‘family records of ten thousand lives’ (Ko Un 2005: 35), and this poet seems compelled to record the details of those who might otherwise be erased from history. His long-time translator Brother Anthony of Taizé states how ‘(t)hese are not simply amusing anecdotes, but deeply considered distillations of what truly happened, although many aspects of recent Korean history are (still) veiled in secrecy’ (Anthony: 44). The Maninbo texts trace the traumatic odyssey of a people marching tirelessly toward an uncertain future; these poems are eulogies for the very many who disappeared during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), and the ensuing rule of successive military dictatorships (1948-1987). In 2010, and numbering 30 volumes, Ko Un finished the project (or perhaps, as Valéry would say, abandoned it), but Maninbo remains a landmark in contemporary Korean Literature, a loud provocation and unofficial chronicle of the struggle for cultural identity. In a place where
Missing persons are part of our land’s traditions between revolutions and counter-revolutions (Ko Un 2005: 325)
Ko Un’s memorialising picks over places of erasure and disappearance, recalling the lives of ordinary people interrupted by extraordinary, and too often violent, historical events (for anyone interested, Bloodaxe have this year published a selection: Maninbo—War & Peace). But these founding sites are also places of resilience, and Ko Un tells us he is protecting these stories both from the pallor of deep gloom and the darkness of forgetting:
My encounter with others is far from personal. It’s essentially public, and this public nature makes it necessary to prevent my encounters in life from fading into forgetfulness. Even a casual encounter contains a historical inevitability. (Ko Un ‘Preface’ Maninbo Vol.1)
Robert Hass tells us this elder spokesman is “one of the heroes of human freedom” and that it is no accident how ‘important work in poetry in this last half-century has come from Poland and Korea … The reason is not, I think, that it is dramatic to live inside violence or terrible injustice, but that it is numbing and that numbing incites a spirit of resistance’ (Hass, ‘Poet of Wonders’). Ko Un’s supremely dedicated, democratising voice rings out as more than just a purifying of dialect; he has pitched himself ceaselessly against often monstrous powers, and his resistance is a demonstrative, resonant dissent.
Against this particular backdrop, our work is essentially a mode of transforming not only linguistic but cultural grammars: an exercise, of course, in profound non-equivalence. In his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, Walter Benjamin asks his readers to consider the lexical embeddedness of the German word brot, contrasting with the French pain: each of these words is enfolded within a tissue of associations that stand to be lost as soon as utterance shifts from one language to the next. Benjamin fears translation enables an unwitting reshaping of nuance into contours not present in source texts, and he imagines that the task of the translator ‘consists in finding that intended effect (Intention) upon the language into which he (sic) is translating which produces in it the echo of the original’ (Benjamin 19, 20). Poet-translators from across the twentieth century (Bonnefoy, Valéry, Paz, et al.) have long concurred that translations of poems are at best only ever variations. Commenting on his recent English-language version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus, Don Paterson frames it as follows: ‘one can no more translate a poem than one can a piece of music’ (Paterson 77). Elaborating on Benjamin, Paterson understands the impossibility of his task and distinguishes between literary translations and versions: ‘Translations fail when they misrepresent the language of the original, or fail to honour the rules of natural syntax. Versions fail when they misrepresent the spirit of the original’ (Paterson 81).
Reading a range of Korean poems, we have listened opportunistically to cultural products that propagate particular sounds of what Ko Un calls “the music of history” (‘Ko Un on Ko Un’). In attempting to summon the spirit (Intention) of the original texts, we have acted less as traduttore-traditore (‘the translator as traitor’ or betrayer), a term first coined by Italian scholars mistrustful of French translators of Dante and echoed by Koreans, and instead of 번역자 반역자 (beonyeokja banyeokja: the translator traitor), we instead attempt to act more as traduttore-traghettatore or ‘translator-ferryman’ (번역자 뱃사공, beonyeokja baetsagong). Attempting to locate the echo (Benjamin) or spirit (Paterson) of the original, we like to think we are performing a reversal of Charon’s underworld activities … moving across the oblique flow of 한국어 사전 (‘the Korean lexicon’), our versions transport these native images into the materiality of English-language sound-shapes and there reimagine their spirit. We hope what emerges, as if Orphically, are discrete and somewhat faithful echoes.
