Buddhist-Christian perspectives in Korean poetry
A shortened version of this essay was published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Japan Mission Journal (Tokyo: Oriens Institute for Religious Research) pages 204 - 216.
One dominant conflict in Korean society for the past 300 years or more
has been centered on the theme of Modernization. Of course, the words
used have varied, and the meanings, too, but the advocates of change
have always been there. In the decades after the Korean War, the
favored term was Development and at the moment it is Globalization. One
of the main pre-modern sources for the notion that Korean society could
be changed for the better, and that models from outside Korea might be
followed with advantage, lies in the books mainly written in the 17th
century by the European Jesuits living in China. Those scientific and
technical volumes soon inspired a School of Practical Learning among
Korean literati, whose adepts suffered repeated crack-downs by the
dominant neo-Confucian “conservatives.”
One of the most famous names among the victims of such a conflict was
the great thinker Dasan, Jeong Yakyong (1762-1836), who spent years in
exile in his maternal home of Gangjin, writing some 500 books
advocating change, and developing his own Way of Tea. The way of tea
was something he learned from a Buddhist monk living nearby, the
Venerable Hyejang, and Dasan transmitted it to another young monk, the
Venerable Choui, who was later to become the greatest tea master of the
age. The practical science and philosophy he acquired from Catholic
books, but the Catholic faith he adhered to for a while was something
others had already discovered in those same books from China. Dasan
encountered it above all in his brother Jeong Yak-Jong, who was
martyred in 1801, and that brother’s son was Jeong Ha-sang, the main
lay leader of the growing Catholic community, martyred in 1839 and
canonized together with his mother and sister in 1985. Despite these
models, Dasan seems soon to have distanced himself from the Catholic
faith as such, while surely remaining alert to its challenges and
demands for constant change, both inward and outward.
The need for change in Korean society and its dominant values was
strongly denied by those who benefited from the status quo, and the
conflict between reformers and conservatives underlies the political
and social turmoil of the late 19th century, that served to prevent any
effective response to the relentless Japanese takeover of the country.
While the Japanese annexation was experienced as an appalling
humiliation, there could be no denying that early 20th-century Japan
was the place for forward-looking Koreans to go to learn about the
modern world. Few could go further. Young Korean intellectuals on their
way to study in Japanese schools took the same boats as the thousands
of economic exiles desperate to find work. Among them in 1908 was the
young Manhae, Han Yong-Un (1879 – 1944), destined to become a great
Buddhist teacher, leader of the Independence Movement, and poet. Manhae
is above all famed as the leader of the 33 signatories of the March 1,
1919 Independence Declaration. In October 1925, he finished his one
collection of poems, titled Nimui-chimmuk (Lover's silence).
In 1908, during his visit to Japan, he was struck to see that Japanese
Buddhism seemed alive and well-integrated in the modernized society
that was evolving as the result of the Meiji reforms. He had become a
Buddhist monk at Baekdam-sa, in Seorak Mountain, in 1904, but was
disturbed by the lethargy of the Korean Buddhist clergy in comparison
with the energy of the newly arriving American Protestant missionaries
and of Japanese Buddhist monks already eagerly recruiting Koreans to
the various sects of Japanese Buddhism. Korean monks had no tradition
of “missionary” proselytizing outreach, and in fact mostly continued to
avoid the towns, from which they had been banished for centuries, since
the start of the Joseon era. Manhae desperately sought for ways to
revitalize Korean Buddhism, and these were expressed in his Bulgyo
yusillon (Proposal for revitalizing Buddhism) which he started to write
in 1909 and published in full in 1913.
There he suggested that Korean Buddhist monks should be able to marry.
