Old flame – I once had a very close relationship with poetry. When I was young, I often expressed myself through this medium. My very first poem was about a deer that got lost in a city (in fact, I mentioned this poem in my very first entry here as an example of how I’ve always loved writing). I honestly don’t even remember writing that poem, but it was the beginning of my love of poetry. I mostly enjoyed writing fixed verse, and I liked experimenting with various meters and rhyme schemes. Whenever we learned about a new form of poetry in school I would try my hand at it—I distinctly remember writing numerous sonnets, both Shakespearean and Petrarchan.
I was never really all that fond of free verse. It just didn’t seem like poetry. For me, poetry was about expressing what you wanted to say within the confines of rhyme and meter—what was the point of writing poetry if you weren’t going to play by the rules? I hadn’t yet learned that poetry was more than just rhyme and meter. Of course, at that age, there were still a lot of things I didn’t know, I just didn’t yet know that I didn’t know them.
At one point during my school years, a poetess came in to our English class and spoke to us, and she also read and commented on our poetry. I had written a poem of three stanzas dealing with dawn, day, and dusk. Each stanza was four lines long, and it had a fairly standard rhyme scheme. After reading my poem, the poetess said that it would be a perfect candidate for a haiku. I did not know what haiku were, so she told me that it was a form of Japanese poetry that has three lines of five, seven, and five syllables (this is not exact, of course, since some of the concepts don’t translate exactly, but it’s a good starting point).
My reaction to this was one of absolute horror. Here I had worked so hard on all these beautiful words, and she wanted me to ruthlessly cut them down and leave only three lines standing! Nevertheless, I gave it a shot, and although what I ended up with was probably not a very good haiku, I had learned something about the economy of words (a concept which I throw out the window when writing these entries, of course). I was amazed to see how powerful words could be when they were distilled, and I also learned that rhyme wasn’t necessarily essential to poetry. After that I abandoned the lengthy epics I was used to writing and began writing more minimalist poetry.
My love affair with poetry continued when I went off to university. It didn’t hurt that girls absolutely loved it when I wrote them poems, either. The art of using poetry to woo lovers is age old, of course, and I was only following in the footsteps of the great masters. I don’t know why I feel silly about admitting this now. After all, all males use their strengths to attract females—I was skinny and somewhat shy, but I had a way with words, as they say.
Little did I know that university would be the beginning of the end of my love affair with poetry. Ironically enough, it was my decision to major in creative writing that set the wheels in motion. When I declared my major I had to choose a specialization: fiction or poetry. I honestly cannot remember why I chose fiction instead of poetry. I had written far more poetry than fiction, and also knew a lot more about poetry than I knew about fiction. Maybe I wanted to try something knew. Maybe I felt that there were more possibilities in fiction. Whatever the case, I chose to specialize in fiction, and my creative output began to swing overwhelmingly toward prose.
I don’t think I ever made a conscious choice to abandon poetry, nor do I think there was a single moment I can point to and say, “That was it. That was when I left poetry beneath the street lamp, crying in the rain.” I continued to write poetry throughout my university years, I just didn’t write as much as I used to. And as time went on, I wrote less and less. When I first met my wife, I wrote her poems, but now I cannot remember the last time I wrote her a poem. Did something die inside me? Did a flickering flame finally go out?
When I entered graduate school here in Korea, I had another choice to make. It seemed only natural to major in Korean literature, and at the time it didn’t strike me as odd to major in classical Korean literature (although many people have since told me that it is indeed quite odd). As in university, though, I had to choose a specialization. This time there were four available to me: novels, poetry, hanmun literature (Korean literature written in classical Chinese), and oral literature. I distinctly remember my thought process at the time of this choice. Hanmun was out of the question, as I felt that learning classical written Chinese would be too daunting (little did I know that I would have to learn it anyway). I dismissed poetry right away as well, because I felt that poetic analysis amounted to little more than splitting hairs. So it came down to either novels and oral literature. Oral literature refers to myths, legends, tales, folk songs, etc., and I thought that it would be more interesting than novels, so that’s what I chose as my specialization. I had had another chance to return to my poetic roots, but I chose a different path.
Somehow, over the years, I developed what I can only describe as a fear of poetry. Even in my specialization of oral literature, I tried hard to avoid folk songs, the form of oral literature closest to poetry. Poetry was difficult. Poetry was obscure. I was a prose man now, and I walked on different paths, albeit under the same sun. So it was with great trepidation that I approached the chapters dealing with poetry in my translation of my professor’s History of Korean Literature. I enjoyed the chapters on novels and other prose forms, but I was not looking forward to the poetry.