Face Kim Ki-taek momentarily covered my face with both hands eyes dim and face dark, soon that darkness soaked into my hands over both palms, my hands feeling the bones as if sensing something mysterious feeling as if something would be missed I felt reluctantly for that cold, blunt, indifferent thing the enduring ruins which may have been there before the face existed stuck on that skull you, face that smiles, cries, frowns your expressions you face, thin as a heart, thin without sleep, thoughts, sorrow my skull is watching you always face that blooms for a moment and then falls long hours stretching behind the face empty black sockets watching beyond the memory of the face after a while, I let go and the sunlight suddenly becomes flesh covering my skull and soon becomes my face for a while I blink, awkward with a face finally returned and barely regaining my eyeballs, before hurriedly focusing on those figures in the documents
Lee Seong Bok, photographed by Im Jae Cheon.
Were all grammar structures similar (as they are, say, between Korean and Japanese, Swedish and Danish, etc), then translating poetry would be a matter of simply populating recognisable structures with phonology. Alas, the simple fact is that, grammatically, Korean (subject + object + verb) is nothing like English (subject + verb + object); in the wake of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that grammar structures are key determinants of culturally-defined behaviours, this makes for interesting speculation: Koreans do so often seem acutely attentive and perhaps necessarily, because this is a language in which the verb telling us what we’re doing always falls as the final word in sentence constructions. But alongside the challenge of radically remaking original sentences that perform (perhaps culturally enshrined) grammar structures, when ferrying echoes from source to target, reconstructing tone can be an especially tough job. This is the final section from Lee Seong-bok’s short prose poem, ‘End of that Summer’:
넘어지면 매달리고 타올라 불을 뿜는 나무 백일홍 억센 꽃들이 두어 평 좁은 마당을 피로 덮을 때, 장난처럼 나의 절망은 끝났습니다. (neom-eojimyeon maedalligo taolla bul-eul ppumneun namu baeg-ilhong eogsen kkochdeul-i dueo pyeong job-eun madang-eul pilo deop-eul ttae, jangnancheoleom naui jeolmang-eun kkeutnassseubneedah).
Without following any of the grammar conventions faithfully advanced by Lee (whose experiments are typically image-driven), a word-for-word translation of his Korean text arrives as
fall then hang burn fire exploding tree crepe-myrtle rough/tough flowers (평, or ‘pyeong’, is untranslatable; a Korean unit of measurement) small yard blood cover when joke-like my despair ends/ended.
Lee Seong-bok is a celebrated, innovative contemporary poet influenced by the likes of Kafka and Nietzsche; this writer’s work is said to use ‘free association to expose the hypocrisy, corruption, and perversity of this world’ (KLTI 124). Partly, this worldview is a matter of tone, and some of that tone is established through the ways Lee constructs each sentence. An example: within this most hierarchical of cultures, Korean grammar requires that speakers situate themselves in relation to those they are addressing: to wit, verbs may end in ‘-어’ (-eoh) when addressing close friends and family members, ‘-요’ (-yoh) when adopting a formal but friendly tone, while ‘-니다’ (-needah) connotes gravity or importance. Thus, and depending on who is being addressed, the (irregular) verb ‘do’ is expressed as either 하다 (ha dah), 해요, (heh yoh) or 합니다 (habneedah). Throughout ‘End of that Summer’, the poet uses the term ‘장난처럼’ (joke-like) but conjugates the verbs with the highly formal ‘-니다’ (-needah). Tonally, then, ‘End of that Summer’ is no work of slapstick or satire, and the joking referred to within the text works at darker purposes—a serious-minded comedy—and we have read the intention of the original text as a Beckett-esque existential critique:
The crepe-myrtles were safe that summer. One storm after another, their red flowers hung without falling, just like the hailstones. That summer, I too was in the middle of a storm. My despair hung that summer like a joke of red flowers, unfalling amid the storms. Despite falling, the crepe-myrtle flowers are still burning and blazing, finally covering my long narrow yard with blood. At that moment my despair finishes like a joke.