This might seem at first sight to be inspired by the Japanese model; he
wishes to see more educated men becoming monks, and he hopes that
Buddhism can leave the remote hillside temples to take root in the
realities of modern (urban) life. However, it might also be that he was
inspired by the example of the American Christian missionaries in
Korea. One of their first activities had been to start schools for
girls, on seeing that women, with their immense potential, were
excluded from any role in Korean society by their lack of education, as
well as by traditional culture. By contrast, the wives of the
missionaries were as dynamic and active as the men, if not more so, and
there were also unmarried women, Australian as well as American, who
came as missionaries.
Out of this, and later out of the works of western fiction translated
into Japanese, emerged the notion of the “New Woman” represented mainly
in “new novels” written by Korean (usually male) writers of the 1920s.
One major theme in these novels, as in social reality, was what came to
be known as “free love” – not the promiscuity of Bolshevik idealists
but the demand that a woman should not be forced to marry a man she did
not feel love for. Until then, a Korean bride normally had never even
seen her future husband, chosen by their families, until the wedding
ceremony and her feelings were of no significance. The very notion that
a woman might experience passionate love toward her husband was
revolutionary, and was surely in Korean minds related to the practices
of Christian cultures.
Manhae, whose youthful arranged marriage had been dissolved when he
became a monk, only put his recommendation into practice in his own
life in 1933, when he married a woman in the modern manner, seeking a
relationship of minds as well as of bodies. The poems of Nimui chimmuk
(Lover’s Silence) were written before this, and they are best seen as
expressions of strong but unspecified desire; Manhae himself refused to
say if, for him as he wrote, the “one loved” (Nim) was a person, a
religion, a country, or an ideal. Yet the poems clearly express
sensuous longing and are quite unique in their intensity. The poems
seem to be spoken by a voice striving for fulfillment in love in
separation, or rather through separation. The paradox of the Zen koan
is not absent from these poems, in which separation, distance and
longing beget a fulfillment of desire more intense than any presence
can offer :
Others love their freedom, but I prefer submission.
It’s not that I don’t know freedom,
I just want to submit to you.
Willing submission is sweeter than exalted freedom.
If you tell me to submit to someone else,
that’s the only thing to which I can’t submit.
If I submit to someone else, I can’t submit to you.
One dominant presence in the collection, that was composed during the
summer of 1925, is that of the great Indian poet Rabidranath Tagore.
Manhae writes in a constant dialogue with him and it might be wondered
if reports of the reading tour Tagore made through China and Japan in
1924, just before he left for Argentina, did not initiate Manhae’s
creative process. Certainly, Tagore’s poems were translated into Korean
at about the same period, though Manhae would have known them in
Japanese. In The Gardener 50, Tagore wrote “Love, my heart longs day
and night for the meeting with you—for the meeting that is like
all-devouring death ( . . . .) Alas for my vain desire! Where is this
hope for union except in thee, my God?” Manhae responded to this in the
poem “Reading Tagore’s Poem ‘Gardenisto’”:
You say the scent of death is sweet, but you can’t kiss the lips of dry bones.
Don’t spread a web of golden song over that grave, but plant a bloodstained banner.
Similarly, we find in Gitanjali 103 “Let all my songs gather together
their diverse strains into a single current and flow to a sea of
silence in one salutation to thee.” In some ways, the whole of Manhae’s
collection is a paradoxical contradiction of that exaltation of
silence, nowhere more than at the end of the extraordinary opening
poem, “Lover’s Silence”:
My love is gone.
Ah, the one I love is gone.
Crossing the narrow path to the maple grove
that shatters the mountain green, she tore away from me.
(. . .)
Love is a human thing—when meeting I already feared parting,
and still with separation, my heart burst with fresh sorrow.
(. . .)
My love is gone, but I didn’t send her away.
My common song of love wraps itself around my lover’s silence.
Thus for Manhae, the poems exist to make sense of the absence and the
silence of the one longed for. The silence of the absent lover leads to
the utterance of the poem and without the one, the other would be
without value. There is no necessity to seek an allegorical dimension
to such poems, as many Koreans have tried to do, forcing the Nim to be
a representative of colonized Joseon/Korea, or of the Buddha. Yearning
in itself is the collection’s central theme, expressed vividly in
I made wine from fragrant grapes ripened by autumn breeze and morning sun.
