'Korean poems delight global sense and sensibility'

Korean author Han Kang, who wrote the three-part novella "The Vegetarian," the winner of last year's Man Booker International Prize
PHOTO: Portobello Books

While the world's eyes are gradually turning away from poetry, Korea's poems are leaving their marks in the pantheon of international literature, acquainting readers with their ethereal elegance.

Unlike in the West, where many illustrious poets self-publish, some writers in Korea have become so popular that they earn considerable royalties, deemed "unimaginable" elsewhere, says Kim Seong-kon, president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

The institute recently collaborated with famed British literary magazine Modern Poetry in Translation in introducing Korea's prominent poems in the journal's winter issue, titled "The Blue Vein." The issue features the works of poets Ko Un, Yi Sang, Kim Hye-soon and Han Kang -- the winner of last year's Man Booker International Prize for her novel "The Vegetarian" -- as well as those of other poets from Korea and around the globe.

Explaining that the magazine had approached the institute first about publishing the special edition, Kim told The Korea Herald that the issue offers a glimpse of Korean poems' "distinct" qualities.

"The debut in the prestigious magazine reflects the growing international curiosity in Korean literature," Kim said, noting that Korean culture is emerging from its relative obscurity on the world stage.

Regarding the 46 Korean poems featured in the magazine -- including those of Kim Yi-deum, Jin Eun-young, Ko Hyeong-ryul and Kim Min-jeong -- the academic referred to a passage by the magazine's editor-in-chief Alexandra Dugdale saying the poems showed "a common consciousness, an awareness of a world badly skewed, inhospitable and deathly," a reference to the selected writers' intellectual defiance against the historical wrongs of colonialism and dictatorship that Koreans went through.

"Many Korean movies and novels display a strong sense of social critique, but Korea's poems have traditionally been more lyrical than political in nature," Kim, a Seoul National University professor emeritus, said.

"Recent trends in poetry show profound personal reflections on life, free from the weight of political and social ideologies," he added, citing Kim Nam-jo's "My Heart Aches," Kim Hu-ran's "In the Shade of Sereneness" and Kim Kwang-kyu's "The Day When My Right Hand Aches."

He also recommended Shin Dal-ja's "Northern Village," Hwang Tong-kyu's "The Pleasure of Living," Oh Sae-young's "Night-Sky Checkerboard" and Park Sang-soon's "200 Grams of Sad Potatoes" as exemplary pieces.

Among the featured poems, Kim especially lauded serial poems "Crow's Eye View" by Yi Sang (1910-37), noting that the author inspired many great poets and novelists with his stroke of genius.

The Modern Poetry in Translation was founded in 1965 by English poet and children's writer Ted Hughes and poet, translator and academic Daniel Weissbort. Their purpose was "to get poetry out from behind the Iron Curtain into a wider circulation in English, and to benefit writers and readers in Britain and America with good works from abroad," according to the magazine.

From left: Korean poet Yi Sang (1910-37), novelist Park Tae-won (1909-86) and essayist Kim So-woon (1907-81) Photo: Wikipidia

"Today's poets and critics believe poetry has its special place in an era of technological upheaval and declining readership," Kim said. "A single poem can galvanize our soul, tug at our heartstrings and revitalise our parched sensibilities."

Arguing a society absent of poetry is "desolate and barren," the academic said "even in this age where machines and materialism dominate, we still have our pastoral yearnings."

One of the key challenges in promoting Korean culture is that the country lacks distinct icons relative to China and Japan, the scholar said. He added such absence renders it difficult for those abroad to differentiate Korea from China and Japan.

Acknowledging his generalization, Kim described the Japanese culture as fine-grained and feminine, and the Chinese culture as masculine and monumental.

"Korea has elements of both," he asserted, saying the combination is the "unique charm of Korea." Another allure of the East Asian country is its embrace of Oriental and Western lifestyles, with teahouses running side by side coffee shops and traditional buildings standing next to skyscrapers, according to Kim.

Highlighting the importance of universal values in literature as the key ingredient for worldwide success, he stressed that poetry should equally betray the unalloyed spirit of its native land.

Since February, the LTI Korea has partnered with the British daily the Guardian to feature Korean poems in the "Translation Tuesdays" weekly series. Works of seven Korean poets, including Kim Ki-taek, Moon Tae-jun, Yoo An-jin and Choi Seung-ja will be introduced this year.

Meanwhile, the institute has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Development Organisation (Hozeh Honari) in Tehran to cross-publish both countries' poetry anthologies. A delegation of Iranian poets will visit Korea in June for the publication of Korean and Farsi poetry collections.

The institute is currently working on two-way translation and publication projects with the Netherlands, Georgia, Indonesia, Singapore and other countries. The organisation also inked agreements with Action Books, an American publisher specialising in poetry, as well as the White Pine Press, for various translated publications of Korean poems.