- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006


Edited by Peter H. Lee

Columbia University Press, $25.50, 352 pages


Not many people in this modern age read books of poetry. Koreans, however, are an exception. Each year South Korea publishes 200 good poetry books, which on average sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies. These numbers have declined since the 1970s, when a couple of Korean poets sold more than one million copies of their poetry books. Still, the market for poetry in South Korea today is the envy of American poets, who along with their European counterparts cannot expect such widespread readership.

Korean poetry also has a rich history. In my opinion, the best collection of classical Korean verse in translation is “The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry.” This groundbreaking anthology was edited by Peter Lee of the University of California at Los Angeles, who founded the field of Korean literature in the United States.

Critics have widely praised the anthology, including Earl Miner of Princeton University. “This is a major cultural event, one owed above all to the unrivaled knowledge, devotion, and good taste of Peter Lee,” wrote Mr. Miner. “It is a full treasury of poems short and long, in Korean and Chinese, from the hut and from the palace, showing the Korean genius for adaptable originality amid intermittent Chinese hegemony and Japanese incursion. English readers have at last access to a full sample of literature that now exists for them for the first time.”

Wrote Jonathan Chaves of George Washington University: “The selection is absolutely thorough, and a particular treat is the inclusion of some of the fine Chinese-language poetry by Korean writers. The list of contributors is a who’s who of the best Korean poetry scholars and translators, including Lee himself, David McCann, Richard Rutt and others. The two long shamanist narrative poems are themselves worth the price of admission.”

Was poetry popular 1,000 years ago in Korea? Yes, it was. This book proves it. Ancient Chinese sources described the Koreans as “a people who enjoy singing and dancing,” referring to the ancient Koreans’ religious festivals. Songs and dances were involved in spring and autumn communal religious affairs, honoring heaven and thanking the earth for the good harvests and well being.

From the beginning, the objects of Korean poetry were romance, prayer for the King and Queen, Buddha, filial piety, Good Earth and nature. The anthology offers a representative selection from the four major genres of native Korean poetry: the Silla songs known as hyangga, Koryo songs, sijo and kasa. They may reflect different dynasties, times, rhythm and themes. But they all reflect the Korean heart and mind.

Within each genre works are arranged chronologically, so that the reader can trace a genre’s development. The translations have been prepared by distinguished scholars and literary translators and are readable and well annotated.

The editor also took the daring step of including oral literature in the anthology, both folk songs and shaman songs. He also included a selection of poems called hansi, which were written by the Korean people in Chinese.

King Sejong of the Yi Dynasty in the 15th century created Hangul, the Korean alphabet. But long before then, the Korean people phonetically borrowed the Chinese characters for their native poems and songs. The learned Korean people wrote their poems in Chinese as the Chinese did.

The first poem in Silla hyangga in this anthology is “Song of Sodong,” by King Mu of Paekche (600-641). The poem is romantic, clever, intriguing. In the 7th century, poetry was a powerful tool, helpful in seducing the beautiful princess of the neighboring Kingdom of Silla. King Mu was Sodong. He wrote the poem and let the Silla children sing it. It became so popular that it spread throughout the capital and reached the royal palace. Princess Sonhwa did not have a choice.

“Princess Sonhwa, / After a secret affair, / Steals away at night, / With Sodong in her arms.”

As for Koryo songs, the “Song of Chongup” is an excellent example. It speaks of a merchant’s wife waiting for her husband’s safe return. The song could have originated in the old city of Chongup, the Paekche Kingdom, and continued to be sung by the Koryo people.

“O moon, rise high, / And shine far and wide. / Ogiya ogangdyori / Au tarongdiri / Are you at the marketplace? / Ah, may you not step onto wet ground. / Ogiya ahangdyori / Leave everything, whatever it is. / Ah, may darkness not overtake him. / Ogiya ogangdyori / Au tarongdiri.”

Koryo songs are characterized by a recurrent refrain that reflects their folk and musical origins and their oral transmission. They were performed and transmitted orally until the 16th century.

Sijo and kasa (two four-syllable semantic units of Korean lyric verse) were developed toward the end of the Koryo Kingdom in the 14th century. Sijo became increasingly popular as a medium for expressing the sentiments of the people. Yun Sondo (1587-1671) is regarded as the greatest poet in the sijo form and wrote many works, including a lengthy poem entitled “The Angler’s Four Seasons.” The following short sijo he composed is popular even today:

“How many friends do I have? Count them: / Water and rock, pine and bamboo — / The rising moon on the East Mountain. / How happy I am / When I welcome my five friends! / What else do I need / When I have five friends?”

Yun Sondo was the first Korean poet who exposed the beauty of the Korean language with his exquisite felicities and his graceful and delicately varied yet forceful rhythm.

Hwang Chini (1506-1544), on the other hand, wrote the most romantic sijo poems. Her poem below is sensual, metaphorical and beautiful even to modern men and women. This poem and five other romantic poems in this anthology deserve to be printed in the New Yorker and other first-class literary magazines:

“I will break the back / of this long, midwinter night, / folding it double, / cold beneath my spring quilt, / that I may draw out / the night, should my love return.”

The anthology did, however, fail to include Koguryo’s second King Yuri’s love song, “Golden Orioles,” written in 17 B.C. I don’t know why Mr. Lee missed the first recorded Korean poem in his volume. Moreover, translating poetry can be an art. What is lost when translating a poem from one language into another may be enormous. For example, I translated Hwang Chini’s poem above somewhat differently:

I will cut into halves that waist / Of the long midwinter night; / Roll it up to be placed / Under the warm spring breeze quilt / And I will unroll it in the night / When my beloved arrives.

Traditional Korean poems were both popular and successful when performed. Recited narrative was interspersed with primal song that not only welcomed, entertained and sent off gods and spirits, but also moved mountains and set all nature dancing in harmony. Indeed, spoken word and performances were significant features of vernacular poetry in traditional Korea.

But modern free verse has lost the rhythm and musicality that the traditional verse possessed — one reason why modern poetry has alienated readers. Unnecessary sophistication and ambiguity in modern poems are also reasons. “The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry” is a welcome alternative.

Dr. Yearn Hong Choi, a retired college professor in Northern Virginia, served in the Defense Department.

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