The perfume of fermenting wine dyes the fall sky.
I fill a lotus leaf with this wine and offer it to you.
Take it from my shaking hands and wet your parched lips.
If kept overnight, this wine will turn to tears.
After one night more, my tears will turn to new wine.
Of this, Manhae’s translator Francesca Cho writes (106): “The scent of
fermenting grapes that paints the autumnal sky leads to a tremulous
offering that looks forward to an erotic fulfillment. The love of God
(and perhaps of nation) has been conceived in such opulent terms in the
literatures of the world, particularly in the traditions of religious
poetry that use the human language of desire to express the insatiable
longing for God. Buddhist enlightenment however, which lacks a personal
God, is never envisioned in such terms in Asian poetry. (. . .) Manhae
states that all avenues of human activity, in their historical and
passionate particularity, form the paths to human perfection and,
paradoxically, to human transcendence.” It is not sure if Manhae ever
read the Song of Songs from the Old Testament, but the parallel is
striking, as Francesca Cho suggests. Manhae’s radically new spiritual
vision, expressed as human passion in all its concreteness, is far
removed from conventional Buddhist language, and rather links with ways
in which Christians have expressed themselves.
When Tagore read his poems in Tokyo in 1924, there was a young Korean
Buddhist monk in the audience. He reported later how enthralled he had
been to hear the great poet reading in Bengali. In later years, this
monk, the Venerable Hyodang, Choi Beom-sul (1904-1979), was to become a
close associate of Manhae in defending Korean Buddhism against the
encroachments of Japanese sects, and a major Buddhist leader in his own
right. Hyodang was active in many ways: Buddhist monk, advocate of an
independent Korean cultural and national identity, founder of schools,
quiet opponent of dictators, friend of dissidents, communitarian
visionary, tea master . . . One major factor giving unity to all this
was his attachment to the teachings of Wonhyo (617-686).
This immensely popular Buddhist figure from ancient Silla is hardly
known in the West. Even in Korea, the difficulty of his many writings
makes his teaching hard to grasp. His life story is more accessible,
the story of his night-time drink from a skull leading to enlightenment
being especially familiar, but the deeper vision underlying the tales
of his various strange and eccentric acts is not always well
understood. Wonhyo was convinced that all human beings were utterly
equal since each and everyone had an inalienable, fundamental (Buddha)
nature, the potential of attaining buddhahood (il-sim). In his own
life, Wonhyo stressed that freedom (mu-ae) and compassion were the two
essential qualities of a Buddhist (or human) life. He stressed the need
to struggle to overcome false distinctions (hwa-jaeng), and in so doing
he rejected all that we would term “clericalism;” he even reckoned
total enlightenment was a potential snare, if it were seen as
dispensing those who had attained it from practicing compassion toward
suffering humanity. In order to make this clear, he deliberately broke
his vow, fathering a child with a princess (the child became a great
Confucian scholar), then left the comforts of temple life, adopted
secular dress and went dancing through the streets in a deliberate
break with social conventions. In this way he was able to share
joyfully the Buddhist vision with the suffering poor he met, a kind of
Korean St. Francis.
One of the most characteristic features of Hyodang’s life was his
openness, especially to those who were suffering. We may cite his
welcome at his home temple of Dasol-sa (near Jinju) of so many
different kinds of marginalized and persecuted people, his readiness to
accept as monks people who did not conform to standard models, his
ready mingling of monks and ordinary people in the community there, to
say nothing of communists and christians, his conviction that monks too
should work with their hands and perform menial tasks, rather than
spend hours chanting sutras while lay workers slaved to feed them and
rich ladies bought them expensive automobiles.
