Saturday, November 05, 2011

Poetry Break: Seong-kon Column . . .

Professor Kim Seong-kon, scholar in the English Department of Seoul National University, not only writes academic articles but also writes a weekly column for the Korea Herald that I enjoy reading, usually early Wednesday mornings on the subway train, Line 2, from Wangsimmi Station to Ewha Station. I can be so precise because I teach early at Ewha Womans University on Wednesdays and read my copy of the Korea Herald on the way to work.

This past Wednesday, Professor Kim published a column lamenting the loss of poetic sensibility in Korea: "Have Koreans forgotten their poetic sensibility?" (November 2, 2011). He opens his lament with these words:
In medieval Korea, poetry was often a medium of correspondence among learned men. People addressed each other in poetry and conveyed messages metaphorically in terse four or five-line poems or three-line sijo. The recipient of the correspondence would also reply with a poem. How poetic were our ancestors' lives in those days! Westerners may find it hard to understand, but the power of poetry was so potent in Korea that it could remit one's debts at times and even prevent war at other times.

Rather amazing, but Professor Kim offers an anecdote about a poem that stopped a war:
When General Wu of the Sui Dynasty in China invaded Korea in A.D. 612, Korean General Uljimundeok sent a short poem to persuade him to withdraw. After reading the poem, the Chinese general surprisingly decided to give up the campaign and pull back his troops to China. The anecdote is so famous because a short poem prevented the seemingly inevitable, imminent war.

Here's the poem in translation:
Your unfathomable strategies reached heaven
Your intricate calculations penetrated the earth
Winning so many battles already
You should know when to stop and withdraw.

Wilfred Owen would have appreciated the power of such poetry. Professor Kim offers other examples of poetry used instead of direct dialogue, but those days of poetic sensibility are now gone, as he laments:
Dismayed by our hostile society that lacks decorum, we often miss those good old days when people communicated with each other in poems.

I don't know Professor Kim well, but I know him well enough to know that he has a sense of humor, so I think that he'll understand if I respond to his poetic column with a bit of doggerel:
Though bright old moon yet may,
My best of five friends fine,
Implore me still to stay,
Drink in the night's moon shine,
I see another way,
’long sunken columns' line . . .
It's a silly little poem, I admit, but it might perhaps bring a smile to readers this morning, though I doubt that it will satisfy anyone's longing for those more poetic days of yore . . .

Oh, one more thing, just in case my boss is reading this, I didn't actually stay out all night drinking soju. I'm merely adhering to a poetic convention, like the old Confucian scholars who wrote poems to each other celebrating the joy of fellowship with friends over drinks, and my five drinking buddies were the conventional Water, Rock, Pine, Bamboo, and Moon, emblematic of the five virtues in a poem by Yun Seondo . . .

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At 12:12 PM, Anonymous A. Meyer said...

Hello and thank you. I have a question, where could I find Ulji Mun Deok's poem to General Wu in Hangul?

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't think that it's in Hangul since it was written long before King Sejong, about 900 years before. It must have been in Chinese.

You might try Googling the translation and see if the Chinese original (or a later Hangul version) comes up with the English.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the poem on my blog in the original Hanja:

At 3:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Kuiwon. Let me put that in a better link: Ulji Mun Deok's poem to General Wu.

Linking is easy. Just follow the directions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I apologize. I forgot these comment boxes don't do link automatically.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I wish they did link automatically.

By the way, I've informed Professor Kim Seong-kon of your blog and that particular post.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. My translation is very literal compared to his.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But worth considering . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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