The Early Lyrics 1941-1960: Poems by So Chong-Ju, transl. by Brother Anthony of Taizé. Cornell East Asia Series, 90. Ithaca: East Asia Program, Cornell University, and Seoul: DapGae, 1998. 299 pp. (ISBN 1-885445-90-3 paper).
The publication of a Korean-English bilingual edition of the early lyrics of Sô Chông-Ju, also known by his pen name Midang, marks a major step forward in Korean Studies. Unlike the existing sampler type of selected work, 1 this book covers all of Midang's early poetic output which appeared in the first four collections of his verse: Flower Snake Poems (1941); Nightingale (1948); Selected Poems of Sô Chông-Ju (1955); and The Essence of Silla (1960). Spanning nearly two and a half decades of Midang's career as a poet, the Cornell East Asia Series edition enables the reader to trace closely the artistic development of perhaps "the greatest living Korean poet" (Introduction, p. 9). What makes this comprehensive text particularly valuable is not simply the sheer volume of verse it contains, for it is during his early period that Midang made an indelible impression on the Korean reading public with his iconoclastic, new voice. It is also during this period that he wrote some of his most well-known masterpieces, such as "Self-portrait," "Flower Snake," "A Leper," "A Poem about Riverside Village," "On Seeing Mudung Mountain," and "Beside a Chrysanthemum," among others. The availability of a substantial bulk of bilingual material for such an important writer as Midang helps upgrade the study of Korean literature beyond its customary survey level in universities outside of Korea.
Read chronologically, Midang's early lyrics reflect the artist's soul-searching peregrination. We see his youthful penchant for a language of the body, epitomized by European Symbolist poetics, Hellenic ideals, and Nietzschean philosophy, develop into a mature rediscovery of the spiritual world of Shamanism and Buddhism deeply entrenched in the traditional Korean culture. Midang's self-acknowledged debt to Charles Baudelaire and Friedrich Nietzsche is clearly recognizable in the brutally sensuous imagery running through Flower Snake Poems. For instance, the title poem "Flower Snake" opens:
A back road pungent with musk and mint.
So beautiful, that snake-
What huge griefs brought it to birth?
Such a repulsive body! (21)
In this poem the speaker's guilt-ridden indulgence in decadent erotic beauty culminates as he links the crimson-colored, "lovely lips" of the cursed snake with "Cleopatra's blood," and then again toward the end of the poem with his young bride Sunnei's "catlike" mouth. Diverse sensory effects coordinated in this and many other pieces in Flower Snake Poems seem to aspire for synesthesia, a technique championed by Baudelaire. Flower Snake Poems, with its bold images, unabashed sexual exploration, and vigorous rhythmic pulse, occupies a conspicuous place in the history of modern Korean poetry.
From the period of Nightingale, Midang begins to gravitate toward Eastern religious and cultural traditions for poetic inspiration. The external momentum for this change was provided by Korea's independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. In "A Song of the Goddess of Mercy in the Stone Cavern," Midang intimates "a fresh breath of youth" exuding from "[d]eep in the cracks between stone and cold stone" (87). His tone in this poem is subdued and cautiously optimistic compared with the emotional strife expressed earlier in the face of the irreconcilable dualism of soul and flesh. Blood red, the dominant color in Flower Snake Poems, thus gives way to sky blue in Nightingale. This transformation is accompanied by a shift in his poetic sensibility from city to nature. Despite the unmistakable infusion of a hopeful note, however, the reader cannot miss a strand of tragic loss and longing resonating in Nightingale. "Nightingale: The Journey Home" and "At Nightfall," for example, draw heavily on the quintessential Korean pathos of han.
In the 1950's, Silla emerges as the central locus of Midang's poetic vision. To him, the ancient Buddhist kingdom "represents an archetypal lost home, nostalgia for which raises the perceptive reader out of the limitations of the present into an awareness of eternal realities" (Introduction 10). Midang characterizes his career as a search for "a poetic reconciliation of the present with the eternal," and it is in the harmonious unity of the ideal and the real symbolized by Silla that he finds the possibility of transcending life's fundamental antinomies (Introduction 10). During the period of Silla, Midang writes, "a star came down, / eager to help youths climbing Diamond Mountain / and it would sweep the path before their feet," but the unity of our world and the world beyond dwindled when "the teachings of the Sung masters arrived" ("A Brief Astronomical History of Korea" 271). Midang's work from this period on is increasingly permeated with a Buddhist esprit at the heart of the Silla symbolism. Yet no poem surpasses his "Beside a Chrysanthemum" in its rich evocative power of karmic interdependence in human as well as natural worlds. Often viewed as suggestive of Midang's own tumultuous youth and subsequent artistic maturation, this piece, with its exquisite epiphany of sublime inner tranquility, has established itself as his signature poem.