The anarchist radicalism practiced by Hyodang in his
youth, when he even helped plan the assassination of the Japanese Crown
Prince, must surely have appealed to him above all by its rejection of
divisive, elitist attitudes. Like Wonhyo, and like Manhae, Hyodang
refused to practice a distinction between the monastic life and
ordinary life. Unlike Wonhyo, he was not inclined to sing and dance in
the streets, banging on a gourd in an eccentric lifestyle; but like
Wonhyo, he placed his monastic vocation firmly on the side of those who
were poor or suffering under the demands of current social and
political realities, as a challenge to the powerful and privileged.
Hyodang’s sympathies clearly lay, from his earliest days in Japan, with
the exploited victims of society. He was a very Christian Buddhist
monk, we might say, more christian than many christians, indeed! The
same might well be said of Manhae.
When we see how often he wrote the four characters 茶道無門, “the Way of
Tea has no doors, excludes no-one” we are reminded of that same deep,
universal, all-embracing vision. His assertion that to prepare and
drink a cup of tea is in itself a practice of Zen, a means of
enlightenment, challenges the need for years of harsh practice in
monastic seclusion. Like Wonhyo, he is affirming that anyone, monk or
lay, here and now, in this present life, no matter what their
education, or status, or morality even, can fulfill their essential
nature in the simplest possible ways. It is hardly surprising that
there were many christians, catholic and protestant, who came to hear
him teach and who admired his vision, so close to their own. He
invariably welcomed them, and even lectured on explicitly christian
We must turn now to a poet who was a practicisng catholic. In 1946, Ku
Sang took leave of his widowed mother, who was living near Wonsan, on
the east coast of what is now North Korea. As she watched from the road
in front of the gateway, he walked away, heading for the southern part
of the Korean peninsula. Neither could imagine that they would never
meet again. After returning from studies of comparative religion in
Tokyo a few years earlier, he had found work as a journalist and had
already written a number of poems. With other local poets, he had
recently been working on a collective volume of their poems. Before any
book could be published, it had to be approved by the authorities,
already dominated by the communist party, and in this case the censors
had detected seven separate serious ideological failings. To avoid a
trial and a potentially lethal outcome, Ku Sang fled, leaving behind
not only his mother and his elder brother, a Catholic priest, but also
his recently married wife. His wife was later able to join him in the
South, but the other members of his family remained in the North until
their deaths. His brother was almost certainly martyred in June 1950.
Ku Sang died in Seoul in 2004 at the age of 85.
He was born in Seoul on September 16, 1919, but when he was only a
small child his family moved to the north-eastern city of Wonsan, where
he grew up. Although he had attended “minor seminary” and had been
brought up as a member of a devout Catholic family, Ku Sang underwent a
crisis of faith during his student years in Japan, where he studied the
philosophy of religion, especially Buddhism:
Stretched out on my boarding-house tatami floor,
I celebrated daily
funerals of God
and sitting beside a pond in Kitsijoji Park,
I imagined the rapture of a Zarathustra
climbing up to the stronghold of the Superman.
Later he slowly found his own understanding of Catholicism, thanks in
part to the works of French catholic philosophers such as Jacques
Maritain and Gabriel Marcel. He frequently insisted that without a
clearly-thought metaphysical system, there could be no truth and no
true poetry. It was this that inspired Cardinal Kim Su-hwan, the
retired Archbishop of Seoul, to say of Ku Sang during his sermon at the
funeral Mass, “He was truly a Catholic poet, not just in the sense that
he belonged to the Catholic church and respected its doctrines, but in
the sense that his heart was universal, that his poems had a vision
that was cosmic, touching people in every corner of the world.”
One of his poems is particularly well-adapted for our theme, for in it
he deliberately tried to bring together and reconcile the Buddhist
notion of Karma with the christian notion of Koinonia in his expression
“the mystery of meeting.” Ku Sang deliberately avoided the more
elaborate poetic styles, insisting that he was simply trying to express
things without wanting to impress anyone.
