- A Note, on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Poet’s Birth
Sŏ Chŏngju was born one hundred years ago, in 1915, a century ago. He used to remind me with a grin, when we met, that my father—born that same year—was his younger brother, having been born several months later.
The essay that follows was prepared for the 1994 PEN conference in Kyŏng-ju. I sought to describe my sense of the open-ended nature of Sŏ Chŏngju’s poems, and in particular to pull them out into the open, by that reading, from the historical constructions into which so many of Korea’s literary works had been confined by the literary histories and critical practices of the day. This Note suggests how, directly, indirectly, through poems and poetry, meetings and conversations, translations and recitations, our paths became entwined.
My translations of Sŏ Chŏngju’s poems were published first in Quarterly Review of Literature’s fiftieth anniversary edition, for which I shall remain grateful to the poet Theodore Weiss (1916-2003), the Review’s editor. The circumstances were a bit strange, however. Mr. Weiss wrote to me while I was teaching at Cornell University to ask if I would review a collection of poems by a Korean poet that had been submitted to the journal. I said I’d be glad to but was astonished to discover, when he mailed me the manuscript, [End Page 87] that they were my own translations. They had evidently been sent in to QRL by someone else in Korea who had somehow obtained a copy of the collection. Perhaps some sort of miscommunication? Whatever strange route they had followed, the poems did wind up in a most extraordinary publication, one of the very top-level poetry publications in the United States. Seven of those poems were in turn included in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, edited by J. D. McClatchy, and published in 1996.
My translation of a book of Sŏ Chŏngju’s poems recording and reflecting his life, Unforgettable Things, was published by Sisa-yong-o-sa Publishers in 1986. I had agreed to translate the book before I had read it. As I was reading my way along, poem to poem, I was astonished to discover one about “David McCann, Translator of my Poems, and the Town of Andong.” The poem mentioned how I had been introduced to Korean poetry by a teacher at the Andong Agriculture and Forestry High School determined to overcome my ignorance of it. He started me off with the Korean sijo form, the teacher did, in Sŏ Chŏngju’s poem. That was not actually the case. I began with Kim Sowŏl’s (1902-1934) “Azalea” and other poems, and the Korean folksong, minyo, tradition they connected. But the poet knew better than this translator where such things would lead, as a collection of my own sijo poems, Urban Temple, was published in 2010, and in a Korean-English edition by Changbi Publishers in 2012.
In 1989, Columbia University Press published a collection of the poet’s works, Selected Poems of Sŏ Chŏngju. While the poem about McCann and Andong is not included, there are quite a number from his 1980 collection, Like the Moon Going Westward, including “By a Bridge on the Arno” about his visit to Florence on a round-the-world journey, a poem that reminds me in turn of my own visit to Florence in 1965.
Eighteen of the poet’s works are included in the Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, published in 2004.
I remember an evening gathering of writers and editorial staff associated with the journal Ch’angjak kwa bip’yŏng, [End Page 88] Creation and Criticism. This was while my wife and I were back in Korea, following our Peace Corps service, in 1973-1974, the interval of my dissertation research mentioned in the poem by Sŏ Chŏngju. From what I had been able to discern, the then-contemporary Korean literary world divided itself between the Commitment Group, or Ch’amyŏp’a, and Pure Literature Group, or Sunsup’a...