[Inkstone] Pushing for Poetry, Again

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byWiebke Denecke

A mid-Joseon period writer with English proficiency roaming the bookstores of twenty-first century America would marvel with disbelief at what he would find on the shelves under the heading “Classical Korean Literature”: some literary histories of Korea; a small number of modern anthologies, like the wonderful recent Premodern Korean Literary Prose by Michael Pettid and others, some volumes of individual poets, an increasing number of translations of classical fiction, some historical works, and, excitingly, a new volume of philosophical prose from Korea’s largest literary anthology, Korea’s Premier Collection of Classical Literature: Selections from Sŏ Kŏjŏng’s Tongmunsŏn. Yet, in all likelihood he would probably say: “Where is our beloved court poetry?” Where are hansi, poetry in Sino-Korean or Literary Chinese? 

Hansi pervaded the life of the educated elites. So much so that the poet-monk Kim Siseup (1435–1493) when passing the Taedong River on his travels had the river ask him: “How many will you write—new poems in new places?” Poetry in Literary Chinese, or “Literary Sinitic,” as scholars also call it now, was a lifelong companion to the upper classes. They were a centerpiece of literacy training, featuring in typical anecdotes of precocity. Kim Siseup, for one, wrote his first poem at age three and was rewarded for his poetic skill when the astonished King Sejong had him received at court at age five. They were central to the civil service exams, reasserted as an exam genre under King Sejong. Facility in hansi composition was expected at court events, and dashing off travel poems on the road was a naturalized impulse.

But hansi were not just quotidian social currency. Recently, Sim Kyung-ho put this poignantly: “Hansi poems are the flower of Sino-Korean literature. Because they evoke the feelings, excitements, and ideas of poets through plain language, metaphorical imagery and intimations of mood, they convey subtle flavors and aesthetic tensions more than any other form of literature.” 

Given the high historical status of hansi and Sim’s argument for their aesthetic sublimity, it is indeed surprising how very few hansi have been translated into English. Why this dearth? What is the problem with hansi and their translation for Anglophone readers? The reasons are many and complex. Macrohistorically, early twentieth century national language movements nourished by the new ideologies of nation- and empire-building precipitated the death of classical Sinitic poetry as a shared East Asian cultural practice. New Western-style universities instituted curricula focused on the “national canon” of vernacular—Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese—literature, which is still engrained in today’s marginalization of departments or programs of Sinitic literature (hanmunhak), by the dominance of national literature studies (gungmunhak). National literature departments are the grail of national education. Literary histories, “slaves of the nation state,” as Hugo Meltzl (1846–1908), a nineteenth century comparative literature scholar from the multilingual region of Transylvania under the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, called them, have accordingly treated Sinitic poetry with little sympathy. Already the very first literary history of Korea, published by An Hwak in 1922, placed the novel and popular literature first, as venues of self-expression for the Korean people in the unbroken lineage that An claimed for Korean civilization. This was an empowering, desperately needed anticolonial move under the repressions of Japanese colonial rule. The birth of national literature studies that in South Korea could only fully flourish after liberation inverted the traditional genre hierarchy, upgrading the novel and dethroning hansi and hanmun. It has impacted the training of foreign Korean literature specialists, and echoes through Korean literary histories and anthologies in English. Peter Lee’s pioneering A History of Korean Literature and his Anthology of Korean Literature are to be applauded for systematically including hansi. Although they are demoted to the end of each section, after vernacular genres such as hyangga, Goryeo songs, sijo, or gasa, Lee strives for balance despite the inverted order. This holds also for Kevin O’Rourke’s stirring The Book of Korean Poetry: Songs of Shilla and Koryŏ, where he includes the early songs in hansi forms, all extant hyangga and vernacular Goryeo songs, alongside his own selections from the surviving hansi corpus. In contrast, David McCann’s Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions is explicitly sijo-centric and focuses on national origin narratives. There are a few hansi, but mostly by women, which is laudable but hardly representative of the tradition.

Though central, national language ideology is only one among other formidable challenges, terminological, conceptual, world literary, and aesthetic. How to even call it? Hansi is a modern term for si (詩), and scholars have recently debated, for the Japanese case, whether to call them “Japanese poetry in Literary Chinese” (older term), “Sino-Japanese poetry,” “Japanese Chinese-style poetry,” or “Japanese poetry in Literary Sinitic” (most recent coinage). The difficulty in finding a term that not only expresses the cosmopolitan East Asian (and not just Chinese) nature of hansi but also captures their local peculiarities in Korea, Japan, or Vietnam puts hansi for Western readers into limbo: “Ah, THAT stuff that scholars can’t even agree on how to call in English!” These debates are not purely sophistic, but rooted in the enormous variety of East Asian writing and inscription practices, depending on place, period, and literary genre. 

