My Approach to Studying, Writing, and Teaching Korean Poetry

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byTheresa Hyun

When I received the request to write this brief article, I pondered how best to explain my views on Korean poetry, and I realized that my approach to Korean poetry is intimately connected with my background, my experiences in Korea, and my work as a poet and scholar.

I grew up in a home where poetry was valued, and my parents would frequently read us passages from their favorite works. Later on I spent a year as an exchange student at a French university where I immersed myself in studying the works of well-known French poets such as Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud. These early experience helped to lay the foundation for my encounters with Korean literature.

I first came into contact with the Korean poetic world when I arrived in Seoul and entered a bookstore where I noticed young students gathered around the poetry corner eagerly reading copies of the latest volume by their favorite poet. This sharply contrasted with the attitude of most North Americans who tend to be apathetic towards poetry. Thus I became aware that Koreans have a deep respect for their cultural traditions, especially poetic ones.

As I struggled to adjust myself to the complexities of Korean life I found that reading poetry offered a way to discover the riches of Korean language and society. In the early 1990s I began to attend the seminars held at Siwasihak Publishing Co. and I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the participants. I greatly appreciated the guidance and encouragement offered by Professor Kim Jay-hong, as well as the support of poet Ko Un who recommended me for the Siwasihak Publishing Co. New Poet’s award in 2003. Eventually I was able to publish my first bilingual volume of poetry P’anmumjom eso ui ch’a han chan (A Cup of Tea at P’anmunjom) (Siwasihak Publishing Co., 2012) consisting of my original Korean poetry which I translated into English.

My encounters with Korean poetry on a personal level have impacted in various ways my work as a professor of Korean Studies at York University in Toronto. I will focus on one example of how the work of a Korean poet can become part of the curriculum at a Canadian university. The works of Manhae Han Yong-oun are always included in my “Introduction to Korean Culture” course which attracts students of various backgrounds. We consider the various stages of Han Yong-oun’s life: first, his contributions to the revival of Korean Buddhism in the early 20th century, second his role as a signer of the Declaration of Independence during the Japanese colonial period, and third, his contribution as the author of Nim ui ch’ immuk (The Silence of Love) one of the first volumes of modern Korean poetry. We discuss the extent to which Han Yong-oun’s career as a Buddhist monk, independence supporter, and writer sum up the aspirations of the Korean people during the early 20th century.

Next we focus on the challenges of translating Korean poetry. For instance, one line of the original poem, “Nim ui ch’immuk” reads: “Sarang do saram ui ilira.” (Lyric Poetry & Poetics, 2009, p.33) If we compare two of the translations we find interesting differences. Kang and Keely have translated the line as “by being just the human state” (Yonsei University Press, p. 18), while Peter Lee’s version reads “Love, too, is a man’s affair.” (University of Hawaii Press, 1990, p. 25) Comparing these two versions allows the students to discuss some of the problems faced by translators of Korean poetry into English such as the use of pronouns, specification of gender, and re-creation of poetic forms.

After introducing the students to the background and translations of “The Silence of Love” I explain that the poem can be understood on different levels: 1) as a simple love poem, 2) as a declaration of the desire to regain national sovereignty and 3) as an expression of Buddhist faith. Then, I ask them to come up with their own interpretations, and to answer such basic questions as: What might be some of the ways of explaining the poem? How does this poem compare with others you have read? I then place the poem in the context of contemporary Korean culture by explaining about the Manhae Festival held every August at Manhae Village in the vicinity of Paekdam Temple. I tell them that this event celebrates the life and work of Manhae Han Yong-oun and the fact that his anthology, The Silence of Love, was originally written at Paekdam Temple in the 1920s. International guests and people from all over the country take part in Buddhist ceremonies, literary seminars, and poetry contests. Finally I recite the poem in Korean, and a student reads an English version. I leave them with this final thought to ponder: As Canadians and as individuals in an increasingly interconnected world, what does “Nim ui ch’immuk” (“The Silence of Love”) mean for you?



A Cup of Tea at P’anmunjom

Theresa Hyun, Siwasihak Publishing co.

2012, 132p, ISBN 9788994889313


* Teresa Hyun is a poet and professor of Humanities at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her poetry collections include A Cup of Tea at P'anmunjom.