Dating from the 15th century, the sijo (literally ‘time rhythm’) is Korea’s most famous form; each of the sijo’s three lines consists of four word groupings containing three to four syllables. Historically, these aphoristic texts are accompanied by the geomungo, or six-stringed zither, and sijo were initially enjoyed by the yangban (elite classes) who would transmit these tiny musical artefacts orally from one generation to the next. It was not until the 18th century that the appeal of the form broadened beyond the literary elite, and sijo began to be written down. Writing in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, Peter Lee identifies three recurring themes:
(i) Love, including the ‘physical symptoms, dilemmas, love as dream, metamorphosis in dream, or love after death’ (Lee 70):
I send you, my love, select branches of the willow. Plant them to be admired outside your bedroom window. If a night rain makes them bud, think that it is I. (Hongnang, 1576-1600)
(ii) Friendship, including ‘parting, longing for the absent friend, celebration of a reunion with wine, moon, flowers, and music’ (Lee 70):
If flowers bloom, I think of the moon, if the moon shines, I ask for wine. When I have all these at once, still I think of friends. When can I drink a night away, enjoying moon and flowers with a friend? (Yi Chongbo, 1693-1766)
(iii) Time, alongside ‘Taoist concepts of nondiscrimination, the utility of inutility, and non-action’ (Lee 70):
The candle burns in the room, for whom has it parted? Shedding tears outside, does it know that its inside burns? That candle is like me, it does not know its heart burns! (Yi Kae, 1417-1456) (all translations by Kevin O’Rourke)
This mnemonic form echoes still, thrumming across history and into the 21st century: what is remarkable is that so many Koreans can recite their favourite sijo. Like Ko Un’s Maninbo, then, this is another instance of a people refusing to forget. The recitation (and perhaps rejoicing in) these native sounds of the sijo reconnect a once agrarian community to place (remembering the etymology of culture as ‘the tilling of land’). To recite sijo is to recultivate a connection with origins. As such, these are sounds that act as boundary stones to mark out long-inhabited ground.
Much as anywhere else, the Korean literary scene is pocked with mutually antagonistic cliques and cabals. As one eminent stakeholder suggests, caddishly, there are over 7000 living poets in Korea, and none are speaking to each other. In part, these spats are over future places in the canon—as if space were limited—but more immediately, the non-conversation (as it were) encounters turbulence according to priorities of particular programs and protagonists: simply put, animus grows when poets disagree about what the function of poetry is. In the late 20th century, and leading up to the democratisation of the southern half of the Korean peninsula, the sunsup’a group maintained a purely literary focus; alongside these, the ch’amyŏ’p’a group took a more active role in critiquing Korea’s socio-political unevenness. To members of the latter bloc, the silences within texts made by sunsup’a poets contain audible complicities. Indeed, protest has long been a dangerous gambit here, so poets often have needed to write their resistance cryptically. The inferred meaning screams just under the surface of texts like Kim Su-yong’s famous ‘Grasses’, published in the late 1960s:
Grasses lie down Blown by the wind driving rain from the east grasses lie, at last cried As the day is overcast, they cried more, and lay again Grasses lie Faster than the wind they lie Faster than the wind they cry Earlier than the wind they rise The day is overcast, and grasses lie to the ankle to the sole they lie Later than the wind they lie Earlier than the wind they rise Later than the wind they cry Earlier than the wind they smile The day is overcast, and the grass roots lie. (translated by Y-J Lee)
If one of poetry’s functions is to be ‘the subjective expression of a social antagonism’ (Adorno 2009: 30), then the voices of the ch’amyŏ’p’a poets have long proclaimed an idealism that, Samizdat-style, refuses to accept imposed social orders. Consider the implications in Lee Si-Young’s epigram, ‘The Way Goats Walk’:
The way every goat in the world walks is sad. Because as they go clip-clopping, along all unsuspecting, reined in close to their owner’s side, the way they walk is so earnest and meek. (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé)
This is not poetry for poetry’s sake but the enactment of a refusal to simply ‘be at home in one’s home’ (Adorno 1974: 39). And that desire to speak out, founded so ferociously in the recent past, is still very much alive today.
Lee Si Young, courtesy of Son Hyeon Sook.
