Parting Ways with Modernism: An Interview with Poet Oh Sae-young

  • onJuly 22, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byDavid Shook


David Shook: Your work as a younger poet seems to engage in a very conscious dialogue with Modernism. Do you recall the first Modernist texts you encountered and how you responded to them?

Oh Sae-young: The meaning of the term “Modernism” as used by English speakers is somewhat ambiguous. Under the banner of Modernism they group together the European avant-garde and the Modernism of the English speaking world—things like the Imagism of Ezra Pound and others based on the philosophy of T. E. Hulme, or the Neoclassicism pursued by T. S. Eliot—but I think that this is misleading. The worlds that these two literary tendencies look towards are in fact opposites. Most fundamentally, the former is romantic while the latter is classicist. Therefore so-called Postmodernism, which has been discussed mainly in North America in recent years, has its roots in the European avant-garde, not the Modernism of the English-speaking countries.

In this same vein, during my twenties and early thirties my poetry was somewhat chaotic because I was flailing around in the tight spot between these two. In the beginning I was completely taken by the European avant-garde, in particular the surrealism of people like André Breton and Philippe Soupault. From there I moved on to Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the poetic tendency of Eliot to be critical of civilization. Then, finally, going into my forties I was able to overcome these two literary tendencies in my own way. I was inspired by a number of poetry collections such as André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s collaboration in Les Champs Magnétiques, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” and also Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
During this time, I also gained a great deal of poetic inspiration from surrealist paintings, especially those by artists such as Salvador Dalí and Paul Klee, and that’s also why my first book of poetry has a work by Klee on the cover.

Shook: Do you feel, as your work evolved toward what Brother Anthony has called “ontological authenticity,” that you moved beyond the concerns of Modernism—that it was no longer relevant—or just that your own interests as a poet were outside its primary concerns?

Oh: As I mentioned earlier, I parted company with Modernism in my late thirties to early forties, or you could say that to a certain degree I overcame it. This was because I thought there was no way to express a healthy introspection and foresight about life through Modernist poetry. Rather than delving into the subconscious, I wanted to reach existential enlightenment through meditation. More than anything else, in Modernist poetry there was no depth of feeling or meeting of minds. This kind of change also had something to do with the fact that it was around this time when I started to open my eyes to a Buddhist worldview. From then on Modernism was still one of the methods by which I wrote poetry, but it was not the aim in and of itself.

Shook: Several American reviews of your work mention the disarming manner in which you achieve such powerful epiphanies in your poems by priming the reader with straightforward imagery from the natural world. Is that a technique that you developed consciously, or is it something that emerged naturally over the course of your aesthetic development?

Oh: That is the fruit of conscious effort and constant searching in my process of writing poetry. It is true, however, that the asceticism of Zen has also had a huge influence on this. It is no different now either. I think that writing poetry has a lot in common with the act of gaining some insight through the Zen asceticism of the most reverend practitioner. From this perspective you could say that the reverent practitioner of Zen is the poet, the hwadu (topic of contemplation) becomes the poetic subject, enlightenment becomes the poetic idea, and meditation becomes the expression of imagination. Above all, both of these things are about reaching, for a moment, some world of truth through intuition rather than intellect.

Shook: One of your earlier poems included in Night-Sky Checkerboard, “A Bowl,” is one of my favorites. When rereading it for this interview, and considering your skillful use of language, it occurred to me that if “Any broken thing / becomes a blade,” a poem’s sharpness might come from its brokenness—or to make that sound less pejorative, and in the language of that same poem—its having gone astray. I’m interested to hear your opinion about what a poem is: Is it language broken and repaired, earning its sharpness in the process, or is it something purer, some higher form of language?

Oh: To me poetry is truth itself. Therefore, writing poetry is a means of acquiring truth and also an ascetic process. Needless to say, however, it is not only poetry that is truth. In fact, the proper place of the pursuit of truth is in science more than poetry. Isn’t that reflected in the etymology of the word “science”? Whether it’s human science, social science, or natural science, at the heart of all scholarship is the pursuit of truth.
To my mind, however, the truth that scholarship seeks is fundamentally different from the truth sought by poetry. Because the truth sought by poetry is “whole truth,” while the truth sought in the sciences is “partial truth.” Scientific truth is supposed to be rational, logical, and objective. Whereas, compared to this, poetic truth is emotional, paradoxical (or contradictory), and subjective. For example, seen as scientific truth, the statement “I’m thirty years old” means that person has lived for thirty years. But in fact hasn’t that person been dying for thirty-odd years? Therefore, you could say that the precise meaning of this is that they have lived the process of dying for thirty years. In this way, poetic fact is the truth that death is life and life is death. Considered like this, in essence, poetic truth and religious truth are the same, only that in religion, the solution to this contradiction relies on a mysterious absolute being, while with poetry there is no resolver or resolution. In this way, for me, poetry is fundamentally grounded in nihilism and pessimism. This is precisely why, though often unwittingly, there is a strong feeling of melancholy and futility spread beneath my poems.



Shook: How has your work as an educator impacted your work as a poet? It occurs to me that the life of a professor is one that is dominated by seasons, a recurring theme in your work, most often reflected in your depictions of the natural world.

Oh: To be honest, aside from having plenty of opportunities to discover different books, and having relatively more freedom in terms of how I use my time than with other professions, I don’t think my job as a professor has been a particularly big help to my writing. Back when I was a professor there, the atmosphere in the department of Korean literature at Seoul National University was very closed to the act of writing poetry, as it was considered that the university was a place for scholarship. In our department I was written off as a writer of scraps of poetry. So people weren’t particularly willing to accept me as a scholar. On the other hand, within the literary community I get lots of cynical remarks to the tune of, “You’re a scholar, don’t go around calling yourself a poet.” This is another of the reasons why I have been an outsider in the Korean literary community.

Shook: What other poets, writers, artists, and thinkers do you feel you are most in conversation with your work? Are there any Korean voices that you feel really deserve to appear in English if they haven’t already?

Oh: I’ve never really thought about that. Among literary scholars I very much admire the exceptional wisdom and imagination of Lee O Young.

Shook: As a poet myself, I’m always interested in how it feels to see—and hear—your work inhabiting another language. What was that like for you in this particular instance, with Brother Anthony’s translations? How much do you feel you are able to engage with English-language literature?

Oh: To tell you the truth, my English is not fluent. It’s difficult for me to understand the subtle melody of English, or things like nuances and connotation. With poetry in translation, however, you have to consider all of these things, and even more, you must bear in mind the cultural context as well, so it is really very challenging work. This is why people say that translating poetry is not merely simple translation, but rather “a process of second creation.” So to be perfectly honest, it is difficult for me to judge for myself whether Brother Anthony’s translations of my work are well done or not.
However, there are three things of which I can be sure. First of all, as far as I can tell in my readings, there are no errors in the translation. Second, what I have heard from the opinions of scholars of English literature is that the translations have been done very well. Third is that, Night-Sky Checkerboard, my latest collection to be translated, was chosen by the Chicago Review of Books as one of the “Best Poetry Books” from those published in America in 2016 and I am sure that the strength of the translation had an even bigger part to play with this than that of the original work.   



by David Shook
Poet,  Translator, and Filmmaker
Founding Editor, Phoneme Media