On the path before my house
every day I meet a pebble
that once was kicked by my passing toe.
At first we just casually
brushed past each other, morning and night,
but gradually the stone began to address me
and furtively reach out a hand,
so that we grew close, like friends.
And now each morning the stone,
blooming inwardly with flowers of Grace,
gives me its blessing,
and even late at night
it waits watchfully to greet me.
Sometimes, flying as on angels’ wings
it visits me in my room
and explains to me the Mystery of Meeting,
reveals the immortal nature of Relationship.
So now, whenever I meet the stone,
I am so uncivilized and insecure
that I can only feel ashamed.
One of the main translators of his work once wrote: “No other Korean
poet has so perfectly brought together the christian belief that all is
redeemed in God’s eternity with the Buddhist conviction that all that
exists is united in an unending cosmic process.” He was remarkable for
his laughing responses to life, even in its most serious moments. He
notoriously laughed while he was speaking at his wife’s funeral Mass,
telling how she gave all the money she earned as a doctor to the poor,
leaving nothing for them, although as a poet and journalist he could
earn almost nothing. Several of his friends remarked that it was only
suitable that the photograph carried before his coffin at his funeral
showed him smiling rather mischievously. The French poet and critic
René Tavernier once wrote of his work: “A poetry born out of
faith in God, and at the same time emerging from history, the thoughts
of Ku Sang are based on experience as well as on belief: physical
reality, appearances are by no means insignificant but beyond them
there is another truth of which we only detect traces here and there.
The thinker, the theologian, the believer are able to sense the
existence of that higher universe. For Ku Sang, poetry is the sign of
an inner experience.”
The volume Yuchi-challan (Infant Splendor) was a remarkable joint
production, combining poems by Ku Sang and paintings by the eccentric
Buddhist monk Junggwang. Both men had a radical, anarchic streak in
their personalities, although in Ku Sang it was usually kept under
control. He himself wrote in the preface: ‘The mind of childlike
innocence that we try to portray in our poems and paintings is not that
state naturally found in the child before it reaches the age of
discretion, but rather the condition of someone who has reached purity
of heart by achieving mastery over self. Not, of course, that we claim
to have attained such a state; I would rather say that we have simply
been striving to fathom what might be the nature of such a state. At a
time when the whole world seems fascinated by strategic values such as
ownership and profit, in the midst of all this uproar, the fact is that
we are eager to achieve such an innocence in our lives. While we were
bringing out our series of poems and paintings, we were criticized on
the one hand for being ‘unrealistic,’ on the other for being
‘inartistic’. But since neither of us has ever had any thought of
becoming the ‘ornament of the age’ as poet or artist, it seems not to
In that volume he was especially conscious of writing in a Buddhist-inspired “Zen” mode, free and spontaneous:
Each month for this series
I select bits of idle chatter such as this
and turn out things called poems,
so that one young poet, perhaps finding it rather odd,
observed, ‘Then it seems there is absolutely nothing
in the whole world that is not a poem?’
Right! There is nothing
in the world, to be sure,
that is not a poem.
From humanity on down,
in every thing and every act,
all that is true and good and beautiful
is all poem.
More than that, in every person
and in every thing and in every act
the good, the beautiful, the true dwells.
And it is written that where sin increases
God’s grace increases all the more.
and then like a child
savoring and enjoying it,
is to be a poet.
The Buddhist refusal of distinctions is echoed in the Christian refusal
to judge and condemn sin, finding in its manifestations only the added
possibility of Grace. The notion “tout est grâce” offends the
moralist, delights Ku Sang. That recalls another of the poems from that
volume, in which he tells how delighted he was to hear a neighborhood
child say she had told her school teacher that she knew a famous poet
‘who looks just like a little boy playing by himself.’ Authenticity in
him meant lightness and truth; he was never ashamed to evoke moments of
sexual or other transgression, to the greater surprise and scandal of
certain priests who wanted Korea’s leading “Catholic poet” to present a
mask of feigned respectability to the world. He is one of the very few
poets to report having had a ‘wet dream’ in the course of a poem, and
more than once recalls spending the night with a prostitute. The heart
of the child?
