The Colors of Dawn: Twentieth-Century Korean Poetry


Eds. Brother Anthony of Taizé and Chung Eun-Gwi. Honolulu, HI.  University of Hawai’I Press. 2016.


If you’re new to Korean poetry, The Colors of Dawn is a terrific introduction.  For the neophyte, Korea may well represent that shaky space in Asia with the totalitarian Kim family clamoring for war.  Closer to home, you may have heard of the recent protests, primarily in Seoul, where some 800,000 people peacefully gathered around the Blue House (the Korean version of the White House), calling for President Park Geun-hye to step down.  Like America, the division between those who have and those who do not is reaching critical mass.  Perhaps you hear Korea and think of Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, Psy and that YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style.”  Korean Cinema has been on the rise for some time, and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), released in the US this fall, is no exception.  On the literary front, Han Kang won this year’s Booker Prize for The Vegetarian, translated in 2015 by Deborah Smith.  So, it seems, the time is right for Korean poetry.

The Colors of Dawn:  Twentieth-Century Korean Poetry, edited by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Chung Eun-Gwi, is a beautiful collection published by the University of Hawai’i press as a Mānoa volume, reprinted this year with corrections and fantastic floral illustrations by Hye Woo Shin. Shin’s stark watercolor paintings echo the primacy of nature in the poetry and augment the beauty of the aesthetic landscape.  The poems selected for the volume span the last century.  They are translated for the most part by the editors themselves, organized into three sections:  “Poetry of Today,” “Survivors of War,” and “Founding Voices.”  This editorial choice is a reverse chronology that opens with the present, then moves back through the Korean War (1950-53), and concludes with the early twentieth century.

The choice to start now is a smart one, as these contemporary poets speak best to the present (and future) Korea.  Poetry today is often read in an attempt to make sense of the world, and the poets from “Poetry of Today” yearn “to find meaning and value in a world of consumerism, materialism, and self-interest” (xix).  For example, in “Extinction,” Jin Eun-young cautions the reader that “the world is starting to tilt” (10).  We need only look to our own nation’s Presidential election, the President-elect’s dismissal of global warming, the rise of “fake news,” and the dismantling of “facts” to see such slippage.  Along those same lines, Song Kyung-Dong addresses borders and homogenization in “Beyond the Border,” where she writes:  “It is morally wrong for me,/being such a borderless thing, to be obsessed with a single idea” (31).  This speaks to a tension between nationalism and globalization, something of particularly acute meaning to Koreans, their country so long cracked in half at the 38th parallel.  As the poem continues, Song mentions eating food from Korea, China, and Chile, speaking to the international flavor of contemporary life and the present-day realities of global culture, even with the shadow of the backward, repressive, and isolated North looming over the peninsula.  The source of the shadow is not singular: it is not only the North, but China, and Russia behind that, Japan, America, the east and the west, broadly speaking.  Singularity is both desired and denied, impossible and longed for at the same time.  Yet our very existence on the planet is and can only be an individual experience.  At the individual level, then, what single idea drives Song to do all that she does?  A Korean poet, after all, is a poet and not just a Korean.

Another noteworthy contribution from the same section, “Poetry of Today,” is a Shakespeare appropriation by Choi Jeongrye – “Shall Time’s Best Jewel From Time’s Chest Lie Hid”?  Choi’s poem is a response to Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 65.”  Shakespeare seems intent on transmitting love across time through ink, but Choi moves beyond love of beings to time and the notion of being perfect via the dream.  Unlike Shakespeare, Choi does not craft the poem through form and rhyme.  For more Korean Shakes, check out Yang Jung Ung’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an appropriation of the Bard in Korean, not as a translation, and readily available online at MIT’s Global Shakespeares.  The Shakespearean sonnet poses a question and arrives at an answer across fourteen lines.  In “Sonnet 65,” Shakespeare wrestles with beauty, life, death, and time, asking the question three times, across three quatrains, the last of which reads:“…where alack,/Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?”  Choi uses the question as the title, leaving more space to get at the answer.  Shakespeare ends with a couplet that, as Shakespearean sonnets so often do, surprisingly answers the questions:  “O, none, unless this miracle have might,/That in black ink my love may still shine bright” (“Sonnet 65).  You can read the full sonnet here.  Moving away from the material and the written word, Choi devotes the entirety of his rendering of Shakespeare as something new and different to time in the space of the dream.  In the poem, Choi’s writing dissolves in the landscape of the dream, perforce a nightly scene, with moons and a time that gets lost.  Dream time cannot find its way in a beauty that explodes, always already “still flowing.” Choi’s closing line reads:  “Time and time’s dream can never face each other” (50).  Choi’s answer to the problem of beauty and time, life and death is a smattering of beautiful and serene images instead of words.  In contrast to ink, Choi’s answer is a permanently yearning anthropomorphization of time and time’s dream as faces forever seeking each other’s loving (lovely) gaze.

