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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Korean poet Kim Sowol (1902-1934), according to his translator David McCann, was a modernist influenced by Western poetry -- but a modernist who also incorporated many traditional techniques, images and forms from Korean folk poetry and folk song. His work is still popular and beloved in Korea. Here is Kim Sowol's "A Later Day," a poem that considers explicitly the relation between old ways and new generations:

What father and mother said you know

by heart, how Raising sons or daughters,

means looking forward

t o the days to come.

Just so. And clearly,

all were born of two parents.

But my friend, what does this mean?

What will be taught, hands raised,

long from now by a generation

who grew up all together and learned it?

Never mind the days to come,

but raise sons and daughters

with a true heart until you grow old.

Across the gulf between two languages and their cultures, as well as the gulf of many decades, the poem in translation has an engaging, good-humored fatalism. The severe limitations to what can be known or understood seem to be tempered by a modest reliance on the ancient, fundamental ways.

Whose poetry in the English language might serve as a rough comparison for that melding of folk elements and formal sophistication, brooding fatalism and urbane consciousness? Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) comes to mind. Here is his poem of 1915, "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations' ":

I

Only a man harrowing clods

In a slow silent walk

With an old horse that stumbles and nods

Half asleep as they stalk.

II

Only thin smoke without flame

From the heaps of couch-grass;

Yet this will go onward the same

Though Dynasties pass.

III

Yonder a maid and her wight

Come whispering by:

War's annals will cloud into night

Ere their story die.

A long perspective in time, but with vocal immediacy -- that combination seems, in the guesswork of reading between times and countries, to characterize these two poets.

(Kim Sowol's poem "A Later Day" can be found in "Azaleas: A Book of Poems," translated from the Korean by David R. McCann. Columbia Univ. Press. Copyright 2007 by Columbia Univ. Press. Thomas Hardy's poem "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations' " can be found in "The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy." Macmillan. Copyright 1976 by Macmillan London Ltd.)

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