The Baby Now
The baby now
is seeing something.
Is hearing something.
Is thinking something.
It’s seeing forms like those when
Mohammed in the cave on Mount Hira
received revelation from God.
It’s hearing voices like that which
rang out over the head of Jesus of Nazareth
when he was baptized on the banks of the Jordan.
It’s lost in thoughts like those when
Shakyamuni attained enlightenment sitting
beneath the Bo tree in the forests of Mount Gaya.
No, the baby is seeing, hearing, thinking
something that is none of those.
It’s seeing, hearing, thinking something
that no one else can see or hear or think:
something that as a quite unique human being
it alone will have to bring to bud and blossom.
And all on its own it’s smiling sweetly.
The “thusness” of all things, stressed in Buddhist thought, corresponds
to something that is very essential in christian thought, as Ku Sang
makes plain in this poem. Things are what they are, neither more nor
less, not veils or symbols; likewise words should function directly and
not claim to a complexity they do not have. Ku Sang writes in his poem
People commonly claim that words and thoughts are distinct,
but really thoughts and feelings are experienced in words
so that it has been said 'Being dwells in language'
And just as another person may savor the beauty of a rose
blooming in a neighbor’s garden more than the actual owner,
or just as the trampling of a roadside weed
may move someone else to tears of pity,
a poem is something born, brought into being and written
out of a 'universal sensitivity' and compassion,
so never try to find or get or write a poem
while haltered by ownership or self-interest!
Ah! The wonder of the Word!
It can be argued that one of the most widespread and damaging
distortions of Christianity derives from the influence of Platonism,
with its suggestion that the material world is essentially unreal and
that there is a more real world of pure mind or spirit beyond it,
‘transcending’ it; related to that is the dislocation caused by
notions, from the same source, that the real relationship with God,
with Christ, can occurs only after physical death, when the soul is
liberated from the “prison” of the body. Whereas the Christian
tradition more precisely reckons that Eternity is “here and now” or it
Ku Sang’d last poem expresses that very forcefully:
Today again I confront a day that is a source of mystery.
In this day the past, present and future are one,
just as each drop of water in that river
is linked to a tiny spring in some mountain valley
and linked to the distant, azure sea.
In that way, in this today of mine, being linked to eternity,
at this very moment I am living that eternity.
That means that it is not after I have died
but from today on that I must live eternity,
must live a life worthy of eternity.
I must live in poverty of heart.
I must live with an empty heart.
Here too, in the closing lines, he deliberately combines Buddhist and
Christian terminologies for what he sees as one and the same Way. The
poetry of Ku Sang, the eccentricity of Wonhyo dancing in the
market-places and the joy of St Francis kissing the leper all concur in
affirming that here and now is all we’ve got, and that the sanctity of
God is to be sought within the desires and the agonies of the flesh, in
the stench of sewers and the sudden beauties of a normal, messy day.
The essential is never elsewhere, only it is always just out of sight,
just out of reach. Korean poets are very good at making that plain, and
they refuse to let us make false distinctions, by attaching divisive
labels “Buddhist” or “christian” to people, for example. People,
whether they are poets or not, do not correspond to such labels and do
not need them.
That is especially true of the poet Ko Un, who was a Buddhist monk for
some 10 years in his youth, after which he returned to secular life.
