Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 23, 2006; BW12

Poetry became central to the humanities curriculum at West Point partly for a practical reason: Poems are often short. With technical studies as well as military duties, the cadets had little time for works such as Middlemarch . In his ABC of Reading , Ezra Pound quotes a foreign student as saying poetry consists of "gists and piths." Compactness may be one strength of the art.

Aside from convenience for military cadets (or air travelers), a poem's brevity can give excitement and pleasure. Prominent examples in English are William Blake and Emily Dickinson. The poems of the Korean poet Pak Chaesam (1933-97), newly published in a translation by David R. McCann and Jiwon Shin, include a sequence called "Four-Line Poems," good-humored and delicate. Here is "Four-Line Poems 3: Place":

As you play the delightful melody,

your fingers trace between where strings are or not.

At this very moment there is no tracing

if my mind is here or not.

The minute negative space traced by the musician's fingers, a graceful code of absences and presences, provides a revealing, intricate comparison for the alternately mindful or self-forgetful state of the mind in pleasure: a dance of consciousness and unconsciousness as rapid and intricate as the movement of fingertips over frets and strings. Sharply observed, small details open out into large emotions in "After an Illness":

Spring is coming.

Like hair just untied.

Savor of garlic greens

that clean the palate.

The blood has cooled, now,

and will flow as it should.

Notice the buds, small steeples,

where the earth, sensitive as skin,

breaks just open

to a dull pain

mixed with delight.

Generous bounty makes all living things

seem like an elder brother.

Earth-rooted life,

sky-reaching to play or rest

with sunlight and wind,

great heaven and tiny earth, your

brilliant gesture that cannot be


The steeple-buds, the living skin of soil, the unbound hair, the garlic greens: These details link the "tiny earth" of the poet's recuperation with the seasonal process of the natural world, "earth-rooted" but "sky-reaching." This kind of brevity suggests lenses for observing the details of galaxies or the mysteries of a cell. Or it can resemble the fine point of an engraver's tool, etching memory.

Baby's Foot on My Brow

Two-year-old Sang-gyu,

asleep now

after toddling perilously about

the alleyway and courtyard

all day; your pretty feet

that crossed over the huge sun

beneath their soles:

Here, just once try a step

on your father's forehead,

steeper even than the gravel road.

Such soft, undirtied feet.

(Pak Chaesam's poems "Four-Line Poems 3: Place," "After an Illness," and "Baby's Foot on My Brow," translated by David R. McCann and Jiwon Shin, are from the book "Enough to Say It's Far: Selected Poems of Pak Chaesam." Princeton Univ. Copyright © 2006 by Princeton Univ.)

© 2006 The Washington Post Company