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  • Peace, Poetry, and Negation
  • Robert Pinsky (bio)

A Buddhist foundation in Korea invited poets from around the world to gather for a conference on peace in the summer of 2005. The undertaking seemed less quixotic and more practical after I learned a little about the figure from whom the Manhae Foundation takes its name.

In Manhae (born Han Yong-un), Koreans can celebrate a great modernist poet who is also a central figure in Korean religion, culture, and politics. An American poet reads with some astonishment that Manhae, a monk and religious reformer who profoundly influenced Buddhist thought and practice, was also a co-author of the Korean Declaration of Independence. Accomplishments comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, achieved by someone born in 1879 (the same year as the American businessman-poet Wallace Stevens).

This unusual, comprehensive centrality of Manhae may tempt even Western poets to feel some tiny glint of reflected glory. It also intimidates us: what can one offer in the context of such an imposing model? At that gathering in Seoul, where poets from around the world were invited to think about the somewhat vague ideal of peace, the challenge was perhaps the more poignant for [End Page 395] those of us representing languages that have had no Manhae, no single figure who so thoroughly included the worlds of art and practical politics. That occasion, and the writing of Manhae, inspired the questions I will try to consider here.

On a grand scale, what is the place of poetry in the needy world, where a deficiency of peace for much of the population means hunger, violence, and disease? On an immediate, personal scale, what might be the social or religious or political place of the next poem one writes, in relation to the formidable accomplishment of Manhae in a language and culture we can only begin to understand?

In the context of such questions, and the diffidence they inspire, it is a great relief to turn toward Manhae's poems. These poems present not the political rhetoric of triumph, but intricacies of doubt; and not the religious rhetoric of peace achieved, but peace as the goal of struggle; not salvation, but longing. Far from separating individual psychology from politics or religion, the poems seem determined to blur, or even wipe away, any such distinctions. And it appears to be a poetry that attacks its own means, that sometimes creates an image or a metaphor only to tear at the creation. Here is Francisca Cho's translation of the poem "Cuckoo":

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."

Regret, exile, discomfort: these feelings, whether they are understood as personal, erotic, historical, or all of the above, here dramatize themselves by how the poem expels its own notions: [End Page 396] "I'm not a cuckoo," "I have nowhere to return," "I cannot cry." These negatives are like the legend of the bird that grieves till it emits not a voice, but blood.

"I haven't seen your heart," says the refrain of a poem called "Your Heart." "Don't," says the refrain of "First Kiss." "It's not for nothing that I love you," says "Love's Reasons." Even a poem of devotion has the refrain "Don't Doubt": "If you doubt me, then your error of doubt / and my fault of sorrow will cancel each other." There are negatives, too, in a poem called "Don't Go": "That's not the light of compassion from Buddha's brow; it's the flash from a demon's eyes / That's not the goddess of love who binds body and mind, and tosses herself into love's ocean, caring nothing for crowns, glory or death; / It's the smile of the knife." The refrain of "Don't Go" is "Turn around-don't go to...