Though he has gone on writing on Buddhist themes and published volumes
of “Seon / Zen poetry,” he always insists that he must not be labeled
“a Buddhist poet.” Ko Un is a prolific writer, with some 140 volumes to
his credit. He has written almost every kind of poetry—epic, lyric,
short, long, poetic, prosaic, easy and difficult. His life story is a
poem too: becoming a monk more or less by chance at the nadir of
despair after witnessing massacres during the Korean war, founding the
main Korean Buddhist newspaper, then leaving the monastic life and
passing through years of nihilistic angst that culminated in a nearly
successful suicide attempt in 1970 before finding a meaningful life as
spokesman for the opposition to the military dictatorships of Park
Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan in the 1970s and 1980s. In that opposition,
Christians and Buddhists demonstrated side by side and were arrested
together. Ko Un’s most famous poem from those days, read at countless
demonstrtaions, is eloquent of their united self-giving:
Body and soul, let's all go
transformed into arrows!
Piercing the air
body and soul, let's go
with no turning back
rotten with the pain of striking home
never to return.
One last breath! Now, let's leave the bowstring,
throwing away like rags
everything we've had for decades
everything we've enjoyed for decades
everything we've piled up for decades,
all, the whole thing.
Body and soul, let's all go
transformed into arrows!
The air is shouting! Piercing the air
body and soul, let's go!
In dark daylight, the target rushes towards us.
Finally, as the target topples in a shower of blood
let's all, just once, as arrows
Never to return! Never to return!
Hail, arrows, our nation's arrows!
Hail, our nation's warriors! Spirits!
Ko Un was arrested along with most other opposition figures in May
1980. In his dark prison cell, he began to recall all the people he had
met in life, many already dead and forgotten. He felt that he owed them
memory; they were the stuff of which his own life and Korean history
itself were made, the victims of that history’s agonies and the authors
of its justification, if it had any. He vowed to write a poem
commemorating each of them by name, if he survived the present ordeal.
The result was the series of poems titled Maninbo (Ten thousand lives)
of which 23 volumes have so far been published. The thought behind this
is deeply Buddhist, the notion familiar to every Korean that the lives
of two people whose sleeves touch as they pass in the street will be
brought together repeatedly in the course of multiple future lives by
the processes of Karma. This leads to something not so far removed from
the christian conviction that every human person is united with every
other person in one single human family, and that it was for every
member of that family that Christ came to bring the manifestation of an
eternal love from which no one would ever be excluded. It is not really
very important to argue just how similar or different the notions are.
The responsibility remains; the unspoken “Yes,” in response to Cain’s
question predates all such separations: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In
poetry, the Korean Ko Un’s Maninbo, in a mainly Buddhist tradition, and
the work of Britain’s Geoffrey Hill, writing in a Christian tradition,
raise not completely different versions of a response.
Geoffrey Hill has long been convinced that the art and literature of
the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing of the
dead. Hill’s poetry has pursued that task, for which he feels an almost
obsessive responsibility. The dead whom Hill most frequently
memorializes are the Jewish dead of the Shoah, or the Germans who tried
to assassinate Hitler; there are other poems in which he is looking
further back, to the dead of the Renaissance or the Middle Ages. Since
the theme of poets in prison has emerged with Ko Un, there would be
some point in quoting Hill’s “Four Poems Regarding the Endurance of
Poets,” the first being “Men are a Mockery of Angels” in memory of the
imprisoned and martyred “Tommaso Campanella, priest and poet”:
Some days a shadow through
The high window shares my
Prison. I watch a slug
Scale the glinting pit-side
Of its own slime The cries
As they come are mine; then
God’s: my justice, wounds, love,
Derisive light, bread, filth.
To lie here in my strange
Flesh while glutted Torment
Sleeps, stained with its prompt food,
Is a joy past all care
Of the world, for a time.
But we are commanded
To rise, when, in silence,
I would compose my voice.
Here Hill affirms the poet’s duty to evoke and memorialize others who
were in similar situations, by application of the imagination. Likewise
in “Christmas Trees”:
Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,
restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.
Ko Un comes back into the picture by way of his prison cell, evoked in
the poem “Sunlight” from the collection “Homeland Stars” of 1984:
It's absolutely inevitable!
So just take a deep breath
and accept this adversity.
