Kim Sowôl, Korean Poetry, and the Boston Red Sox: A Blog Posting from David McCann

Kim Sowol, David McCann, AzaleasAs national poetry month comes to a close and the Pen World Voices Festival set to begin we are fortunate to have a posting from David R. McCann a translator and scholar of Korean poetry. McCann is also the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature at Harvard University and most recently the translator of Azaleas: A Book of Poems by Kim Sowôl.

Kim Sowôl (1902-1934) remains one of Korea’s favorite twentieth-century poets, even though he published just one book, Azaleas. The title poem is his best known, and it continues to draw readers, admirers, and other fans through such reincarnations as the singer Maya’s song version on her CD Born to Do It in 2006. The first of Sowôl’s poems that I read, memorized, and began to try to translate, though, is a short one titled “The Cricket,” Kuiddurami. I first encountered it in a book of Sowôl’s selected poems translated by Kim Dong Sung, back when I first went to Korea in 1966, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I suppose one of the things that appealed to me about the poem was its shortness: I was able to memorize it quickly, and would recite it, or write it on paper table covers when the teachers and I went somewhere for an evening of food and makkôlli rice wine, songs and stories.

Sound of mountain winds,
sound of cold rains falling.
On a night you talk of life’s changes,
the fire at the country tavern dies down, a cricket cries.

I later came to realize that the poem might have been an experiment with the traditional vernacular verse form known as the sijo. The standard sijo is three lines, each line in four phrases, with a syllable count of 3 4 3 (or 4) 4 for the first and second lines, then 3 5 4 3 in the final line. That final line also has a bit of a twist at the beginning, a turn in a different direction, rhetorically, or toward a new image. What Sowôl did was to take the three-line form and break the first into two parts, one below the other on the printed page, and then in the original, step inside that country tavern for the twist. English grammar didn’t let me do it that way when I translated it, but the poem still has a sijo feel to it.

What’s curious is that only after translating this modern sijo in the collection Azaleas, as well as a number of others in the anthology Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions, did I begin to try writing sijo in English. I’ve been doing nothing but sijo for the past six or seven months, now, and have come to like its spare qualities, the refreshing demand that I get it down in three lines, when I’ve revised some poems to fit the sijo form, or just to see where it goes, when I write sijo from the very start.

I’ve even started to discover found sijo, like this one from a story last month about the Red Sox and their visit to Tokyo, which I read while I was in Seoul.

Found in the News

I had a peanut butter sandwich
for Easter and something I wasn’t sure
what it was. We’re in a different city,
but it could just as well be San Francisco.
Doesn’t matter. I come to the ballpark,
I wake up, I go to the ballpark.

(Terry Francona, Manager of the Boston Red Sox, in Tokyo. Jungang Daily. March 24, 2008)

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