With Among the Flowering Reeds: Classic Korean Poems Written in Chinese, Kim Jong-Gil has performed an astounding acrobatic-like feat of translation, bringing to modern English speaking audiences a genre of poetry as lyrical, philosophical, and important as any in world poetry. These translations are exquisite in the sense that they are at once precise, evocative, poetic, and faithful to English, the language into which they are translated. Part of White Pine Press's "Korean Voices" series, which in turn is part an overall catalogue of some of the most outstanding poetry titles offered anywhere, Among the Flowering Reeds is a must read for those who love Asian poetry in its many glorious manifestations.
Why Korean poems written in Chinese, you may ask? The reason is that Korean as a written language (hangul) is relatively recent, dating back to the 15th century. Previous to that, classical Chinese, wen yen, was used in Korean literature, as it was for most East Asian literatures. Since there were significant differences in the two languages, the development of hangul became necessary. However, hangul as the written language took some time to catch on and writers and poets continued to use Chinese characters well into the 20th century. As a result, much of Korean literature was originally written in Chinese.
Jong-Gil's selection of 100 poems in Among the Flowering Reeds covers more than 1000 years, from the late 9th century into the early 20th. Jong-Gil notes in his introduction that, because of the nature of classical Chinese, he has had to take liberties with the literal sense of the words in order to capture the poetic and rhythmic quality of the original. How this has all been translated into not just competent, but lyrical, near flawless English is an accomplishment to be held in deep admiration.
Of the 100 poems I marked 27 as outstanding, to be returned to for further review. Many are written out as basic quatrains, whatever there original forms may have been. There is a quiet subtly to these works, delicate yet strongly resonant of life experience. Here is a small taste:
At My Study on Mount Kaya
The frenzied rush through the rocks roars at the peaks
and drowns out the human voices close by.
Because I always fear disputes between right and wrong
I have arranged the waters to cage in these mountains.Ch'oe Ch'i Wǒn
Night Rain on the River Hsio-hsiang
A stretch of blue water between the shores of autumn;
wind sweeps light rain over a returning boat.
As the boat is moored at night near the bamboo,
each leaf rustles coldly, awakening sorrow.Yi Il-lp
At a Station House
Through nearly fifty years in the lifespan of a man,
I have had little luck with my ill-fated career.
What have I achieved these years away from home?
I have returned empty-handed from so far away.
Still the forest birds warble kindly to me;
the wildflowers, wordless, smile to make me stay.
But the devil poetry always nags at me;
together with poverty, it it the root of all my grief.Kim Kŭk-ki
Now Shine, Now Rain
Now shine, now rain, and rain becomes shine:
that is the sky's way, as well as man's.
My glory may well lead to my ruin;
your escape from fame will bring you a name.
Flowers may open or fall, but spring doesn't care;
clouds will come and go, but mountains do not argue.
Men of the world, you must remember
you won't find happiness where you crave joy.Kim Shi-sŭp
Mountains rise over mountains and smoke from valleys;
the dust of the world can never touch the white gulls.
The old fisherman is by no means disinterested;
he owns, in his boat, the moon over the west river.Sǒng Kan
On a Journey
At an edge of the sky, I grieve for my youth;
I long for home, but home is still far away.
As spring lets loose the wayward east wind,
no one owns the wild peach, but it bursts into bloom.Kim An-guk
The chrysanthemums are slow to bloom this year,
I have found no autumn joy by the eastern hedge.
Heartless, indeed, is the west wind: it blows
into my greying hair, not yellow chrysanthemums.Sǒ Kǒ-jǒng
These translations are so smooth, so seemingly effortless, they seem to not be translations at all. Get it at the library, get it at your favorite independent bookshop, or, best of all, get it directly from White Pine. Support the small press.
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This week's featured issue of Lilliput Review is #170 from July of this year. With this issue, I will have featured highlights from regular issues over the last 20 years on this blog. It's really hard to imagine that there have been over 360 posts here since Issa's Untidy Hut started back in November of 2007. Many poems were also featured at the previous short-lived blog, Beneath Cherry Blossoms, before it. I'm still weighing how to proceed. Meanwhile, here's some highlights from #170. Enjoy.
It's our task
we must take on
discard so much
carrying just a little home
and on the way
losing that tooJohn Ajac
How to make a poem...
----------Freeze-frame one moment of
----------add a dim reference to
----------throw in the name of a local plant for effect
J. Bruce Fuller
Poems hanging among the weeds, some :: so easy to read
Being mindful of the breath
until the breath
conquers the mind.
The current green.
The lily of water.Charlie Mehrhoff
And Master Issa:
touching the princess lily's
David G. Lanoue