Part Ⅱ. Beloved Short Poems

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byLee Seungha

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.


Cute Rhymes

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.


Cold Wine

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.

White Night

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 with human sorrow.

A contemporary of Baek Seok, Chong Chi-Yong first made his name as a modernist and then devoted himself to a kind of tradition-oriented spiritualism.


Lake 1

A small face like mine
Can be fully covered
By my two palms;

But as my longing is
As wide as a lake,
I can only close my eyes.*

Lake 2

The duck twirls its neck
To wind up the lake;

But the duck only feels
Its neck tickled all along.*


The first poem expresses the longing the speaker feels for his beloved, and the second describes the concentric circles made in the water where a duck is playing. It is not that the duck’s neck is ticklish, but rather that this can be guessed from the ripples in the water.


The Surface of the Lake

As I clap my hands palm to palm,
The sound calmly crosses the lake,

While a white swan follows, gliding.*


Raindrops fall and roll as hail-beads,
Till at last they cross the dark sea at night.*


The above poems by Chong are also short and fun to read. Hearing a noise, the speaker looks at the lake to discover that the sound crosses first, in beauty, and is then followed by a white swan swimming over the water. The second poem depicts the transformation of winter rain as it falls and is changed into hail. Since the raindrops are rolling like glass beads, the speaker wonders whether they could roll all the way across the sea.

Of the poets active in the 1950s and 1960s, Kim Jong-sam wrote poetry that was notably short.


Ink Wash Painting

The old woman’s hand rests
on the neck of the ox as it drinks.
Saying this day too
they spent together,
saying they share swollen feet,
they share loneliness.


If the old woman is left to plow the field with the ox, it implies that there are no men in the family. The woman watering the ox has had him till the soil all day, and she feels both grateful to him and sorry. The ox cannot understand this even if she tells him, so she expresses her feelings by placing her hand on his neck. This poem captures the beauty of absence, widely known to be an aesthetic property of East Asian painting.

The contemporary poet most accomplished at writing short verse is Yoo An-Jin. The full text of her poem “My Ex” reads as follows: “I wonder if he saw me,/ If he knew me.” The speaker is very curious as to the mind of her former lover, who has passed by without seeming to recognize her. She thinks: obviously at one time we were a couple, but now, after so many years have passed, if he seems to pretend not to see me, is it because I have changed or grown old? Is it that he pretends not to recognize me, or does he really not know who I am?


A Misunderstanding, Sorted

Was it that way?
I had it wrong.

I see why
You took it so far
To extremes
I’ve got it now.


Poems like this are overflowing with wit, but it is as a master of the language that Yoo astonishes.


Showing Off

A monkey watching a mother holding a baby
Went scurrying off
And reappeared to show us hers.


This is an example of a short poem used to full effect. Like a dart that flies at the brain and sticks there, a poem like this gives the reader pleasure, shock, and delight. In some instances, it conveys pain—all in a single motion. 


by Lee Seungha
Professor of Creative Writing
Chung-Ang University


1 Kim Sowol, Fugitive Dreams, translated by Jaihiun J. Kim and Ronald B. Hatch, Ronsdale Press, 1998, p. 43.
2 Seo Jeong-ju, The Early Lyrics 1941~1960, translated by Anthony of Taizé, Dap Gae, 1998, p. 213.
3 Seo Jeong-ju, Selected Poems of Sŏ Chŏngju: Modern Asian Literature, translated by David R. McCann, Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 78.
4 Seo, The Early Lyrics, p. 141.
Translated by Peter Liptak
* Translated by Lee Sung-il