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  • Karam and the Revitalization of the Sijo in Korean and English
  • David R. McCann (bio)

Karam (his nom de plume) Yi Pyŏnggi, born in 1891, was intensely involved in the study of Korean literature in Chinese, and then the Korean vernacular. He worked with a circle of literati in the Korean Language Society, and in 1942 was one of the members of that group to be arrested and imprisoned by the Japanese authorities. Karam was imprisoned for one year. When his sentence was suspended and he was released in September of 1943, he returned to the countryside to work on the family farm and to study. In 1946 he worked as an editor for the occupation military government, and at Seoul National University's College of Liberal Arts teaching Korean literature. Karam wrote hundreds of sijo poems and published several articles and newspaper columns about the practice. His best known collection of sijo is Karam Sijo Chip (Karam's Sijo Collection), first published in 1939, during the colonial occupation, and then republished in 1947 following Liberation.

In 1932, Karam published a column in the Tonga ilbo newspaper, "Sijorŭl hyŏksin haja" (Let's revitalize the sijo), which writers and historians of Korean literature continue to cite as an early declaration of how to make the sijo modern. How might the sijo form be made of more compelling interest to contemporary readers? Karam conceded that it was not modern enough, with [End Page 161] its fixed form, language, and traditional subject matter. He urged instead that the form be changed, varied from the syllable counts used to describe the traditional practice, or perhaps linked, one verse to the next. He urged also the use of colloquial speech, varied subjects, and encouraged writers to employ the mantra, Ssŭnŭn pŏp ilknŭn pŏp ida: The way to write is the way to read. Not singing, at any rate.1

Karam also kept a diary over the course of his life, interspersing a large number of sijo poems with daily entries about news and events in Korea, his professional and family life.

I hope some day to be able to see Karam's actual diary at the Seoul National University Library. The two-volume published version was edited with some care by Professor Chŏng Pyŏng-uk of Seoul National University, who may have been concerned about the political implications of the records of certain events that Karam witnessed or participated in. When the diary was finally published in 1975, the Republic of Korea was in the worst throes of President Park Chung Hee's Yushin Reforms, the drastic curtailment of civil and political liberties forming the basis of the Fourth Republic. Chŏng Pyŏnguk refers most obliquely to the issue in the Preface, where he notes that Karam had expressed the wish not to have published any passages or entries in the diary that might make public what should instead remain shared just among the members of his family.2

In what follows, I shall sketch some features of the diary that seem to resonate with Karam's prescription for the revitalization of the sijo. What was Karam's literary life like, as expressed or recorded in the pages of his diary, and how did the sijo fit? [End Page 162]

The published version of the diary begins with the entry for Monday, April 14, 1919. The diary ends on Wednesday September, 30, 1964, four years before Karam's death. The first sequence of entries, running up to August 12, a Tuesday, were written in Chinese (characters), in very abbreviated diary style. The first entry, for example, runs only nine characters in length: Up to Seoul. Slept the night at Mister Kim Wŏnju's house. Other entries record a given day's weather, and for the most part, such things as visits with or from friends, letters received, places seen.

The entry for Tuesday, August 12, leaps out and runs for two pages in the Korean language. Karam starts the entry by describing how he wrapped up the clothes he had worn, the books he had read, and sent them home. He sends a...


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