This is where yet another fascinating conceptual difficulty comes to light. Are we even justified to talk about “premodern Korean poetry in Literary Sinitic”? Sure, the history of Western literary terminology seems to give us the right to do so. Although the Greeks and Romans distinguished between very different types of poetry—epic poems, epigrams, elegies, you name it—Aristotle at least gave the Western world poetics, meta-literature, a critical type of discourse that even united genres as different as drama, lyric, and the epic under one conceptual umbrella. This created the category of “literary”/“poetic” writing, a construct absent from traditional East Asia in its comprehensive breadth.

What do we do with the historical and comparative burden of the word “poetry” then? Well, celebrating the variety of “poetries,” by genre, period, and locale is a good start. Among the shared cosmopolitan genres there is the more antique four-syllable poetry, classical (“old-style” or “regulated”) poetry in five or seven syllables, “Music Bureau Poetry,” “prosimetric” rhapsodies, mixing poetry and prose, and also song-lyrics, ballads, and songs, to name just a few. But then there are fascinating local poetries. In Heian Japan, courtiers wrote “Topic Poems” (kudaishi) at official occasions, recasting a five-character line of a Chinese poem into a “regulated poem” based on a strict rhetorical template. Like Japanese waka poetry, this was a serious courtly game, an exercise in creating subtle differences in the emulation of earlier poems. Or consider Joseon-period gopung poetry, poetry written without rhyme or tonal patterns that would have read like “blank verse” or prose poetry to readers in other parts of East Asia. In contrast, Late Joseon exam poems were intricate, consisting of eighteen couplets and requiring unusual tonality rules and the use of a word from the title as a rhyme word at the end of the fourth couplet.

Lastly, global reception history has not been as kind to Korean hansi. The American Beat poetry movement in the 1950s and 1960s propelled premodern Chinese and Japanese poetry and Zen to the creative forefront of the literary avant garde, elevating them to world literary status. Most notably, Gary Snyder translated classical Chinese and Japanese poems and carried them over into his own poetry. Undoubtedly, Korea was on the minds of poets loosely associated with the Beat movement: the Cold-War machinery that produced the Korean War only encouraged their political protest. But whereas classical Chinese and Japanese poetry had its heyday on the global literary stage, Korean hansi has yet to be discovered around the world—which can well happen if we put out more and appealing translations. Lastly, aesthetically, the high allusiveness of hansi and the emulative engagement with Chinese texts was a central part of Korea’s premodern Literary Sinitic tradition—how many poems were written in echoing Tang literary tastes! Unfortunately, this goes against our literary taste for innovation and doesn’t travel well today, especially in translation.

What, then, can we do to solve the trouble with hansi? First, suspend for a breath the distorting ideology of the national literature paradigm and separate it from the looming shadows of political tensions and historical disputes in East Asia today. One of our best translators of Korean poetry confessed to me once that the greatest regret in life was to never have learnt hanmun—in a hangeul-centric world. With a different ideology and language and literature curriculum, we could have a thriving critical mass of Anglophone hansi translators. Second, grow and endow translation series, like UCLA’s The Korean Classics Library and other emerging translation series, which promise to bring Korean hansi in all their historical aesthetic complexity to a global audience in sparkling English. Then, make hansi translations accessible in obvious online locations, such as Sim Kyung-ho’s modern Korean renderings of Jeong Yakyong’s poetry on Naver. On many fronts South Korea is ahead of Japan in embracing their Literary Sinitic poetry as literary heritage for future generations by making it broadly available in modern translation. And, lastly, the old can be the new: in the 1920s, James Scarth Gale (1863–1937), a Canadian missionary and foundational figure for Korean Studies, included many poems in his History of the Korean People in tune with traditional Korean historiography and historical fiction. He was still closer to the historical truth about hansi. And we might take this to heart for a richer understanding of Korea’s literary tradition and our own personal delight to savor the sublime fragrances of this “flower of literature.”


Note: I would like to thank Johann Noh and Sookja Cho for their generous feedback on this article.

Wiebke Denecke
Boston University