Mid-September, and the last night of the Seoul International Writers Festival has been predictably weird. The week’s events have showcased the extent to which those many lyrical darknesses explored by previous generations of Korean poets have been chopped into a salad of non-narrative styles; this current generation of loud and rambunctious Rimbaudians, who seem to each scan the glass and concrete vistas of new Seoul with large doses of scepticism, prioritise explorations in all the latest usual unusual ways: these enfants terribles mix a localised variant of the dream logic of Dada with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry’s resistance to commodification by means of fractured syntax, and this autochthonous experimental poetry caterwauls from a place that has grown insanely wealthy, made by those who remain at once astonished and suspicious of the benefits such wealth confers.
Every evening, in the wealthy downtown suburb of Bukchon, the tiny Changwoo Theatre has been packed. Autumn is disappearing; some nights we’ve sweated our way into unintentional sleeping, and others have been spent chattering and rigid on our chairs. One poet, the fifty-something Lee Young Kwang, is universally fêted by younger innovators, and he delivers a threnody on mad trees, sinking warships, the timeless wisdom of ghosts who’ve had their human lives cut short. When asked, he growls in guileless monotone how poets are wolves: solitary, best left alone, instinctually watchful, usually mistrustful. In this country of spectacles, the festival has foregrounded interdisciplinarity, and audiences treated to a strange synthesis of poetry read alongside duelling guitars/ video installations/ stamping flamenco dancers, etc. Some of it has been interesting, but the work of some poets in particular (such as visitors Sinead Morrissey and Claude Mouchard) calls for closer and careful listening, without interruption. And it is here that Lee Young Kwang’s ideas resonate: in this country of massive distraction and even greater magnitudes of aspiration, paired with compliance and peer pressure amid the hegemony of capital, the need for outsiders, disbelievers sounding wolf notes, howling naysayers et al., is more pressing than ever.
While the economy booms to the logic of commodity fetishism, labour in Korea remains stratified. From part-time unskilled through to skilled employment, work is often dispatched into sub-contractual contexts, belying a massive gap in personal wealth. In her paper ‘Reterritorializing Working-class Literature in Contemporary Korea’, academic Eun-Gwi Chung makes clear just how disposable labour is seen to be in this country:
In 2013, 45.9 percent of salary workers in Korea are temporary workers, their salary is 49.5 per cent of fixed-term workers, and the minimum hourly wage for temporary workers is 4,850 won, or around $4.20, less than the price of a hamburger.
Many multinational Korean companies (including Samsung) retain a standing policy of not tolerating a unionised workplace, labour unions being considered impediments to economic growth. Strike-busting, standover tactics, police brutality, and legal action against organisers are common practices here. In late 2014, poet Song Kyung-dong was sentenced to two years prison for mobilising what he called the ‘Hope Bus’ movement, in which some 200 buses swarmed one site of industrial action in a show of solidarity. The poet has appealed his sentence, and the Hope Buses are icons of an all-too-infrequent resistance. Despite the potential consequences, Song Kyung-dong remains a voice prepared to agitate on behalf of an alienated workforce.
Answering Trivial Questions Song Kyung-dong one day a man calling himself a Marxist came and asked me to join a new organisation after some talking he asked by the way, from which university did you graduate comrade Song? Smiling, I answered, high school is the end of my education I graduated from juvenile hall and have been a labourer ever since that moment I saw a cold greasy film cover his eyeballs only a moment earlier so passionate flustered, he said you should feel glorified to be together with the liberation frontier of the nation sorry, but I decided not to join that glorification today, ten years later again people are asking what organisation I am part of and I answer again without hiding I am registered in that field pushed by the sea-waves flickering every day in front of those flower petals coloured by the green tree instigated by the wind part of the fallen walls of the ones that don’t have anything kicked stalls and shoes falling to pieces the words of the many still not born crawling like amoebas, I answer I am taught by the river silent after recording so many ripples
In and around Seoul, a cadre of recently emerged poets are writing about madness, collective exhaustion and, amid the baubles of hyper-capitalism, loss. Inside their poems are pantheons of otherworldly wanderers, silhouettes, drunkards, misfits, shadows; what’s also clear is the extent to which these heterotopians seem so keen to abandon older expressivist modes. There’s a certain punk ethos at work in these rebellions; in his paper, ‘Who is the man who puts rotten fruit inside my head, and squeezes rotten juice deep into my blood vessels’, poet Jeong Kang exemplifies the mood:
