Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, October 30, 2005

August marked the 60th anniversary of Korean independence from Japan. Both halves of the country, North and South, celebrated. Remarkably, the two governments joined in displaying the same banner: a profile of the entire peninsula, undivided. That logo, in light blue against a white background, appeared on banners, posters and T-shirts in both parts of Korea.

One of the fathers of the Korean independence movement was Manhae, an important figure not only in poetry but also in religion, culture and politics. An American poet reads with a gasp that Manhae, a monk who profoundly influenced Buddhist thought and practice, was also a coauthor of the Korean Declaration of Independence. As Han Yong-un, he was also a founding modern poet. So here are significant accomplishments comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, all credited to someone born in 1879, the same year as the American businessman-poet Wallace Stevens.

Manhae's poems are sometimes read allegorically; couched as love poems, they are traditionally interpreted as being about Korea as well. Here is "Cuckoo," from the volume of English translations recently published by Francisca Cho:

The cuckoo cries its heart out.

It cries and when it can cry no more,

It cries blood.

The bitterness of parting is not yours alone.

I cannot cry even though I want to.

I'm not a cuckoo, and that bitterness can't be helped either.

The heartless cuckoo:

I have nowhere to return, and yet it cries,

" Better turn back, better turn back."

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