As an introductory piece, an important part of this anthology is the vast array of poets representing not only the last one hundred years, but also the incredible modernization of a country.  Historians indeed often refer to Korea’s modernization as a kind of hyper-modernization.  In the second grouping of poets, “Survivors of War,” Kim Kwang-Kyu’s “Trickery” is an astute indictment of capitalism, not just of a rapidly re-developing Korea:  “nothing has changed/only the question:/Who’s grabbing the money?” (89).  As mentioned earlier, over the last six weeks thousands of protesters have been gathering in Seoul on Saturdays, calling for Park Geun-hye to step down. Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who served as President from 1963 to 1979.  The elder Park was elected President three times, but took control of the nation himself in 1972, and led as a dictator until his assassination in 1979.  These recent protests against Park Geun-hye involve Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of extortion.  Choi is a mentor or aid to the President, whose father also served Park’s father, Park Chung-hee.  South Korea’s rise to economic power has been astonishing, but then and now, as Kim’s poem suggests, questions over money (and power) remain.  A number of Americans with far less financial clout than Donald Trump took Trump’s disruption of language and politics to mean an understanding of, engagement with, and commitment to low and middle class America. As he appoints a Cabinet full of millionaires and billionaires, we are all left asking Kim’s question.

Ko Un’s ten untitled poems from the same period also stand out, with their insistence upon pain, dedication, and the ability of transcendence through the written word. In “Untitled Poem 148,” Ko writes of the need for “a song to sing while walking along./We need a song…” (116).  The poem becomes the song, a song that fits the multiple and many needs of the Korean people, but does so as a poem.  Ko closes the poem:

I will live as a walking song.

I will walk along as that song,

Wanting nothing more

for the remaining days

if there are days remaining. (117)

In the six stanzas between that opening and closing, Ko crafts a song that includes lamentation for ancestors, melodies for sleeping villagers, a tune for animals on earth and souls in the sky and a pitch to be carried in a bar.  Poets that sing, of course are not new.  Homer’s Odyssey begins with his call to the muses to sing.  America’s poet, Walt Whitman sings “the body electric” and the nation.  Thus Ko’s song aligns the Korean poet with a literary tradition pairing poets with country.  Along those lines, “Untitled Poem 1778” ends:  “You are my mother’s mother’s womb,/therefore home is home’s second generation” (117).  The last poem from Ko, “Untitled Poem 485,” ends: “Today, too, I will fight./Today, too, I will lose the fight” (121).  Ko’s poetry enacts a destruction and persistence, a birthing and memorial, a rising and a falling that continues to speak to the power of the people.

Cheon Sang-Byeong, a poet from the “The Founding Voices,” the first half of the twentieth century, crafts severe poems whose images and meaning leave residual thoughts long after the first read.  “Rivers” establishes emotional pain as natural.  “The reason I’m weeping sorrowfully/like an animal on the hill/is not only because/rivers all flow into the sea” (127).  Crying is naturalized as human, in the same vein as animals in nature, and rivers that feed the sea.  Yun Tong-Ju, whose life has recently been adapted beautifully for the screen by Lee Joon-ik (Dong-Ju:  Portrait of a Poet, released this year), is also included.  In “A Poem Easily Written,” Yun admits, “I know being a poet is a sad fate” (146).  Some might say the “sad fate” is the Korean “han,” or an experience of emotional pain that Koreans carry with them across time and flesh.  Poetry is itself an emotional genre, though, and one need not be Korean to feel these poems.  Indeed, The Colors of Dawn is filled with so many poets of note, and although I have touched upon only a handful, the end result is sure to be pleasurable.  Should this be your first morning with Korean poetry, then may your day with Twentieth Century Korean Poetry be long-lasting.


Reviewed by Brooke A. Carlson



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