A distinguished visitor deigns to visit
my tiny north-facing cell.
Not the chief making his rounds, no,
but a ray of sunlight as evening falls,
a gleam no bigger than a crumpled stamp.
A sweetheart fit to go crazy about.
It settles there on the palm of a hand,
warms the toes of a shyly bared foot.
Then as I kneel and, undevoutly,
offer it a dry, parched face to kiss,
in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away.
After the guest has departed through the bars,
the room feels several times colder and darker.
This military prison special cell
is a photographer's darkroom.
Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool.
One day it was a coffin holding a corpse.
One day it was altogether the sea.
A wonderful thing!
A few people survive here.
Being alive is a sea
without a single sail in sight.
The prisons in all these poems serve as images for the human condition
experienced as constraint and oppression in multiple ways. The weak are
every day victims of the strong; millions die unwillingly as the
powerful pursue appalling designs. If there is a major difference
between the approach to these things of a western poet such as Hill and
the Korean poets mentioned here, it surely lies in the amazing
lightness these latter retain despite all the things in their lives
that might appall. Ku Sang wrote 100 poems about his life (Even the
Knots on Quince Trees Have Tales) without once really groaning under
the burden of grief, but rather always finding reasons to keep smiling.
The Korean life experience is often said to produce deep han (the
bitterness produced by constant loss) but that is in turn transformed
by heung, a resilient vitality that persists despite all, turning the
most terrible events into ongoing communal life, dancing in tears in
For Hill, there is no escaping the great depravity, the fallenness of
the human condition, that is manifested in massacres and horrors for
which the man of faith can neither deny nor assume responsibility. That
blood is the touchstone of our contact with reality:
By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
And by Christ's blood are men made free
Though in close shrouds their bodies lie
Under the rough pelt of the sea;
Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight
The bones that cannot bear the light.
In contrast, Korean poets of all religious traditions maintain a
fundmental lightness of optimism. They do not moralize, they do not
blame. Neither do they agonize over their own helplessness. It could be
thought that such a detachment has much to do with an approach informed
by Buddhism. At the same time, it may be that the Christian tradition
as we know it in the poetry of the West also invites us to trust that,
despite the terror, blood and pain, because of the One who suffered it
all with us for us, there is a source of peace and joy here and now,
essential if life is to continue. There is no need for a conclusion. In
today’s Korea, poets naturally echo Buddhist and Christian themes as
aspects of a single vision of life, and see no need to distinguish one
from another. The last word belongs to Ku Sang:
Day and night, inside the confines
within me, snarling,
I wonder what that ferocious beast
is really like?
Has it glimpsed some prey?
Today it is bounding high.
over the sea within me,
I wonder where is the port of call
of that anchorless skiff?
The waves seem rough.
Today it is rocking wildly.
Endlessly stretching its pinions
in the vastnesses within me,
I wonder when and where
that bluebird dream will be fulfilled?
It longs for the Gardens of Immortality.
Today Eternity lies within me.
Everything Yearned For: Manhae’s poems of love and longing. Translated
& introduced by Francisca Cho. Wisdom Publications. 2005.
Eternity Today. Selected poems by Ku Sang, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé. Seoul Selection. 2005.
Geoffrey Hill. Collected Poems. Penguin. 1985.
Ko Un. Ten Thousand Lives. Green Integer. 2005.
Ko Un. Songs for Tomorrow. Green Integer. 2007.
Brother Anthony was born in Cornwall (U.K.) in 1942. A member of the
Community of Taizé since 1969, he has lived in Korea with other
brothers from Taizé since 1980. He taught medieval and
renaissance English literature at Sogang University until his
retirement early in 2007, and still teaches there as Emeritus
Professor. He has published more than 20 volumes of translations of
modern Korean poetry and fiction, with more to come, as well as 3 books
on English literature and one on the Korean Way of Tea.
Brother Anthony’s home page: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/