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  • Korean Literature and Performance?Sijo!
  • David R. McCann (bio)

The Korea Wave has brought sustained attention to Korean cultural productions of various kinds, ranging from the television drama series Winter Sonata and its descendents, through Korean musical and music groups starting with the 1990s hip-hop group Seo Tae Ji and Boys to the widely reported 2006 Madison Square Garden concert by the singer Rain. Among many features of the Wave, one less visible aspect has been its cultural transparency: in China and Japan, Korean cultural creations are perceptibly Korean, but in a somewhat abstract way. For Korean songs, Japanese- or Chinese-language lyrics may be substituted. For Korean television productions, the plots turn on what are viewed as traditional Confucian values, part of a shared Asian cultural heritage it seems, according to the audiences that have been studied. A slightly different way to put this point is that the performance, as much as the given particulars of its contents, seems to attract an international audience.

If a performance dimension seems a relevant criterion by which to assess the globalizational adaptivity of Korean cultural productions, is there any comparable performance dimension to literature, and to poetry in particular? The question is not simply an academic one. Many Korean literary critics, as well as readers and authors, wonder why Korean literature has not found the same [End Page 359] broad and deep international acceptance as have the pop culture constituents of the Korea Wave.

The literary reading tour provides one form of literary performance. Bruce Fulton, at the University of British Columbia, has for many years traveled every fall with Korean writers for a week or more, presenting readings in North American venues of contemporary literary works with English-language accompaniment. The poet Ko Un has traveled all over the world to read his work, and has built a strong and enthusiastic international following among readers and writers including Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, and other renowned poets. Ko Un is a remarkably charismatic artist; his reading of the poem "Arirang" elicited a powerful response from an audience at the Folger Shakespeare Library a few years ago.

There are at least two other performance dimensions to Korean poetry that seem worthy of notice. The pop singer Maya's version of Kim Sowŏl's iconic "Azaleas," on her CD "Born to Do It," completely transfigures the poem, known since its publication in 1925 as a "folksong poem," or Minyoshi.1 One could imagine a concert in which Maya performed her version of the Sowŏl poem along with, perhaps, Yi Sang's famously Modernist poem "Crow's Eye Map," Ogamdo, or Manhae's "Ferry Boat and [End Page 360] Passenger," Narut'pae wa haeng'in, to list just two poems that, in a performance style such as hers, might seem quite different from their usual literary construals.

There are, however, other performance dimensions to Korean poetry. "Azaleas" gives a series of directional instructions: "I" and "look at," in the Na pogiga that begins the poem, indicate a single point, the "I," and a straight line, "look at." The poem then bends the line away into a curve, with the word yŏkkyŏwŏ, a term that reverses the semantic field of what has preceded it, deflecting the happy anticipation of the opening phrase of the poem, "To look at me," into a diametrically contrary reaction: When, sick of looking at me, you. . . . That curved line then straightens into the going away, kasil ttae enŭn, and a sort of mental dance performance, from point to straight line, through the curve of "sick of" and into the straight line of movement away, has begun. The second stanza extends the movements and gestures into the grand invocation of the landscape and the flowers of Mount Yak, while the third brings the dance steps down to the feet, in the intimate treading gestures of the stanza. The final stanza, repeating the first two lines of the opening stanza, ends the poem with an ambiguous rhetorical gesture, perhaps accompanied in the reader's imagination by some hand gesture indicating closure, not weeping.

There are a number of other poems which might suggest a performance-oriented, choreographic...