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Overview: The Lasting Impression of Short Poems

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byKim Jonghoi

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We stand in awe if a speaker gives a speech that is brief but deeply meaningful. It goes without saying that we feel the same when the pinnacle of expression is achieved in poetry, where thought and feeling are compressed to the greatest possible extent and delivered in cadences. Writers of classical Korean literature were particularly skilled at expressing profound sentiment in short poems. These poems included four- and eight-line classical Chinese verse, and also sijo, a form limited to only three verses, that is, three lines. These writers incorporated the principles of nature and the universe as well as the laws of the secular world into these short works, leaving them for posterity. Let us look at one of the numerous sijo that adorn the halls of Korean literary history, a poem written by Yi Cho-nyon (1269-1343), a writer who lived during the Goryeo dynasty.

The moon is white on pear blossoms and the Milky Way tells the third watch.
A cuckoo would not know the intent of a branch of spring.
Too much awareness is a sickness, it keeps me awake all night.1

This is a night when even the moonlight gleams white on the pear blossoms, and the Milky Way tells us the night is deep. “A cuckoo would not know the intent of a branch of spring”—but the poet’s heightened feeling is like a sickness and he cannot fall asleep. The scene takes place in the middle of the night one spring. This poem conveys the sorrowful beauty of the scenery and the fluttering of the poet’s heart. It is as if the flow of lyricism that is sensitive to these details can also bathe the spirit clean. Well-known modern poet Cho Jihun borrowed the last line from this sijo and used it in the ending of his poem “Wanhwasam (The Scholar Who Loved Flowers).” The line reads: “A mind aware is a sickness, and [the man] trembles quietly under the light of the moon as he walks.”

The poems of a Joseon dynasty gisaeng (courtesan) named Hwang Jini appear in Cheonggu Yeongeon, the oldest anthology of sijo. Her work is superb, transcending the limits of time as well as those imposed by her low social status. That this gisaeng had such remarkable ability, with many of her poems ranking on par with those of high-born classical scholars, is in part due to the neither long nor complicated form of the sijo. And yet, clearly it is difficult to write short, simple poems or pieces of writing that are deeply meaningful. Broadening the scope of our discussion a little, the fundamental teachings in religious scriptures that guide human beings along the road to eternal life are neither difficult nor complex.

 

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In central Seoul, at the main intersection by Gwanghwamun Gate, a company that owns a tall office building set up an oversize bulletin board on the wall outside. For twenty-five years, as an act of public service, the company has selected either individual lines of poems or the full text of short poems each new season for posting on what is known as the “Gwanghwamun poetry signboard.” This famous outdoor exhibition of illustrated verse has refreshed the landscape downtown and provided an enjoyable diversion for the one million people that cross the street there every day. Last year, on the twenty-fifth year of this campaign, a poll was taken of the hundred poems that have been posted to date, and Na Tae-joo’s “Wildflower” was chosen to be number one.

Beautiful when you look closely
Lovable when you look for a long time
You’re like that, too.

It is a very short poem. The full text could be printed on the signboard as it runs to only three lines. These poems, short as epigrams, leave a different impression depending not only on the reader, but also on the reader’s mood at the time of reading. The point I would like to emphasize here, however, is in regards to the power and efficacy of short verse. Readers are not necessarily moved by long speeches or texts. That is why, among the old Chinese proverbs, there is the extreme-sounding expression choncheolsarin (murder with a small weapon). Like this, a short, simple piece of writing can impart a devastating lesson. Poetry has this capacity, and it is all the more powerful in times like these, when people endure hard lives and spiritual fatigue. Perhaps the fact that many people have committed the short works of great Korean Poets to memory is testament to these conditions.

The following work by eminent poet Cho Byeonghwa (1921-2003) is called “Haeinsa”:

Whether a temple is large or small
The philosophy is one
Whether a house is large or small
All humans are one

The poet leads us to an awakening and sets up a surprising comparison with the same eye seeing spiritual devotion in the size of a temple and a person’s worth in the size of his/her house. The essential point is that one cannot judge from exteriors. This short poem demonstrates great depth, offering insight into the principles of both visible objects and intangible human affairs, and the ideas are joined together in lyrical perfection.

Let’s turn to a poem called “That Flower,” by Ko Un.

Going down I saw
That flower
I failed to see as I came up2

Everyone knows that life is filled with twists and turns. But without years spent trudging along this tortuous path, it is almost impossible for someone to incorporate into themselves the hidden lessons that are learned along the way. Learning from secondhand sources is different from learning from direct experience. What lies within this poem is a lesson awakening us to the profound inner workings of life, a lesson one spends one’s whole life learning.

 

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People are saying that short poems are a trend, and this is certainly true for the circle of poets involved in the movement known as “Extreme Lyricism.” Members of this movement denounce obscure poetry that alienates its audience, and advocate writing short, resonant verse that connects with readers’ sensibilities. Poet and literary critic Choi Dong-Ho is an enthusiast, standing at the center of the movement alongside Cho Jeonggwon, Moon Insoo, and Lee Ha-suk, among others.

Of course, the notion that “short equals good” in poetry does not always hold true. In Korean literature, or to speak more broadly, in literature worldwide, there are shelves upon shelves of symbolism-laden, difficultto-decipher poetic masterpieces. But considering that we are at a juncture when readers of literature are gradually becoming distanced from these works, the potential impact of the reader-friendly Extreme Lyricism movement should not be taken lightly. Now, as the world is changing and the spirit of the times is changing too, the main axis of culture and literature is shifting from print culture and media to video culture and electronic media. At this time, a new genre of short, emotionally-charged “dicapoems” is rising to the fore in Korea.

The term for a poem written in this new form, dicapoem, is a synthesis of the words “digital camera”and “poem.” Poets now capture digital snapshots with smartphones and attach a few short, telling lines of poetry to the images. This contemporary genre of literature combines the use of readily accessible digital technology and the production of readerfriendly poems. But there is a huge gap between merely thinking of the possibilities of this form of visual verse on the one hand, and acting to encourage its systemization as poetry and championing it as a literary movement on the other.

A major advantage of this poetic movement, initiated by Lee Sang-ok and other poets, is that it is open and universal: anyone can be a writer of a dicapoem. Perhaps it is inevitable that we are witnessing the growth of a form of poetry that involves short, powerful, hard-hitting poems assisted by visuals. Whatever shape the world takes in the future, it is unlikely that a form of poetry so familiar and accessible to readers will fade from view. But the net worth of this outpouring of short poems will be determined by the measure of our minds as we read them. This special section of _list magazine invites readers to think about and discuss these ideas. 

 

by Kim Jonghoi
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature
Kyung Hee University

 


1 Yi Cho-nyon, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, translated by Peter H. Lee, Columbia University Press, 2002, p. 72.
2 Translated by Brother Anthony and Lee Sang-Wha