Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems, by Ko Un; translated by Young-Moo Kim and Brother Anthony. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1997. (ISBN # 0-938077-99-6 paper).
Reviewed by Kevin O'Rourke
[This review first appeared in
Korean Literature Today 3.1 (Spring 1998), pp.194-98]
Beyond Self came into my hands at the end of a typical English December day in the northern city of Sheffield. Not really autumn and not really winter, there was just enough damp in the air to remind one that dark days lay ahead. It was the nicest thing that happened to me that day; in fact it kept me up till three in the morning. Not that it takes three hours to read the book - an hour would be more than enough - but this is a book to be savored. From the opening "Echo" with the rhythm of the ultimate question the poem asks beating in the line, I was enthralled:
To mountains at dusk:This is a little book, filled with little delights. "Mountaintop" reads:
What are you?
What are you are you. . .What do you think there is up on the mountaintop?The wisdom of this is apparent to anyone who has spent time looking for beauty in the wrong places. Then there is "Old Buddha" a poem for the existential realist:
A peach tree's flowering at the crossroads.
"I'm off again today. . ."Hey, were you talking about old Buddha?Han Yongun would have been delighted by this: buddha essence in the living existential moment! Beyond Self is a book of such golden moments of insight: by turns incisive, humorous, wry, sad, joyful.
Why, old Buddha's no Buddha.
Real Buddha's a fish just netted
leaping and jumping.
Ko Un tells us that "Son (Zen) comes alive by first denying speech and writing." (xxiv) I think he means by this that Son goes to the heart of experience, in the process cutting through the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of much of our speech and writing. In the West we associate this suspicion about the credentials of language as a vehicle of truth with the reaction against rationalism and the scientific movement at the end of the 19th century, and hence with French symbolist poetry and late nineteenth century English poetry. It comes as a surprise to most Western readers to discover that doubts about language as a vehicle of truth constituted an established point of view in Sung dynasty poetry: notably in the work of Yang Wan-li, who tells us to get rid of words and get rid of meaning and that poetry remains. We find the same approach in Korea's Yi Kyubo who tells us that the poet T'ao Yuan-ming strummed a stringless lyre:Sublime rhythm is of its nature soundless; . . .Skepticism about the capacity of language is also at the core of Ko Un's Son poems. "The Hermit" strikes a mortal blow at language as a vehicle of truth, in a humorous, irreverent, some may even consider coarse or rude attack on pretense:
Sublime language is of its nature wordless.Jang Ku-song the hermit was busy shittingThis is not the kind of poem I would recite at a nice dinner party, but I know from years of reading Korean literature, shijo in particular, that this kind of humor is very much a part of the Korean tradition. The poem itself is not great poetry, but the incisive way it deals with pretense, and the irony of equating meditation and defecation, is at the heart of what the poet tries to do. Most importantly, what is being said catches even the most casual reader, and you can't say that about a lot of poems, East or West.
when he heard frogs croaking. It made him
The croaking of frogs on moonlit nights in early
pierces the world from end to end, makes us all
Look, if you've had your shit,
wipe yourself and get out of here.
Ko Un tells us that Son literature is an intense act of the mind liberated from the established systems of speech and writing. He goes on to say this vitality underlies the fascinating tensions, the urgency, and the outrageous ellipses that characterize Son poems. And then he adds a key phrase to the point that perhaps all poems are really in the end Son poems. Wordsworth, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Yeats, Joyce, Larkin, and Seamus Heaney, to mention but a few key names in the English tradition, practiced a poetic art which emphasized heightened moments of existential experience. Joyce's epiphany was a buzz word in English literature for years. When Western poetry was introduced into Korea in the twenties, the emphasis was on Symon's dictum, the mood of the moment, poetry as a record of diamond moments of experience. Korean poetry at its best has always been a record of such moments of intensity. Anyone who reads Yi Kyubo, Chông Ch'ôl, or Kim Sujang will be aware of this. Ko Un shows that it is still the essence of the Korean tradition.
Form has posed huge problems for translators of Korean poetry down through the years. The iambic line and regular rhyme of traditional English verse are inadequate and indeed inaccurate to the Korean poetic experience, and English modern free verse insofar as it tends to be either a movement from the traditional line or a movement back towards it has its problems too. The solution of the translator's dilemma lies in the realization that every Korean poem in translation requires the invention of an adequate form. The translator studies the original to see how the poet utilizes his tools and he creates in English a form adequate to express what the original poet tried to express. The experience of translating poetry texts leads one eventually, however reluctantly, to the view that translation is creative after all, and not just a mechanical procedure. Most practicing translators will agree that the translator shapes the original poem into an original English format and in the process inevitably puts less or more of himself into it. Perhaps this is what Kim Ok meant when he said there was no point in making a translation unless the translation contained something new. Sheer heresy in academia, but the practicing translator knows, though he may not care to admit it publicly, that there is much truth in it. Kim Ok would say, If you want the poem as it is, read the original!
Beyond Self marks a milestone in Brother Anthony's development as a translator. Earlier in his career the original Korean text sometimes operated as a wall keeping him from the poetry: the rhythms of the English line tended to be swamped by the rhythms of the Korean, not all the time, but enough to create a barrier. Form was not priority A. In Beyond Self, and it seems to me that this is a huge breakthrough, he is creating English poems that function as poems rather than as translations. If he had translated "Echo" ten years ago, I think he might well have written that final line as, What are you, what are you... losing the echo effect in the line. Take for example the way he handles "The Moon":The bow taut.One might quibble a little with the opening "The," opting instead for a two stress opening, Bow taut, followed by the stressed one syllable second line. Otherwise, look how beautifully constructed this is. You have that age old Korean thing about the moon as a bow, the speed of the arrow, the opposition between light and darkness, the distance between bow and target (eye) reproduced on the printed page, all the contrasts and tensions that go to make a good poem. What exactly does the poem mean? That's probably the wrong question. Sufficient that one should be aware enough of light and darkness in the heart to ask.
The arrow strikes
By the pain of your darkness the moon rose.
Beyond Self features two forewords, an introduction and a preface. One might be forgiven for thinking this is rather excessive baggage for a slim volume of Zen poems to carry. The first preface is written by the late Allen Ginsberg. Instinctively one thinks commercial thoughts when someone of Mr. Ginsberg's eminence introduces a book of Korean poetry, but in the event, he manages to give more information about Ko Un in one page than most commentators do in a book. A poet about a poet, in particular a poet as good as Ginsberg about a good poet, always has a special dimension. It is only at the end of his preface when he goes overboard on the superlatives that one gets a little uncomfortable.
Beyond Self has 108 poems, one for every bead on the Buddhist rosary, one for each of the karmic bonds. If you are consumed by the need to escape from passion and delusion, or if you just like Zen poetry, Beyond Self is a book you will want to read.