The Early Lyrics 1941-1960 is a book well worth perusing for its aesthetic merit--in both languages--and for its pedagogical usefulness. Brother Anthony deserves unstinting applause for the contribution he has made to the translation of Korean poetry. The English text of The Early Lyrics 1941-1960 was first published in 1993 by Forest Books under the title of Midang So Chong Ju: The Early Lyrics 1941-1960. A crosscheck of the two editions reveals that the translator has made minor revisions for the bilingual version. Although local in their scale, these revisions showcase the translator's ceaseless efforts to create English verse worthy of the original in rhythm, musicality, and visual imagery. Compare, for example, the two different opening lines of "Self-portrait": "Dad was a slave. He wasn't home even late at night" (1993) versus "Dad was a slave. Never home even late at night" (1996). The structural tightening enhances the syntactic and semantic tension of the line with the added echo of "n" between "never" and "night." Throughout the book, assonance serves as one of Brother Anthony's preferred strategies for attuning the Korean poems with English prosody. "Flower Snake" offers a prime example of the ways in which carefully crafted alliterative phrases and rhythmic patterns add spice to unassuming diction and thereby amplify its poetic resonance. On the whole, Brother Anthony maintains a conversational style that, in seemingly treating the audience as a confidante, both captures Midang's lyrical voice and adds to the vibrancy, immediacy, and drama of the translations.
In his introduction to The Early Lyrics 1941-1960, Brother Anthony states that his translations are "as full and as conservative as is possible within the limits of the option to translate poems as poems" (10). This statement accounts for the preservation of many of the characteristic features of the original in the translations, ranging from line arrangements and cultural allusions to the frequent repetitions of emotionally loaded phrases. As is seen in his rendering of "Kyônu ûi norae" as "The Herdsman's Song" and "Sudaedong si" as "A Poem about Riverside Village" ("A Poem about My Old Neighborhood" in the 1993 version), Brother Anthony endeavors to transfer the visual and cultural dimensions of the original to the target language faithfully. Despite these "conservative" aspects, his approach to The Early Lyrics 1941-1960 can be described overall as a "transposition" or "versioning" rather than a "translation," according to his own distinction of the different levels of translation. 2 To render "poems as poems," he occasionally opts for expressions familiar to the English ear ("lyre" for kômun'go) rather than attempting awkward substitutions or calques. For the uninitiated reader of Midang's work, Brother Anthony's introduction and notes are indispensable. They are, however, economical enough not to interfere with the pace of the advanced student.
The Early Lyrics 1941-1960 will benefit various types of readers. It can serve as a basic textbook for students of Korean poetry and also as a handy bilingual reference for researchers in modern Korean literature. This edition not only fills in for a Western audience gaps in the early stages of Midang's poetic career and the development of modern Korean poetry at large, it also paves a smooth passage into Winter Sky, which, published eight years after The Essence of Silla, is considered by some a pinnacle of Midang's poetic achievements to date. Whether read independently or in conjunction with other works by Midang, the bilingual edition opens up new avenues of exploration in Korean literature courses; it can also facilitate study for those interested in translation theory and practice as they pertain specifically to Korean poetry. Given that several different translations of Midang's poems are already available in English, such exercises have become plausible. To fully ensure the pedagogical potential of the book and to attract new readers to Korean poetry, however, minor typographical and formatting errors should be corrected in both the English and Korean texts. In spite of these mechanical flaws, The Early Lyrics 1941-1960 promises both further breadth and depth in the study of Korean literature in the West.
1 See, for example, Poems of Sô Chôngju, trans. by David R. McCann. (New York: Columbia UP, 1989); and Poems of a Wanderer: Selected Poems of Midang So Chong-ju, trans. by Kevin O'Rourke. (Dublin: Dedalus P, 1995).
2 Brother Anthony uses the terms "translation" and "transposition" to contrast literal with liberal translations. See Brother Anthony, "Methodologies of Poetry Translation," in Han'guk munhak ûi oekugô pônyôk: hyônhwang kwa chônmang [Translation of Korean Literature: The Current Situation and Prospects], ed. Jong-gil Kim et al. (Seoul: Minûmsa, 1997), 238.