Writing this now may be the first time I have actually admitted this to myself, and it seems rather absurd. I used to breathe poetry—why would I be afraid of it? The best answer I can come up with is that there is a vast difference between writing and studying literature. The writer’s job is to create, while the scholar’s job is to analyze, and when I graduated from university and entered graduate school, I cast aside my writer’s hat for a scholar’s cap. I have started writing again, of course, but my profession is scholar, not writer. And while I enjoy (or at least enjoyed) writing poetry, I abhor analyzing it. Maybe this is because I have a much more visceral affinity for poetry than prose, or maybe it’s because the analysis of poetry really does come down to splitting a few very well worn hairs. It shouldn’t be like that, but in academia it often is. While we tend to deal with ideas and concepts in prose analysis, poetic analysis can easily get bogged down in technicalities that may be fun to utilize but are dreadfully boring to talk about.
Whatever the case may be, I was reluctant to begin translating the chapters on poetry. But it was not just the analysis that made me nervous—unlike the prose chapters, the poetry chapters included a good number of poems that I would have to translate. It is often said that poetry is impossible to translate. On the spectrum of translatability, myths are thought to be the most translatable, while poetry is thought to be the least translatable. I once thought that this was because myths speak of universal truths while poetry deals with culturally specific values. That is a very neat and concise way of putting the relationship, but it is not correct. In fact, both myth and poetry speak of universal human truths. The difference lies in the relationship of these truths to the language used. In myth, meaning is not as dependent on language. Language is a tool, a means to an end, but the meaning does not rely on the language. Meaning in poetry, however, is intertwined with language—it is highly dependent on language.
Unlike prose, poetry has a specific form. Even free verse has poetic form. When translating prose, all you have to worry about is conveying meaning, but in poetry you have the form to consider as well. It is very difficult to perfectly convey both form and meaning, and usually the translator has to make at least a partial choice between the two. This is why I was not looking forward to translating the poetry in this book. Yet the more I translate, the more I remember how much I used to love poetry. What I once feared I now almost look forward to. I do not consider myself a professional poetry translator, but translating poetry is a challenge, and I find that I am beginning to enjoy it.
Today I had to translate an excerpt from a poem entitled Sound of Music (Akseong), by Kim Eok. When I first read the excerpt I thought, “Oh my God, how am I going to translate this?” Immediately I thought back to the saying that poetry is untranslatable, and I panicked a little. You see, the poem has a very strict and concise form—each stanza is six lines long and the meter is 3-2-2-3-2-2 (that’s in metric feet). In Korean, the poem is very brief, and the lines are very short. The romanization (in italics), interspersed with a transliteration, is as follows:
Ulliyeo naneun akseongui
Resounding out music sound-of
slow yet brief
naui seurajin yet kkumeun
my vanished old dreams
nae gaseum apara.
my chest hurt.
Aesu gadeukhan akseongui
Sadness full-of music sound-of
fast yet slow
dwisungsunghan geu saenggageun
troubled those thought(s)
quietly rise and
nae nunmul heulleora.
my tears flow.
The romanization should give you some idea what the poem looks like, but it is obviously not an exact replica. The transliteration should also give you an idea of the meaning of the poem. Because of the differences in Korean and English word order, though, it is not a simple matter of translating each line as is, because the longer and shorter lines fall in different places. I wanted to preserve the form of the poem, since it is very important here, but also obviously preserve the meaning. This is what I have so far:
Deep within the slow yet brief
plaintive melody of
the sound of music,
my vanished dreams of long ago
cling faintly to life
so my heart aches.
Deep within the quick yet slow
plaintive melody of
the sound of music,
Those dark and troubled thoughts
Come quietly to mind
and my tears flow.
I’m still working on it, of course, and I’m not sure if I’m completely happy with what I have, but it was a rather enjoyable exercise. I took some liberties with the meaning to get the form to fit, which honestly does bug me a little, but I’m not sure if I have any other choice. For example, the poet describes the sound of music differently in each stanza. In the first stanza it is a “resounding” sound, while in the second stanza it is a sound “filled with sadness.” Instead, I took the “deep” from the fifth line of the first stanza and repeated in the first line of each stanza. With the exception of the “slow yet brief” and “quick yet slow” differences, the first three lines of each stanza are now the same. And because I took the deep from “deeply live” I needed to take some poetic license (literally) to fill out the line.
The meter itself is another story. The second line of each stanza is awkward: “plaintive melody of”. If I could drop the “of” the meter would be perfect, but as it is the “of” is tacked onto the end as extra baggage. I can’t drop it to the third line either, since that would not only wreck the meter there but change the line length significantly. On the other hand, I happen to like the last two lines of each stanza—they are mirror images of each other in terms of cadence. If only the whole poem worked that well.
So, anyway, that’s not the greatest poem, and it’s certainly not the greatest translation, but it just happened to be what I was working on today, and it also just happened to start me thinking about poetry again. Working on this translation was almost like actually writing poetry, and I found that I really enjoyed it. I may not be a great poet, but I did once have a great love for poetry. Perhaps it is the voice of my old lover that I hear, calling for me to come walk with her again.