The facts that I witness are always betrayals of facts, so to speak, and reverse images of facts (like a scene caught on a camera lens) … What’s significant is that these mutants come my way at unpredictable moments, regardless of my intention or desire. In other words, I don’t summon or give rise to them; forms and images that develop naturally in a time and space of their own suddenly come upon me and make me scribble things down. In a way, I am assaulted by the world, and one of the first symptoms I get is dry heaving. (Kang 2014a: 84-5)
So many of these visceral responses (of which poet Kim Hyesoon can be said to be a high priestess) scan as refractive and unedited, random snapshots of often nightmarish alienations in which affect is tellingly absent:
Biting into the flesh of things said to be inferior to human beings, striving to liberate my humanness, because someone’s heart, still alive in my body, playing the coquette artistically wants to touch something outside my body. I look into the mirror after eating meat, covet the eyeballs of the mournful carnivore in the mirror and masturbate as if turning off the last switch of earth’s destruction. At that moment, inside my head is the gathering place of the theories of modern physics that I had grasped too poetically. As hours and seconds cross boundaries freely, the narrow bathroom becomes the battlefields of the far-off Tang and Sung dynasties where tens of thousands of dead men and horses attract flocks of crows. (Kang 2014b: 86-7) (translated by Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taizé)
In an era in which stylised transgression is avant-tout, Kang’s work exemplifies an unambiguously disharmonic, disunified, and non-connective style; in other words, this is a reflection (and quite possibly also a symptom) of the contemporary Korean milieu. Moving through what he calls ‘a delusional anatomy chart of matter’ (2014a: 86), Kang and those younger poets around him portray their atomisation like players performing in a digital era’s version of Artaudian theatre. In this mode, there are no fortuitous meetings (as Ernst would once have had it) but simply the kinesthetics of affectless pictures.
This once-hermit kingdom, where all but gentry were garbed in white, now spills the phantasmagoric neon of frantic consumerism. Seoul is a city-state of hands-off governance in which politicos make big deals with big smiles (when they’re not throwing punches or teargas canisters across parliament). But so many confess to feeling far from comfortable with the arrival of this country’s incredible wealth; we leave it to the inimitable Ko Un to make his lament for modern Korea. In the foreword to First Person Sorrowful, Andrew Motion suggests that this is a poet equally able to ‘look back at the past with regret’ while singularly fixing on ‘the desecrations of the present’ (Ko Un 2012: 12). Like many in this country, Ko Un is wide awake with anxiety at the neo-liberalisation of this ancient community:
Where Has My Frontier Gone Ko Un It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. All of the Korean peninsula is turning into Seoul. Oh shit, a country with a crush on glitz, on thousands of flashy events. You, and I, all of us, ditto, are turning into New York. We’re turning into that wretched ‘hub’ or dub of a hub. I say: We’re turning into the ugliest, most shameless so-called ‘centre’. The place where once we knew sorrow. The place that was far from anywhere. The place we could not leave. The place we finally left after being held back, held back. The mud-flat of my heart. That place where, at sunset, we could see clearly the biennial bloom of quince flowers. The place that looked the same ten years before and ten years after. The place where we lived together with great-grandmother whom I never once saw, and great-grandfather, too, whom I never saw, both there in mother’s blurred mirror-stand. The place where an uneducated father plowed an ancient field at dusk. The place where truth kept to itself within a village. The place where you fell asleep when I fell asleep. The place where the uncle we believed dead came back to alive. The place where the land-rent was a bone-breaking seven-parts-to-three. The place where people died closing their eyes, having no strength to keep them open. The place where people with low noses and high cheek-bones, enduring harsh poverty, bowed to the dead on ritual nights. The place where long-terms plans were ineffective. The place where people would gather together on rainy days. The place where, if one died, all mourned. The place where Kim was uncle to Jang, where A and B were cousins. The place where people like Sir Magistrate never appeared. The place where, on huge full-moon nights, someone sharpened a kitchen knife and slashed it gleaming through the air. The place where meaning bowed down before meaninglessness. The place we have left behind. Where has my frontier gone? (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha)
Unless otherwise noted, all translations by Un Gyung Yi, Daye Jeon, and Dan Disney.
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