[KS] KSR 1999-03:_Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems_, by Ko Un;
Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Jul 14 07:45:46 EDT 1999
_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
Reviewed by Kevin O'Rourke
[This review first appeared in _Korean Literature Today_ 3.1 (Spring 1998),
_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:
What are you?
What are you are you. . .
This is a little book, filled with little delights. "Mountaintop" reads:
What do you think there is up on the mountaintop?
A peach tree's flowering at the crossroads.
"I'm off again today. . ."
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:
Hey, were you talking about old Buddha?
Why, old Buddha's no Buddha.
Real Buddha's a fish just netted
leaping and jumping.
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.
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; . . .
Sublime language is of its nature wordless.
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:
Jang Ku-song the hermit was busy shitting
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.
This 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.
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, Chng Ch'l, 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
The bow taut.
The arrow strikes
By the pain of your darkness the moon rose.
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.
_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.
O'Rourke, Kevin 1999
Review of Ko Un, _Beyond Self, 108 Korean Zen Poems_, translated by
Young-Moo Kim and Brother Anthony
Korean Studies Review 1999, no. 3
[This review first appeared in _Korean Literature Today_ 3.1, Spring 1998,
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