Short Poems by Korea’s Best-Known Poets
Korean poets have been writing modern verse for over a hundred years, beginning in the early twentieth century after an influx of Western free verse arrived via Japan. Gradually, the poems have lost their musicality, and they’ve become longer and more abstruse. Whereas many tradition-oriented poets have given us outstanding short works, many of the Western-leaning poets have written long poems. Representative of the former group are Kim Sowol and Seo Jeong-ju.
Mother and Sisters
Mother and sisters, we’ll live together by the river
with a sandbar blooming golden for our garden
and reeds fluting music from behind the gate.
Mother and sisters, we’ll live together by the river.1
Kim Sowol’s lyricism is commonly thought to reflect the influence of minyo (traditional folk songs). His poems have the rhythm of minyo, and are very short. Even his most famous works, “The Azaleas” and “Flowers on the Mountain,” are not very long. At this length, they are easily memorized; after memorization, they are often recited, and as recitation favorites, they linger in the mind.
The poet thought to have most successfully captured Korean sensibility in his works, Seo Jeong-ju, also wrote short verse.
Sister, elder sister dear
dark and smart as sesame cake,
all I’ve got is new as new,
nothing of mine is faded yet;
so sister, elder sister dear,
sister dark as deepest night,
let me hug you once again,
shadows round your eyes and all.2
This poem is reminiscent of children’s verse. The eldest sister assumes maternal responsibilities in a family with many children. She ages along with her mother while taking care of her siblings. The Korean word for sesame cake—the black, oily pulp from ground sesame seeds—is ggaemuk; variations are ggetmuk in Gyeongsang Province and ggambugi in Jeolla Province. Like an ear of grain black with ggambugi-byeong (smut), she has aged prematurely, spending her days doing hard labor. The period from midnight to 1:00 a.m. is the “deepest night.” What does it mean if the sister is “dark as deepest night”? At this hour when everyone should be in bed, she is kept up by household chores of whatever kind, whether it be weaving or beating the washing with ironing sticks. There is nothing that the younger sister can do to help. So she stands in front of her like the shadow of a snowman on a snowy day, and asks to “hug [her] once again,” offering comfort, if only on an emotional level.
Morning, worn out, exhausted after writing all night,
Managing to go on by wetting my throat with cold wine.
How I long for that lady in the rich man’s house
Where they paid fifty thousand for each sixtieth-birthday verse.
Oh, if only a line might form of fifteen or sixteen such ladies!3
Seo’s sense of humor shines in this clever poem. Although he once said, “Poverty is nothing more than ragged clothes,”4 here, in gently self-mocking tones, he depicts the daily life of a poet in straitened circumstances. From the poem it appears that he was once commissioned to write poetry, receiving “fifty thousand (won) for each sixtieth-birthday verse,” and that the patron was none other than “that lady in the rich man’s house.” His drinking table would be overflowing if only “fifteen or sixteen such ladies” formed a line. The wit of the poet expressing his honest feelings brings a smile to our lips. A poem of this kind cannot be long, or it loses its zest.
Baek Seok was a poet who wrote many prose poems and poems of some length, but also a great deal of short verse.
When did acacias cover the ground like white floor cushions?
A stench overwhelms in the mugginess.
The moon, over the ancient fortress arose
Atop the thatched roof, a gourd
Like another moon shined brightly
One day in the village, a chaste widow wrapped her neck in a night of death
Yet another night like this†
The first poem brings to life sights and smells in a sketch of a rainy day. The second poem, however, is more than a simple landscape painting. It is a portrait of reality, tinged w...